Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

A Conspiracy of Trees

August 6th, 2020

A Conspiracy of Trees

I want to revisit a forest walk— maybe this one near Lake St. Clair in Tasmania  (the trek that prompts this essay) or ridge-top nothofagus in New Zealand’s Tararuas, or the old, twisted orchards that surrounded my boyhood home— to think about empiricism, specifically “radical empiricism,” and the problem of representation in nature writing. For decades literary scholars have “problematized” the notion of Representation (“problematize” means they talk about it, a lot). While nature writing often does its damnedest to invoke the beautiful and the sublime, it, unlike much imaginative writing, is anchored by the brute facts of the more or less directly experienced material world. In a sense, its representation is more aligned with science— the act of naming and categorizing—which helps account for much of the writing by today’s “new naturalists” who are either practicing scientists or write of their experiences with them. (I’m thinking of, for example, Robert Macfarlane, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Merlin Sheldrake, or Bernd Heinrich). 

For those who remember their history of philosophy, radical empiricism is most directly associated with William James, the American philosopher from the late 19th century. In brief, empiricism is the philosophical position that understanding and knowledge arise from the direct experience of objects in the material world rather than through rational or logical categories that somehow preexist or transcend actual experience. James attaches the adjective “radical” to his empiricism to make room in thought not just for the isolated objects of experience but also for the experience of relations among them: “the relations between things, conjunctive as well as disjunctive, are just as much matters of direct particular experience, neither more so nor less so, than the things themselves.” James is of course arguing this fine point in the rare air of academic discourse. For trekkers, radical empiricism is simply the air we breathe. Unlike a scientific researcher who of necessity brings an abstract nomenclature designed to produce order and extract a specific (but often narrow) understanding of the objects of nature, for trekkers, wandering in the world brings both the perceptive clarity of specific objects—look at that tree, hear that bird, stub that toe on that rock—and at the same time the perceptual blur of conjunctive and disjunctive relationality. It is not so much a philosophical position as it is a necessary practice. The sights, sounds, and smells of the forest relay understanding of specific threats — the rattle of a snake— but also relational moods: the wind shows the underside of leaves, the humidity shifts, the birds go silent; the weather is changing. I don’t want to turn loose a philosophical concept onto the forest to find a way to “Represent Nature.” Instead I want to try to understand how thinking and knowing happen while wandering in an area teeming with sensation, with entangled multiples, with life.


Representation depends on the notion that the world presents itself to some generally outside observer, then language or art re-presents that world. For the radically empirical trekker (a redundancy) the individual furnishings of the world are not simply represented by a word or symbol, because they are not individual. Nothofagus alpina doesn’t stand in for those moss covered southern beech I wandered on a Tararua ridge except as the most rarified of abstraction or objectification. Those epiphytes and their symbionts were all of a piece, as was my presence there along with uncountable other nonhuman actors: “The humidity seems to go up as the temperature drops. The hairs on your arms respond even as your heart rate slows. The smell is both faint and acute, the merest but cleanest whiff of turned soil, and the moss itself breaths. We have no words to describe the sound of moss.”

Here is perhaps where James can join forces with his friend and philosophical colleague Charles Sanders Peirce. The two are best known as the founders of the philosophical school Pragmatism, but Peirce is also the author of a complex semiotics, a study of how signs make meaning. Unlike Ferdinand de Saussure who famously declared there is an arbitrary connection between the signifier and the signified, a point that later became generalized as an irretrievable split between word and thing, Pierce takes a different tack, bringing three possible forms of meaning production: icon, symbol, and index. The last—the notion that meaning can come from the act of pointing, brings us back to the forest. If the Latin nouns define and isolate the nothofagus, the pronoun (as Peirce explains in a different context) functions on another plane. It is indexical, pointing out that specific southern beech festooned with moss and lichens, not an abstract isolated botanical specimen. The indexical points toward an object but is intimately linked to the disjunctive and conjunctive relations constituting the moment (including the pointer and the observer following the finger).


Eduardo Kohn, author of the recent How Forests Think, brings Peirce (and, by implication, James) into the forest. Kohn uses his experience in the Amazonian rainforest to ascribe the meaning-making capacities of the indexical to non-human and even to non-neural beings. He explains, “For Saussure human language is the paragon and model for all sign systems …. Peirce’s definition of a sign, by contrast, is much more agnostic about what signs are and what kinds of beings use them; for him not all signs have language-like properties, and . . . not all the beings who use them are human.” The index is a pointing out or a signaling that turns the attention of any entity toward a part of the world, perhaps momentarily singling out a recognizable object (or threat) in the perceptual blur that is the experienced world. For Kohn, the myriad signals threading through the rain forest—odors, sounds, temperature gradients—are all a form of communication (between all those entities). 

In contrast, a representation would be of a system in a single, stable slice of time. It could be called scenic, the Western privileging of the radical split between the object and its (human) observer. Conversely forest semiosis is fluid, unstable, and situation specific. As James would say, “Our fields of experience have no more definite boundaries than have our fields of view. Both are fringed forever by a more that continuously develops, and that continuously supersedes them as life proceeds.” Much nature writing tends to highlight that expected scenic moment: the point where the green tunnel opens up to a vast, open landscape, where the trekker becomes observer of the beautiful and sometimes sublime. But the trekker’s experience of the world is rarely that. Hours are spent, day after day, where experience is “fringed forever by a more,” and where meaning is not abstracted from noise but lived in and through it. 

Another way is to think a forest walk as a conspiracy. For most that word calls up images of shadowy figures talking in hushed voices in out-of-the-way corners, but etymologically is means “breathing together.” To conspire is not so much to plot as it is to conjoin in recognition of mutual needs and desires. Trekking is always about breath. It’s keeping pace, increasing speed and slowing based on dimly perceived oxygen levels— oxygen encountered by breasting the air the forest has just made. The experience of the forest cannot be represented but it can be conspired. As Natasha Myers makes clear, “our worlds will only be livable worlds when people learn how to conspire with the plants.” Her’s is a practical and a political imperative. It is also (radically) empirical: “The objective nucleus of every man’s experience, his own body, is, it is true, a continuous percept; and equally continuous as a percept (though we may be inattentive to it) is the material environment of that body, changing by gradual transition when the body moves” (James). It’s not knowing about the forest, nor is it knowing with the forest, it is knowing as part of the forest, as its very breath: it’s a conspiracy.

PS. This year my time in the forest was cut short by the need to avoid conspiring. The Covid 19 pandemic brought me home from the woods to a place where breath is not to be shared. We now live in a world where responsible people wear masks to avoid sharing breath while, at the same time, some complain that masks inhibit breath and still others actively cut off the breath of their fellow humans. The product of an objectification that ignores the conjunctive and disjunctive relations that enable (and compel) us all to breathe together.


T. Hugh Crawford

A Tramp Abroad Redux—the Sound of Moss

February 11th, 2018

A Tramp Abroad Redux—the Sound of Moss

New Zealand: 2/8/18 Waikanae— Kapakapanui Hut, 2/9 Kapakapanui Hut—Renata Hut, 2/10 Renata Hut—Waikanae via Akatarawa saddle.

The other day I overheard someone (probably American) say “I’ll walk, maybe take a short hike, but I won’t go tramping!” An offhand comment by a tourist that’s soon forgotten but which, for some reason, has been stuck in my head ever since. Clearly tramping, the Kiwi term for backpacking in the bush, is not for everyone. It demands a certain level of fitness and high tolerance for minor discomfort, but the rewards, whew! Context: once again I find myself teaching in a Georgia Tech program at Victoria University, Wellington and have been in New Zealand since early January. Two years ago, I was in the same situation but had just finished hiking the Te Araroa Trail (The 3000 km New Zealand Long Trail here). Since then, I have torn my medial meniscus along with a small muscle in the back of that same knee. The orthopedist says the only repair is knee replacement, so before going into the shop for some mods, I decided to put as many miles on the original equipment as I can stand. Most of my time since arriving has been wandering the city and its environs, trying to strengthen both knees by walking at least ten miles daily. City walking without a fully loaded backpack is only minimally strenuous, so basically I’ve been a tourist. I went up to Taupo and did the Tongariro crossing, took the ferry across to wander Days Bay and Eastbourne, and in Wellington climbed Mt. Victoria only to find the path led out onto a car park with buses disgorging cameras strapped to dazed people.

This is all just to say that I have been walking, some hiking, but definitely not tramping. I can confirm is that Wellington is my favorite city. Te Papa is a world-class museum, you can get a flat white on any corner, Little Beer Quarter is as fine a pub as you will ever encounter, and the local brewers —particularly Garage Project—are beyond compare. The national tourist destinations—Queenstown, Wanaka, Taupo, Rotorua—offer high adventure and excitement, and one can, of course, tour the wine regions, sniffing and comparing, but, and the Kiwis clearly know this, all that is mere window dressing. It’s bucket-list tourism. Few countries offer the density, variety, and comprehensiveness of the Hut/campsite/trail system of New Zealand, and that’s the best reason for flying halfway around the world. Of course people know about the Great Walks, those curated, reservation-only treks, but they make up but a fraction of the countryside made accessible by national parks and continuous negotiation with private landholders. The tourist destinations are spectacular, but New Zealand is a land best understood through patient, step by step encounter with its many off-the-beaten-path paths.

In order to break out of tourist mode and also shakedown my trekking set-up, a tramp was in order. I had much of the same gear used on my round-the-world trekking year but I changed packs (my 28 liter Zpack was a little worn and I wanted the greater capacity offered by a new model ZPack Nero 38). In planning, I realized my last decent tramp was in August of 2016 on Iceland’s Laugavegur trail, far too long ago for mental well-being (here). The Tararuas loom large in my memory. They are a range where the trail absolutely determines the time. This is not to say that all trails don’t determine time, but to acknowlege that the Tararuas are deceptive, sometimes demanding a full hour to walk what on a map looks like an easy kilometer. My first time through, in 2015, I found myself marooned in a hut for two days as the rain and wind howled, then had to make up time on a trail that denied that very possibility. A return to these mountains was in part contrition for a stretch skipped that year when faced with the choice of continuing on from Otaki Forks over one more range followed by a long road walk into Waikanae or catching a ride with some very nice kiwis to Otaki to watch (in a pub at 4:00am) the All Blacks win the Rugby World Cup (here). My penance this year was a long road walk out of Waikanae followed by an incredibly steep ascent to the Kapakapanui Hut, then, on the next days, an ascent of Mt. Kapakapanui and a trek to the Renata Range. The road walk on the first day was hot and dusty, broken only by a stop at the Pottery Farm Cafe where, over a cold Tui, I talked to Ed, an engaging gentleman from the Cook Islands who had just celebrated his 80th birthday (here). Much later in the evening, I arrived at an empty hut, soaked with sweat but clearly remembering why you must tramp when you visit New Zealand.

The first and most obvious reason is solitude. I have long preferred solo hiking (here) as you take on all responsibility for distance, pace, navigation and safety. All thought is bent toward the trek, and the triviality of daily life recedes. You are not overwhelmed by voices, the smell of soap and shampoo, or constantly adjusting to a different trekking tempo. Of course it is possible to experience solitude with hiking partners, but such companions are rare. The best rough-terrain partner is my son Bennett. Together we have hiked all of the Appalachian Trail, part of the Pacific Crest, and the Trans-Swiss (the last was not a difficult terrain trek—our camelbaks were replaced by wine bottles). I also had a remarkable hiking partner for much of the Camino de Santiago, but that is an entirely different sort of trek. This short tramp in the Tararuas brought a moment when I stood on a narrow ridge looking to my left at the headwaters of the Otaki river, and to the right at the beginning of the Waikanae, and just ahead, the confluence of the entire system that drains the Hutt Valley. Such moments are arresting and demand silent, solitary contemplation. Tramping brings solitude which is an absence—the loss of chatter—but also a presence: trekking hard and alone requires and enables a presencing-of-self generally denied in daily life. Of course, solitary tramping is not available to everyone—something my stiff and painful knee reminded me every step—but for those who can, it is a gift without parallel.

New Zealand outdoors is raw. It feels geologically brand new, something any visitor learns immediately. There are plenty of volcanos, regular earthquakes, and steep-sided mountains that seem ready to give way any moment. Such sights are awesome (in the traditional sense of the word), but tramping reminds us that the spectatorial is not a fully embodied experience. Seeing a landscape (the term itself is part of a culture of the spectacle) is by no means comparable to being in the landscape (Brutal Beauty) A simple example (one familiar to NZ trampers): after scrambling up a steep and usually muddy path where gnarled roots are not just aesthetically appealing but also serve as hand and footholds, you find yourself on a high ridge entering a beech forest. Foresters in Europe and North America marvel at mature beech forests because of the almost palpable yellow light that filters through the leaves (see Joan Maloof and Peter Wohlleben), but New Zealand beech produce a completely different effect. They cluster in forests on the mountain tops, bent and twisted by unremitting winds sweeping the islands. Their leaves are tiny, round, dark green, and seem to repel light rather than filter it, though when shed they make a forgiving soft brown path which is welcome after mud, rocks and roots. Their arresting features are masses of moss, ferns, and innumerable epiphytes festooning their trunks and branches. More magical than anything in a Peter Jackson film, entering such a forest is a full body experience. The humidity seems to go up as the temperature drops. The hairs on your arms respond even as your heart rate slows. The smell is both faint and acute, the merest but cleanest whiff of turned soil, and the moss itself breaths. We have no words to describe the sound of moss. The forest shuts down all sound except your own blood. The moss absorbs and gives off all, so you stand, quite literally, speechless, listening intently for what is not there. That absence is only made present by tramping.


Addendum: Not generally a superstitious person, I do have some faith in Trail Karma. In any trek you have to treat the path with humility, taking what it offers with a minimum of whine, and leaving all the places you stop the way you found them. It’s not something as simple as leave-no-trace, but instead is slipping into the rhythm of the place. Sometimes it’s difficult not to mutter under your breath at a trail designer who takes you up every slight rise in elevation or crosses a stream every 50 yards. A good bit of my recent tramp was on paths not particularly well-travelled, so they were covered with branches that trip gnarled knees, along with downed trees that must be clambered over, crawled under, or circumvented through the bush. And yes, the first 3 kilometers included 7 stream crossings. Nothing like starting a hike with soaked feet. The weather report warned for rain Saturday afternoon with gale force winds on Sunday. Having done my share of that sort of trekking, I opted to head out Saturday, avoiding re-climbing the Kapakapanui by following a mountain bike trail out to the Akatarawa Saddle. That meant my afternoon would be a long road walk back to Waikanae. About five minutes from the saddle, I passed a burned-out car on the trail with a bag of garbage smoldering by the front wheel. My arrival at the road coincided with the siren-screaming approach of a fire truck, van, and police car, all up on a call to inspect the burning car. I showed them a picture of the vehicle and directed them to the spot, so in return my trip to Waikanae was not a three hour trudge, but instead was 15 minutes in a fire truck with a crew of jovial Kiwis. Trail Karma— don’t mumble about the trail, take it on its own terms and make them yours.

T. Hugh Crawford