Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

The Lee Shore

April 27th, 2020

The Lee Shore

Once hiking up the Tongariro Crossing from the north just after I cleared the tree (and lahar) line, I stepped headfirst into a gale. The storm had been threatening as I ascended the lower section, but it unleashed on gaining the open ground. No visibility and winds that literally blew me off the trail. As I was closer to the Department of Conservation’s Ketetahi hut, I pressed on, hiking in a crouch with one arm swung back holding my pack in place, finally reaching it but not without being soaked through and feeling hypothermia. Obviously the goal of my trek that day was impossible so, after bundling in my sleeping bag for an hour to get back temperature, I made my way down the mountain to the place where I had begun, feeling grateful when I entered the woods which cut the wind and then finding two English trekkers in the parking lot who offered a ride to a campground on the south side of the crossing. That evening I found myself warm, cleaned up, dressed, and eating a meal in an elegant restaurant.

The English Pennine Way is, by and large, a beautiful wander through the Yorkshire Dales on long-trod paths. But, as readers of Wuthering Heights well know, up on the moors the fog and wind come in, easily disorienting the casual walker. Much of the path is cobbled with material from old mills, so in the dense fog, you have to trust the stones. One day in such a state, I heard the unmistakable sound of an ATV engine, and soon out of the mist a modern-day Heathcliff appeared, asking if I had seen any stray cattle on the ridge. I replied that I had barely seen my own feet. He laughed and rode off, maybe heading to the Grange. Up on those ridges people—probably shepherds—have built stone walls in the shape of a cross, allowing walkers caught in the weather to find shelter in the lee of whatever angle breaks the wind. These seeming Christian contrivances are pure material practicality and not theological symbol, serving troubled travelers no matter the direction of the weather. 

After finishing a month of trekking in Tasmania this February, I found myself on the Great Barrier Reef teaching a university course on Moby-Dick. The weather on the day we took the ferry out from Gladstone to Heron Island was a little rough—barf bags were widely distributed and people passed around Dramamine like it was molly. Twice on the outbound leg, the ferry passed in the lee of an island (Mast Head then Erskine) so briefly the waves smoothed and wind abated. Much to the relief of some nauseated students, we arrived at Heron, disembarking in the sun but also to wind and surf stirred by an offshore cyclone—one that would slowly pass on the the East buffeting us for days. 

Moby-Dick is a maddeningly beautiful book. Ahab famously declares “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails,” but Melville the author has clearly gone off them. It’s a book with a complicated textual history, with some dead ends and a number of enigmatic characters. Some think the original protagonist was to have been a man named Bulkington whom Ishmael encounters at the New Bedford Spouter Inn, his having just returned from a four year voyage on the whaler Grampus. Bulkington, like Jack Chase or Billy Budd, is a handsome sailor—a strong, capable man who inspires confidence and loyalty from his fellow sailors. He appears again briefly on Ahab and Ishmael’s boat, the Pequod, in a “six inch chapter” that serves as his “stoneless grave” entitled “The Lee Shore.” Obviously a teachable moment, my students, having braved the seas, Dramamine, and barf bags on a short channel crossing, well understood the calm of a lee shore. 

Of course all calm in Melville is soon disrupted, and he uses this chapter to push at the calm/danger binary. Like crouching in Pennine Way cruciform walls, to be in the lee of an island is to albeit briefly inhabit shelter, but as Melville makes clear for the sailor it is the island that is the danger. Bulkington must pilot the Pequod into the sea, the teeth of the storm, to avoid being wrecked on the reef: “The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through.” So to rest in the lee, perhaps only for a moment invokes home’s hearth and brings calm, that “insular Tahiti” Ishmael describes later in the book, but in the big outside, leeward is short lived, and safety or perhaps even truth is only to be had by casting off, doubling the cape and facing the teeth of the storm: “Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?” Melville sets up a land/sea binary, but the two-stranded lesson of the lee shore is that seeking refuge is but a momentary respite—actual safety is to be had by abandoning false comfort. My time in Ketetahi hut was limited because, built on the slope of an active volcano which had recently erupted hurling rocks through the roof, it was deemed by the authorities unsafe. Refuge was actually to be found by returning to the storm, piloting before the wind to the woods below.


Although he died nearly a decade before the publication of Moby-Dick, the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin pressed precisely the point of Melville’s “Lee Shore.” In “Patmos” he pens the phrase that so stirred Martin Heidegger: “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” The speaker is a wanderer seeking salvation in the lee of Patmos, an island that could bring revelation (if St. John doesn’t remain hiding in the cave). Charles Olson, in his wonderful book Call Me Ishmael, reads Melville’s 1856 journals on his trip to Egypt, the Mediterranean, and the Holyland, recording Melville’s response to the Mediterranean in general and Patmos in particular: “Off Cyprus, on his way from the Holyland to Greece, Melville can no more imagine a Venus to have risen from these waters than ‘on Mt. Olivet that from there Christ rose’ …. Now, off Patmos, he can ‘no more realize that St. John had ever had revelations here.’” Like Ishmael, Hölderlin’s speaker is persuaded by an unseen force—the amorphous desire some call wanderlust—the desire to cast off the assurances of hearth and home to live by passing through (or around) a world that alternates danger and refuge.

… a spirit 

Led me forth from my own home 

To a place I thought I’d never go.

. . . .

And how fearsome it was to leave 

The sight of dear friends and walk off 

Alone far over the mountains

Bulkington, like Ishmael, is one of Melville’s isolatos, “living on a separate continent of his own.” There are scenes of camaraderie in the novel— who can forget the squeezing of the hand—but Ishmael’s solitude is unmistakable. What Hölderlin makes clear is that a wanderer’s solitude is profoundly different from the alienated soul in society. It is a necessary forsaking and wandering out into “howling infinite” which, as Ishmael opines, is better “than [to] be ingloriously dashed upon the lee,”

Heron Island can be circumambulated in about 30 minutes. At low tide the beach is wide and smooth, marked only by the tracks of nesting tortoises and their scampering young. Unlike directional hiking where you might find yourself walking all day with the wind at your face or blasting from the side, a circle brings the weather from all points of the compass. Many people, particularly in the Himalayas, look askance at the notion of conquering a peak. They prefer to show respect by circumambulation, best known in the West with the walk around Kailash. Having just come off a month of rigorous trekking in Tasmania and therefore still having feet, not unlike Bulkington’s, scorched by the land, Heron became my Kailash— circling at least twice a day. Such wandering clarifies the lesson of the lee. Depending on the direction I started, I would either begin or end with the wind. The rising tides brought waves crashing to the edge of the forest, making walking tiresome, awkward, but not dangerous. In the lee comes peace and I’d sing (quietly) Graham Nash’s song “Lee Shore”: “All along the lee shore/ Shells lie scattered in the sand.” Such circuits are strikingly different from a day of long-distance, directional trekking. The sun and wind burn both cheeks equally, and intensity is exactly balanced by peace, each shading into the other on the edges. Equanimity is a balance of extremes, offering a glimpse of Melville’s “mortally intolerable truth”: deep thinking demands that you “fly all hospitality” at least temporarily. But as my daily island circles taught me, fleeing to the lee (also temporarily) is just as fundamental.

As it turned out, the danger that lurked there was not a tempest but instead pestilence. We retreated back across the sea to the Australian mainland and soon home to the United States because of the emerging corona virus pandemic, circumstances that make every day here a question of refuge or danger. Hölderlin also makes room for the lee shore with a prayer for all wanderers: 

  give us calm waters; 

Give us wings, and loyal minds 

To cross over and return.


T. Hugh Crawford


May 22nd, 2016



Early on in Walden, Thoreau says, “It is true, I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.” Presence at first light, ever elusive but somehow fundamental. The labors of many people require they rise before the sun, but being up early does not necessarily put one in the presence of the sunrise as an event, the first of the new day. Long-distance walkers are a privileged few as they, like Thoreau, are up and about, doing their daily labor before the sun, and most days find themselves lingering on some path watching the unfolding of yet another rosy-fingered dawn.

In El Gamso on the Camino de Santiago, Gloria, my trekking partner suggested we get up early enough to see the sunrise from the peak at Cruz de Ferro. Walkers are game for most things, but this was a pre-dawn trek of 15 km including a long steep climb. At 4:00 am, we were up and in a few minutes hiking fast and hard down the path, headlamps dimly lighting the way. It was smooth but still there was the occasional stumble. An advantage of the early time was a sky awash with stars, the Milky Way streaming through the middle, punctuated by the occasional meteorite, but we had to ignore the sight most of the time, focusing instead on our feet. There was less than 3 hours time to cover the distance. Before long a crescent moon rose at our backs, partly showing the way. That time of morning brings new sensations. Birds often unheard call out. Different temperature gradients cross the skin. The earth and plants exhale unique odors. Setting a brisk pace, we made the the next town in good time but then had to climb a ridge in mud and flowing water, all as the horizon began to lighten ominously. Soon anticipation gave way to near despair. Pushing on through the just-waking village of Foncebadon, we crested the main ridge, still short of Cruz de Ferre but finding an ideal place to see the morning in. Sunrises happen every day but they are never the same. This day some low clouds ran interference as the orange intensified along the horizon, then a brilliant flash of yellow light turned our retinas purple. Soon the sun’s rays touched all around and, though we had not materially assisted in its rising, we had contributed our mite and received everything in return. It’s a strange feeling to have been up and toiling long and hard only to recognize that a new day has just commenced. We got up, stretched, and made our way to the Cruz de Ferre, an iron cross atop a tall wooden pole surrounded by a huge pile of rocks brought by peregrinos from all over the world. I found a rock by the path and pitched it over my head onto the pile, while Gloria retrieved the one she had carried from some far away place. Anticipation frames a moment, but the moment always exceeds it.

That morning while watching the sunrise, I could not help but recall Hölderlin’s hymn, “The Ister,” and Heidegger’s commentary in a book of the same name. I kept repeating the opening lines:

Now come, fire!
Eager are we
To see the day.

Command, presence, inevitability, anticipation, anxiety. Sunrise is but one in 24 hours of moments, but it is a singularity, an edge, a precise point. It predates industrial time and is measured not in seconds or minutes but in duration–a taunt, stretched now that extends from the first bit of pure light to the emergence of the sun as full body. Heidegger, ever the interrogator, questions Hölderlin’s opening line: “Yet if “the fire” comes of its own accord, then why is it called? The call does not effect the coming.” He is pursuing a broader philosophical point, but his questioning uncovers the walker’s dilemma, one phrased by Thoreau differently but essentially asking the same thing: what calls for presence at a sunrise? Eager to see the day, we pause watching colors, the false dawn, then the moment of pure light. Our eagerness calls on the sun to come, but it was the sun all along that brought us to this ridge. Presence at sunrise questions Being in ways few other quotidian actions can. The most temporal of events calls the caller out of measured time into dureé. It is time as a thread stretched to absolute thinness. Clocks do not tick at sunrise; time expands, filling the horizon.

But fire can bring destruction, and to think the now is to think its end. Not far from the Cruz de Ferro is the Galician Atlantic coast and Finisterre, the end of the earth in the Medieval world, the place where the sun goes to die. On the Costa de Morte there once was the altar of Ara Solis dedicated to that daily dying sun, something pilgrims witness with each sunset. Sunrise is both inevitable and not, prompting questions of the end rather than the beginning. Ben Schneider (of the band Lord Huron) asks, “what if the world dies with the sunrise?” Not an anxiety strongly felt by those called to witness the beginning of the day, but a thought that lurks in the background. To anticipate an event is to entertain the possibility of it not happening. Heidegger also calls the now the “time of poets.” The sun calls the poets to write. It calls walkers differently, not to give words but more fundamentally to mark the surface of the earth, to write paths with bootsoles. To be present at the sun’s rising, the way is trod, the ridge is climbed. To participate in the now of that moment is to be part of a longstanding community with feet maintaining the way and naming the history of the land’s dwellers, sometimes going back millennia. The pause on the ridge gives the sunrise a silent voice. An event made reverent by the act of stopping to pay attention, to attend. Deleuze asks of Leibniz and Whitehead “What is an Event?” He then produces a multiplicity of answers, or, to put it the same way, his answer is a multiplicity with some convergence. An event is a gathering to an intensity, a set of forces singled out and directing attention. It is, in Whitehead’s terms, a concresence of elements, the active creation of the new and, I would add, the now which is always novel.

Sunrise calls out a particular now for our attention, showing by implication the production, the concresence, of all nows, however unremarkable others may be. Sitting there on that hill in that moment was an event. We did not materially assist the sun in its rising, did not wake the birds’ songs or paint the full palette of colors on the sky or cause the mist to rise from the plowed earth or bring both light and shadow to play across the land. But we were there attending and anticipating. Already wide-awake from a long, hard hike, we were there to begin the new day.

T. Hugh Crawford

May 10

May 11th, 2016

May 10


Vilamaior to Santiago de Compostela 8 km
It’s hard to think through trail endings. Long anticipated and suddenly appearing, they usually drain away any words that might help make sense of a long, unfolding path. People feel elation when finishing an arduous trek which often brings a compulsion to celebrate, commemorate, and commiserate with those friends soon going back to their non-walking lives, but to think through ends requires time and solitude. I finished the Camino de Santiago today, wandered about the square in front of the Cathedral a bit seeing acquaintances who finished recently. I then went down to get the merit badge–the compostela which testifies to my official pilgrim status. Like diplomas, certificates of completion bring little real satisfaction. Because of its status as a religious pilgrimage, the Camino calls attention to an often unthought part of the end of any trek–the importance of the sacred. I’m not talking specifically about the artifacts here–St. James’s remains–or the Cathedral in all its splendor. Instead I am thinking of how a sense of the sacred serves the walker, how it forms a sense of ending. Entering the city I passed a man, an older peregrino, who beamed, telling me there were dos kilometers left. The back of his neck was deeply furrowed along with a finer cross-hatching of wrinkles. His was the neck of a farmer, someone who had toiled long and hard years in the sun. I imagined that he, like peregrinos from centuries past, had planned in his declining years to make this trip, the pilgrimage of a lifetime. His joy was scarcely contained as he held up a finger and a thumb, signaling the near completion of his walk. Soon he would be embracing St. James. I spent the second half of my Camino walking with a devout Catholic. She was not making the single pilgrimage of her lifetime–she had already walked the Camino Portuguese–but her Camino was an embrace of the calm and peace of sacred spaces. We stopped at tiny, ancient churches. Often I would get caught up in some architectural detail–an interesting framing plan for the roof, some carved ancient wood, or the workings of an old clock–but even I felt the spirit of the place. My feeling for the sacred did not come from religious belief but instead grew from the church’s very design. Exuding both time and timelessness, these places lift visitors out of the hum and buzz of the quotidian into another place. Martin Heidegger writes about “the clearing,” first calling up the space opened by woodchoppers cutting timber, but then, by extension, the possible clearing of thought, to arrive at what had been the unthought. Clearing also is the act of clarification, the cleansing of the doors of perception. To me, Heidegger’s clearing is the encounter with a secular sacred, something walkers of all beliefs and non-beliefs regularly experience. Usually up before dawn, we see the sun rising in a long black distance. Following an ancient footpath, we encounter a turn, a slow sweep of the way, perhaps lined by ancient oaks covered in green mats of moss, vines, decorated at their base with columbine, violets, daisies. A spring flows beneath a gnarled tree-trunk. The path leads into a dark, intensely silent forest. In those moments, quotidian care, the triviality of routine, thought-destroying bureaucracy (periodic peer review), diminish to the nothingness that they are. The walker’s sacred is lived in those clearings. The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is a religious space marking the end of a long pilgrimage. Ends have purpose, signal accomplishment, sometimes define self, but a walker’s sacred is lived in the clearings along the way.

T. Hugh Crawford


November 29th, 2015


A few days ago, after a beautiful morning’s tramp, I arrived at a new and spacious Department of Conservation hut. Since there were no good campsites down the trail for some distance, I decided to call it an early day and settle in. The hut had a large deck that looked out onto a beautiful river valley, and as I was going through the ritual of unpacking and signing the Intentions book, I heard footsteps out front and soon a man entered. I could tell immediately he was an experienced hiker as he was traveling light and also went about his unpacking methodically. We began a conversation and soon it was clear to me that he was also a real gear-head. I wondered to myself how long it would be before he told me how many grams his stove weighed (answer: half hour). This is not to say that I am uninterested in equipment. It is very much part of the long distance hiking experience and good equipment can make a trek much more enjoyable (see my earlier post “Inventory”). Rather, gear is really not much of a topic for conversation, particularly when it becomes a competition measured in grams.


However, that encounter did get me thinking about deliberation–how it functions in our sense of being, our sense of living. One of Thoreau’s most quoted phrases is his explanation for his time at Walden pond: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately”. The rest of the sentence reads, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Two things are clear about this sentence: Thoreau is concerned with a life (perhaps a topic for another pointless essay), and that living deliberately is part of that concern. I have always been intrigued with how adverbs, even when clearly linked to a particular action in a sentence, tend to float above all, somehow modifying or at least Inflecting the entire utterance and often creating interesting tensions and ambiguities. I suppose it is easy to ascribe attributes to objects, but actions are slippery. Without doubt Thoreau thematizes living deliberately in this sentence, but his decision tends to also get folded into the modification. Going to the woods was a deliberate choice and it is in many ways the subject of the his book, his justification for rustication.

Care is a concept often associated with deliberation. A jury will (one hopes) carefully deliberate the fate of the defendant. To be deliberate is to proceed with forethought, taking account of the multiple implications of any given action. In other words, to be deliberate is to be careful. Indeed, to be carefully careful. But I want to understand where those two terms diverge, and in that gap, reflect on different modes of walking. Thoreau may have gone to the woods to live deliberately and often he does, but just as often another, non-deliberative form of life comes into play, one that can be understood by a brief excursion into the work of another philosopher who went to the woods, to a small house near Todtnauberg, also to live and write deliberately–Martin Heidegger. It is appropriate that as I write this, I find myself also deliberately in the wilds. In my case, severe weather has driven me off the Te Araroa and into Comyns Hut on the South Island about 15 km south of the Rakaia River. Comyns is an odd, old hut, completely made of steel– corrugated steel siding attached to a structural steel frame, all of which rocks and rolls In the wind (even the door is flapping steel). There are plenty of holes for the wind and rain to enter and no firewood for warmth or to dry my wet clothes. After a morning spent fording streams in gale-force winds and driving rain, I need to think about care as well as my own deliberateness.


Toward the end of Division 1 of Being and Time, Heidegger is offers the ground for Dasein, for the question of Being: “Care, as a primary structural totality, lies ‘before’ every factical ‘attitude’ and ‘situation’ of Dasein, and it does so existentially a priori; this means that it always lies in them. So this phenomenon by no means expresses a priority of the ‘practical’ attitude over the theoretical. When we ascertain something as present-to-hand by merely beholding it, this activity has the character of care just as much as a ‘political action’ or taking a rest and enjoying oneself. ‘Theory’ and ‘practice’ are possibilities of being for an entity whose being must be defined as ‘care.'” Being, in all its possible modes (including both the practical and the theoretical, the ready-to-hand and the present-to-hand) is primordially grounded in care. Up to this point, this does not seem too distant from Thoreau’s ‘deliberately.’ Both imply life of mindful consideration. One must proceed deliberately and with care. But the distinction Heidegger makes above between the practical and the theoretical, and his invocation of the notion of present-to-hand complicate the picture. A way to unravel this a bit is to go to the woods with both of them and also out walking the trail.

When Thoreau went to Walden Pond to live, he first borrowed an axe to cut the timbers for his house. Heidegger’s ontology begins with the question of tools, of what he calls ‘equipmentality,’ further noting that, “Taken strictly, there is no such thing as an equipment.” On the one hand, this is an obvious observation. An axe or a hammer (Heidegger’s favorite example) can be regarded ‘objectively’ as a material entity, but as equipment, it exists in a larger world of equipmentality: in carpentry you have hammers, nails, wood, measuring devices, plans, templates, customers, earth, wind, all coming together to make the scene of building/dwelling. Thoreau had an axe, some “arrowy” second growth white pines, a lot on a hill above the pond, boards and (some) nails from an Irishman’s shanty, and an agreement with R.W. Emerson, the landowner. For Heidegger, this equipmentality is the way into understanding being-in-the-world as any given part of an equipment presupposes a background of tools, materials, plans, and actions as an already given. It is on this point that he makes his famous present-to-hand and ready-to-hand distinction. According to Hubert Dreyfus, “Heidegger proposes to demonstrate that the situated use of equipment is in some sense prior to just looking at things and that what is revealed by use is ontologically more fundamental than the substances with determinate, context-free properties revealed by detached contemplation.” Present-to-hand is that form of looking, regarding a piece of the world as an entity with certain attributes. To see a hammer as present-to-hand is to regard an object that (depending on the type) probably has a handle made of wood/fiber glass/steel and a head of a certain configuration made of steel in a pattern that enables striking. The regard to hammer as ready-to-hand is to use it: “the less we just stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is–as equipment.”

The heart of Heidegger’s critique of Western philosophy is that it is fairly well-equipped to deal with the present-to-hand but woefully lacking in resources to comprehend the ready-to-hand, which, by the way, is where all the action is. One could say the present-to-hand is adjectival, while the ready-to-hand is adverbial, and we all know how ambiguous but at the same time vital all those adverbs are. Heidegger is quick to point out that the ready-to-hand is not just using a tool: “The ready-to-hand is not grasped theoretically at all, nor is it itself the sort of thing that circumspection takes proximally as a circumspective theme. The peculiarity of what is proximally ready-to-hand is that, in its readiness-to-hand, it must, as it were, withdraw … in order to be ready-to-hand quite authentically. That with which our everyday dealings proximally dwell with not the tools themselves …. On the contrary, that with which we concern ourselves primarily is the work — that which is to be produced at the time; and this is accordingly ready-to-hand too. The work bears with it that referential totality within which the equipment is gathered.” The ready-to-hand “withdraws” not to some mysterious other world but rather withdraws from any understanding as present-to-hand. A hammer used fluently is transparent. A hiker’s trekking poles (discussed below) are transparent extensions of arms, at least until a compression joint slips and one is suddenly shorter than the other. There is always more to the ready-to-hand than the objective description because it is always already part of a larger functioning whole that is part of a humming, buzzing background of human/nonhuman activity.

Perhaps we are now ready to understand better what Thoreau was actually doing and perhaps what we are trying to do when we sometimes think of living deliberately. In his tool analysis, Heidegger articulates a series of terms to explain when a tool is not ready-to-hand. It may be broken, not quite the right tool, or obstinately getting in the way. His point is that at any given moment, the fluid withdrawn nature of hammering ready-to-hand can breakdown so the hammerer must stop and regard the tool not as part of a functioning system but rather as a part, in this case a recalcitrant part. Such moments demand a stepping back to plot possible solutions and then act on those plans. In other words, the broken tool brings about the moment of deliberation. Breakdown brings about the need to plan rather than smoothly acting. Even though Walden is about life in the woods and includes his building a house, there is little actual description in that process in the book. Nevertheless, given some of the details, we can infer some tool relationships. He borrowed an axe and set out to cut the timber necessary to frame his house. He came to know trees through extended tool interaction. He was absorbed in the ready-to-hand. While chopping, he sings:

Men say they know many things;
But lo! they have taken wings—
The arts and sciences,
And a thousand appliances;
The wind that blows
Is all that any body knows.

On the one hand a banal jingle, but on the other, a direct and sincere questioning not so much about the sources of knowledge, but what counts as knowledge. All anybody might know is the wind that blows, as the rest of knowledge that is produced by the arts and sciences (and presumably the appliances of technology) remains abstract or ephemeral. In a sense, what he is pressing in these questions is how can we know the entities experienced through the ready-to-hand. As Heidegger argues in Being and Time, concernful absorption has its being in the function of “discovering” and fundamental to this process is that “those entities within-the-world which are brought along [beigebrachte] in the work . . . . The kind of being which belongs to these entities is readiness-to-hand.” In the process of building his house, Thoreau also encountered Heidegger’s notorious broken tool as he broke the borrowed axe handle and had to replace it himself, an action that gives some insight into the local nature of equipmentality. If the axe’s owner was a tool proficient, he or she would likely not appreciate the returned axe even if it was exceptionally sharp (as Thoreau claimed) because hanging the axe head was, in the nineteenth century, a highly personalized process. In addition, no one would soak an axe with its handle in the pond to tighten the fit as the moment it dried back out, everyone would be dodging a flying axe head.


Thoreau does not interrupt his book in an attempt to present his building as ready-to-hand. Perhaps he did not feel it was necessary as most of colleagues had their own axe-knowledge, but he did struggle with articulating such understanding, as his time in the bean-field tells. In Walden, Thoreau would claim exhaustion and his failure to read when his labors were heavy, but that never stopped him from thinking. The experience of the ready-to-hand is, as he makes clear, another form of understanding. He would shoulder his hoe and head out to his too-large garden, noting that, “When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop. It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans; and I remembered with as much pity as pride, if I remembered at all, my acquaintances who had gone to the city to attend the oratorios.” This is a commonly reproduced passage, usually with commentators focusing rightly on the central claim–the blurring of boundaries between self and beans– but the larger context is equally essential, as Thoreau offers a real glimpse into equipmentality and a form of care. His labor produces earthly music which potentially calls attention his separation from society, but he dismisses a trip to town for staged music and instead offers up his own absorption in a world of work, one made up of a complicated equipmentality that features the musical tinkling of his hoe. His version of the ready-to-hand is through work: “Nearest to all things is that power which fashions their being. Next to us the grandest laws are continually being executed. Next to us is not the workman whom we have hired, with whom we love so well to talk, but the workman whose work we are.”

Probably taking a cue from Dewey, Francisco Varela makes a distinction between ethical “know-how” and ethical “know-what” that can illuminate this distinction I am trying to draw between care and deliberation. When confronted with breakdown, a specific problem that must be decided on the basis of the good, we deliberate. There we know we are in the presence of the ethical and, one hopes, exercise all our deliberative capacities to make a good decision. But there are countless everyday gestures that do not rise to the level of the clearly ethical, that do not invite us to exercise our ethical know-what, but still form part of a life that tends toward the good. When walking through a door at a crowded building entrance, you may hold the door open as you pass just a moment longer to enable those behind you to follow. Hardly an “ethical” act, but one that is part of a habitual pattern of behavior that can be described as care. It is a proceeding with care by recognizing that Dasein is already being-in-the-world so that it includes the world in all its equipmentality.

From that perspective, Being opens out onto a future through an authentic relationship to the world articulated as care. Such care extends not just to people but also to equipmentality broadly construed, which finally brings me back to the gear-head who prompted this reverie and an example that in its triviality I hope demonstrates the point. As it turns out, we both have the same brand and style of tent which requires the use of trekking poles as it does not have traditional tent poles. Trekking poles are an important part of my hiking equipment as they enable steep ascents and descents (particularly with old and infirm knees), enable me to off-load some of the strain on my legs to my arms, and serve to guide me through boggy terrain. They are the perfect example of tools ready-to-hand. I am particularly hard on trekking poles and I am pleased with my current pair– carbon fiber Lekis (please don’t ask how many grams they weigh). When I set up my tent, I first adjust the length of each and usually I find myself holding both and looking down on my already stretched-out tent. The shorter pole needs to go to the back so I end up tossing it across the tent to the other side where it makes a sprongy sound on hitting the ground. I always flinch even though there is no way tossing it five feet will cause damage. Nevertheless, the sound is one of uncaring. I know, in a world of untold human misery, concern about the well-being of a trekking pole is absurd if not reprehensible. But, if care is the central instance of being, and equipmentality signals both the point of access to ready-to-hand understanding and a recognition of the interrelated human and non/human complexity of equipmentality, then care even on the level of hiking triviality is at least as important as life lived deliberately.


We all experience the things of the world through use. For Heidegger, using an tool creates a primordial relationship that exceeds simple observation or hypothetical activity. For him, learning by doing is actually knowing by using. Such activity brings us closer to the equipmental whole the tool participates in. Such participation is the everydayness of being in the world, and brings with it the past present and future opening out of care. I can deliberate at length the details of my hike, and I can choose my equipment deliberately, but walking which is a primary mode of being is all about care.

T. Hugh Crawford