Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

On Boredom

July 31st, 2022

On Boredom

A scene from Gus Van Sant’s film Gerry is a three and a half minute tracking shot of the profiles of the two main characters, both named Gerry, in tight focus as they trudge across a vast and empty desert. While the audience might marvel at the technical virtuosity, they also feel and partially experience the utter boredom of the walk. In filming the tale of two young men lost in the desert for several days, Van Sant stages the pure boredom of wandering in large, seemingly empty landscapes. Similar to Sergio Leone, that other desert auteur, he serves up huge, painterly spaces, and, at the same time, stretches time to a point where it feels as if it must break. The experience of the characters (and the audience) is both intense and empty, concentrated and vast. In a word, boring. Long-distance trekking is both physically and mentally challenging, and one of those challenges is boredom. Hikers face day after day, week after week, waking, packing up, and walking nine, ten or more hours sometimes in spectacular environments but more often in tedious sameness. Appalachian Trail hikers often disparagingly call the path “the green tunnel.” In a sense, boredom is the mental ground of walking.

The literature of walking as well as actual walking must ultimately contend with the fundamental boredom of the practice. A frequent element of everyday life, the actual experience of boredom seems to be something humans want to push off, to eliminate completely if possible (hence the very notion of entertainment), so it is puzzling that a segment of the population—trekkers—seem to put themselves willingly in boring situations. Looking to philosophy for some guidance, we can turn to Martin Heidegger‘s Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics. It’s a strange book, as it seems to be two separate paths. The first is a long discussion of boredom as the fundamental attunement of the 20th century, and second half contains his famous but problematic assertion that the stone is worldless, the animal poor-in-world, while the human worlds. The second half of the book has long been a fundamental text for people working in animal studies and in 21st-century environmental studies in general, but first half has remained, at least for me, a puzzle. 

On returning to it to gain a perspective on the question of walking and boredom, I was struck that in the first chapters, he develops a fairly sophisticated form of affect theory avant la lettre. First he sets out his notion of attunement, noting that there can be both individual and collective forms. Individual’s have moods, but so do groups. We speak of a happy room or a pessimistic population. Staying consistent with his ongoing philosophical project of understanding Dasein as throwness into the world, he claims (and I am generalizing here) that we notice the exceptional moments— happiness, anger, basic well-being, etc.— but, as we are always already in an attunement (throwness in the world), the fundamental attunement(s) go unnoticed. He goes on to claim that there is no universal attunement. Instead he sees it as historical or epochal and that the fundamental attunement in the 20th century is boredom.

Most of the boredom section maintains a level of abstraction familiar to readers of Heidegger, but he does offer a few material examples, including the scene of waiting four hours for a train in an empty railway station. He details a number of strategies to drive off boredom that are familiar, including idly drawing in the sand or walking back and forth on the road in front of the station, all the while regularly checking his watch. Given his rather querulous relation to modern technology, it is perhaps not surprising that he sees boredom as the fundamental 20th century attunement. His railway example is telling, as would, I think his inclusion of a range of entertainment technologies that occupy the herd, serving as a temporary and probably unsatisfactory way to stave off boredom. (From that perspective, I suspect that such boredom remains foundational in this century, given the efflorescence of media forms whose primary purpose in to drive off boredom. In that sense, the current generation of smartphone users is perhaps the first in human history to have never actually experienced fundamental boredom.) Predictably, across the book he makes many fine-grained distinctions which are a little arcane for this essay, but his distinction between superficial  and profound boredom can provide some insight. The first we try to eliminate rapidly through a range of distractions (detailed in his railway station example). But the other he suggests we should let approach us: “not to resist straightaway but to let resonate.” This latter notion can be read productively through the lens of walking. Rather than seeing profound boredom as something to be “driven away,” I want to claim that not only should it be sought out by preparing the ground for it, but it should also be embraced as a significant form of being. 

Heidegger sees attunement as a hybrid figure, emerging from—becoming unconcealed—personal or collective interaction with the material world. A book as thing cannot be boring because that can only emerge from human interaction with it. So profound boredom as fundamental attunement is necessarily a dense and complex set of interactions with people, history, ideas, and things. Trekking boredom is just such a hybrid attunement:  I wake in a forest—not a forest, more a large copse—where I’ve wild camped near the English Ridgeway (“the oldest footpath in England”). Nothing boring about getting up early to avoid detection by a landowner or gamekeeper. Dressing and packing quickly, I soon gain the path and safety from the charge of trespass. I soon meet another early riser, an old man walking his dog who tells me his version of the many historical tales that layer over any time spent on this literally storied path. Then I’m off for a long day crossing the midpoint of the trail— an anticipated 20+ miles walk to a campground and a legal night’s sleep. The southern half of the Ridgeway is almost all up on a ridgetop, not usually the best place for a path, but on the rolling chalk downs of Wiltshire it is perfect. In the second half of my day, the path descends to the river and follows the Thames through small riverside villages almost to Wallingford (an extra mile off the trail to get there).

The Ridgeway is perhaps not the best choice for a trail to discuss the notion of profound boredom (see Walking England’s Oldest Path). Coming in at 87 miles, it is not really a long-distance path. Its length does not prompt the attenuation of calendar time that characterizes hiking boredom. I choose it because it is the most recent path I have walked so the details and sensations remain fresh, and it was where I thought through this essay (and therefore is a partial exemplification of walking-thinking). In addition, like the Appalachian Trail (which it in no other way resembles), the Ridgeway is unusually well-marked, so its walkers rarely experience the navigational anxiety provoked by such topologically and cartographically challenging trails as the South Island of the Te Araroa, or my recently completed Cape Wrath in the Scottish Highlands. Days on the Ridgeway are punctuated by occasional encounters with other walkers, beautiful agrarian landscapes, and remarking the deep history of the region: barrows, Bronze Age forts, and both ancient and modern white chalk land art. The path surface is well maintained, the hills are not steep, and walking the rolling downs is at times soporific. The lack of distraction helps reveal a foundational, perhaps even primordial boredom. 

While walking we may seek to drive off superficial boredom through distraction. There are technological distractions. Heidegger constantly checks his watch in the railway station, and 21st century trekkers constantly monitor GPS via a range of devices (I usually carry several, though for this walk in a tame countryside I left behind my emergency beacon). Calibrating time and distance are some responses to facing a day where for many hours there will be little that one could call distraction. This is not to say walking is not an exhilarating experience as, on some level, the days are full, but, as long-distance trekkers know, there is that moment about an hour into the day where you have settled into a rhythm. You have inventoried your body, adjusted for various aches and pains, consulted your navigation aids, and perhaps eaten a breakfast bar. Then it hits that you will be doing what you are doing with minimal difference for the rest of the day.

This is where profound boredom diverges from the commonly felt superficial version. Long distance trekkers enter willingly such an attunement, seek it out not as something to drive away through experiencing the spectacular but rather to be embraced. For trekkers, profound boredom as fundamental attunement is a ground for Being. Heidegger is correct that attunements are hybrid, composed of multiple materialities and affects. The path, the walk, and the walker enter into an attunement that enables different thinking. It comes in stealthily, in a sense unbidden unless one remembers that the whole process is a bid to experience differently. It goes something like this: over the first hour the logistics of the day recede. Then the immediacy of thought connected to the quotidian— recalled snippets of conversations from colleagues, a task that remains undone, a recent encounter recalled happily or with anguish—also recedes. The sheer physicality of the walk itself, while staying on with some level of awareness, is dampened, as is any navigational anxiety. And, at least on the Ridgeway, anxiety regarding dangerous wildlife is absent. Then the path itself enables thoughts, not fully formed but rather stray bits, affects of the space, odd juxtapositions, a chaotic flow. In a word, walking-thinking commences. As Walt Whitman says in his “Song of the Open Road”: “Allons! the road is before us!”

Profound boredom empties out the quotidian but the walker does not then become empty. Heidegger sometimes characterizes boredom as emptiness, but after all, we are always already in an attunement, so instead through boredom we are differently filled. Walking-thinking is enabled by this foundational attunement but is not directed by it. The empty is an absence of guideposts or blazes—both literal and figurative. It is thinking that does not strain toward truth, understanding, absolutes, or mastery, but instead marvels at and revels in its own aimlessness, obscurity, and creativity. To invoke the thought of another early 20th century philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead in Process and Reality articulates the occasional need for vagueness in thinking in images familiar to walkers: “in the vagueness of the low hum of insects in an August woodland, the inflow into ourselves of feelings from enveloping nature overwhelms us; in the dim consciousness of half-sleep, the presentations of sense fade away, and we are left with the vague feeling of influences from vague things around us.” These are the affects, the attunements, of experience where there is thinking, not completed thought. This directly parallels the experience of walking across a day which, at either end, is goal directed and therefore structured by external exigencies, but the middle is in the milieu (in Gilles Deleuze’s sense— see my Pointless Essay Hiatus for a discussion of milieu and William James’s “specious present”). It is a vague middle embraced rather than driven away. In can be interrupted by the spectacular or the technological but is just as easily recovered because of the vastness of space and time that makes up a long day’s trek. 

Returning to the preparatory remarks in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics where he develops an analysis of boredom as the foundational attunement of the 20th century, Heidegger historicizes (or makes epochal) four thinkers (Spengler, Klages, Scheler, Ziegler) who explore the spirit/soul binary. Heidegger then attributes the structure of those arguments to Nietzsche’s Dionysian/Appolonian opposition. I find it interesting that in this section on possible foundational attunement, Heidegger reads The Will to Power as articulating the Dionysian as the ground on which the Greek Appolonian impulse was built. In other words, he doesn’t offer up a simple dialectic but instead uses the Dionysian as the ground that must be revealed. He quotes Nietzsche’s notes: “Dionysos: sensuousness and cruelty. Transitoriness could be interpreted as enjoyment of productive and destructive energy, as constant creation.” So we are led to ask if this triad—sensuous/violence/(productive/destructive) creativity (plus time: transitoriness) —is somehow foundational to boredom, is the ground of a fundamental attunement.

Throughout the book, Heidegger is at pains to avoid causal explanations for any attunements, particularly boredom, so we should resist the overly simplistic idea that the Dionysian impulse springs from and is in some way an antidote to boredom. Seeking excitement would of course be a distraction in the superficial sense, but how would the Dionysian participate in, be foundational for, profound boredom? Rather than looking toward the orgiastic, we can seek an answer in walking. Of course “answer” is the wrong term. Rather walking can provide a glimpse into the Dionysian elements of profound boredom. As Heidegger’s scene at the railway station makes clear, boredom is both about time and a way to think time, and it seems clear that anything that claims to be a fundamental attunement must have a temporal structure. The Dionysian as  attunement is fundamentally about time, bringing an understanding of different experiences of time. Dionysian revelry, the world turned upside down, is a revealing of just such multiplicity—orgiastic vs. industrial time. In a way quite similar to the profound boredom of long-distance walking, the Dionysian puts in stark relief the quotidian, which can only be thought by literally stepping outside it, into a different attunement. As Heidegger makes clear from the outset of his discussion, attunement experienced as mood (individual or collective) is something clearly perceptible and lived, but if we are always already in attunement, the foundational attunement is rarely experienced as such. The temporality of profound boredom can come into view through a different experience of time— the Dionysian time and walking-time are of a piece in effecting that unconcealing. 

The first two terms in the Nietzschean Dionysian are sensuousness and violence. In other words, it is a profoundly embodied experience. The Dionysian demands a body capable of feeling— feeling intensely— as well as one capable of both being violent and having violence inflicted on it. One immediately thinks of various versions of Sadomasochism as example, and indeed that line of understanding and experience is likely the most fruitful approach, but it is important not to diminish other experiences of embodiment, violence, and pain. To put it bluntly, outside of sexual experiences, there are few activities as sensuous (and as painful) as long distance trekking. As mentioned earlier, every day begins with a bodily inventory— an inventory is  ongoing if at times repressed. Trekkers are constantly questioning what a body can do, what its affordances are, and experiencing both the exaltation of accomplishment and the profound pain of failure. The latter is a common experience as trekking is ultimately a world of pain. Trekking is a productive/destructive violence we do to ourselves (a point made poignant in the violent ending of Van Sant’s film).


And finally, creativity—the third term in Nietzsche’s formulation and one that I hope the above discussion of hiking-thinking begins to open up. That would by no means be a naive celebration of the so-called “creative class” in 21st century economic discourse, nor an alignment with the supposed “creative destruction” of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who might superficially be viewed as crude Nietzscheans but who are on the most fundamental level celebrants of neoliberal economics, something subverted by profound boredom and wandering/thinking without product. (Walking is not immune to neoliberal commodification as is demonstrated by all the walk-for-a-cause crowdsource funded treks flogged on social media). The Dionysian creativity can be better linked to the notion of the “Wild” developed by Thoreau in his short book on walking, a book that highlights walking-thinking: “you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.” Unlike the views of many of his readers, Thoreau’s “wild” does not refer to wilderness— a world empty of humans— but instead to the efflorescence of life around the edges of civilization. The wild proliferates in swamps full of marginalized wildlife, or at the edges of gardens where plants hybridize promiscuously. The wild is the fox I saw on the Cape Wrath Trail, but also the pair who tore into the garbage on the street outside my apartment in Oxford. A Dionysian wild is set up against the tyranny of industrial time, and against any limitations on the possibilities of what a body can do, including a rejection of simple notions separating pleasure from pain. Wild thinking is equally undisciplined, also always taking place in the margins or the middle and never concerned with completion or closure. The wild thinker—walking-thinking— never gets to the point, never concludes, and instead keeps on trudging: to be on a footpath is never to arrive (see Footpaths).  To unapologetically express this whole essay in a tautology: Boredom as fundamental attunement is the ground of wild thinking, embodied sometimes painful but patient walking/waiting for complex, obscure, chaotic novelty to emerge, and that practice is, in itself, profound boredom. 

T. Hugh Crawford

On Adventure

July 19th, 2022

On Adventure

On a rest day in Ullapool, when hiking the Scottish National Trail, I found myself talking with a man clearly familiar with outdoor life in the Highlands. He had been in the same hostel bunk room as me the night before but had gotten up very early, I presumed because he was off on some adventure. Turned out the combination of being a light sleeper, some heavy snoring, and a mass of midges making their way through an open window had driven him from bed. He was up making coffee in the hostel kitchen, preparing to continue a mountain bike tour of the area.

In conversation it emerged that both he and his wife had long worked as guides in various adventure sports—hiking, canoeing, mountain biking—but now, having settled to raise a family, he had taken a job with a company that does corporate leadership training. While they use many traditional techniques— psychological testing, a range of exercises that can be conducted in a conference space—they try to frame their practice around the concept of adventure, taking their clients into the wild. As I described to him the many exploits I’ve had trekking on most of the continents, we fell into a discussion of adventure, particularly as it relates to risk and planning. That conversation has stayed in the back of my mind since. If I think over my last decade trekking, the moments I felt most adventurous (some detailed below) were those where risk—real risk to body—played a significant role. But clearly the dyad—risk/control—works on multiple levels. It is dialectical, but also situational and perspectival. One person’s risk is another’s control.

A folk etymology of adventure could be something as simple as “to go out, then arrive,” but according to a number dictionaries, it has almost always been associated with chance or risk:  “1200, aventure, auenture “that which happens by chance, fortune, luck,” from Old French aventure (11c.) “chance, accident, occurrence, event, happening”.” Buried in that list is “event,” the one word that anchors the others in a specific moment and place. Adventures, for all their chancey, accidental, ephemeral qualities, do take place as event— in a place/time—which materializes the experience. So provisionally, one characteristic of adventures is material, they take place, seizing it.

The etymology of adventure includes chance and uncertainty, but also danger: “Meaning developed through “risk; danger” (a trial of one’s chances), c. 1300, and “perilous undertaking” (late 14c.) to “novel or exciting incident, remarkable occurrence in one’s life” (1560s).” What is interesting in these formulae is that a specific body is being put in danger—“one’s chances” and “one’s life.” “One” is a nebulous pronoun, but it designates yet again a material substance— an actual body now not just at risk but also in danger. In a sense adventure is a way to assert and articulate the presence of a body by endangering it. The body—the one—is known to be itself, a body, wholly body, by being in danger. In other words, an adventure is a way to guarantee Being and perhaps to incarnate it.

It’s a strange world we currently occupy that so fervently celebrates adventure, even though, for them to be meaningful, many must at minimum produce mishap and some, disaster. But to try to think adventure, to make it a question of philosophy and not psychology, demands patient uncovering, feeling through the constant wavering between control and risk and a host of other oppositions.

The purest notion of risk I can imagine demands a body—one capable of fear and of being hurt— but we also often speak of “intellectual risk,” where the adventure does not necessarily bring physical pain. Alfred North Whitehead wrote a book with a title that seems to celebrate non-embodied risk—The Adventure of Ideas. In the preface, he opens with a dual notion of adventure: “One meaning the effect of certain ideas in promoting the slow drift of mankind toward civilization.” This makes problematic my earlier sense that an adventure requires a body as, in this sense it’s not clear it even needs a mind. These ideas seem to float above any individualization, manifesting in a cloud of history. The adventures that are ideas are not so much danger as they are chance, marking moments when the virtual possibilities of a human history—the formation of a form of civilization—are framed and at least partly directed by ideas. Civilization in this formulation participates in the adventure, perhaps is the adventure, left open to the chance that some ideas will be taken up and others ignored by history’s actors.

He goes on “The other meaning is the author’s adventure in framing a speculative scheme of ideas which shall be explanatory of the historical adventure.” This version brings us back to the adventurous individual, in this case Whitehead’s own adventures with his own ideas in relation to a received philosophical tradition. His second meaning indicates the usage where people are taking what might be considered intellectual risks— a frame that seems to perpetuate the bifurcation of mind and body and confound any sense of what adventure might be. But perhaps Whitehead who probably inadvertently re-introduced such a bifurcation might also point to a way to think adventure philosophically, on its own terms rather than through an impoverished received tradition.

Whitehead is a thinker dedicated to refusing simplistic binarisms and his work can be seen as a toolbox for such efforts. An exceptionally handy tool is his notion of “prehension.” One formulation is in Science and the Modern World where he notes: “The word ‘perceive’ is, in our common usage, shot through and through with the notion of cognitive apprehension. So is the word ‘apprehension’ even with the adjective cognitive omitted. I will use the word ‘prehension’ for uncognitive apprehension: by this I mean apprehension which may or may not be cognitive.” Prehension then is a form of experience that does not begin with or require cognitive processing—via a mind—in order to be an experience. It is fully embodied and perhaps is a basis for thinking adventure as a process that requires a body in a risky dangerous world. Experiencing adventure does not depend on a disembodied mind or historically cloudy ideas, but instead is always a series of decisions (apprehensive and prehensive) unfolding through encounters with a dimly understood but non-bifurcated nature. Whitehead offers various formulae for the “bifurcation of nature.” In The Concept of Nature, “Another way of phrasing this theory which I am arguing against is to bifurcate nature into two divisions, namely into the nature apprehended in awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness.” Though more nuanced than this, one can read this as a rejection of the Cartesian mind/body distinction.

In Process and Reality, he evokes the prehensive experience of just such a non-bifurcated nature: “in the vagueness of the low hum of insects in an August woodland, the inflow into ourselves of feelings from enveloping nature overwhelms us; in the dim consciousness of half-sleep, the presentations of sense fade away, and we are left with the vague feeling of influences from vague things around us.”  Given the precision of most of Whitehead’s concepts, I find it refreshing to read this celebration of vagueness, particularly as that vagueness is of risk, of danger, a celebration of that which is beyond control: a celebration of adventure as pure experience.

So how does adventure figure in an unfolding of being— what contours can it take, and how or why do we seek it out? I want to argue that while adventure can invoke a sense of community—Whitehead’s book, The Adventure of Ideas was pitched to a community of scholars who lined up to either support or critique it, but regardless, jostled intellectually in relation to each other—but instead adventure as event. It takes place in a specific place and time and is a form of individualization while, at the same time, multiplication. The pleasures and anxieties of Whitehead’s vague hum of the August woodland are felt by an individual body with affective responses to those specific circumstances. Adventure is both a seeking and seizure of being in the field of danger.

A way to flesh out such an assertion is to draw from walking experiences.  As my conversation with the leadership adventure person took place in the Scottish Highlands, one place to turn is Nan Shepherd’s classic book on the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain. Most of that text is devoted to her personal relationship to the massif and her intense scrutiny of its many forms in relation to her own senses. But she does bring in anecdotes about other people’s experiences on the mountain, including some who died when the weather changed abruptly. She has a curious response to those events and their relationship to control and risk: “They committed, I suppose, an error of judgment, but I cannot judge them. For it is the risk we must all take when we accept individual responsibility for ourselves on the mountain, and until we have done that, we do not begin to know it.” This comment is in the context of two adventurers who put themselves as risk and died, but they also put a number of mountain rescuers lives at risk. Shepherd says she cannot judge, but the judgement is implied— the adventurers did not take proper precautions and their adventure spun out of control, putting others (Shepherd’s friends and acquaintances) at risk as well.

Shepherd seems to be placing self-knowledge above personal responsibility, though for her that knowledge is not psychological (know thyself) but rather is knowing the mountain and the complicated world it contains. Her goal is to try to know the mountain (something she regularly acknowledges as impossible) through some form of pure experience—embodied prehension if you will. Perhaps a key to her risky onto-epistemology is that knowing is emergent— not a body placed in a space, but a body always already in situ. Adventure is co-produced by intense interaction.

Risk and Control: Three Adventures

In 2015 I attempted the Tongariro Crossing from the north:


“All advice is not to attempt [the crossing] in bad weather, and my morning started out cold (down at low elevation) and wet, though there were glimpses of sun, and the cloud cover did not look significantly different from a typical New Zealand morning, so off I set. My plan was to get up to the Ketatahi Hut which was about 18 km from the campground and a little over six from the car park. I figured to get there mid morning and would then have a sense of how the weather would play out. If it stayed bad, I’d sleep in hut and wait for morning. The hike went well, long road walk followed by well-designed and maintained paths. As I emerged from the bush and started hiking the alpine tundra the temperature started to drop as I expected, and the wind picked up. I could smell the sulfur from the hot springs nearby. Still, I was well dressed in wind/rain gear, ready for what I thought would come. The trail has been rerouted a bit since I last hiked this track (I’ve already done this stretch twice before, but in summer weather), so I was not sure how close the hut was. The rain intensified and the wind soon got to gale force. It at times actually pushed me off the trail. The last kilometer or two were otherworldly– horizontal rain, freight train wind, and no clear end in sight. Then it appeared (not a moment too soon). The first thing I saw when I got to the door was the hut’s redesignation as a temporary shelter, not an overnight site any longer (because of a recent eruption– after all, this is a volcano hike). I went inside, stripped off wet clothes, and with shivering hands made an early lunch. As I did not get appreciably warmer–the wind by now was bashing the sides of the cabin– I spread out my sleeping bag on the table and crawled in which soon got my body temperature to a better range. Soon the door opened and a French couple came in, also shivering in the cold. They just wanted to see the first blue lake which is a couple kilometers further. Eventually the man did go up, but his smarter partner stayed behind in shelter. Then some Department of Conservation people showed up to work on the hut, surprised to find anyone there in this weather and relieved that we had decided to return down the way we had come. I packed up, headed back into the maelstrom, and could feel the temperature creep up as the altitude decreased. In little over an hour, I was off the mountain and in the carpark.”

Many weeks later on that same trek:


“The trail took me past Lake Constance which rivals Blue in color and beauty though getting around it required some hard climbing and narrow ledge hiking. The last bit was on a gravel beach at the water’s edge which was magical. The waters coming into it came across a wide flat plain that the trail followed. It gradually narrowed to a canyon surrounded by high snow-capped mountains with not anything that looked like a pass in evidence. The trail markers then made a sharp turn and went straight up the side of one of the mountains which might have had a little bit of a dip in altitude compared to the others, but hardly something to name “pass.” The initial climb was on loose gravel so each step slid back almost as much as it went forward. After an hour or so, I got the the first leveling off, though there was much more altitude to gain. In mid-winter this is a high avalanche risk area, and I’m not sure what conditions reduce that risk in the spring, but soon I was crossing snowfields on the way up, and once on the top, it was all snow for about a third of the very long descent. Fortunately some people had been through in the last day or so, and I was able to follow their footsteps down. I’m not sure how deep the snow was, but I would sink to about mid calf on each step. With cold feet I finally got below snow line, followed the western branch of the Waiau River to where it met the eastern half, and (after 11 hours of hard hiking) I pitched my tent in a beech forest beside the river, built a small fire to dry out my shoes, and gratefully crawled into my tent and sleeping bag, ready for a hard night’s sleep.”

And recently (after my Ullapool hostel conversation) this happened on the Scottish National Trail in the days after the remnants of a hurricane hit the Highlands:


“This leg was supposed to end in Inchnadamph, with tomorrow’s  heading back up the same path for a bit. As there were no accommodations or facilities there, I opted to hike a bit into tomorrow’s leg— a mistake. I still felt strong and was comfortable with a couple more miles, but the alarms should have gone off when the path climbed quickly toward a bealach. Unlike most other places I’ve trekked, in Scotland once you are at any elevation there is almost no cover— no trees or steep stones to tent behind. The landscape is scoured by the winds with plenty of growth ankle high, but nothing that will break the weather. Foolishly I decided to press on, hoping that in the evening the weather might calm down, or that a sheltered wild camping spot would miraculously appear, or the “small shelter” mentioned in the guide would be open and sufficient. All those hopes were dashed. The shelter was indeed open, but was a mere sod-covered roof over a 5’ narrow bench with some rocks chinked in the sides to form a sort-of wall. Disappointed in myself (and feeling the intense cold), it was there I decided I had to camp. Trekking is supposed to be an adventure, which in some of its etymological history includes embracing chance and taking risk. My adventure today was tempting chance and was an unnecessary risk. Still we must make the best of bad decisions, so after shucking off dripping clothes and finding dry ones in my pack, I made a bed more or less on the narrow bench (I fell off once, hitting a rock and spraining my wrist). Crawling into my sleeping bag, wearing most of my warm clothes, I felt the warmth slowly return. The day’s exertions erased any appetite, so I choked down a few dry crackers, curled up in a knot (unable to stretch all the way out) and tried to sleep, all the while feeling my gear getting wetter and worrying that I might roll off onto a rock again. Still, I could not help but smile at all the day had thrown at me.”

In each, the dialectic of risk/control, responsiblity/recklessness pervades, as does the embodied nature of adventure—its eventfulness. How to reconcile such actions with a sense of responsibility in the manner Shepherd suggests? In each I was irresponsible as I could have needed some rescue, particularly because of possible hypothermia. In the past 4 years, I’ve begun carrying a Garmin InReach device which uses satellites to signal for rescue, but on Waiau Pass I was quite possibly not followed by anyone for several days and had no way of signaling distress. On the SNT, hypothermia would have done its work long before a rescue crew would have arrived. In other words, I trusted my own skills and ability, without counting on assistance from others, but I also trusted the mountain, entering into a relationship with it in all its particularities.

So how does adventure figure in this essay? Clearly it remains a going out and arriving, one accompanied by chance, risk and occasional danger. Following Shepherd’s lead, I must ask what knowledge is formed, and what form does it take? In a leadership training framework, one must assume that the knowledge and understanding— the skills—are somehow transferable, that learning on a mountain will help one act well in an organization. But Shepherd’s onto-epistemology is always situational. To know the mountain is to be part of it—in it—and the knowing only exists while being part of the event of adventure. Responsibility is perhaps part of what Whitehead would call the cognitive apprehension of nature, but adventure more than likely takes place on the ground, in the immersive risky place of prehending (in a vague woodland) and living out something like a pure experience, outside clear or obvious forms of control or planning.

T. Hugh Crawford

Mediating a Mountain

June 9th, 2021

Mediating a Mountain—some thoughts on Nan Shepherd and Elise Wortley

After some years of exploring nature writing through actual material practices (e.g., that time we framed up Thoreau’s house using only the tools he could have used “Building Thoreau’s House”), I was gratified to read Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways where he encountered Edward Thomas’s poetry by following the paths he had walked. It seems a simple, even obvious, move, but it is one at some distance from much academic writing which tends to comment on other writing. Macfarlane’s approach provides real insight. Thinking back to Walden and our woodworking, it is surprising how few pages Thoreau devotes to actually building his house even though, as we learned, felling those “arrowy pines,” squaring them with an axe, and joining the resultant beams with mortise and tenon joints is incredibly time-consuming (at least for 21st century novices). Walden became a radically different book for us after that experience. It is not surprising that I found myself drawn to the work of Elise Wortley—Woman with Altitude—who studies famous women walkers (e.g., Nan Shepherd and Alexandra David-Neel) by walking their paths with period clothes and equipment. I’ve had the opportunity to trek in the Himalayas though not David-Neel’s path (and I walked with 21st century gear). I’ve also have had a good wander around the Cairngorms and have long thought Shepherd’s Living Mountain is perhaps the best nature writing ever (pace Thoreau).

Usually mediating nature—those mountains—involves movement between text and path, that well-worn distinction between word and thing, a jump that has always troubled me as it seems so stark, a vertiginous abyss between the material world and our sometimes feeble efforts to refashion it with words. Wortley, with her unusual strategy—along with her filmmaking friend from Wilderness Scotland (Rupert Shanks) who made a short film of her Nan Shepherd research—helps show how what seems an abyss is actually a series of short leaps, almost like crossing a creek (or burn) by stepping from stone to stone.  https://vimeo.com/368036090

The short film depicts (and is) a range of incremental mediations, showing many material practices that are part and parcel of what we think of as mediation. The first and obvious strategy is Wortley’s voiceover. She does not speak in her own voice; instead she reads passages from The Living Mountain. At one point she is filmed sitting by the path reading from a tattered paperback copy. The filmmaker integrates images of her walk in the Cairngorms with passages from the text. The viewer is treated with a panorama of the rough peaks of that massif while Wortley/Shepherd exclaim “one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle—as beauty.” The film links closely image and text— very much in the tradition of nature documentary, but that by itself replicates the binaries of word/world, or here image/world.

It is within the action of the film that mediating the mountain gets interesting. Along with the book, another printed text appears— a well-worn topo map (I’m guessing a UK ordnance survey). Again, a distant (scale of miles) representation, but for trekkers, a bit more. They learn to see the subtleties of contour, elevation gain and loss directly correlated to the image the Cairngorms themselves (on a clear day) produce. Those topographic lines are not just seen, but are also felt; they are embodied at a glance by the experienced hiker. Discussing the beauty she encounters, Wortley/Shepherd notes, “A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see.” Here the film shifts from cartography to aesthetics but the two are of a piece. The mountain forms need to be there for the aesthetically inclined eye to find beauty, but they also must be there to confirm the topography represented by maps, seen by eyes, and felt through feet.

The opening scenes, perhaps unintentionally, raise this point. The camera focuses not so much on Wortley in relation to the mountain, but instead on her feet following a rocky path. This of course calls attention to her period attire—she wears a hand-sewn pair of leather boots—handsome, but a far cry from the comfort and stability demanded by today’s trekkers. Something more is going on in this opening scene— another form of mediation makes an appearance that begins to re-articulate the word/world gap. For Wortley (along with so many Cairngorm walkers), the mountain is first felt through feet. The leather soles of her boots are a media form. Sure, eyes and images are important, but so are those feet and all the small muscles in her knees, ankles, and hips, each teaching the terrain in a way more intimate than graphic representation.

In his introduction to the most recent edition of The Living Mountain, Robert Macfarlane calls attention to the similarity of parts of the book with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. One section Wortley chooses to read up on the mountain that day is perhaps the best example. But I have a nagging suspicion that phenomenology with its concern with “consciousness of” the material world can only go so far in understanding Shepherd’s mediation of the mountain. As we will see in a moment, she references consciousness, but as Shepherd states and Wortley’s research reveals, the mountain becomes something you enter into, not become conscious of. There seems in this layered mediation, something that evades conscious apprehension. Here Macfarlane rightly signals Merleau-Ponty’s as a phenomenology that would accommodate this broadened sense of mediation, and yet to me, it seems she is doing a bit more here, that her experience of the mountain is somehow more elemental than the phenomenological. 

Wortley’s boots on that path show that experience—even the experience of reading nature writing—is worked out in the middle, not on the endpoints of a polarity of mind/world or text/object. Shepherd and Wortley understand well the in-between. Many modern walkers— particularly those “quants” with fitbits —measure their movement by specific geographic or numerical goals. They live beginnings and ends. In contrast, The Living Mountain is always in the middle, the milieu. Even structurally, the book works through chapters (often elemental) and does not narrate a temporal sequence. Indeed, I think one characteristic of the best nature writing is a de-emphasis of narrative. As Shepherd says early in the book (and Wortley repeats at the beginning of the film): “Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”

Wortley’s shoes mediate the material world while the path she follows mediates both the mountain and generations of Scottish walkers. The path the film features prominently is both physical and graphic. It is a history of feet and a mark on a map and on the ground—here is a line, follow it! (Footpaths). And it is also a history. Once while walking down the southwest side of Cairn Lochan on my way to Ben MacDui, I looked off to the west and could see in the distance Ben Nevis. An older man stood on the path looking in the same direction. He said he had been walking the massif for over fifty years and there were few days when Ben Nevis appeared. At first I was struck by the visual privilege I had been given that day, but then I realized how his fifty years was very much part of the line I was tracing. Paths are communal and require the ongoing presence of feet to remain clear, open, and legible—to continue to produce meaning. I was talking with a long-term contributor to that knowledge and a source of that mark.

Although the film only makes glancing reference to it (and Wortley’s boots  skillfully avoid it), water is a medium Shepherd explores at length (air gets the full treatment as well). Early in the chapter entitled “Water,” she invokes communication: “Water is speaking.” Of course it is easy to mention babbling brooks (or in her vernacular, burns), but Shepherd’s speaking water is not soporific. It too, like the path, is full of meaning (both interpreted and felt); its sounds guide the walker on her way through those peaks and vales:

“The sound of all this moving water is as integral to the mountain as pollen to the flower. One hears it without listening as one breathes without thinking. But to a listening ear the sound disintegrates into many different notes—the slow slap of a loch, the high clear trill of a rivulet, the roar of spate. On one short stretch of burn the ear may distinguish a dozen different notes at once.”

Through sheer repetition over years of wandering the Cairngorms, Shepherd learns to listen to the sounds literally pouring from the mountain, to distinguish various and complex messages. For Shepherd, water as a medium is the message.

Not just sound, Cairngorm water is also taste and a touch that engenders a sense of embodiment: “This water from the granite is cold. To drink it at the source makes the throat tingle. A sting of life is in its touch.” In The Living Mountain, water is a source of physical satiation but also a signal of alarm: “Water, that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me.” Her’s is an interesting fear, one sometimes felt by walkers who encounter what feels to be the purely elemental, that which is devoid of mediation and provokes a thrill, perhaps even the nausea of the sublime (Water). But rather than framing such an encounter as beyond media or prior to it, Shepherd makes mediation itself elemental. Before words, before images, there is water—pure media. In the above quotation, she is regarding water, later she directly encounters it when attempting to ford a rain-swollen burn:  “For the most appalling quality of water is its strength. I love its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength.” Yes, in Shepherd’s world the water speaks.

A body that has learned to fear the strength of the water becomes for Shepherd and Wortley a way into the mountain. Unlike Emerson, a founder of American nature writing, Shepherd’s nature does not symbolize some higher, transcendental power, but instead is, in its very materiality, what we access directly by being in it. She refuses a figure of speech that abstracts—pointing elsewhere—and instead is resolute in pointing toward the experience of the flesh in and of that mountain as meaning in itself, as first writing. Wortley reads at length from The Living Mountain:

“Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent. But no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible, but paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body. It is therefore when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony deepening into something that resembles trance, that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain.”

Like her elemental water, Shepherd’s walking is itself a mediation of her essential body—one that does not stop at the skin, but is made and made meaningful (at the same time) by its and the mountain’s inter-worlding. Her “walking out of the body” is no transcendence, nor is it spiritual in a traditional sense. Nor is it some abstract oneness. Rather it is the aggregate that walkers sometimes experience—the sense of being as there, in all its messy, multiple, plural immediacy. And let’s not forget, immediacy’s etymological root is media.


The film then turns to Shepherd’s phenomenological aesthetics, one that rejects the spectatorial for the immersive—an embodied plunge into a wider, worldly body found through walking (Brutal Beauty). Wortley reads from her copy of the book—the one that has clearly spent time on the mountain itself, absorbing its blows—directly addressing the problem of beauty in a way that reframes or at least points in a direction different from Immanuel Kant’s formulation:

“Why some blocks of stone, hacked into violent and tortured shapes, should so profoundly tranquillise the mind I do not know. Perhaps the eye imposes its own rhythm on what is only a confusion: one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle—as beauty. Else why did men for so many centuries think mountains repulsive? A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see. And forms of a certain distinction: mere dollops won’t do it. It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind: but the resultant issue is a living spirit, a glow in the consciousness, that perishes when the glow is dead.”

What intrigues me is Shepherd’s notion of “matter impregnated with mind” which seems to re-inscribe any number of traditional binarisms, ones that the book (and the film) are working against. Mind and consciousness are barely categories in this text except as effects of the ongoing unfolding of experience of the mountains and its elementals. She introduces beauty as a category—how could she not?—only to ignore traditional notions of unity, symmetry, balance, etc., to embrace a processual immersion of sights, sounds, smells, and bodies—the “confusion” of being in and with the mountain.

In the immediately following passage, Shepherd turns from aesthetics to ontology, though I think she purposely elides the distinction: “It [a living spirit] is something snatched from non-being, that shadow which creeps in on us continuously and can be held off by continuous creative act. So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.” With this Shepherd brings the last binarism—being/nonbeing— back into the middle, giving new meaning to the notion of love (and I think representing the love Wortley is expressing in her taking on a version of Shepherd’s sense of being). Being-in-with-the mountain is the subject of the entire book but she gets there by walking into it, in those hand sewn leather boots and homespun clothes, not seeking transcendence or abstraction but instead a sense of the admixture of being and non-being in a “continuous creative act.” From that perspective, Shepherd is more Whiteheadian than phenomenological. The sentence “Man has no other reason for his existence” is not so much existential—a way of framing individual being (an impulse to demarcate self)—as it is a celebration of our minor selves in the milieu of “the vastness of non-being” which is, as she has been saying all along, the source of the material being that produces meaning, mediates self as mountain. It is a nature “writ” (lived) large.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 33

March 22nd, 2018

In Patagonia Day 33
Puerto Varas (rain)

Today, as promised by the folks who predict such matters, the skies dumped rain a constant heavy rate. In the hostel where I am staying, there are people of many nationalities, and each has a different relationship to time. One, a Canadian who works as a police officer, is taking the only extended vacation (two weeks) he will be allowed in the next few years. Another, an American (one of the few I’ve bumped into) was recently laid off and is spending her six months severance pay by spending six months traveling South America. A young couple from Johannesburg both quit their jobs and are embarking on a multi-month fly-fishing tour of this continent. My Dutch friend Jakob is retired from UNESCO and travels outside most time, focusing instead on space— visiting UNESCO sites. I fall somewhere in the middle, wandering a bit to delay returning to Trump’s America, but, more important, to find the space and time to actually think, which generally is discouraged for people working in today’s neoliberal university system. Rainy days of the Patagonian variety highlight everyone’s differing relationships to industrial time. Anxiety by those looking for a complete experience, recalibration for those needing a planning day, and of course action for those who dive in regardless of the circumstances (something required of long-distance trekkers for example). I also think of Victor, the farmer back on Chiloé, sipping maté in an overheated kitchen watching the skies for a break in the rain before starting his daily and interminable chores. It’s days like this that the very idea of time shows its complexity, revealing its materiality, abstraction, and multiplicity.

One way to begin to think about this (only to begin) is how time is given in (lived) experience. In The Adventure of Ideas, Alfred North Whitehead insists that experience must be understood through affect: “The basis of experience is emotional. Stated more generally, the basic fact is the rise of an affective tone originally from things whose relevance is given.” Immediately following this assertion, he invokes what he calls a “Quaker” sense of “concern.” The occasion of experience is never merely a passive (or even semi-active) perception, but instead a full bodied sense of what and how something counts, how something matters. Concern brings with it both a sense that there is something vital, truly at stake in any experience, and at the same time introduces temporality. His “Quaker” sense of concern brings with it not just a passive sense of care (as in feeling sympathy for) but also an obligation to action. In other words, concern is fundamental to any occasion of experience, it is affective, and, perhaps most important, it opens out toward the future that must be made.

In a neoliberal world, that future is necessarily experienced through a sense of belatedness. Time is never well-spent as the future will always bring opportunity loss. In measured performance, participants always miss the mark. This is where Whitehead’s focus on experience, affect, and what he calls “the peculiar status of the human body” helps salvage time and begin to make a future that could be an adventure instead of a loss. Concern is not about belatedness, but instead actually produces time—that is the occasion of experience. To walk up Osorno requires concern—the ash and gravel path is only relatively stable, the wind makes walking difficult and at times even dangerous, but the peculiar status of walking is always an opening out onto the future, a marking/making of time step by step, each with concern for the next. Such an assertion seems trivial (according to people who worry over “the big picture”) but time is trivial—it is a granular experience made not by accomplishment or performance, but through a knowing and understanding body.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 15

March 5th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 15
El Calatafe—El Chaltén

I started reading Jason Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life the other day. In the opening chapters he lays out an argument familiar in 21st century environmental philosophy criticizing the notion that humans are actors—agents of history— acting on a mute and stable Nature. Societies have history, Nature does not (ironically, what we today call science was once referred to as natural history). Of course people have long recognized that nature is always in some flux—earthquakes, eruptions, floods are all transformative—but the science that emerged in the Modern era was a description of underlying stabilities, uniformities, laws, and it rests on familiar binaries: subject/object, society/Nature, what in a slightly different form Alfred North Whitehead called the “bifurcation of nature.” But Moore’s is not a science studies book; rather he wants to understand how capitalism(s) use (and indeed are constituted by) the capital “N”Nature of modern science.

Reading is a material practice. Words can’t be abstracted from their substrate, but instead participate in specific material economies. It matters where and how words are produced and consumed. People often comment on how different a book is on re-reading, but such a claim depends on abstracting that text from the point of its consumption. From a materialist perspective, there is no such thing as re-reading as all readings necessarily involve a different configuration, setting, and materiality. That is all just to say I was reading and thinking about Moore while moving about in southern Patagonia. The question that nagged was why modern science—depending on atemporal, universal objects—emerges in Europe. It is, of course, a tired question, one chewed over by philosophers and historians for centuries, and probably not one to even ask in a hastily written blog about walking, so I’ll limit myself to walking speculation.

The Pennine Way runs up the backbone of England 200+ miles from Edale (near Manchester) to Kirk Yetholm just across the Scottish border. Days walking this path usually involve loitering in pubs in the Yorkshire Dales, strolling from picturesque village to picturesque village, occasionally up and over a ridge in high wind and blustery weather—the heights truly do wuther. Generally it is a peaceful, intimate environment though there are moments when, for example, entering Malham Cove or gazing out from High Cup Nick you feel something momentous and non-human has happened there, some environmental upheaval. But by and large, the walk is one through human history, one deeply felt. An early center of Modern Science was the English Royal Society, where the fellows defined the principles and practices necessary to articulate truth claims about the objective world. Much has been written about the complex politics of these emerging protocols (in particular Shapin and Schaffer’s magisterial Leviathan and the Air Pump). Later, in the 19th century Lyell and Darwin were able to bring long-scale earth history into the discourse, but remained magisterial. Still, I just want to make one small observation. Walking across England produces a sense of an environmentally stable world —Nature—written all over by Human history.

Walking in Patagonia is imbued with a hyperawareness of environmental conditions. It is raw, elemental. The wind flays you, the temperature swings cause constant adjustment, and its sheer vastness makes you feel insignificant. It is a land in flux—the actual land. Early European explorers derided the people they found living in this part of the world, criticizing their hygiene, clothing, housing, food, and social practices (even as late as the 19th century, Darwin was particularly vicious in his appraisal of the Tierra del Fuegeans). They were also condemned for their non-modernity, their failure to see the earth as object and instead finding all manner of spirits, animisms, and active agents in their Nature. They lived in a world full of what Jane Bennett would call in the 21st century “Vibrant Matter.” Most people who travel to southern Patagonia try to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier. It is an amazing sight (see “Day 14” below). Glaciers bring geological time into awareness, enabling us to see ice-age conditions and the massive disruption caused by the slow movement of active matter. Something visitors tend to miss, though, are the peaks that loom over the glacial valley. From the lake you can see four, each heavily eroded revealing clear strata marking upheaval and slow erosion. What struck me was how the first two showed perfect horizons of strata, level lines marking out the ticking of a long slow clock, while the the next two, made from what appears the same temporal and material strata but thrust up by different forces, were a twisted curving, almost writhing mass of flux. Looking at those peaks doesn’t give the sense of long past environmental transformation. You too are caught up in the geological maelstrom. I can imagine an emerging scientific practice here that does not start with a subject/object distinction, but instead begins with a world tangled up, erasing human/nonhuman binaries, and vastly complicating any sense of time’s arrow.

T. Hugh Crawford