Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

The Lee Shore

April 27th, 2020

The Lee Shore

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

… a spirit 

Led me forth from my own home 

To a place I thought I’d never go.

. . . .

And how fearsome it was to leave 

The sight of dear friends and walk off 

Alone far over the mountains

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

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

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

  give us calm waters; 

Give us wings, and loyal minds 

To cross over and return.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Rectify

February 17th, 2020

Rectify

A healthy eucalyptus/nothofagus rainforest swallows you completely. Old growth eucalyptus trees easily measure 6’ diameters and tower out of sight with the beech serving as understory. Most striking though are the downed trunks of giants matted with moss, ferns, and other epiphytes building new soil and providing habitat for countless organisms. The air is thick with oxygen and aromatic compounds—the exhalation of all that green—and passing through it feels both primal and somehow proper, as if this is how life is to be lived. Once while crossing a particularly vibrant section, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of what I took to be a man-made structure. On turning I saw instead a medium-sized deadfall caught in the branches of other trees settled into a nearly perfect right angle. I was puzzled why this peripheral sight had alarmed me, or at least set off a cascade of neurons different from the familiar patterning of my rainforest saunter. One answer is that the rainforest and its complex inhabitants abhor the rectilinear (and their eyes don’t have “corners”).

One of my favorite television series is Ray McKinnon’s Rectify— a dark southern tale of violence and small town retribution. The title raises the question of the program—can the past be straightened? Can clear understanding clear away distrust, violence, and pure malevolence? To me, given my encounter in the rainforest, the more pressing question is why we associate straight—the rectilinear— with truth and understanding. I can justify this text with a keystroke (though that won’t straighten the thoughts), but the rainforest—that place where life burgeons—is anything but square.

There are of course many counter-examples to this intuition, particularly from the mineral world. Humans have long prized the crystalline, clean hard edges of gemstones that seem to resist the non-linear creep of nature. Think of Water Pater who defines a well-lived life as a profoundly aesthetic stance that “burn[s] always with this hard, gem-like flame.” Here even the sensuousness of a flame is rectified. Far outside academic debates, walkers regularly encounter the hard and sometimes gem-like— bare sharp mountain peaks, limestone fractured into prisms—but perhaps those are the exceptions that prove the rule. The mineral and the metallic find their stability, some would say ideality, in their crystalline form, something humans tend to admire for a certain timelessness which is clearly a denial of change, becoming, and death. When time is reintroduced to the formula—the sort of time that far exceeds the human like that found in the rainforest—those sharp edges melt away. Mountain peaks are surrounded by skirts of scree, slowly rounding and rolling away. The fractured squared stones in landscapes are soon covered by layers of reactive chemicals, slowly smoothing, a process hastened by lichens and moss. In isolation from both space and time, the crystal dominates. Through the long-now of the rainforest, those edges abrade and fade.

An Absurd Aside: Rectilinear, rectify—etymology that also points toward rectum, surely an unrelated term. Oddly enough, on that same path where I saw the fallen tree, I regularly encountered wombat scat (their preferred defecation sites are the open surface of a trail). Most people are quick to notice that wombat scat, unlike the smoothly tapered excretions of other bush creatures, appears rectangular, prompting questions about the physics of a square object emerging from a round hole. One of life’s great mysteries. My personal theory is that they are herbivores who tend to chew the plant at a specific length. The undigested cellulose fibers arrange themselves in the gut in pellets of that length so on expulsion the scat breaks at a specific point, forming at least part of the rectangle. How the sides then spring out to form longitudinal right angles needs to be explained by someone with greater knowledge of the physics of extrusion.

Take an axe and chop into one of those eucalyptus logs—one not yet fibered with fungus filaments. Your first moment of arrest will be from the powerful wine-like smell welling up from the newly opened grain which brings the realization that you’ve been immersed in a faint version of that aroma all along—perhaps the reason for that walking well-being. It is sometimes possible to reveal, with careful splitting, a square beam from a round log. A tree that grew “straight and true” —in the absence of wind, water, animal, fungus, or insect stress —can be split into a perfect rectangular prism, that ideal geometric form. That rare moment is greeted with surprise and some pleasure by the chopper, because all trees are affected by wind, light, other flora and fauna, so, on the level of the fiber, they are just as sinuous/sensuous as the tangled mats of moss and roots hikers stumble through. Joiners in the old days had a solution for such unruly tangles— the adze and the broadaxe. Both are tools that function on the business end exactly the same. The differences are in the hanging of the handle and the stance of the chopper. The broadaxe looks like a heavy headed oversized hatchet. Its primary characteristic is a sharp blade beveled on one side (like the adze and the wood chisel). This allows the worker to square a round log by chopping down the length, flattening each side in turn. The beauty of the tool is that it only cuts in one direction so that, once the cut is begun, the flat side of the log acts with the flat side of the axe. In the words of David Pye, it is a self-regulating tool. It will not cut deeper into the log, and instead will follow the flat plane it is making. The product can be a beam flat and square, but most hand workers stop short of such perfection, preferring the adequacy of a roughly squared beam. Such practices, now generally long past, reveal the material basis of geometry. It is, of course, easy to see geometry as one of the most abstract of human practices, positing as it does idealized hylomorphic objects that have no actual counterparts in material life—Platonic forms always beyond grasp, experience, or understanding glimmer, holding out the chance of realization. The broadaxe is an instrument of the possible rectilinear, one that satisfies not because of actual realization but instead because it is a lived temporal process.

In the Modern world (the Industrial West), building is nearly always associated with the rectilinear which is held out as ideal (think of high-modern flat roofed houses) and comes with an associated vocabulary. Unlike the products of hand tools, the materials for today’s construction are formed by overwhelming force. The nonconforming scraps are cast aside (or sold to naive customers) and the standardized products enable joiners to build “straight and true” with joints that are “jam up and jelly tight.” I’ve spent much of my life building, particularly with wood. An essential tool in any joiner’s box is named for what it does— a square, which gives itself over to 90 degrees (or mutiples). But rectilinear tools don’t stop just with measurement. Hand saws (as well as most powered ones) cut straight lines (except of course specialized ones such as coping, scroll, or jigsaws). Using levels, planes, winding sticks, chalk boxes and plumb bobs, the skillful carpenter can “true up” both the materials and the spaces they form. As I recall, Michael Pollan in his Place of My Own spends some time speculating on the sometimes strange equation of an upright beam with an upright person, so I’m probably unwittingly incorporating his insights here. Still, think of the terms describing human behavior or mores in a positive manner linked to right angles. A person is direct, squared-away (or, pejoratively, square), upright, upstanding, right, righteous, true, level-headed. One “frames” a problem. There are even unrecognized versions of this rectilinear attitude. Being ”in fine fettle” generally means in good health with a positive sense of well-being, but originally meant level—bringing one’s sharpening stone to perfect flatness so it can impart that trait to the tools, to put them in fettle. And of course there are the opposites: twisted, meandering, devious, serpentine, warped, sinuous, crooked.

A modern building out-of-square will cause a world of problems (something Pollan deals with in his writing house as does everyone else who fails in an initial layout). I guess the question is how deep does this attitude run? Is it simply material (my roof leaks) or is it also ethical or psychological (my self leaks)? It’s not surprising that Plato (in the Republic and the Meno) embraces geometry not as the road to the truth about the measure of the earth but as a practice necessary for a leader (guardian) or thinking person to take the measure of others, to help them understand proportion and balance between clearly defined entities. And generally this geometry is Euclidean—the patron saint of the right angle. Centuries later Descartes carries that righteousness into our delineation of space with his coordinates. Now we are able to locate objects in a clearly defined, unambiguous space, albeit one that lacks temporality except as a series of layered static positions. Since then, (Western) human habitations and “well-designed” cities and states aspire to the grid (and indeed are drawn on them)—a cleanly articulated spatiality that, like a power planer, runs roughshod over the undulating substratum that is our actual material world. In a brilliant mediation on fate and free will, Melville unravels those coordinates via the weaving of a sword mat (an abrasion resistant pad made of rope). Ishmael (here the representative of the Modern sensibility) tends to the warp and woof (x and y axis) while Queequeg, the tattooed Maori harpooner who grew up amongst the tangled roots of a Kauri rainforest, strikes with the weaving sword indifferently, by chance making an uneven, even crooked mat.

 

The Western philosophic project has been to distinguish humans from the non-human (and the “less-than-human” other). Bipedalism, thumbs, souls, humongous brains (homage to Jethro Bodine), and of course language have all been called on to articulate human exceptionalism. The right angle is another. The rectilinear is a timeless place of stability (which perhaps is why it is prized by builders—ideal buildings withstand time). In the rainforest, the point-line of geometry is replaced by the point—the clinamen which is the minimal angle necessary to produce—in time—a cascade of events, an efflorescence of growth. A moment pondering of any point in that breathing mass reveals a past disturbance —in deep or recent time—which configures but does not determine an entangled complex of entities. Of course geometry can be used to describe such tangles—e.g., knot theory in hyperbolic geometry—but those formulae haven’t yet been used to frame ethics. The difference is obvious—in the modern house, humans look out onto nature through a windowframe (or a video screen, the most recent instauration of rectilinear lust) while being confined in their “true” (90 degree) environment. In the rainforest, they are immersed in a temporal world, the one that is actually true (just not straight).

T. Hugh Crawford

On Missing the Super Bowl

February 6th, 2020

On Missing the Super Bowl

One January day in 1967, my family gathered in Lacey and Margaret Boyer’s basement around a grainy black and white television with a rabbit ear antenna to watch the NFL/AFL Championship game, the first Super Bowl. The result was as expected. No team from the upstart AFL was going to beat Green Bay. I was 10 and found Lacey’s workshop immediately adjacent to the television more interesting. In those days, TVs were usually located in out of the way places. They certainly didn’t belong in living rooms. I remember a 4 foot wooden octagonal beam with metal screw tops nailed on the faces. Screwed into the tops were pint jars containing different size nails, screws, and bolts. When spun it seems to contain an entire hardware store fastener aisle. At halftime I went to the driveway to admire his Karmann Ghia, the closest thing to a European sports car to be found in our rural town. As for the game itself, the outcome will out, Lombardi and Stram coached with the passionate masculine intensity one expected from coaches of that era. There were no instant replays or Jumbotron, few camera angles. The game viewed on the screen was more or less the same static shot a viewer in the stands would have. Still, there was a sense in that basement room that something special was happening. Ever since—for 53 years— I have found my way to a television to watch the game. Every year until this one.

Two years after that opening game, the first celebrity football player, Joe Namath, wearing white football shoes, a long fur coat and Brut aftershave (maybe the Brut came a little later) guaranteed an AFL victory, something preposterous on the face of it. He and the Jets delivered, and the modern league was born. In the years since it has transformed from game to spectacle. At some point I realized watching yearly had become a personal tradition that had to be upheld regardless of inconvenience. The year the Panthers played the Patriots, I was in a French ski lodge, where in the middle of the night the desk clerk tuned the lobby television to the game. He and his English friend watched the first half, asked some questions about the rules, then bored, they drifted off. 

When I was young, it was never difficult to find that television. One of the linebackers of the dynastic Steelers teams of the 70s went to the local prep school coached by the man who lived across the street. All the kids in the neighborhood took up the Steelers —  Bradshaw, Harris, Swan and Stallworth, and of course the legendary Steel Curtain defense. They have remained my team. Following those years, the television spectacle exploded, and the day for many became more about the halftime show and commercials than the action of the field. Viewing parties involved complicated bets about events unrelated to the game itself, and the halftime shows became increasingly elaborate and finally preposterous. The year the Bears finished out their magic season (coached by Mike Ditka doing his very best throwback coach imitation), a friend invited me to his lake house. He had a satellite dish and we watched on the Armed Forces channel, so instead of commercials featuring the Budweiser Clydesdales, we were treated with PSAs warning about stealing government pencils. I longed for some of the spectacle that year. 

The quest for the game has sometimes been more difficult. My job often takes me to New Zealand in January, so I’ve had to get used to Super Bowl Monday—mid-morning to be precise. In the early 2000s I could usually find a nearly empty sports bar open for the game, but as the century has progressed, the crowds have grown, requiring early arrival for good seats. Spending a Monday morning drinking beer and watching a game is a peculiarly Kiwi thing to do. One year I wandered into a likely viewing place and sitting at one of the tables were some vaguely familiar faces. Ryan Adams and his band The Cardinals were in Wellington for a concert, so a friend and I watched an amazing game with the band and some of the roadies. Their namesakes that day lost in the last minute to the Steelers. An exciting game for any football fan, for a Steelers diehard it was pure joy. 

When not watching every Super Bowl, I spend much of my time long-distance hiking. This year I find myself in Tasmania on game day. I wanted to tramp their “Overland Track,” generally regarded as the best seven day walk on the island. It requires a reservation for the start day, and the only one available put me in the middle of the bush at kickoff. A few years ago, I would have cancelled and found a sports bar in Hobart, but instead I decided to call an end to the streak. I was torn between a lifetime’s commitment and a game that is increasingly difficult to love. The game day activities verge on the ridiculous. In many ways the sport has passed me by. As far as I’m concerned, it’s still the Baltimore Colts, the Browns are not the Browns, the Ravens are and they should be back in Cleveland, Miami and Seattle are just expansion teams, the Rams have always played in LA, and whenever the Redskins play the Cowboys I still hope they both lose.  

Then there is our increasing awareness of the physical and mental toll the game takes on the professionals, as well as the legions of university, high school and little league players who look to the Super Bowl Sunday as a career goal. All of that was brought home one day in class when a student, an offensive lineman on the University’s team—a bright engaging person—looked at me and said he would have trouble participating for the next few weeks because his “brain was bruised.” 

I’ll probably track down a TV to watch the big game next year, but my streak is broken, a pause that has prompted me to think hard about the game I have invested so much in. Not the television extravaganza, but football as pure play. What I remember best is from those early years: a cold winter Sunday, gathering at the field next to the town’s tennis courts. Kids of different ages, sizes, and abilities pick teams. Running, passing, catching, tackling, we roll in the mud — laughing. 

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 23

February 6th, 2020

In Tasmania  Day 23 Lake St Clair to Launceston

Woke early and on stepping out of my bunkhouse room I encountered a wombat— he just stared at me for a bit, then shuffled off. On my last day in the bush I finally see the animal responsible for all that scat I’ve been dodging on the trail for three weeks. Later in the day I also saw an echidna. Used my camp time to get everything in order— did laundry, scrubbed up cooking gear, rinsed out tent, etc. Now officially off the trail for next two months or so then the next walking adventure begins.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 22

February 6th, 2020

In Tasmania  Day 22 Narcissus Hut to Lake St Clair 17.5 km

Early up as a fellow trekker was banging about the hut cooking area. Pulled all my stuff together and took off before 7. It was a quant day— 17.5 km and wanted to arrive in time for lunch before (hoping to) catch the Overland a day early.  Early 5 km section OK, but the middle to later was perhaps the best rain forest of the trip—it moved from old growth eucalyptus—some massive trees— to young and then a dense to fern forest with a Jurassic Park look. Very lively space. One section about a dozen Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoos squawking with the same sound as two trees rubbing together. They exhibited classic territorial behavior—calling loudly, swooping close, following and perching nearby calling loudly and aggressively until I passed some unknown boundary.


Later I bumped into my friends from York who were struggling a bit but in their last 10 km (saw them later safe at the visitor center.  I strode it all out making the best time of the trek, arriving at noon and got something to eat and a pint. I had hoped to get on bus a day early but no luck. As it turned out, staying was pleasant. I booked a bunk room which was similar to those at NOC or Furneau Lodge on the NZ Queen Charlotte. An afternoon with lots of beer and pizza on deck, talking to many of the of the people I had crossed earlier—very gratifying. Early to bed (one with a mattress though I needed my sleeping bag.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 21

February 6th, 2020

In Tasmania Day 21 Pine Valley Hut to Labyrinth then Narcissus Hut 14 km

Slept in a bit as I’d planned to spend two nights here. The others got off early even though it was very cold and still overcast. Packed a day pack and ventured up the mountain about 8:30. More mossy rainforest then a steep wet climb including walking straight up a cascading waterfall. It was a short hike but took time because of terrain and the trail was easy to lose. The skies cleared, and from the lookout I could see clearly the main peaks dusted with snow and many lakes below.

In the distance around the edge of one of the mountains I could make out Lake St. Clair, the end of the Overland. The way back down was a little painful on the new knees and old muscles, but I got back to Pine Valley a little after 1:00 and decided to pack up and head on to Narcissus Hut. Pine Valley is a gloomy hut and I couldn’t face another night packed in there (it was filling rapidly). The hike out included more moss and some magnificent old growth— trees so big you wonder how anyone could have ever thought to cut them down. A few old friends at Narcissus Hut, nice walk along the lake looking for platypus. Early to bed zzzzzz

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 20

February 6th, 2020

In Tasmania   Day 20 Bert Nichols Hut to Pine Valley Hut 11 km

Snow! Woke to a snow globe view (for all you northern hemisphere folks, it is the middle of summer here). Rain poured all night, shifting to freezing rain and snow mix in morning. Just planned to walk three hours today to Pine Valley Hut which is off of the official overland Track but a popular place for some day hikes. I’m two days ahead of schedule and the weather is supposed to break tomorrow, so I plan two nights there before heading down to Lake St Clair. The walk out was strange— the terrain was beautiful, though the trail was pretty much an ankle deep stream the whole way. It was just freezing, but when the sun peaked out, it would be hot. Then of course another band of precipitation would come on with wind, and I’d get the gloves back on.

The track up to the hut was a flood plain with some very fast moving rivers well out of their banks. Crossed a couple of swinging bridges which were very kiwiesque.  Most striking though were the odd moments when, in the middle of a eucalyptus/nothafagus rain forest matted with moss and overtopped stream banks, the sun would blast through even though the snow and sleet continued to fall. Everything would light up green and sparkles in a positively surreal scene. But then I would have to slog on in the stream as to stop would bring on the pure cold of mountain water.

 

The hut is older, a bit damp and cold, but it has an old coal stove that takes some of the edge off. Outside the smell of burning coal reminded me of the old days as a child In Woodstock when people’s furnaces still burned Valley Builders and Supply coal. Some climbers are here waiting for clear weather for some climbs as well as some folks from the crew I’ve been trekking alongside for the past few days.

T. Hugh Crawford

Learning to Walk Again

January 28th, 2020

Learning to Walk Again

A few years ago some French trekking friends asked me to write an essay for their blog. I gave them this: Why I Walk. There, my opening point was that the reason I do long-distance trekking is because I can. That is, I am acutely aware of the privilege reasonable health and socio-economic status confers. In the years since that essay, I have taught a number of seminars on the literature and philosophy of walking, and every time my students teach me more about that privilege. But now I want to explore what is has been like for me to learn to walk again.

The syllabus for those seminars often opens with this line: “As most parents know well, walking is the first major step an infant takes in that whole complicated process of growing up, yet after those first tentative steps are transformed into a confident stride, people spend little time reflecting on just how walking functions (or does not function) in our culture:” I’m now interested in the part about tentative steps to confident stride, the remarkably complicated neuromuscular dance that many people simply take for granted. Long-distance hikers usually don’t fall into that category. Trekking demands a careful and detailed understanding of your body moving in the world—trekkers are necessary phenomenologists.

I remember some years ago talking to a man who was almost finished with the Appalachian Trail (2165 miles). His evaluation: “no one told me I’d spend five months staring at my feet.” Try to visualize the neural activity of walking at a brisk pace on an undulating path randomly covered with different sized rocks and protruding roots. Your eyes flicker from a space immediately before your feet to a spot about 6 – 10 feet ahead. You barely notice this constant flicker, nor your registration of the obstacles to avoid or the strategies for how to deal with them. Then consider the many small muscles in your hips, knees and feet, making the slightest variations in order to move evenly in that uneven world. The computation involved in those gestures far exceeds the computers and smart phones we consider so powerful. Walking on a homogenous surface—a sidewalk or building floor—can be smoothly accomplished by able walkers and imitated by machines. Trekking in the world of tangled roots and rock scree is more of a dance— a full bodied experience flickering between control and abandon, twist, duck, release, lunge, halt (briefly), then plow ahead, all without apparent thought. What a marvel!

Days of excessive mud, elevation change, blisters, hunger, or overall fatigue bring to mind just how complicated those seemingly autonomous gestures are to effect. Time also plays a fundamental role— the slow degradation of bodily function across a long hiking day, a long hiking season, or a lifetime of wear and tear. On the Appalachian Trail, hikers are given trail names. You cannot name yourself but instead are nominated by a trail colleague. Mine was “Tin Man” because a month before I started hiking I’d had surgery to clean up (that felicitous term debride) one of my knees. The surgeon recommended I return every two weeks for a shot, and since the first weeks of the AT are still fairly close to my hometown, Atlanta, I was, with the help of friends and family, able to get back from the trail for a lube job— hence my sobriquet. As the years and many other long distance trails passed, my bow legs stressed my knees and the arthritis increased. This time a tuneup and lube job were not possible, so I went in for total knee replacement— first one, then 4 months later the other (thanks #MicroPortOrtho #MicroPortMedEd #EmorySportsMed #EmoryOrthopedics #EmoryHealthCare). A year of rehab which for me meant miles of city walking, and I was ready to test the modifications.

Many teenagers spend time thinking about how they walk, defining a particular look in the process of forming what will be their adult identity. I think after those years, after most of us have internalized a stride, we pay little attention to the role that walking plays in a basic sense of personal identity. One effect of my knee replacement surgery was increased height. I’d claimed to be 6’1” though always was a shade under that metric. When my surgery straightened my legs I found I now topped 6’1” by that same measure, but with that came a new look, and a fraught sense of identity.  Once I was able to walk “normally,” I saw my reflection in the window of a distant building, and did not recognize myself. People tend to focus on faces—think Deleuze and Guattari’s “faciality” and today, facial recognition software—as the site of personal identity, once again forgetting the fundamental role walking can play. A moment’s reflection brings the awareness that we usually recognize people at a distance not by their faces but by their walk. What eludes is the self-awareness one’s own stride brings, its role forming a sense of being—being in the world.

My prosthetic stress-test involved jumping into the deep end, or in this case, getting dumped into the bush in nearly complete isolation with a 100 miles of muddy, boggy, often poorly marked trail ahead and only one point midway where I was sure to encounter other people—the Melaleuca airstrip in the World Heritage section of southwest Tasmania (an airstrip without a road). To get there you either fly or take a boat up a narrow creek, or do what I did—walk in from Scott’s Peak on the faintly traced seldom used Port Davey Track. That particular path is supposed to be a true Tassie hiking experience (boggy and disorienting) and was originally laid out in the 19th century as a way for sailors marooned in the Port Davey region to find their way to Hobart. I’ve many difficult treks in my past, but in a very real sense I was starting over. I’d learned to walk city streets, vaguely recognize myself as possessing the body I was walking in, but in Port Davey, I had to learn to trek all over again— something I’ve not yet accomplished.

Moving in a muddy, overgrown wilderness has to be a dance and not a trudge. Exhaustion brings a simplified stride guaranteed to inflict pain and produce mistakes. Even plowing straight through ankle-deep mud demands finesse, a constant data stream and response to the slightest variation in surface or intrusion of vegetation. I found my strength was generally good, but because of my leg straightening, my balance was off. The major muscles were there, but the small ones in my joints did not respond to terrain variation on the way I used  to, so I fell more often, usually from simple surface variation. We think of higher-level cerebration usually in terms of symbolic systems— math, poetry, philosophy— because we have forgotten the effort demanded by that first great neurological hurdle: learning to walk. Those hundred miles required not just simple muscular stamina; they demanded a neurological engagement every bit a intense and complex as writing a sonnet sequence or the Mathematica Principia (or Milles Plateaux).

 

I took a rest day at Melaleuca, then followed the South Coast Track back in the direction of Hobart. There were people on this part and unlike Port Davey, I didn’t loose the path. The obstacles ahead were more clearly presented. Still, on the day we (I ended up in the last days hiking with 4 people who had been out as long as I) staggered out to Cockle Creek and transport back to the city, there was a collective groan of exhaustion, pleasure, and relief. Clearly I’ve not yet learned to walk again. Perhaps age and general wear and tear will keep such a skillful practice just beyond my ken, but the lesson of the Tasmanian bush is clear. Personal identity is directly tied to a sense of self framed by past activities and an ability to perform through a body in a place. Any number of factors can undermine, disrupt, or devastate that embodied self-identity. My going off after knee replacement to find my old self through long-distance trekking was quixotic at best. We never stop walking/thinking/being in an unfolding new self. It’s when disturbances manifest that we become aware of those processes (c.f., Martin Heidegger’s “broken tool”). William Carlos Williams, in the poem Paterson, presses directly the question of knowing with and through a body in motion:

We know nothing and can know nothing

                                                       but

the dance, to dance to a measure

contrapuntally,

                                  Satyrically, the tragic foot.

 

He’s referring to the Greek satyr plays, but could just as easily be calling out the tragic foot as the lame one, the one that both enables and disables the dance or in its new variations creates a new one. We never stop learning to walk.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 13 Hobart

January 27th, 2020

In Tasmania Day 13 Hobart

A day to organize— booked hostel in Launceston, bus travel there and transport to trail head on the 31st, my Overland Track start date. Then took a boat up the Derwent to the Museum of New Art (MONA), a magical, bizarre and disorienting experience. On the ride up I saw Jo and Pippa, two friends from the South Coast Track. We got separated by a day when I hiked on in bad weather, so I’d despaired I wouldn’t see them, but we got to wander much of the museum together— it is a maze so eventually we got separated, just like on the trail.


MONA was built by a Hobart native who apparently dropped out of school and made a fortune playing cards. The complex is on an island with long stairs winding up to the cliff top and a series of stone and steel building, all generally one story. There is a chapel and a vineyard along with a playground, but when you enter the mirrored sliding glass doors (the first of many mirrored surfaces) you soon find yourself in a warren of round bore holes cut deep into the sandstone. A cylindrical glass elevator takes you to the depths, and you then wander about amongst high tech installations, colossal light environments, following a logic all its own (a Bond villain would feel right at home). They have an in-house brewery and vineyard, with restaurants suddenly appearing at the end of a tunnel, only to be lost in later wanderings. I ended up tracing most of the paths, just missed a few exhibits with long queues.

It’s a national holiday so there were crowds. A midday pint of Moo Brew (yep, that’s their beer) coupled with the disorienting tunnels did me in, so I hopped the ferry back to Hobart, ran a few errands, and filed my taxes (which consumed much of the late afternoon). Then I strolled down to to waterfront to meet Jo and Pippa. Those two are exactly why trekking is great. You meet such good-hearted people who share both experience and attitude. It makes you feel as if you have known them forever. A good day.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 12 Hobart

January 27th, 2020

In Tasmania Day 12 Hobart

Always familiar, a rest day involves slow catching up with messages, requests, etc. still trying to maintain that hard-fought distance from bureaucratic triviality. Wandered to the Retro Cafe for a flat white and to update (this) blog. It’s Australia Day, so the locals have a long weekend. Many are back where I was yesterday—Cockle Creek campground— with their tents, boats, generators, and beer. Here the sidewalks are a little busier than last time I was in town. The most exciting part was a march and demonstration in front of the government building. Australia Day brings yearly protests from the indigenous population and their supporters requesting the government to “change the date.” They see the moment of English arrival as Invasion Day, a time that implemented harsh policies, displacement, and genocide. The request is not to get rid of a National day of celebration, just to change the date so all the inhabitants can come together. The speeches were stirring, most digging deep into environmental history, linking colonialism to environmental despoliation. 


After the rally, I did a resupply run, getting a new sea-to-summit fast pack (to replace the one the Pademelons ruined—it was on its last legs anyway) some fuel and a new spork.  I doctored my feet then made my way to the harbor-side for an evening pint to work on an essay and watch some of the drunken celebrants. Still adjusting to the climate. In the bright sun, it gets very hot, but a breeze and shade brings on a chill. On my wander back I stopped at the Lark Distillery for a 1/2 nip of their product. A low ceilinged brick building with over-stuffed chairs and calm people (not the harbor celebrants) quietly sipping whiskey (which is a touch raw) with David Bowie playing in the background. I wonder if they use any of the West Coast tannin peat water.

T. Hugh Crawford