Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Career

June 20th, 2021

Career

The northern parts of Benton Mackaye Trail prior to entering the Great Smoky Mountain National Park generally consist of thin, overgrown paths—steep, rutted, rooted, wet, rocky, and usually devoid of other humans (plenty of nonhumans though). Solitude in those circumstances is not contemplative. Instead each step must be taken with care and precision, a mentally and physically taxing process. All trekking involves paying close attention to surface as that, often more than distance or altitude gain and loss, determines the mood of the day. On entering the Smokies, that surface mood shifts. It is a region long inhabited by the Cherokee people and later by Appalachian settlers. Their occupation is most evident by the trails and roads that remain today as current ways or ghostly presence. Doubtless, the road with the most powerful resonance in this part of the world is the Trail of Tears. The settlers who displaced the Cherokee built on their local paths. Today walkers encounter remnants of game trails, washed out logging roads, as well as other roads more carefully built (some still maintained by the Forest Service for access). Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the “Language” chapter of Nature notes, “Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance.” I’ve long found it curious that the etymology of “career” is in part a headlong race, but also refers to a well-built track or road. Traversing well-laid and some not-so-well-laid roads on this part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I decided to think with Emerson a bit, trying to understand career as “material appearance.”

Rummaging around my memories, the only place I could recall the word career used in its earlier sense was The Wind in the Willows where, as I remember, Mr. Toad’s wild ride involved a car careering at high speed (I could be mistaken, but if Grahame didn’t use the word, he should have). It is hard to imagine how the contemporary sense of having a career would relate to a headlong dash like Mr. Toad’s recklessness, but the idea of a well-laid road resonates with my sense of career. Careering on the Lakeshore Trail in the Smokies, I encountered, of all things, cars—slowly rusting hulks of 1920’s vehicles, one with an old tree growing up through it. Not the sort of sight you expect in the so-called empty American wilderness, but also not surprising given the path I had been following was once a fairly well-made road. Heading north not far past the cars other evidence of Appalachian settlers emerges— old sheet metal, beams, axles, the remains of an old mill race and stone mill, and then the Calhoun House, the last standing structure of the Proctor community. In the late 19th century Proctor was an agrarian village. In the first decade of the 20th, a railroad was pushed there, and Proctor became a lumber boomtown, swelling to over 1000 inhabitants until the timber was exhausted. During World War II, the Alcoa aluminum plant needed smelting power, so the Fontana Dam was built, with the lake submerging parts of the town. A promised road to Proctor was never finished, though the “tunnel to nowhere” some miles to the east is now a tourist destination. The remaining town dwindled and then disappeared, with most structures disappearing into the regenerating forest. I would guess that disappearance was also hastened by the National Park service— a whole nother story of displacement.


Emerson opens
Nature with “Our age is retrospective.” Without doubt, the roads around Proctor invite retrospection, thinking about lost human communities—violently displaced Native American people and the later scattering of the settlers who followed. Now it’s only trekkers who transiently occupy that space.

Standing on the bridge over Hazel Creek, it is hard to imagine a town of any size occupying this space, let alone an industrial sawmill or fields large enough to support food production, but at one time the narrow dirt roads and those abandoned cars enabled the transportation of goods— corn or, for greater ease of transport, corn liquor. Present day stock car racing has its origins in these hills, with cars modified for speed and strengthened to carry gallons of moonshine to the flatlands below.  (I grew up with a 50 gallon copper still in my backyard). The railroad was built to haul out the timber, but in those years it likely also carried a commodity nearly as valuable as shine— chestnuts. Another important inhabitant now gone from this area—the American Chestnut—was lost in the early 20th century to the blight. Once the dominant tree species of the southern Appalachians, the chestnut was fundamental to the life of most inhabitants. For humans, the leaves provided medicine, the wood was nearly perfect—plentiful, strong, rot resistant, easy to work (many of those traditional log cabins in old pictures are chestnut). But most important were the nuts. Plentiful in mast years, chestnuts were a key source of nutrition for humans, were used as forage for hogs (another human food source), and, with the coming of the small gauge railroads up into the coves and the opening of markets in the US northeast, a source of income. A generally unrecognized cause of community loss and present-day Appalachian impoverishment is the environmental devastation brought on by the chestnut blight. The loss of the trains parallel the loss of forest, the chestnut, and the life of many small communities.

Thinking about the idea of one’s career as either headlong dash (Mr. Toad) or a retrospective pondering of lost patterns of living (Proctor) does not seem particularly helpful. Generally people’s careers are not sprints, but they do open out onto a future, not to look back to a distant past. There are only two modern careers I’m qualified (somewhat) to use as examples: medicine and academia. My father was a small-town surgeon and ER physician, and later a public health director. In those years I observed him (including observing operations gowned-up at the OR table) and read the many histories of medicine in our home library. Later, for my dissertation I studied the history of medical education in America. That led me to the other career I have some understanding of—though it is a world I find increasingly strange—professing the humanities in a university. (N.B. I entered the academy in the 1980s when it was generally possible to find a university tenure track job. The neoliberal takeover of the American university system has made that path a chimera today, radically transforming any notion of career).

A career regarded as a well-laid road is at best banal, but perhaps thinking about or with the material experience of roads, paths, and trails could bring some insight. Standing on the Hazel Creek bridge looking across at what is now a riot of trees and undergrowth, then turning to walk for a short stretch on the still level abandoned railroad line, doesn’t so much produce nostalgia (deforestation is hardly something to sentimentalize), as it frames the moment in a dense and complex historical context. Modern roads—e.g. Interstates—appear to erase their history through sheer speed (though attention to what is abandoned by such a-historicism can be compelling). Maybe that is a way into the notion career. As those familiar with the current state of the university in America know well, we are currently being transformed into a “knowledge economy,” which defines knowledge as that which can be measured by standardized metrics, emphasizes rapid production and context-free digital dissemination. In addition, the very idea an academic career has been aggressively undermined, shifting much of the professoriate to precarious, adjunct labor where the time necessary to pursue knowledge is compressed or eliminated. However, harking back to some illusory “good old days,” in academic life is a fool’s errand. The professoriate I entered in the 1980s was overwhelmingly white, male, and academically elitist. A naive celebration of that time as a point of pure intellectual plenitude would be profoundly misguided. Nevertheless, as the road(s) to Proctor teach, it is still important to pause at ghostly presences and listen to what they might tell. That site of rapacious deforestation was also a place of human community—one that maintains a fragile continuity as the descendants of Proctor continue to visit the cemeteries annually to connect with their ancestors and with the still-living descendants of those families. In our corporate universities, the knowledge economy commodifies the parts of academic life that submit to metrics and generally ignores those which cannot. Put bluntly, wisdom—the traditional (idealistic) goal of the humanities—no longer has a place or is at best a ghost.

Perhaps a way to contextualize this trend in academia is as a transition from the idea of career traditionally construed—a road well-laid and followed by careful study and understanding over time—to one defined by readily signaled and celebrated waypoints. The Appalachian Trail is often called “the green tunnel” because it (like the Benton Mackaye) rarely offers those celebrated panoramic views. Days are spent in a long trudge, seeing feet, rocks, toads, snakes, and flowers, even as those same hikers tend to represent their walk with selfies on cliffs and peaks. Today’s humanistic academic careers are forms of branding defined by similar selfie moments. Academic brand development uses every tool in the social media arsenal to not just commodify knowledge, but also the supposed bearer of that knowledge.

This essay springs from my hiking the Benton Mackaye Trail, a path starting at Springer Mountain, Georgia (the same point of commencement as the Appalachian Trail which, by the way, was originally conceptualized by Benton Mackaye). It winds northwest through the Georgia Appalachians, crosses into Tennessee, follows the Tennessee/North Carolina border for a long stretch, ending by crossing the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, climbing Mt. Sterling and descending to the end point in a parking lot—all told about 286 miles of difficult trekking in nearly complete isolation. A bad foot forced me off just before the Mt. Sterling climb. In the career-as-brand world that would be a complete failure as I cannot take the selfie and check off the box for reaching the end point. I can’t wave trekking poles, posing for a social media moment, and then tweet about it (incidentally and ironically, cell service is rare on the trail, so social mediation is always delayed). But, to state the obvious, knowledge and understanding comes in the middle of that long green-tunnel trek, what Gilles Deleuze calls the milieu, and that is precisely what is most often left out of brand development. Proctor is learned by a long road(ish) walk in, through, and back out, not through a Google search or captured by a perfect tweet. So what emerges by thinking career via Emerson are these two versions: one of narrowly defined goals, a series of discrete way-points easily plotted on a roadmap, multiplying products (content) rapidly across media platforms, and constructing a recognizable brand (scholarship as hype-house). The other is career as becoming (a Deleuzian Nomadology), the result of engagement with an unfolding process. The latter recalls the Scottish writer Nan Shepherd, whose Living Mountain I discussed in a previous Pointless Essay. On setting out to walk a Cairngorms path, she says, “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.” I suspect a brand-oriented academic would hesitate putting that in an annual report.

The dark side of all this is a definition of academic productivity borrowed from the corporate world that simply does not fit the job of nurturing wisdom. Not just confined to the humanities in the university, these tick-box, rapid production pressures are felt across most disciplines including the sciences, a point made clear in Isabelle Stengers’s Another Science is Possible. In what I recall as a recent interview, Donna Haraway voices her preference for the term “engender” over “reproduction” or “production.” She is making a different set of observations than I am, so her reasoning follows a different path, but it is a helpful distinction. Put simply, to live and work, to have a career, in a (re)productionist model requires the fabrication of products— closed, packaged things, a list of intellectual entities on a form. Engendering is a practice of bringing into being possibilities latent in the context. A self-reflective example: what you are reading just now is in my walkinghome blog under the category “Pointless Essays.” To me, the title is a redundancy. While most young scholars in freshman composition are harangued about the need for their essays to have a point, the very notion of an essay is actually its pointlessness. An essay is an attempt, a trying out, weighing (assaying) possibilities, exploring a set of ideas or concepts. An essay does not measure out in already established metrics some narrowly definable idea; instead “the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination.” To essay, in its purest form, is to explore, initially with a certain aimless tentativeness, to see what can perhaps be engendered. My initial walk along the Lakeshore Trail was not simply to tick off the 12 miles from Fontana Shelter to Proctor Fields campsite. Instead, the path, the different surfaces, the stray artifacts, but also the temperature, humidity, the angle of light, bugs, snakes, flowers engendered a form of thinking on careers.

Obviously there are plenty of activities in any career that can be captured by metrics, and, at least the way I was brought up, the very notion of having a career means making a positive contribution to society in whatever way one is capable. What the road/career connection helps uncover is that travel— moving through the world on historically constituted paths—will always include some metrics: beginnings, waypoints, measured distances, ends. But no thinking person sees those marks as constituting a career. They leave out everything in the middle which of course is where thinking is engendered.  As readers can easily infer, I’ve never celebrated digital media as a form of liberation, but I’ve found blogging an interesting way to resist the corporatization of knowledge. The conceit of the Pointless Essays section is that the general idea and/or mood of each resulted from material encounters on the trail, chewed over during that day’s walk. This particular essay was engendered June 16, the day after crossing Proctor Field, as I walked from Chambers Creek to Pole Road Campsite, 22.5 miles in the Smokies (also a day I had a disturbingly close encounter with an exceptionally large timber rattler which perhaps will become another essay). My audience, as best as I can infer, is made up of a few colleagues who read the same philosophers. Thoreau, Emerson, Nan Shepherd, Gilles Deleuze, Isabelle Stengers, William James tend to appear often since my questions are not drawn from reading but instead are posed by my sometimes vague recollection of their work while walking. By far the vast majority of my readers are other trekkers scouring the internet for accounts of different trails (see About Walking Home for a list of trails walked). And then there are some shadow web sites selling essays to undergraduates on nature writing who have appropriated some of mine (end of semester times usually show an odd spike in essays mentioning Thoreau).

What I find compelling about blogging is as an opportunity to treat the essay form as an experiment outside the academy. It engenders serious thinking without submitting it to banal metrics. As a form of intellectual work, it brings me no annual performance review credit. Just like the actual walking, both are practices very much on the margins of productivity or commodification. Sure, some people commodify trekking, creating their own brand and gaining access to equipment and sponsorship. In similar fashion, others find ways to commodify blogs. But neither approach is necessary, and when avoided, both the walking and the thinking take on a different tone, a tone I value. Their ends are not ends, but instead are an ongoing opening out onto novel and seemingly unending possibility. I find that a better sense of what a career should be.

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 Tasmania Day 17

February 6th, 2020

In Tasmania  Day 17 (Jan 31) Launceston to Cradle Mountain park

Ronny Creek to Windemere  Hut 18.5 Km

The group from the Arthouse Hostel nearly filled the Overland Transport van that took us first to a little town called Sterling for breakfast, then on to the visitor center for the incredibly popular park. We were all there to hike the Overland Track, generally considered Tasmania’s finest.  Unlike the beginning of Port Davey where I just hopped out of the van and started walking, the prep for this thing is intense. The overland driver is full of information and tips but also is clearly in the business of selling or renting a whole range of equipment he just happens to have in the van— and he moved a lot of merch. The visitor center is all business, with detailed briefing about how to comport yourself on the track. There was a lot of information, some perhaps exaggerated. The first hut—today’s target was not available so the option was to hike down a steep slope to a nice but fairly far off the path camp, or have a big opening day by pushing on to Windermere, technically the second day’s target. The other factor everyone was pushing was a major weather front on the way which was supposed to bring high winds, lots of rain and later cold. Getting caught a couple hours out on a plain could be a problem. I opted to hold the decision until I got to the crossroads.

Got on trail (actually boardwalk) at 11, and soon was heading up a steep incline that brought small waterfalls, large lakes and incredible views of Cradle Mountain and its assorted junior peaks. There was the usual press of dayhikers in the first 5 or 6 km, gradually their voices faded after passing the fork for the path to climb Cradle (given weather warnings it seemed prudent not to take a 4 hour detour on an exposed ridge). Then it got magical— the uplands are founded on hard stone with a wonderful heath burbling with little pools and streams, what the Scots call a burn.  I felt like I’d been transported to the Cairngorms—smack dab in the middle of a Nan Shepherd book.

The air was clear so I took lots of pictures, and as I found myself completely alone, I wandered a bit, looking at the plants. The wind picked up later and so did my pace. I had pretty well planned to stop at the substitute hut but just before I got there I passed two women who said many people had trouble with the steep path down. I then met a ranger and consulted. She said the path to Windermere was well maintained and I decided to make a run for it, getting to the hut just moments before the skies opened. Rather than tent, I ended up in a very crowded and noisy hut, but it was well out of the weather. Lots of interesting people including a Kiwi who hiked Nepal with buddhist monk and a wonderful Scottish couple (David and Vanessa) who have a small farm in the northernmost part. Will consult with them about springtime Scotland treks.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 19

March 8th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 19
D’Agostini Campground to El Chaltén

Woke to the sound of light rain on the tent and a distinct chill in the air. Dozed a bit, looked out at the other tents where no one was stirring. My cold, wet-weather New Zealand training kicked in, and methodically I gathered my things, filled compression bags, and stuffed my pack, so on emerging I was nearly ready to leave. Wasn’t really in a hurry as the way back to town is only nine km, but also didn’t want to sit around long in the rain. The camp was quiet, so my jetboil actually seemed loud. Couple of cups of coffee and I was off, just as the tents started rustle. The first two thirds of the walk were flat and easy. The surface was primarily water rounded stones embedded in sandy granite gravel, so the trail was almost a sidewalk. It followed closely the river which was pretty high and rough from all the rain and glaciel melt. The clouds were low and a light rain continued, so the mountains forming the valley were mere shadows.

In The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd talks about how the mist doesn’t inhibit vision but instead lets you see that which doesn’t ordinarily appear in the brightness of clear air. The same can be said of sound. Early morning sharp sounds—bird cries, branches breaking—were not so much muffled as modulated. The thick air thickens the sound, giving a different, perhaps richer timbre. The dominant sound was the river which rumbled constantly but without rhythm—a chaotic wall of sound muted by heavy air. As paths are wont to do, it glanced off the riverbank, drifted into groves of massive old Lenga trees which further attenuated the roar. I recalled a passage in Walden where Thoreau pauses while hoeing beans to hear Concord church bells peal, commenting on how the distance and the trees transformed that music. As you might suspect, that first hour was uninterrupted by footsteps, voices, or the obligatory “Holas” to each passing trekker. Instead it was just me, a path, a river, a forest, in a purity of sound almost unimagined, almost unlived.

T. Hugh Crawford

Water

March 20th, 2016

Water

Mountains weep. No sadness there, though they do have moods. Water seeps from cracks in rocks, down from thin streams, or gurgles beneath mats of moss. Paths are suddenly slick, the smell of the air changes as does the temperature. You become aware of something that had been absent–or maybe it was following you all along, just beneath the surface.

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The skies were uncertain at Glenrock Stream. The wind picked up and rain spotted the stones, but there was also blue sky. Morning showers on New Zealand’s South Island often dissipate quickly. The first part of the path was up through pastures. The hills were treeless and covered with brown grass. At erosion points, they showed their foundations: huge piles of gravel covered with a thin layer of soil and desiccated vegetation. Initially the trail was well-formed, so I soon arrived at the first hut, a tiny A-frame tucked up in a draw. By then, the rain had intensified, and I should have gotten out heavy weather gear, but after a brief stop, I pushed on fast for the next hut–Comyns–which was only 6 km away. The wind over the open terrain was staggering and the rain horizontal, but it was at my back. I was already drenched, so I continued, covering the distance in a little over an hour, arriving wet, cold, and slightly hypothermic. Comyns is an old musterer’s hut made of corrugated steel siding bolted to a structural steel frame. It rocks and creaks in the wind. Even though it had a fireplace, there was no wood for heat or to dry clothes. Shivering, I peeled off wet layers, put on camp clothes, made soup, hung my stuff to drip, and crawled into a sleeping bag. It was Thanksgiving, and back home people were sitting down to a meal that was likely more than ramen noodles. Next morning I woke early, put on my still-wet clothes and followed the trail as it led out over the hill behind the hut. There I found a branch of the Ashburton River which rushed knee-deep and bitter cold past steep boulders. At least today the sun was shining except in the deep shadows, but the trail forded the river all morning (a fellow thru-hiker later told me he had to wade it twenty-three times). My toes were soon numb–it felt as if I had boards strapped to my feet. Mid-morning, the trail turned off to climb up Round Hill Creek which thankfully was narrow and easier to ford. Late that morning, I stopped and sat on a rock, turned to feel the warm sun on my face, and filled my water bottle. Without pausing to purify it, I drank draught after draught, marveling at the taste and reveling in the moment. Water is sublime–awful and awe-inspiring.

Writing about the Cairngorms in Scotland, Nan Shepherd observes: “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.” Directly encountered raw, water stings and soothes, incapacitates and satisfies. It is multiple. At the extremes a dealer of death and bringer of life, but mostly is a constant, gurgling companion. Plutarch says of the first philosopher, “Thales the Milesian doth affirm that water is the principle whence all things in the universe spring.” For Thales, water is prime matter, but for us it is also the source of the abstract philosophical ideals of purity and clarity. Water is the basis for physics and metaphysics.

Today we live different contradictions. Water is an image of purity and a source of fear, the vehicle of hidden contamination. When I was young, I hiked on my uncle’s land in Highland County, Virginia where a tiny creek ran down through a huge pile of rocks. My uncle, a physician, assured me the rocks filtered it, rendering it safe to drink. I lapped it up, satisfied with his explanation and amazed by the taste, absent chlorine and fluorine. I also remember by brother, on getting his driver’s license, taking jugs over into the Fort Valley to get Miss Lucy her spring water which, I am fairly certain, was meant for her evening bourbon and branch. Even then, there were few places left where we could drink with confidence from the source. Now, frightened as we all are by all the outdoor organizations selling SteriPens and iodine tablets, fearful of giardia, lead, and the thousands of other toxins we have poured into the water table (what exactly is “fracking fluid”?), water is treated with suspicion. The crisis in Flint, Michigan (which we all know will be followed by dozens of other political/infrastructure failures), combined with the real and imagined dangers of drinking the water in any country unless served in a sealed plastic bottle, makes it a substance that is anything but an image of purity. It was with a certain cavalier freedom that I indulged the streams of New Zealand, and of course it was risky. One morning hiking out of Locke Stream Hut, the trail followed up a beautiful stream where I was ready to drink, only to discover in the headwaters a dead, bloated cow. Water is the universal solvent, but what washes away the residue our modern contamination leaves?

Ever the natural historian, Thoreau subjects Walden’s waters to rigorous analysis of clarity and color, claiming his pond first in the Concord Lake District regarding clarity and taste. He writes at length on the color of water, noting it is imparted by surrounding materials– trees, sand, sky. For Thoreau, Walden Pond has the perfect palette–blue sky, white sand, green trees–which reveals the depths of those colors, and at the same time, the depths of the pond itself (which he constantly surveys). But minerals do impart color, and blue-green or, as the name clearly indicates, aquamarine, is a marker of clarity and purity. I had the chance to walk the Travers River in New Zealand from its mouth at Lake Rotoiti to its headwaters in the Travers Saddle. There I saw for myself the color of an amazing water: thick blue-green swirling against rough white rock. Resulting from dissolved minerals, glacier melt, reflection from the sky, vegetation above the surface–no matter–it was the color of magic, and maybe even truth.

To know such water is both to see through it and at the same time, to see its surface, another doubleness that confounds understanding. That day on the Travers, the surface reflected and sparkled while the depths, on examination, revealed large brown trout, swimming static in the current. Thoreau, ever the master of seeing through and looking at offers a natural history of that surface: “It is a soothing employment, on one of those fine days in the fall when all the warmth of the sun is fully appreciated, to sit on a stump on such a height as this, overlooking the pond, and study the dimpling circles which are incessantly inscribed on its otherwise invisible surface amid the reflected skies and trees.” Along with being the only widely distributed substance which expands when frozen (making it the most potent of materials when it comes to shaping the world in which we live), water’s surface tension and adhesive properties enact equally important transformations, including helping it defy gravity through capillary action as well as seep into and through the most unlikely of places. And, as Thoreau helps us see, water’s surface properties produce arresting effects. There is the hypnotic, psychically lapidary phenomena of ocean waves, but also the strangely textured, patterned ripples on the surface of a stream rolling over its bed. The uneven rocks, through the mediation of the water, produce a ridged geometry that is regular, complex, and utterly compelling.

In a poem from The Whitsun Weddings, Philip Larkin also helps us recognize what water reveals, how it provokes human contemplation, and gives access to a wider understanding:

If I were called in

To construct a religion

I should make use of water.

Going to church

Would entail a fording

To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ

Images of sousing,

A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east

A glass of water

Where any-angled light

Would congregate endlessly.

His water is not symbolic, metaphoric, or really even spiritual. Instead it is insistently physical. It souses and drenches furiously. It is matter, perhaps even Thales’s prime matter.

Along with Larkin, Nan Shepherd writes with insight and understanding about the materiality of water: “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.” Water is pliant, it has heft, and ultimately, power. In New Zealand, rivers braid over wide gravel valleys. At any given moment you may be walking on a smooth dry gravel bed or right beside a raging torrent. Absent swinging bridges, trekkers must cross rivers that demand care, something that increases in urgency as the braids get deeper and wider. I remember crossing the Otira near the Arthur’s Pass with some fellow hikers where we locked arms through pack straps and marched across together. The man on the downstream end who was both tall and strong floated up from the riverbed and was only kept anchored by his grip and the feet of those of us who were upstream. I did not have the same luck some days later trying to cross the Ahuriri. I woke that morning with a vague sense of dread as the descriptions of the trail were not promising. My direction was up the saddle, down a river with no real trail to follow and markers that were few and far between. Topping that off, there was a ford at the end of the day. Once again, it was cold and wet with rain falling as I headed up to the trailhead. The hike initially was uneventful, the mist cleared, and the trail soon turned up toward the pass, following a rollicking stream through an old beech forest. Just before it broke out of the woods above bushline, I stopped at a big rock, got out my stove and made oatmeal and coffee. Then I just sat, listening to the chorus of voices the water made. No monotony there, the sounds were polyphonic and complex. I could pick out a roar and a tumble, gurgles and drips–all playing in a water wall-of-sound. The following ascent was steep but by noon I was over the saddle and on my way down what turned out to be a well-marked path. Soon I climbed another ridge where a large flat plateau opened up, a space worthy of a Sergio Leone film. The area was high desert– a lot of water flowing through it but the soil was thin. In the bogs were masses of moss and springy grass and the edges of the streams had bushes and spear grass, but on on the plain, the vegetation was crispy and thin except the dandelions which were blooming by the millions. They were different from the ones back home. Leaves were small and thick with no lobes. Instead, they spread out touching the ground avoiding the drying wind to get maximum sun and hoard moisture, waiting for the beginning of December to thrust up a single bloom on a two inch stalk. That day was all yellow.

Later in the afternoon, the valley flattened, then opened to the river. My plan was to ford and camp just on the other side, but I arrived to find a high, fast-running current. To the west I could see a range of snow capped mountains melting fast in the day’s hot sun. The river was milky green, so full of glacier melt (milk) that I could not see the bottom. Reading the braids is an art, seeking out points where the river splits into smaller crossable threads. I surveyed the scene and made several tentative forays, trying to get a good foothold and then cross, but each time I’d get about 1/4 of the way across and the bottom would drop out. The icy water refreshed after a hot walk across the plain, and the density of the water was palpable–so green but so opaque as to make it impossible to see my feet, let alone the bottom I needed to find. It became obvious I would have to walk along the river instead of across. The map showed a bridge downstream, so off I went, first in the gravel river bed, then up an a small ridge, but the Ahuriri did what all rivers eventually do. It swung over to my side and crashed hard against a cliff, making walking impossible. About 100 meters nearly straight up was a flat plateau covered in pine which I had no choice but to climb, then weaving in and out of trees, sticker bushes, pasture, barbed wire fences, fording a dozen streams, I finally got to the bridge, having hiked over 12 hours. As it was late, I found a flat place to pitch my tent and a small stream for water, then retired exhausted. Some days, the power of the water exceeds all determination.

Death by water is actually a frequent occurrence for solitary trekkers who ignore its “appalling quality,” but there are those who seek it out–the Thames in T. S. Eliot’s imagination or the Ouse in Virginia Woolf’s actual death. Still, we have turned water into a different medium for death. Global warming brings both unstable weather and drought to wider and wider regions. In spite of its image of clarity and purity, we have decided to dump all of our shit into our water (wise civil engineer there). Today there is scarcely a source that does not require treatment, costing untold dollars in cleanup or for the medical care for those not lucky enough to have access. Or it simply hastens the death of those who have access to nothing but filth. Water wars are our destiny, and soon no one will understand that once water, in its natural, unpolluted state, had taste– a brilliant flavor– because the lucky few will only drink treated, purified, filtered piss rather than the stuff that once bubbled up from springs as if by magic. No, by magic. Nan Shepherd sought out water we no longer know, “that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins.” If we no longer have water, do we have origins? Norman MacLean, a writer of rivers, expressed our current situation in the closing line of his novella A River Runs Through It: “I am haunted by waters.” His vision is the hauntology of a substance which, like all the previous doublings, is both absent and still present in its very degradation. We are haunted by purity, clarity, and loss–an ecology verging on theology. If there is a god, it is water.

T. Hugh Crawford
Pokhara, Nepal