Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

On Boredom

July 31st, 2022

On Boredom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

T. Hugh Crawford

On Adventure

July 19th, 2022

On Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk and Control: Three Adventures

In 2015 I attempted the Tongariro Crossing from the north:

https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/te-araroa-walking-south-with-the-spring/day-43/

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

Many weeks later on that same trek:

https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/te-araroa-walking-south-with-the-spring/day-78/


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

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

https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/walking-to-cape-wrath-the-scottish-national-trail/walking-to-cape-wrath-day-32-june-12-2022/

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

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

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

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 35, June 14, 2022

June 15th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 35, June 14, 2022

The ends of long trails usually have a certain drama, none perhaps more than the obligatory Katahdin sign pose at the end of the Appalachian Trail.

The Te Araroa begins with a lighthouse at Cape Reinga but ends at a less impressive signpost at Bluff.

The Camino de Santiago ends in the embrace of St. James, or, even more moving for me, at the waves crashing on the rocks at Muxia.

The Scottish National Trail, in its last days following the Cape Wrath Trail, ends at a lighthouse above crashing waves at the most extreme northwestern point of Scotland. And given you have to cross a Ministry of Defense live firing range (which included climbing a couple of barbed wire fences, which definitely reminded me of my childhood), the drama is even more elevated.

The guidebook I have been following took me first to Sandwood Bay — a remarkable inviting beach— with the end scheduled for the following day, but that same guidebook has been throwing 29-30 km days at me for a week, so when the weather remained ugly, I opted to push on to the end—grateful I did as I avoided a logistical problem I’ll detail presently. I had slept at the Old Schoolhouse Hotel the night before, a comfortable place a mile or two above Rhiconish, so the morning hike already had me ahead of the game. It was an interesting walk—unlike most I’ve had before— as the road wound up through the peninsula and rather than shift to empty pasture land, I continued to pass cottages set out in the landscape facing the ocean that appeared at every turn. An inviting place in the summer.

After a few miles, the path to Sandwood Beach appeared and was also well-graded, so I covered the entire first section by late morning. As it was the last day, I did marvel at the landscape— less imposing as the hills are much lower, but still ripped by the constant winds, and today some rain mixed in. The run-in to Sandwood included some ruins which are now beyond connection by roads and so just deteriorate, but I could imagine life in one crumbling house which was at most a quarter mile from the huge beach. And of course, there were sheep grazing all the way to the ocean. Pressing on the (I thought) last 7.5 miles, the walk changed completely. The landscape was not challenging except a lot of bogs, but the path disappeared for almost all of the section, so navigation was all via GPS. Part of me appreciated that final bit of navigational difficulty before hitting the road and walking the last mile or more to the lighthouse and the Ozone Cafe.

Ends of trails often present logistical difficulties. On the Appalachian Trail, after summiting Katahdin, you have to find transportation to Millinocket (Luckily for me and Bennett, my son Tom came up from Boston, climbed Katahdin with us, and drove back to civilization). I remember I had to hole up for a day on the Tasmanian Overland Track to wait for transport. Cape Wrath is served by a minibus service— the only people who can drive into the area—and I had arranged for transport on the 15th.

https://www.visitcapewrath.com/about-us/

Arriving a day early I expected to have to stay over in the bunkhouse, but soon learned that the ferry would not run on the 15th. One reason I try not to plan too far out is that it is easy in the bush to lose a day for some odd reason, but, because of the train strike, I had made a series of reservations that a two day delay would ruin.

Already waiting in the cafe were three trekkers. One, a man from Switzerland, had just finished the Scottish National Trail, the only person the entire trek I met who was hiking it. The bus arrived almost full of tourists, and they had three empty seats—I was #4. I begged the driver, Stuart, for transport, but he could not accommodate me on a full bus (regulations). Then, what on the Appalachian Trail you would call “trail magic,” he exhibited that amazing Scottish hospitality I have encountered since Kirk Yetholm. The ferry was 22 km away, and he had an hour before he had to bring his load of passengers back, so he drove me out 30 minutes, dropped me. I walked hard and fast toward ferry while he returned to pick up his load. Some time later he passed me, dropped his crew at the ferry, then returned, picked me up and, after our ferry crossing, drove me to Durness from the pier (it was raining hard so that was much appreciated).

I remain dumbfounded by his kindness. In some way, that is the fitting end to my journey. Not some celebration of perseverance and fortitude, or another notch on a trekking pole, but instead a deep appreciation of a people and a culture who for the last 5 weeks have repeatedly astounded me by their kindness, generosity, and just plain human compassion. I will miss Scotland.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 13, May 23, 2022

May 24th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 13, May 23, 2022

A typical day hiking New Zealand’s Te Araroa on the South Island is rising in the morning to hike alongside a river, heading upstream so the path continually rises as the river diminishes. Usually by around noon, the trail crosses a saddle, and you can look back at the watershed you have just traversed, and then look out over a new valley, so the afternoon is spent walking down by a growing river. Although not quite as dramatic, much of today followed that pattern (in miniature).

I left Comrie fairly early (before any of the coffee shops opened—thankfully my inn had packed me a breakfast bag). The path followed the fast flowing Lednock river, leading up to the Devil’s Cauldron waterfall. Then after some more climbing, some wet pasture traversing, I followed the trail over the pass near Ben Chronzie, moving midday into the watershed of the River Almond. It was very much a day of isolation as I only saw one other hiker (who had just climbed Ben Chronzie) and one farmer on a quad bike with two border collies on back. The day alternated between well-benched farm tracks and very faint paths that were often just streams. And of course it rained a lot, off and on, across the day. The bog walking was, as yesterday, a slog, but I was reminded of a wonderful part of a Robert Macfarlane book. I wrote a little bit about it here: https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/pointless-essays/wonderlust/  But the gist is here: “In the last chapter of Landmarks, a book on disappearing place-names, Robert MacFarlane describes the activities of children exploring their version of the Hundred Acre Wood. He examines the language they invent to mark out their daily wonders. One child became obsessed with watercourses, speculating that much of it disappeared by flowing beneath the ground, a phenomenon he called “secret water.” Since reading that chapter, I’ve have found myself in many boggy places on the Te Araroa hearing a deep gurgle and saying (usually out loud, as I have no social censor in the bush) secret water!”

 

Then late in the day, the New Zealand pattern repeated. I left the River Almond watershed to go up a narrow glen to a pass that led me down through even more bogs into the Loch Freichie area. Up on the ridge was amazing as the new watershed didn’t just open. Instead there were several hollows where water clearly collected but had no obvious outlet to join either burn— the one I had just hiked up, or the one I was slogging my way down.  In other words, there was a lot of water in that pass. Wildlife abounded, with a moment where I saw the silhouette of a deer on the ridge above me (reminded me a o scene with Robert DeNiro in The Deerhunter). It hesitated briefly then ran down the other side. Soon after, a momma quail pulled the broken-wing walk on the path in front of me, leading me away from her brood who were squawking on the bank. After about ten yards, she turned and grunted at me (as much to say, “fooled you!”), returning to her nestlings.

The Scottish National Trail guide notes that there are no accommodations (including) transportation at Loch Freichie and recommend wild camping. I looked hard for a site as the path lead to the lake, but with all the rain (and all that secret water) there were few likely places to pitch. I turned onto the paved road which had a number of houses and farms on it, still looking in vain for a site. Then I happened onto a small walled-in field with no livestock and a shed behind which I could tent. Was a long tiring day, but glad to find a spot before the evening rains returned. Tomorrow Aberfeldy!

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 2 May 12, 2022

May 13th, 2022

Walking to Cape Wrath, Day 2 May 12, 2022

When hiking the Appalachian trail, I tended to obsess over wet feet (an unfortunate obsession to have, particularly in Vermont). The trail is so brutal, it beats your feet to death, so factors like wet feet can exacerbate an already fragile constitution. On New Zealand’s Te Araroa, I quickly learned that wet feet were a requirement. On the North Island, many sections of the great path are actually routed down the middle of a stream. I remember on the South Island crossing Waiau Pass, running down a melting glacier to find a place to tent in a wild woods. There I built a fire (something I rarely do) and dutifully dried my shoes and socks. The next morning, on hiking out all of 20 yards, I had to ford a waist deep icy stream. So much for dry feet. (https://walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu/te-araroa-walking-south-with-the-spring/day-78/).


While not nearly as dramatic as running down a glacier from the highest point on the Te Araroa, I did find myself reliving the old wet-feet anxiety when, on heading out from the Lillardsedge campground after a fairly heavy midnight rain, I had to find a way to cross a field to regain the trail. A tree line which was probably the remnants of an old hedgerow provided a guide and a path, but of course it was completely overgrown with coarse grass and within seconds my feet were sloshing in my shoes. My Appalachian trail spirit screamed “turn around” in one ear, and my Te Araroa sprit just said “sweet as.”

I crossed the field without much incident beyond moisture and found a first-rate trail winding through a lane of old beech (with the highway humming in the background). It turned quickly into a pleasant wander through fields, hedgerows, small towns with beautiful old chapels, and of course Welly-shod dog walkers— just the experience I expected. There were parts of that woods walk that reminded me of the eastern mountains of the US, except the dominant trees were beech rather than oak or poplar. You have to love a good beech forest.

The afternoon was spent following the River Tweed, with swans, fly fishermen, and carpets of wildflowers (dominated by Ramsons). Late afternoon took me through the Eildons, three peaks made famous in Scott’s “Lay of the Last Minstral.” The path went up through the saddle, so I was tempted to summit, but as per the last few days, mid-afternoon brings mist and rain, so I opted for the descent into Melrose, a beautiful town with a ruined Abbey.

I checked into the Station Hotel, late lunched on a haggis burger, visited the abbey (which is where Robert the Bruce’s heart is buried),  wandered the town, finally boarding The Ship—another classic pub, this time filled with football fans waiting for the game to commence. Still adjusting to time, weather, and pure physical exhaustion, I found myself returning to the Station Hotel early for some luxurious sleep on a real bed (no tent and thin sleeping pad for me): a day well spent.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

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 Walker of Rivers

April 13th, 2016

A Walker of Rivers

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Water–you’d have thought I’d had enough of it. Starting the Te Araroa on September 1st (against the advice of everyone consulted), I sloshed my way through the Herekino and Rataea forests, splashed up the Mangapukahukanu, climbed any number of peaks to admire the fog, and even tried (unsuccessfully) to wade across the mouth of the Okura just north of Auckland. The better part of my first two months on the Te Araroa was in a damp mist if not outright downpour. But as spring gave way to summer, that fog lifted and water took on a new and surprising quality–indescribable beauty. When hiking the Appalachian Trail in the United States, I crossed many rivers–from the white water of the Nantahala in North Carolina to the broad slow tidal waters of the Hudson just above New York City, or the Kennebec in Maine where a paid staffer ferries thru-hikers across in a canoe. The Te Araroa has more than its share of tough river crossings, particularly on the South Island–the Rakaia, Rangitata, and my personal nemesis, the Ahuriri–but along with crossings, the TA also brings opportunities to hike a river’s length, to become a walker of rivers. Each has its own attractions and devotees, but for me, nothing compares to the trek from St. Arnaud along Lake Rotoiti then up the Travers River to its high mountain source.

I woke early at the backpacker hostel in the Nelson Lakes Motel–one of those places cherished by hikers both for its amenities and the information passed between staff and fellow trekkers. Triple Hands Dave, a mountain guide who had also hiked the Appalachian Trail, was already cooking breakfast for his crew. I made coffee while we talked about the differences between the AT and the TA. Little did I know, I was about to start a day’s hike that would bring into stark relief those very differences. I soon packed up and headed out, but not to the trail just yet. One of my Te Araroa resolutions was to never eat food from my pack when there was a restaurant nearby, so I wandered down to the St. Arnaud Cafe for the “big breakfast.” Hiking the Appalachian Trail brought few opportunities for a cafe breakfast. It was almost always an early morning meal of cold poptarts or granola bars before plunging back in the wilderness, so lingering in a cafe was quite the luxury. The morning was cold as I sat at the picnic tables waiting for the cafe to open, using some free wifi to catch up on the news and staving off obligations back in the States. Soon I was tucking into a hearty breakfast followed by ice cream (on both the AT and the TA, thru-hikers can eat as much as they want, a habit hard to break after returning to a more sedentary life). Soon the trail beckoned, and I started the thirty kilometer hike to Upper Travers Hut.

The best beginning of a day, one that limbers up old arthritic joints, is an easy flat walk. Along the shore of Lake Rotoiti, one of the Nelson Lakes that give water a good name, the manicured path at times veers out onto gravel beaches giving a chance to linger and study the water’s color, texture, and the lake bottom which, regardless of depth, always seems just inches from the surface. By the time I got to the top of the lake, my legs felt young and the sun was shining brightly. There was a clear sense of adventure in the air, and the water was in the lake, streams and river, not coming down on me from the sky. The valley opened up as the trail crossed old pastures and followed the winding of the Travers, occasionally crossing by those swinging bridges that still give me pause. Walking those lower parts close to the river, I became increasingly aware of the water’s clarity, marveling at its almost unimaginable color. In the United States before the advent of brown ceramic insulators, rural electrical lines were strung on blue-green glass knobs. Today those knobs are collectibles (they make great paper weights). The one siting on my desk at home echoes the color of the Travers River, but it is a only a feeble echo.

The hike took me from the lake to the headwaters, so the river’s life unfolded across the day, going from the staid maturity at the mouth to the rollicking turbulence of youth (yes, the water really does rollick over rocks). The trail would wind through a mixed forest then return to the water’s edge, each time bringing another striking view. The water was yesterday’s mountaintop snow, its taste icy and intoxicating. I stopped once to look into what must have been a deep pool, though it was difficult to judge the depth of something so transparent. As I stared at the bottom– perfect, round blue-gray stones– a trout caught my eye. Large, brown, at least 20 inches long and initially invisible, the fish was holding steady in the current. I’m not a fisherman though at that moment I wish I were. Instead I found myself thinking of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Big Two-Hearted River” where Nick Adams, the protagonist, is recovering from the mental anguish of fighting in World War I. He goes fishing in northern Michigan, and early in the narrative leans over a bridge rail to watch big trout in the current. Nick has travelled to this river hoping to find a way to steady himself. Similar to most long-distance hikers, his actions are studied–precise, almost ritualized. Taking care is a way for him to control his situation and dampen down the uncertainty that wartime trauma has brought. Standing there watching that particular trout, I began to better understand Hemingway’s story. The Travers plunges down the mountain to the lake below, waterfall after waterfall. Even slack water is anything but slack. That fish motionless in the pool was swimming fast. Holding steady is hard work.

Although smaller streams had been joining the river all day, toward late afternoon, they came rushing in louder. I could see the mountain looming after passing Hopeless Creek (one of many vaguely ominous place-names along the Te Araroa). In contrast to the valley, the trail became steeper and more hazardous. The surrounding mountains cast dark shadows, and the trail itself made that familiar move–climbing above the stream then striking out level along an edge both narrow and slippery. I walked with care, staring at the path to keep steady, occasionally stopping to see where it led–a narrow chasm cut by slips, slides, and tumbling brooks. Then I saw, dropping straight off a mountain top, a waterfall with fully half of the water making up the Travers river at that point. It was as if someone had just taken up half the river and leaned it against a mountain, then let it fall, that blue-green water rushing vertically for what looked to be hundreds of meters. There are no words.

The day was winding down as I finally made my way to the hut which, to my surprise, had smoke coming from the chimney. Hiking the Te Araroa early in the season had been a solitary experience, so I wasn’t expecting company up near the top of Mt. Travers. With the hut in sight, I decided to cut across a meadow in what seemed a more direct route only to discover the way I had chosen was more water than land, so I managed to soak shoes and socks within yards of my destination. On entering I was met by a party–two Kiwi guides from Picton and four trekkers from Australia. They had crossed the lake by boat and spent the previous night at John Tait Hut, clearly hiking a more civilized pace than I was, something evident by their buoyant good humor. Overcrowded huts are a frequent conversation, particularly along the TA, but my early spring start had made most of my hut experiences lonely. I well remember two nights and one very long day at Waiopehu in the Tararuas where I found myself wet, cold, and alone staring at windows made opaque by driving rain, wondering what was out there. The morning it cleared brought a clear view of Levin, the town I had hiked out of two days earlier, looking entirely too close for all my hiking efforts. The Waiopehu and Upper Travers huts are fairly new, spacious, clean and inviting with the Upper Travers made even more so by the fire in the wood stove and a group of enthusiastic hikers. I hung my wet clothes by the fire and instead of a solitary evening, I was treated with extra food, some wine, and lively conversation.

The next morning, I woke to the expedition leader rekindling the fire, and soon the rest were rustling about. I packed, made breakfast with steaming coffee and even had a second cup, but that day my goal was Waiau Forks which required a climb over Travers Saddle and then, later in the afternoon, Waiau Pass. I said my farewells and walked out into one of those days where the very air is like glass, imparting a sheen on everything within sight. The path soon climbed above the bush and spread out below was the entire river valley. Even though I couldn’t, it seemed as if I could see all the way back to Lake Rotitiri, so for a moment it felt as though I was looking at an illustration in a topography book, one that explained the parts of a river valley, and I had the view from the top. All around were peaks, jagged rocks, some softened by the remaining snow– the snow that melted and fed the Travers. I lingered for a while at that point where the river began, then turned to start the long descent to the Sabine Valley, heading off for another day of walking rivers.

T. Hugh Crawford

Brutal Beauty

February 6th, 2016

Brutal Beauty
The Appalachian Trail is often called the “green tunnel,” an acknowledgement of the dense forest canopy that surrounds the footpath. Couple that with uneven terrain that demands downcast eyes and you have an experience that by and large is devoid of the spectatorial beauty used to advertise and celebrate the trail. Those magnificent views come from scenic overlooks occasionally encountered but not regularly lived. Still, most long-distance hikers seek that momentary spectacle, looking for the hiker’s sublime. They seem to understand pleasure, definitely know pain, and without doubt experience more than their share of natural beauty. I cannot even begin to explain what motivates long-distance hikers. Many want to test their resolve in the face of deprivation over long stretches of space and time, others simply enjoy the simplicity the hiker’s life brings, but all, on some level, acknowledge the desire to experience isolated mountaintops, silent forests, cascading waters.

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Although over time its fortunes have risen and fallen in aesthetic theory, the concept of the sublime maintains a special place for walkers–the experience of awe that is awful, a beauty that overwhelms, something that arrests as well as upends. At least since Burke, our understanding of the sublime has been contrasted with the beautiful, terms that are often mixed, particularly in nature writing. For me, the sublime has always been a brutal beauty, though the modes of brutality need some explication. As an aesthetic category, the sublime can be encountered in language (Longinus), nature (Kant), or the visual arts (Lyotard), but it always remains within a discourse of power, specifically of being overpowered. However in most accounts, it–similar to beauty–is either spectatorial or is passively experienced through speech or reading. It is a moment of arrest–a hiatus–producing awe, terror, and a pleasure somehow derived from pain; it belittles and makes anxious. We are puny in the face of its “irresistible force” (Longinus).

Not far from the Appalachian Trail is Virginia’s “Natural Bridge,” a limestone formation once owned and surveyed by Thomas Jefferson who, in Notes on Virginia calls it “the most sublime of Nature’s works.” When regarded from below, it is quite a sight, but, as Jefferson further notes, visitors who venture to the top fear creeping to its edge: “Looking down from this height about a minute, gave me a violent head ache.” He acknowledges the sublimity of the view below, but “the view from the top [is] painful and intolerable.” Jefferson hung in Monticello a painting of Natural Bridge by William Roberts, a work that participates in the spectatorial sublime, as does viewing the bridge from the stream bed. However Jefferson’s embodied experience on the precipice is different, resembling trekking in the big outside with its uncertainty, anxiety, pain, and sometimes fear.

For Burke, terror is the sublime’s “ruling principle.” It is lived in an instant though it is the product of a slowly building situation. Terror in the sense of breathless fear is not a common experience of the hiker, but a low-grade anxiety about health, safety and loss, an anxiety not regularly experienced by people in familiar surroundings, is part of what could be called the ambulatory sublime. Beautiful scenes–the ubiquitous “scenic overlooks”– are staged by an enframing that brings them into foveal vision, into a comfortable spectacle. Evolution linked adrenaline and the flight response to peripheral vision, the fear that is invoked by movement on the edges of perception. Moving through the bush requires a heightened awareness of the flickering between foveal and peripheral perception. There the micro-sublime is lived at the edges of perception, where uncertainty and danger lurk. On the Te Araroa, hikers often have to follow poles topped by orange cylinders marking the pathless trail. Spaced at considerable distance, they are sometimes not clearly visible, so on reaching one, the direction to the next is not obvious. The orange chosen for marking stands out from the rest of the landscape, but it is most easily distinguished by peripheral vision, that part of sight best equipped to notice the anomalous in the field. Hikers searching for the next marker saccade across the scene, using low-level anxiety to find their way across what feels a vast and inhuman landscape. Such moments are obviously not the sublime in any traditional sense, but they structure a hiker’s form of attention.

Like vision flickering from foveal to peripheral, walking is both spectatorial and immersive, a double move described by the inveterate walkers Wordsworth and Thoreau. Hikers stop for the spectacular, are arrested by those moments, but then continue on, feeling both the loss of the scene and the possibility of an even better one at the next turn. They are moving bodies immersed in a moving nature. Hall of Fame hiker William Wordsworth is reputed to have walked 180,000 miles in his lifetime. Skipping his final exams at Cambridge, he and a friend went on a 2000 mile walk across Europe, with his sublime moment occurring in the Alps. Definitions of the sublime usually focus on a moment, that awful singularity, but such moments pass and walkers continue their journey. For them, the sublime opens out over time and is experienced as anticipation, arrest, loss, and continuation. Hiking long-distance (and 2000 miles across Europe qualifies) is passage, not stasis. Hikers may creep out onto the edge of the precipice, but they also will spend most of the day trudging step by step in less heart-pounding circumstances.

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Despite his anticipation, Wordsworth’s actual crossing of the Alps, as detailed in The Prelude, was a belly-drop. Like most long-distance hikers, he and his friend become momentarily disoriented (moment of low-level anxiety). Finding someone to ask the way, they discover they have already passed what they most anticipated:

To our inquires, in their sense and substance
Translated by the feelings which we had,
Ended in this–that we had crossed the Alps.

Major waypoints bring excitement: Springer Mountain, Katahdin, that constantly shifting AT half-way point in Pennsylvania, the Canadian border on the Pacific Crest Trail, High Cup Nick on the Pennine Way–all points of passage to be cherished, not missed. For Wordsworth, crossing the Alps did not bring a sublime view, but it was a temporally sublime moment, part of the ambulatory sublime experienced not through the eyes but instead through his bootsoles, a quickened pulse and a sense of loss–failure to capture, contain, or comprehend an always already passing world. Wordsworth follows that momentary disappointment with an image of timeless sublimity:
Downwards we hurried fast,
And, with the half-shaped road which we had missed,
Entered a narrow chasm. The brook and road
Were fellow-travellers in this gloomy strait,
And with them did we journey several hours
At a slow pace. The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of waterfalls,
And in the narrow rent at every turn
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-side
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds and region of the Heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light—
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree;
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity

Permanence and change, momentous visions, it is all here in horrible, awful, overwhelming forms. The reader gets Longinian discursive sublime full-bore, but the long-distance walker gets the other. Theirs is a stationary blast passed by. The pain is not nausea or terror, but footsore pain/pleasure at seeing that which is nominally and normally unavailable to all but the most intrepid. The beauty is brutal, and the experience is brutalizing. Wordsworth missed marking his crossing of the divide, but as he well knows, walking is always about loss. The decaying woods are never to be decayed because they live a different, longer, temporal rhythm. At the same time, walkers are acutely aware of their temporal rhythms, the need to mark out the day’s trek, to not get lost, and to live the way intensely.

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Long before hordes of Appalachian Trail hikers began to arrive at Baxter State Park to climb Mount Katadhin marking the end of their 2000 mile journey, Thoreau attempted an ascent which he documented in The Maine Woods. Although a part of the massif now bears his name, Thoreau’s climb was unsuccessful (if you define success as attaining the summit). He set out from his group’s encampment just below tree line early one morning filled with hope only to be stymied by the notoriously difficult weather near the peak. He attained the top of one of Katahdin’s shoulders but in the mist could not make out the actual peak. Turning, he descended to rejoin his companions offering up this sublime vision: “Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work.” Then, “Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste‐land. . . Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific, ‐‐ not his Mother Earth that we have heard of, not for him to tread on, or be buried in….” Thoreau is firmly in the rhetoric of the literary sublime, offering up a vision of the inhuman which permeates such scenes, but his experience of that climb is another sublimity. His passage, his inability to comprehend the misty, craggy, inscrutable world he was passing through, was filled with amazement and anxiety. Retracing his steps down a pathless scree in hopes of clearer weather or a sign that he was on the proper way, Thoreau as walker lives the ambulatory sublime and experiences its brutality.

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Back in November, I woke in Upper Travers Hut hearing Grant, an expedition leader, stoking the fire in the wood stove, and before too long his hiking crew started rustling about. I packed, made oatmeal and coffee, then had a second cup while talking with the crew when I really should have been hiking. Ideally I wanted to get to Waiau Forks to camp that night, but that required an early morning climb over Travers saddle which is 1700 + meters and then, late in the day, Waiau Pass which, at 1800+ meters, is the highest point on the South island part of the Te Araroa and also the most dangerous. Regretfully I said my farewells and started out. It was a sunny clear day as I climbed up above the bush line. All around were snow-capped peaks, and I made it to the top within an hour, lingering for a moment before starting the long descent to the Sabine River Valley. The winter snows, avalanches, and rock slides had pretty well taken out all the poles marking the lower part of the decent, so I followed rock cairns helpfully but haphazardly piled to show the way. By late morning I found the trail through the woods where I crossed the river and made my way up toward Blue Lake. Like the Travers, the Sabine is clear and fast running. At its headwaters is Blue Lake, the place where the body of the first hiker to die on the Te Aroroa was found. I arrived by midday and decided there was enough daylight to make the trek over Waiau. The trail took me past Lake Constance which rivals Blue in color and beauty though getting around it required some hard climbing and narrow ledge hiking. The last bit was on a gravel beach at the water’s edge. The waters coming into it came across a wide flat plain that the trail followed. It gradually narrowed to a canyon surrounded by snow-capped mountains with nothing that looked like a pass in evidence. Then trail markers made a sharp turn and went straight up the side of one of the mountains which might have had a little bit of a dip in altitude compared to the others, but hardly deserves the name “pass.” The initial climb was on loose gravel, so each step slid back almost as much as it went forward. After an hour or so, I got the the first leveling off to rest. In mid-winter this is a high avalanche risk area, and I was uncertain what conditions reduce that risk in the spring. Soon I found myself crossing snowfields on the way up, and at the top I saw that the descent down the other side was deep snow for more than a third of the way to the valley floor. Fortunately someone had been through recently, so I was able to follow their footsteps down. I’m not sure how deep the snow was, but only the tops of the markers were visible and I would sink to about mid-calf with each step. Sweating from exertion but with freezing feet, I finally got below snow line, followed the western branch of the Waiau River to where it met the eastern half. After eleven hours of hard hiking, I pitched my tent in a beech forest beside the river, built a small fire to dry out my shoes and warm my feet, then gratefully crawled into my tent ready for a hard night’s sleep.

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That day was not part of a discursive or artistic sublime. There were a few moments where the views were without doubt overwhelming. The Travers and Waiau Passes afforded scenes that surpass capture, and a Sabine tributary that runs through a deep roofless cave crossed by a narrow wooden bridge would surely have given Jefferson another head ache, but it was a day of the ambulatory sublime. A walk where pain was mixed with pleasure, confidence was shaken by uncertainty, and fear was promoted by both low-level anxiety and the real possibility of bodily harm–an intensity not captured by traditional aesthetic categories. It was temporal, embodied, and immersive, but above all, it was brutal.

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T. Hugh Crawford

Why I Walk

December 10th, 2015

Why I Walk

The first answer to the question “why walk?” is because I can, a claim I don’t make lightly. I turned 59 just before starting this particular trek–the Te Araroa in New Zealand–and I am constantly reminded of the need for good health and strength in order to backpack long miles day after day. Some years ago, my orthopedist told me to stop running, but when asked about backpacking he said “no problem,” so I immediately started hiking the Appalachian Trail which is how I got my trail name–Tinman. During that first stretch, I kept having to go back to Atlanta to get injections in my surgically repaired knee, creaking and moaning like my counterpart from Oz. In the years since I have completed the Appalachian Trail, the English Pennine Way, part of the Pacific Crest, and been trekking in the Dolomites and Croatia. To me, walking has never really been about completing tracks. I’m not interested in bragging about hiking the triple crown as if it were a merit badge. Rather walking is a form of living that brings insight, gratitude for certain abilities, all enabled by a resolutely simple encounter with the big outside.

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Long-distance hiking is an experiment in bare life. I don’t really mean to echo Georgio Agamben (Homo Sacer, 1995) here as my use of “bare” does not signify a legal “state of exception” but instead life outside–outside of society and outside in a world without (many) humans. The need to pack light demands simplification and a constant interrogation about what is necessary. I am carrying things that I have not yet used though I have nearly completed this particular trek–things I probably should have abandoned months ago, but there are also those fundamental bits of equipment that enable living (see pointless essay “Care“). At the same time, being out a long time simplifies your relationship to the natural world. Life becomes bare and elemental: the extraordinary taste of water, palpable morning light, the surface of the earth through your bootsoles, breathing on a mountaintop.

The philosopher Michel Serres noted that the French word for time (temps) is the same as the word for the weather. Walking is fundamentally about temps. Backpackers experience the weather in most of its forms. I rarely check the forecast unless I am going into a particularly treacherous area since I will be out in it whether it is sunny or a storm. On rainy days, I just gear up and start walking. The big outside brings all the subtle shifts of the day, the wind changes, there is a little patch of blue in the sky, or a layering of clouds that signals the breakup of a downpour. In the United States, people speak of climate-controlled environments. They aren’t talking about fixing global warming; they simply mean staying in a heated/air conditioned space completely unaware of weather. Clearly there is nothing particularly virtuous about standing out in a storm. On the Te Araroa I have run from lightning bolts across lowland dykes, fought hypothermia on the edge of the Tongiriro crater, and shivered in knee deep, ice cold stream water on an early morning trek. Rather, being in the weather is part of bare life, of being in the world, and it brings a nuanced sense of what a (your) body can do, and how the world responds.

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Of course weather is not just a daily experience–it is also seasonal which is where time clearly comes into play. Earl Shaffer, the first Appalachian Trail thru hiker, described his experience in a book called Walking with Spring, the title signaling the seasonal nature of his hike (and the time-frame most AT hikers continue to follow). My Te Araroa blog is called “South with Spring” in acknowledgement of Shaffer and to mark the same seasonal tactic in the Southern Hemisphere. The time of hiking–daily, monthly, seasonally– is the heart of walking. With long-distance hiking, your body gets into a particular rhythm, generally waking at the same time, getting hungry at specific points in the day, and exhausted at the end. Then there is just the pure walking itself which takes on its own temporality governed not by a clock but by the pendulums that are your legs, marching out a pace, a time, a day, a season. I started the Te Araroa in early spring when the days were short. A good hiking day generally requires more than 12 hours of daylight, so I would find myself waking in the dark and packing up waiting for first light, learning that greeting the dawn is an exquisite element of the big outside. Walking across the seasons is a subtle experience. Unlike home-dwellers who often express surprise at the seemingly sudden appearance of spring or fall, walkers have been noting fine-grained temporal variations daily, the slow budding of plants, feeling days begin to stretch out, watching the sun linger longer on the horizon.

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Walking with a backpack, day in and day out, also brings a different relationship to your body. We are accustomed to thinking of our bodies as close, as fundamental to daily life, but actually our experience of corporality can be quite distant. By staying out of the weather and living within industrial time, bodies become objects to be observed in the mirrors on the gym wall rather than occupied as our first-form materiality. Backpacking brings with it a constant inventorying of your body, monitoring hot spots on feet, nutrition needs, and tight muscles. It also brings transformation. Out in the bush, it is virtually impossible to consume as many calories as you are burning (the good news is that long-distance hikers can eat all the ice cream they want). Although the time varies, most people experience significant late afternoon energy drops after tramping a few weeks, the result of having burned off most stored body fat. Initially it is a phenomenon hard to recognize, but after several long treks, the symptoms are familiar, and the only choice is to eat more food (which means carrying a heavier pack). Clothes fit differently as general body shape changes, and transformed vascularization brings out veins that once were hidden. But true nearness to your body comes from experiencing what it can do, how walking in the big outside involves a constantly shifting surface bringing rapid micro-adjustments to stride and foot placement. These are cognitively complex gestures that, on consideration, can only be marveled at. We have a tendency to regard thought as some “higher order” cognition while walking is a simple internalized gesture, but that is to forget the amount of time it took for each of us to learn to walk. It is a neuronally intensive process at least on a par with learning mathematics or composing a poem.

The link between walking and thinking runs deep. Evolutionarily our sensorium is optimized for a 3 kph pace which is one reason it is so easy today to be thrilled through technologically induced acceleration. But there is something about a walking pace, particularly in solitude over long hours, days, weeks and months, that enables careful observation and clears a space for thought. While walking, the sensory stream rarely overwhelms. Instead it offers a different, simpler engagement with the material world and our sense of self (which actually cannot be disentangled). The curve of a hill brings back memories of hills climbed in childhood. Unidentifiable smells, or quality of air shifts (heat and humidity variation), or changes in the light are all lures for thought, a thinking uncoupled from distraction (by distraction I mean that which derails a particular line of thought before it has a chance to fully form). Walking is flow, but a flow at some distance from that of television, the Internet or other media forms. The pacing is its own time and quality: the pace of human bodies and human thought which makes me want to recast Descartes’s formula as “I walk, therefore I think.”

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Addendum: In my blog walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu there is a category called “Pointless Essays.” I’ve been taken to task about that term, but with it I am trying to signal a practice that is only tangentially related to traditional economies. They in some way resemble academic essays but would have no home in an academic journal. They are part of a blog economy, but my readership is precious and few, so their place in any larger economic system is provisional if not pointless. But there is a relationship between pointlessness and walking–particularly long-distance hiking–which is perhaps quintessentially pointless in a capitalist economy. Now I’m not so naive as to believe that there isn’t a huge industry surrounding walking practices, including outdoor equipment providers, hostellers, national parks, and the media (which of course participates in the manufacture of the very idea of Nature), but the personal act of walking in itself is deliberately non-productive in most economic senses. Long-distance hikers are often marginal participants in traditional economies (see my earlier pointless essay “Just a Bindlestiff“). Perhaps a way to phrase it is to appropriate a term from Kant’s Critique of Judgment: walking is “purposive without purpose.” It is motivated but not rewarded (in a monetary sense). Its world is perhaps best articulated by my favorite economist, Henry David Thoreau, who claimed: “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.” I’m present at that rising. I walk because I cannot stop.

 

T. Hugh Crawford