What Abides

November 9, 2016

In the afternoon I walk to the place in the forest where the sun last shines, the soft cup where eastern hemlock branches bend, treetops like torches of the evening light. The sun strewn ground a cradle and a mossen rock for the curve of my neck. The stillness has wetness, and ferns perk surrounding, shivering gently.

This is a quiet place where no clocks changed, no one won or lost, a quiet place where the sun burns my eyes and sets a hazy orange tone. I know so little about these woods but there is space albeit where I calmly can be. Rachel Carson tells us that in sharing nature with children, ‘it is not half so important to know as to feel,’ to point out to a child how the dimming of the earth nudges your soul in what peculiar way. This noticing feeling in youth exceeds knowing.

From where I sit at breakfast with my students, the rising sun beams onto their faces from east of Mount Monadnock in late October, and some mornings we sing a song before we start the day. ‘Now the sun is rising up/ I feel the warmth of it/ in my soul and in my bones.’ This song could be sung loudly today no less, as so much exceeds yet depends upon us. If I need no other reason for welcoming today, too, it is from Maya Angelou, ‘I’ve never seen this one before.’

I went for a morning walk back when there was still a prickly midday warmth, climbing the arcing meadow by Gabriel’s Field, the laying hens, the herb garden and the raspberry thickets. I walked towards the west in a groove and at the edge of the treeline lifted my head. Before me through the woods was a wide and tall maple, my silhouette perfectly framed by the rising sun upon its trunk, my own body astride two places. I listened to Krista Tipett, who, as I witnessed my composed shadow on the far tree, described how ‘a core aspect of wisdom is that there is an integrity between inner life and outer presence in the world.’ This moment of integrity emerged from only an instinct to get out and look up, and also to walk with the sunlight.

The orchestrated openness of this life right now is an invitation to examine what suns I’m orbiting and how directly I’m walking in their light. It is an invitation to listen for ways opening up. Our chatty sixth graders would often ask a question and then immediately become distracted. In one circle Mark stopped the group, ‘Listen up! I have a piece of advice that will serve you for your whole life! When you ask a question, you need to be able to listen for the answer.’

In a morning of confusion and shame, there are questions to hold that need for a moment to be held. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes to his young friend, ‘be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves… Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’ There’s not one ‘answer’, but I do know that one morning my silhouette was perfectly framed by the rising sun.

On this morning equally, Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem pertains, ‘We need to find a place where we are safe. We walk into that which we cannot yet see.’ I don’t know what it means to be safe, but I feel the prospect of greater violence not just to my soul but to my body, in the years ahead. I need to take my body with me. The best way I can describe my safety is that my father’s bread came into my mailbox, flown. Dense rye, which was grown somewhere and prepared for him to acquire, some yeast and sugar, and a peaceful kitchen for the mixture. He posted it and it arrived on the right day, still fresh, in parchment paper and twine. Someone handled it, someone dropped it off, and someone else placed it in the little wooden mailbox that yet another person built and someone else again put my name on. In receiving this loaf, flown, so much infrastructure, so many resources, conspired to tell me that my father was alive, his health was in his food, and I was safe. These structures worked to retain and convey our relationship, not to be taken for granted.

Before each meal we share a gratefulness circle with our students beside the wood-burning stove. We live with greater plenty than kings of history, with greater comfort, freedom, and health-giving sustenance. Mark described to the fourth graders how meals conveyed through the palace of Versailles would freeze in the winter, the palace stony cold, as our warm meal awaited. I will take this with me from Glen Brook, above all being grateful. Brother David Steindl- Rast describes gratitude as the bowl of a fountain being quietly filled (gratefulness) then overflowing, making noise and sparkling (thanksgiving). This culture attempts to make that bowl bigger and bigger, and many never therefore feel it overflow. I want to keep a small bowl, and not fear if in walking fiercely it spills, knowing it can be replenished.

At the Young Friends retreat on climate consciousness, Nia presented three stories about climate change that we tell ourselves as we make choices in our lives: Business as Usual, the Great Unraveling, and the Great Turning. The teens read dozens of examples and placed them under the associated paradigm that would allow people to behave in such a way. We found that there was quite a bit of confusion over whether a given story should fall under ‘business as usual’ or ‘the great unraveling’, as we currently live in plenty of ways which will irrecoverably destroy the earth for our children, and these ways are what is ‘usual.’ How, when, where are we choosing to live into a great turning? How, as Gandhi said, are we living in preparation for the world we are working to create? And how at this moment, are we going to ensure that the unraveling choices cannot be normal?

No one was allowed to work alone today, and I spent the day hauling maple sugaring supplies, setting up sugaring lines for the spring, and cleaning with friends. Today is unspeakable and sickening, but there is no preparation I possibly lack to fight towards justice with greater conviction. Much abides, and my purpose holds.

‘The importance of ground when leaving the ground’: Collections from Summer

img_2847 Oh poetry, oh the importance of ground When leaving the ground - from Stephen Dunn, Loves

The frost came last night, the meadow grass whitened, the window panes cold. The hunt for warmths began, and raspberry brambles scratched my ankles as I collected the last berries. This summer has contained many questions and excursions uncollected yet. To make way for a faithful fall writing, here is a slowly collected list. A list like a vine gently shaken, this is what ripened and readily fell.

In the late spring returns to the Northwoods of Maine, we paddled the whitewater of rivers whose droughted emptiness was etched in dark water lines on the rocky rims. The waterways were bony, and Ash trees wilted on the banks whose toes no longer touched groundwater. The boulders’ watermarks darkened around their waists or necks or crowns the memory of flow. The bed stood witness for my students, who possessed no further reference or grounding. I, too, remarked how this rapid which now trickles and pools two years ago enveloped me, and I too became the witness. How do we convince our children of all that our landscapes can be, when we are the ones who know that what our children experience is diminished? How are we convincing our children of all they, themselves can be when that is also more than what they see? The sudden drying, burning air of this Northern summer makes me feel no longer young, makes me write ‘our children’ readily because I have something to tell them, I have seen some things change.

This is ‘the importance of ground when leaving the ground.’ I have stepped into positions of critical perspective from organizations and institutions which formed my ability to critique. What does it mean to become part of an organization, to really enter in? What does it mean to emerge from it, to leave its ground? Who are our allies, and how can we know of them in the widest light possible? Will such alienation be a condition of my life? Is that too much to hope?

I made a list this summer of ‘things that might change’-- weather, seasons, climate, clothing, work, folks in my daily life. Pressed, much, almost all might change-- my association with communities and institutions, the continuing existence of those communities and institutions, my deepest and closest relationships with friends and family, my health, my sound mind, my body. I made another, shorter list of ‘things that will not change.’ Only two items survived-- the reality of our environmental crisis, and the presence of people who need more love. I have been buoyed this summer into orbit around these, to honor and give gratitude to what is present and will soon go, while centering myself around needs towards which no work will ever be wasted.

But what is work towards stewardship, towards believing hard truths, and towards love? It is not work as my society has led me to know it. The last few lines of Philip Levine’s ‘What Work Is’ are on the front page of my journal:

How long has it been since you told him you loved him, held his wide shoulders, opened your eyes wide and said those words, and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never done something so simple, so obvious, not because you’re too young or too dumb, not because you’re jealous or even mean or incapable of crying in the presence of another man, no, just because you don’t know what work is.

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On an August week off from instructing canoeing expeditions for teens, I took a solo bike trip to Acadia National Park and the Deer Isle Hostel. At Deer Isle, I camped on a subsistence homestead created by Anneli and Dennis, and ate communal meals in the seventeenth century style farmhouse they built with their own lumber upon a granite root cellar where they store food for the winter. They live off-grid with a few solar panels and pump well-water which they carry in buckets to where it is needed. The outdoor shower is open to the sky and the water is heated through a hose coiled within a seaweed- rich compost heap. Anneli exchanges all sorts of goods and deeds with her neighbors, which allows her to understand money as something ‘often used as a shortcut to not draw on your own skills and community.’ I was wrapped and nodding reading Anneli’s book in the half light hours before dark-- ‘To say that people should work--regardless of the conditions, the salary, or possibilities for personal and spiritual growth-- for the sake of such vague goals as ‘a strong consumer economy’ and ‘profit margins’ is to reduce the individual person into a disposable part in a system where advantages made at the expense of others are not only accepted, but expected.’ She describes how her ‘way of living where gains are earned through physical labor, practical skills and devotion to a place has largely been replaced in modern Western society by a way of living where gains are made by financial strategies and depletion of resources.’

What does it mean to do hard work? My education and society have taught me that my hard work is indicated by efficiency, productiveness, business and monetary reward. I have also learned to measure my hard work by physical exhaustion and depletion. But I am not convinced that these are measures of work worth doing. What then are the indicators of ‘hard work’ in the right directions? How can I re-think what it feels like to work hard?

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This fall I am living and ‘working’ as an outdoor educator at Glen Brook, a farm and forest Waldorf education center in Marlborough, New Hampshire. I lead school groups ranging from 3rd to 10th grade in week-long visits on topics that have so far included botany, ecology, farm life, cooking and baking, backpacking and campcraft, astronomy, joyful play in the outdoors, and group work with kindness and compassion. I have a sparse room at the top of the farmhouse where I can lie on my side upon waking and see the sun rise crossing an ever-more barren line of forest. Most of this work is about being present, meeting children and teenagers and adults and animals and plants where they are as they grow.

At a Bread and Puppet Theater show this summer, a group of ragged ‘citizens’ made vagabond by earth changes and political upheaval turned their heads and palms upwards to exclaim. ‘We just need a here! BRING IN THE HERE!’ The ceiling of the Paper Maché Cathedral opened and an enormous sun orb puppet descended. I am lightly tethered to one place right now, and Glen Brook has descended as this fall’s ‘here’--- the lake is chillier around my sweaty body after trail runs, the sugar maples crumple their leaves and I am easily enveloped. It is a place to be slow with children who are not often allowed to be slow. It is a place to be slow and home with myself. I have had frequent de ja vu, and strong personal memories, as my mind is admitted to graze in its own plain. It is a place to be still enough to again ‘go to the limits of your longing’ (Rilke, Book of Hours I.59). Where do I long? Where to I need to venture next?

I feel that a coming step is learning more about how to die, in order to journey further and in order to even believe the news and believe what is already true. Roy Scranton has argued for the importance of the humanities towards our climate crisis, because we need to better learn our own mortality and the mortality of our environments. An extended personal wilderness expedition is also in my midst, where both power and fragility become more pressingly real. Joanna Macy draws the circle between learning to die and learning to work at love, both a diminishment of boundaries. ‘Our grief only doesn’t change if we refuse to look at it, but when we look at it, when we take it in our hands, when we can just be with it and keep breathing, then it turns. It turns to reveal its other face, and the other face of our pain for the world is our love for the world, our absolutely inseparable connectedness with all life.’ I have felt, and continue to feel, this wild love for the outdoor life and for a world which abounds to support it. What does it mean to die in this same world?

The last drop on this list of ripenings is a particular connectedness which I met at the end of a canoe portage to Mooselookmeguntic lake in early September. The sky was pinkening and the cormorant stood alone on the cool dock, her long nose tucked gently into her layered feathers. Asleep, she shook slightly in the wind. Her tiny bulbs of eyes were thinly closed. How daring, to sleep through such a pink twilight and become the sweet subject of precious attention. There are few creatures who let me watch them sleep, so I took this as a sign of friendship and of peace.

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Why I'm leaving Harvard

The day I stood on the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado must have been the first day of the Harvard semester of my second year of graduate school. I looked down into the canyon in the morning sun and cried without meaning— cried at its sharp depths, its lit chasms, above all I cried at its existence without me. Desert roads leave a long time to say a hard thing, and I took all the time before saying, 'I think I need to leave Harvard.' At that point, like a question. There are years that ask questions, and years that answer (Zora Neale Hurston). I have some answers.

I have learned too little. My years as a student engulfed me inside, hunkering in solitude and silence as the conditions of purest study. Under artificial light, central heating, digitally-scheduled packed days, text messaging as solace, quiet as convenience, screens as reality, walls and roofs, quick meals and quick greetings; under the token features of contemporary university life, I became less alive.

The ailments of emotional and physical indoors have become blatant to me after a year in contrast—stinging eyes in quick changes of light, stuffiness in sleeping, subduedness in spirit, lethargy, impatience, headache, dullness. These effects are less evident the longer we remove ourselves from the rhythms of the natural day. When these symptoms can't be felt as a crisis, it is only because we have been desensitized by the temptations of seeming comfort and apparent convenience.

Last year as I prepared for my general exams, I had roiling headaches that went on for weeks at a time. I visited a primary care doctor, a physical therapist, a nutritionist, an optometrist, a neurologist, an acupuncturist, had an MRI of my brain, had blood tests, took supplements, did stretches, and received conflicting conclusions from each of these professionals. Still, many days I woke up in such pain that I couldn't get out of bed. I cancelled arrangements, I bit my lip in anger. In time it was clear. My body was speaking, and I wasn't allowed to listen until it spoke louder and louder and louder. I needed to be able to believe what I already knew; we need to pay attention to what is killing us and not just what symptoms we are complaining about (Bernie Siegel). In the deepest, snowiest parts of that year, my pulse marked my energy low and still in my bones. I was literally less alive.

The school I wish to start is so far an imaginary palace where I put my ideas about education and the oneness of things. In it, Dewey sits talking about time; we always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. We live not only at the time we live, but in the place and in the body. My formal education has situated itself outside time, place and body— it prevails to the extent that it suppresses these conditionals. My intellect succeeds to the extent that it smothers my pain.

While preparing for my final exams at Oxford, the culmination of three years of study, I attended a pastoral care event in which we were advised that these exams were our chance to give everything. You can repair your friendships and family relationships after Finals, they told us, but you can't repair your marks.

This is what I mean that I have learned too little. Before I can continue with a life of learning, I need to learn how to live— how to care for my family, how to let my body be alive as possible, and how to be where I am because when where I am is generic, constructed, controlled, it is only by illusion, while the real world thumps and dies.

But really, I need to leave Harvard because I have learned too much. Like many of my peers, I believe that humans are changing our climate and destroying our environments. I believe that how we respond to this is the foremost challenge of our lives and a condition of our existence which cannot be ignored. At the first meeting of the introductory History graduate seminar, I said I was there seeking slowness. Amidst crisis, I wanted to preserve a place for long-term, thoughtful thinking on the intellectual conditions of environmentally destructive political and economic structures. There is certainly a place for that. But no longer at the cost of living at odds with the natural world I was describing, and no longer at the cost of being comforted into thinking that what I was doing was ever enough.

When living untruthfully, there is little that is more unsettling than to hear Annie Dillard tell us that how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. This is just the beginning. The History of Science shows us that how we spend our days is also how we make all sense of the world— the discovery of what is real and what is true in our time emerges from the material circumstances of our living; our food, movements, noises, air, water, spaces, what we think, how we think, in the in-betweens.

This is what I know from reading history. There is no way to dismantle an unjust and environmentally lethal capitalist system when even its critics allow themselves to remain beneficiaries. It is not too late in history if the living beings whose turn it is choose for it not to be too late. And it is not foolish to speak in a supremely hopeful way— words have power, and ideas have long lives. I feel for my planet and my country the same thing I feel for my soul— there are no non-radical options left (Naomi Klein).

I did not expect the prospectus I would write in my third year after enrolling in graduate school at Harvard to be of this nature. But there is a problem that has to do with more than one dissertation, and rather with the conditions of contemporary academic institutions at a time of dire need. While Harvard and many of its peers profess to prioritize endowing students with skills to confront a changing climate, the material circumstances of study curtail opportunities to actually envision alternative, sustainable ways of living. The hegemony of the indoor, technology-centered, high-stress academic lifestyle becomes a condition of knowledge production, and the screen, the artificial space, the processed food and the unnaturally long days become what is implicitly real. But these things are not what is real, and our students learn more from how they live than what they read.

Before this year, I almost hoped that living outside was not actually as good as it seemed, in order to check my own longing. But the extreme beauty of untrammeled natural places is real, the extreme health and joy that accompanies being among them is real. I have slept outside in -15F in Minnesota and 105F along the Colorado River, I've reached volcanoes and glaciers and passes and peaks in Patagonia and New Zealand, sung in caves in Joshua Tree, worked long days on an organic farm in Chile, skinny dipped in turquoise waters, watched the moon come and go. Maggie Nelson describes being real as a sensation, which, among other things, makes one want to live. 

This is what higher education, what any education, should do at its best— it should make one want to live.

The answers of how will be a lifelong becoming. I will continue to live, teach and write outside in the knowledge that there’s not time for holding off. While I won’t always live as well as my words, I want them to stretch towards the people who do. I'm so glad you’ve had this year, my grandmother said. I said, I'm so glad I have this life.

 

 

Rain in Doom: The Tongariro Crossing and Round the Mountain Track, Tongariro National Park, New Zealand, March 21-27

    

This trek was an orbit— around a volcano, around an ensnaring storm, and around a companion. We began with the Crossing, before our wilderness was augmented not only by solitude but by wetness and shroud. The earth was living in sulfur and steam vents, Emerald Lakes appearing below us by a trick of the eye as the week's fog descended.     

       

  

Ruapehu means 'throwing rocks,' and when we turn onto the narrower trail which encircles the highest of the volcanoes, we are in a place where things have arrived where they are by being thrown. One thousand meters above us is Crater Lake, dammed in by volcanic debris and fed by glacial melt. 

   We could almost have walked into Rangipo hut before seeing it through the white fog. That night I feel like I am on another planet— a desolate volcanic desert-scape with inhuman winds and interminable dark, where I become a child again listening to each assailing sound as the hut shakes and the fire dies out. 

    

We drink ginger tea in the morning and pull a mattress in front of the wood stove fire. Today is a gift, Keaton says. The wind is all-consuming and the gusts sear to 100kph. We pee out the window, which I'm prepared for by having peed off the gunwales of a sailboat under way.

We read and talk, eat lentil soup and fall into sleep. My words, food, companion, warmth and awe are all at an arm's reach. I dream of the red view, then stand on the porch at the red view, the mist against my afternoon softness. 

   

There is a joy in seeing the distance when the storm clears not because it is spectacularly beautiful, but because it is our own world, the one around us, continued. It has an independent brokenness— the way the skirt of the volcano folds into mountains, the gorged valley eroded like steps, rocky desert mars for on and on. It's fracture is its own, not the one we create by being in a certain foggy place and not another. 

The deep quiet of the evening is what I hoped for in the height of the storm, to tell us not that we are on a volcano in a desert moonscape hours from the nearest person and there are so many ways to become smithereens, but instead to tell us that we are on a volcano and this is right because while the earth shakes and slams and licks away life, right now it has paused, long enough for us to hear each others' breath rise and fall and the high tinking of aged crackling coals. 

    We leave Rangipo when the sun is so strong it pricks our skin. It isn't long in the red desert before the sloppy rain begins again, and such long pounds come from above I wonder if we should seek shelter for lightning or high ground for an eruption. The wet rocks I grab are still warm from the sun, as if they had stayed warm since their creation. 

    That is the first day we see the peak of Ruapehu, the shape of which had long been organizing the intent of our days. Mangahuehu glacier emerges out of air and means something important about faithfulness, about the awe of discovering the true existence of what we couldn't yet see. 

    We are alone again at Mangahuehu hut, and only see one traveler going the other direction among those three stormy days. We play cards as golden light slants across the room, then write by candlelight. We dance as the water boils and make lists of adventures to come. 

Our last day snakes us through crossing five hip-deep, swollen, muddy, rushing creeks. In Okahune everyone seems to be without shoes and we narrate our life like García Márquez, because after the three years' rain no one in all the town wore shoes, for they were drying in the sun in the town square for one whole year. 

I have thought of New Zealand as a land of seeing things far away, of huge vistas. These days instead asked me, with grace and violence, to see what is beside me, what is underfoot and what is at hand.              

The Alpine Route, Richmond Range, New Zealand, March 11- 19

      

This will be short because the days were long and flow. It's clearer now than in the midst how walks make stories of themselves, and how bother, disquiet, slog and mank are still for poetry. 

   The Pelorus River is exactly magic, a sparkling emerald flow slightly thicker and slightly clearer than water. Sitting by a deep bed in the river with the morning sun on my back, I think 'nature's first green is gold' like on other wooded mornings. Here, I hear Frost saying less 'nothing gold can stay,' and more 'green IS gold.'

   At Middy Hut we read that there's no water awaiting us at Mt. Richmond hut, and decide against crossing that peak, 6,000 feet of elevation away. It's obvious how living outside is about saying yes, and less apparent how it is about saying many times— no. We decide to instead follow the Pelorus to the Alpine Route, one of the finest sections of New Zealand's Te Aroroa, 'The Long Pathway.' 

   We climb and climb and at the end of days I can only write down separate words— candle lit hut, wood burning stove, hiss of gas, blue mountains like choppy seas, crescent moon glowing, men reading, men stretching, men yawning, stove crackling and snapping.   

 We started walking before the sun, and we could see the day laid out ahead of us. This was a route where my eyes and my body played the slinky game, sighting the distance, being in the distance. Mount Rintoul was what we couldn't see past, it broke the rules.

   The mountain said, whether you thank me or you despise me, I will crumble under your feet, I will fracture beneath your fingertips. I lost all faith in how the surface of the earth is this thin boundary holding firm the difference between rock and air. I felt like weeping not just because if I kept slipping I would just become the scree and go the whole way down the mountain, but also because the way one rock falls and then many fall feels like the start of a cry— the way you go from being the thing that kicked the rock to the tumbling rock itself. 

    We follow ridges and watersheds, spot snow poles in blinding wet fog high up, cross bands of uplifted red mantel rock with pinch holds. Carried along by the trail, I carried Woolf's Orlando:

'Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous... has contrived that the whole assortment shall be lightly stitched together by a single thread.'

I am as incongruous as this place, yet a long trail makes sense of it for me. I feel long trails to be too civilized, and want to be stitched together, want to stitch together, by an even lighter thread, by a more alarming, happenstance path.

    At the end, downhill was a defeat as we became the world we had beheld. We were muscle and hunger, without a piece of loftiness. We ate our last particles of food before reaching St. Arnaud's and then had three meat pies, two milkshakes, chocolate milk, mango juice, two bags of chips, a cheese sandwich, an apple muffin, two pizzas, and honey ice cream. Tomorrow we fly north to Tongariro, volcanoes, desert!  

     

Hiking the Travers- Sabine Circuit in Nelson Lakes National Park, New Zealand, Feb 29- March 8

  

Hopeless Hut We arrived at night, at the moment before utter darkness, only because our eyes remembered the natural day. If I stopped, I would shake in tiredness, and in the dim forest and pink-grey sky my quiet mind just watched my legs walk on and on. 

We woke up in a cloud. At first the mountains were just thin black outlines in a dawn of silhouttes, the world reduced to the form of things. 

We are alone in a tiny hut high in this rocky valley. We are like a drop, the weight of our presence sinking the earth down from the mountains. We are the knowing pit of the belly. 

On all sides, I have to tilt my head almost straight up to see the top of the ridge line. I am the littlest seed dropped into a garden hole before it is tapped over with soil. This morning, I am inside the womb, and it is the world which is instead emerging. Here, I feel less like I am traveling and more like worlds are coming, with purpose, towards me.

  

At noon, when the mountains have come into color, the color is story and history-- scrub, outcrops, ledges, the lumpiness of age. Across the valley, vast smooth scree summits drip down like veins of water, the elegance of forsaking form to forces, of being old and becoming something new. 

At noon, Hopeless Creek is a creek of light, not of water. The always plunking twirling back and forth down worn holding rocks, this is the sound of water. But in the same way a sound holds a word in a translucent, mysterious way, this sound holds the light. 

The bare rocks of the scree slope across the creek are the bones of the avalanche zone and the steep terror of winter is palpable in the way the fleshy bits of plant life have been gnawed to the edges of the slide. We are among mountains which thrum that what hasn't happened is the same thing as what hasn't yet happened, and what is.

This is a land where water, air, rock and life are almost visibly becoming each other. 

  Travers Pass

This pass was a slower journey. In Chile, the moment when you stopped seeing where you came from and started seeing where you were going was one moment. Here, the air stands still as if it too has finished catching its breath and is silently contemplating what surrounds it. Here, the pass is a passage, and after one side falls away the mountains take you in, saying only-- here, is tuff and crag, some snow, some shapelessness. When the distant jagged peaks can't yet be seen, can no longer be seen, I feel that I'm actually in the mountain, a truer prolonged passing through, a place in itself. 

Across the pass a bowl of mountains are filled with clouds, and this land is kind in revealing only enough at a time to let me know it is real. The mountain I am in is like enough to the mountain far away that I believe far away to be a firm place where I could sit and look back at myself like a speck. 

      This silence is like an agreement, and when the shrieks and echoes of hikers break the pact it's evident that nothing is holding the silence. It is cloaking and not substance of rock and ice, it holds itself. 

  

Blue Lake

I guessed we were close to Blue Lake when the creeks started disappearing. It was difficult to choose which rocks to step on because the water was translucent like mountain air. The stream had the effect of water, it pulled algae in long strands and sharply reflected the mountains, but it did not have the substance. 

We sleep tucked under a tree near the shores of Blue Lake. In the morning, the water is a deep turquoise, with holes of dark aqua, violet, and shallows neon green. This is the most optically clear freshwater in the world. The sun gleams through and the lake hides nothing. Some particles of pollen float on the surface and they seem suspended in the air. 

     For the Ngāti Apa, the lake is a trail marker called Rotomairewhenua, Lake of the Peaceful Lands. I wonder about the trail markers where I'm from, the ones that tell me I've arrived in my own peaceful lands. I have such an urge to slip in and swim, to have the peace all around my naked body. When I fill my bottle from the outlet and drink it pure, I wonder if the water feels anything of the same, like it is swimming in gratitude, or in living imagination, or perhaps just in a very small space. 

I walk alone up to Lake Constance, another world of mountains coming over the horizon. There is a shift happening in my mind this year in believing what is real. The vertical cliff casting a shadow across the scree is not incredible, the opaque, feathery turquoise of the lake is not otherworldly. I can believe this. I can believe this can be here for good, I can picture a world where I am surrounded by mountains of vast majesty which are really just beginning, where I am among the first to see this and not the last. 

      I am alone now. No one is coming, and everyone is gone. In Patagonia, the mountains were beautiful in a charged, eerie way-- I did not want to look at them, I wanted to be them. I wanted to lie down and die among them, to not be different from them. Here, I am more like the mountains while living and feeling. This is a land not long ago colonized and tracked by the same powers that colonized my own mind, and I feel more like I should be alive here. Why.

I want to see history as I can see the natural world-- as something with intense meaning, with rhythms to be expected, which shock in how they appear, which are endless and unfailing, whose magic or mystery is only our own. Constance and Blue were separated by a massive landslide and the highest peak still has a hollowness, with boulders crumbling below. It has never been so obvious to me how a rock is a piece of a mountain, how this boulder at the base of the scree has a history explained better by space than by time. From a distance, the shards are the mountain. The growing lichen seems to say that the shards are standing still. The growing is the mountain. Perhaps this isn't different from writing history. 

   Speargrass Creek and Robert's Ridge

On the last morning I woke up before dawn and ducked out of the trees to eat muesli in the cool, yellow valley, the full moon high in the sky with a crescent lit, pink clouds floating quickly in front if it. There is a certain divinity, or rather a faithfulness, in the mornings of long days. Days that contain only what is yet to be seen, when scrambling the length of daylight is not ahead of me but within me.

In the early morning the earth is all my own, and I pause in the cupped hands of Speargrass watershed like a little object found and observed. The rocky moonscapes fold behind each other in the distance, and I am in the fleshy shadows where the sun has not yet risen. The shape of this valley existed before hands, or cupped hands, I realize. My folded hands are rather like the valley.

On the ridge, I walk like flying. I have no affinity for words and move through the mountain in an individual way, finding for my body the least loose places. On the ridge, to go anywhere but forward is scree slide, precipice and hazard, the ridge is not like poetry.

   

The only words I thought, as the mist and the silence expanded, I thought over and again. What a thing to be a woman alone on a mountain. What a thing to be a woman on a mountain.

I haven't been sure where this trip ended. These peaks and clear waters laid themselves plain; when they couldn't hold on, they didn't. It is like being slithered by the eel in Lake Rotoroa when we jumped in sweaty after a long, slow day. The scene was not the canyoned turquoise inlet, not the green folds of mountains lining the shore. The scene was only the upsetting muscular smoothness pushing against my torso, against my ankles. My hair didn't even get wet; for all the honesty of the landscape, it's about the eel inside, the body below the surface, the touching of the two.   

 

Swayed Always: Dogsledding in the Minnesota Boundary Waters with Outward Bound, Jan 30-Feb 6, 2016

I had the good fortune to attend the 2016 Voyageur Outward Bound School dogsledding staff invitational. Fourteen Outward Bound instructors and staff from around the country gathered in Ely, Minnesota and enjoyed six expedition nights sleeping on frozen lakes under tarps at -15F.  http://misadventuresmag.com/swayed-always-dogsledding-in-the-minnesota-boundary-waters/

87780013.JPGThe winter is like the desert. You have to be strategic with water, and a smoky liter in hand is a privilege. To dig the ice hole, I walk away from camp on the frozen lake towards streaky pink clouds in the west. The ice is cut with a sharpened piece of metal attached to a rod, and I am to chip away a dinner plate sized hole. My upper back is quickly hot and buzzing by the chips of fifteen inches of winter. The ice digger could be seen on other nights as a silhouette on a vast horizon, pausing to catch her breath, stare into the hole, and wonder with a sore despair if there was really any water there. The best ice becomes clear and black, and the tapping sound changes and you feel the water at last to be close. The final stab sucks you into the lake as the rod plunges into nonresistance. I imagined that we would have to kneel and reach down into the hole to get water. Rather, the snowpack presses on the lake and water gurgles up and overflows its escape, like the gurgling of emotion itself.

87780012.JPGThere is an exquisite force in downing trees, hauling trunks through the snow, and splitting wood. In hacking an ice hole with that sharpened metal rod and boiling four ashy pots of water in the evening-- one for dogs, two for hot drinks, three for dinner, four for snuggle bottles to heat sleeping bags. There is force in breaking crusts of ice with skis and pounding slush off dogsled skids, in peeing crouched on a vast frozen lake, and in drying toes by the fire under stars.

The force of these activities comes from knowing that these are the simplest and most necessary ways— we must work hard and endlessly across these cold days not just for radiant warmth in fire or metabolic warmth in food but also for constant muscle warmth. If you stop moving and helping the group in the summer, you will likely have a nice time standing in the sun. If you stop moving and helping the group in winter, you will be on your way to dying. The force of these activities comes from knowing that this is how humans have made it unsupported to the North Pole, to Arctic regions past the sun— not at all because they are crucially different from me, but simply because they have systems built in experience, and an unwavering tenacity for their chosen task.

87780007.JPGOur two priorities upon waking are fire and water. It seemed so obvious that I wondered what sideways circumstances had led me to wake up so many mornings of my life and prioritize anything other than fire and water.

In hobbit form, we start with first breakfast— fried bread and fried meat. By this time the sun is shooting out and the air itself sparkles, as fire sparks crackle up into the white sky. Dogsledding is definition magic, I decide.

Leaving camp, I navigate in front with the skiers, breaking trail for the dogs and testing ice with an ax across Wood, Hula, Indiana and Basswood lakes. The snow surface is crusty, I’m carrying a bulky pack, and the bindings of my borrowed skis keep falling off. More than anything, the day-long movement is relentless, we must stay ahead of the dogs, we must find camp before dark, we must not stop. I want to be the leader I asked to be, and I also want out. Amidst the open traceless wilderness, I think fondly of the generic Eau Claire Econolodge and its central heating. Oh, I realize. I’m a student here. This world is not my world, and this day is freaking hard…In so many more senses, though, this world actually is my world, and for some of my students, their hard Outward Bound days exceed mine in a way I can’t even feel. I sense then in my muscles rather than my mind that my students need all the compassion I can possibly give them.

87780010.JPGWinter creeps closer to me than it has before, in part because I come from a society which implicitly seeks a certain separation from uncomfortable seasons. Ice grows on the spine of my notebook, frost on the bristles of my toothbrush, and slush in the curve of my contact lens.

I empty my cup of blood into the snow and it immediately freezes. These quiet moments of squatted solitude, so much of my skin exposed to the bitter air, my naked fingers dedicating their brief dexterity, feel less like an inconvenience and more like a profound thanksgiving-- just one more rhythm among rhythms and rhythms.

Outward Bound is always a moving reminder of the nobility of the human spirit, but most especially of the incredible strength of adventurous women. After long days of travel, Amy walks into the dark, fells tall pines and drags them back to camp. Abby tells us stories of dogsledding to the Hudson Bay. Julie is an older woman who facilitates our service project at the First Lutheran Church pasta dinner in Ely, and she leans forward for our stories. Julie was on an eight month dogsledding expedition in the Arctic which ran out of food. Right now, Lisa and Alyce are preparing for a 4,000 mile canoe journey, to be the first women to paddle the entire Jefferson- Missouri- Mississippi River watershed from source to sea. Abby says there are some truisms you hear and you don't really know what they mean until you know what they mean. When she began leading winter expeditions in the Boundary Waters, 'you can do anything' became something very real. These are the women I spent my days with. These are women as women can be.

87780026.JPGHostile environments shift my mind to my body, and my thinking being is manifest in sensing and doing. On our fourth night we track across Manomin Lake and each settle in solitude at a spot in the woods. I have a blue tarp, twine, sleeping bags, a hand saw, matches, a small pot, and a sausage for dinner. I sit on my pack on the shoreline as the sun beams upon my full, crisp cheeks and I plan my successive warmths— sunshine, the happily arduous collection of birch and pine firewood, cooking coals, boiled snow, and finally my sleeping bags.

I think no words during the night alone, and am only a body crawling from warmth to warmth. Everything is pertinent and immediate. Dave noticed that the Boundary Waters offer no mountains or high vistas to draw even your eyes away from here. Neal said how it’s so remarkable that right here is where we can survive—should we walk a minute into the frozen lake, away from our fires and shelters, we would be done for. In the right here, we each build our sustaining castles.

The following morning we track one by one back to camp, shuffle into the wall tent and sit on snow benches around the little wood stove. This is one of the few moments of our week together when we are not scattered by travel and tasks and we just look into each others’ faces. Dusty starts saying my thoughts which I didn’t think because I had only been a body, but which my body knew throughout the night as Orion turned above the treetops, ice hardened around the opening of my sleeping bag, and snow fell gently on my nose and eyelashes at fifteen below. This is it. This is in no possible sense a humble existence. Dusty’s snow cradle lined with pine boughs, my cocoon, the silence upon silence, sleeping softly amidst an immense world of sleeping life as the fire burns out—there is no greater greatness, this is the Shangri-La.

87780022When we return to base, called Homeplace, we sauna with eucalyptus oil and jump into the river through a hole cut in the ice. In the shower, I have a glowing conviction that, though I’m not exactly sure how, I think life can always be this good. Caroline says she loves dogsledding because for the dogs, work is the same thing as joy. Whenever the sled stops Pinky bounds three feet in the air in eagerness to begin again. Caroline says, find work that makes you feel like that. Having long, hard days, wondering at wilderness, finding huge compassion for myself and other living things, surviving simply and focusing on right now, is not for eight days in Minnesota or four summers in Maine, but for my whole entire life.

The pine-lined drive into Homeplace is marked each quarter mile by a line of verse nailed to a tree:

Be tough, yet gentle

Humble, yet bold

Swayed always

By beauty

And truth

- Bob Peih  (founder of the Minnesota Outward Bound School)

I feel there’s no time left, I tell Marianne, to believe a single thing and not live it, and not let my body know. That’s easier to say, I don’t know how much it’s hard work, and how much it’s just being swayed. Once every other freeze is chipped down, in the final jab the rising water through the ice hole floodingly convinces. Enough exists in beauty and in truth that only needs to be believed. The winter is like the desert. The winter is a world made of water.

87780024Note: Lisa and Alyce are creating an Expeditionary Learning curriculum by way of their expedition, with the goal of 'supporting girls and women in navigating their own paths to confidence.' Awesome! More here: http://www.wildernessclassroom.com/expedition/source-of-confidence-expedition/

87780006

I walked into my country with only my words

Of course my adventure was not over when I began traveling home. I have been reunited with my backpack, and here is a poem. image

It came as no surprise when I walked into my country with only my words.

When I guessed that to live well I needed little and chose the neededs in a delicate way and packed the neededs neatly, away.

It came as no surprise when I was held up or turned back of course I'm not let through of course I'm not yet home. of course I've only my leather boots and canvas pants and woolen top when I walk into my country with only my words.

Then even the neededs were among the things not nearby Robbin said that if she got a tattoo it would be an acorn Because it's a package and all that it needs is inside.

I have kept words by. Sometimes it takes words a long time to arrive. Sometimes it takes me a long time to arrive. I would be a place where words arrive, where they remain. Pertenecer-- to stay, but also to belong, to pertain.

Leaving well to one side I'd attempt to write while to meet words in their tired skilled travelingness While hungry, while hollow, while restless while on a bumpy ride while distracted, while called upon, while unmovingly calm in a tent, mountaintop, ship; rut, ecstacy, crisis

It came as no surprise that a trip which took much took all but my words. Meanwhile, right now people walk towards not even their country with not even their words.

Going Home(s)

   I did not imagine how hard this journey would be. I did not imagine how much I could do alone, and how much I couldn't possibly. But it's difficult to remember now that I didn't imagine anything. Not sleeping in 31 different places over 62 days or traveling over 6,000 kilometers by land and sea from the Chilean capital to the southern tip of the continent and moreover, back. 

I didn't plan to have Christmas with a pair of German cyclists at a bushcrash site during a snowstorm in the Fitz Roy range. I didn't realize I would spend a morning in the sea sunshine observing one distant nipple-fin peak, measuring time by moving my head from slightly left to slightly right to see it. 

  

How could I know how my throat would close against tears on the sweaty minibus when the guitarist sang 'todas las hojas son hojas del viento' (all of the leaves are leaves of the wind)? I didn't mean to be left completely alone to sleep outside a Mapuche ruka in the moonless mountains and campos 2km from the village of Currarehue on the camino to Argentina. Or push my way through empty woods and horse tracks to jump naked into a hidden waterfall I almost couldn't find.

  

There was no way to expect what happy satisfaction would come from spending days sorting leaves and stems from huge sacks of dried maqui berries. How I would pass evenings encerrando patos and preparing a plot for zanahorrias as a thick setting sun shone past the Pacific Ocean, through an arc of hose water and onto humans I had just come to love. And when we all come inside as night falls near 10pm to fresh milk on the woodburning stove, my body is agotado and leans into the routine. 

   

I suppose if I had said aloud to myself 'I am going to travel alone through Patagonia and I have no plan' I could have guessed that at the very end I would feel either like a small worn object seeking my mother's warm hand, or like an invincible body, ten feet tall and bullet proof. It is the very end and I've felt both of those things exactly at once. 

 

Two days ago, before the summer sunshine fully entered my bones and made me gentle and fevery, we walked back from the playa on moonlit dirt roads with our moonshadows. What a day when you can see all the lights the sun graces upon a vast and deserted coastland, beginning with the rising sun pointing right at us as I convinced Lilia to jump in for the first time since her childhood on our morning run through farmland and dunes. Each night it becomes easier to avoid the ginda trees, fire pit and work bench as I feel my way to my tent in the field beind the house, as the moon says, 'look at me, I am looking at you, my growing has meaning, see me.'

On my very first night in Santiago, I stumbled upon, or rather was drawn towards, a humming and howling of hundreds of Chilean hippies gathered to receive an enormous orange moon hanging over the río Mapocho. In the rhythmic dancing and laughter and flowiness, I felt myself rather to be on the side of the moon, as the one being received. There's an insistent memory in the moon, and as her emptiness slightens two turns later, I feel readier to receive the fullness of this adventure.     From the moment I turned back from the austral cross, I have been traveling north. Incrementally approaching the capital, and seeing myself as a northern person, I had the feeling that I was therefore traveling home. I had to remind myself how mistaken I was, that there was still so much to be adventured. But to say that the better part of my journey was a going towards home(s) is not entirely untrue. I found this from Aurora and back in California wrote it on the first page of my notebook: 'Some people say home is where you come from. But I think it's a place you need to find, like its scattered and you pick pieces of it up along the way.'- Katie Kacvinsky

But it seems to me that the 'is scattered' is not such a passive thing. Rather, my family and history scatter, my disposition and companionships scatter, my country and empire and privileges and languages scatter, and above all my education scatters. 

There were many, many moments at my bilingual school where I felt very much not at home, and it's apparent now how that displacement of home has been an act of scattering. In Coyhaique I walked up the long hill from my campsite passing a jardin de niños with a big Mafalda painted on the windows to greet kids who were using the same Argentinean cartoon to learn to read as I did. When I went alone to the emergency room in Pucón I was glad they didn't speak English because it was more part of the adventure, and more like our medical translation classes in middle school. The Colombian women who I had dinner with after they had returned from their womb meditation asked if I had ever been to Colombia. I said no unwillingly slowly, feeling nonetheless a certain familiarity. I was with Manuela from Bogotá the first winter she saw snow. And when I was ten and went to Laura Paola's house for a sleepover and ate popcorn under the table, I called my dad in scaredness to pick me up not just because the electricity cut out and came back, but because I didn't have another place I was from, and everything was Spanish and fast.     But the reason I am here and not anywhere else, the reason I feel such anticipation to know Chile, not just in its highlights but in its all in all, is not because of a general familiarity, but because of a specific love and longing that bilingual education also allowed. I saw Andrés for one dinner and one lunch on this trip and it became quickly apparent how Chile would become so much vaster than what I could know through him, or even what he could know. He was a younger invitation, an implicit 'yes, you can find homes here. You can find many, many homes here.'     For my final almuerzo at the farm, Pedro and Carlos killed a young lamb with a knife and I ate the intestines with red wine. I didn't completely register what had happened until I put together the pieces; the wool pelt flung over the wire fence of the chicken coop bloody side up, the dog chewing on a furry meaty hoof, a vat of blood, and finally the scull and brain charred in an outdoor fire for tomorrow's stew.     Lis was my best friend on this trip. Lis is four. We would have long conversations mouthing nonsense words to each other at the table, then he would climb all over me and pick ginda and maqui from my shoulders. We had ten different games we would play, like the one where he's a piece of meat or an egg or a guitar, or where we see who can be a flamingo for longer, or where he holds my hand in the sheep pasture and we creep as close to the bandurrias as possible because Lis is going to ask his mom for a long bandurria nose to dig for gusanitos like a bird, and he just lets go of my hand to chase a little yellow butterfly.    After almuerzo he hooks his arm around my neck and starts whispering to me in babyish Spanish with breathless inhales stories of dreams which are also my dreams. He says that after the peyote bird eats my head, Alex, who works on the farm and never talks, will kill it and give me its wings so I can go home and fly back with my sister and my parents and my grandmother and my grandmothers dog (because dogs can talk in my country). And we would all have almuerzo together every day and sleep in the same bed. When Lis goes to the playa he will build me a sand castle so big I can stick my head in, then my whole body, and then live inside with every single person I know.  This is also my dream because it would be a wonder to live a life without longings. For what is nearest to indeed always be what is best. But I would also like to live in a way that honors the largeness of the world, the manyness and specificities. Where my presence and cultivation make plants and animals and young people and words more like themselves, rather than more like something for my understanding, for my finding home.  I am here not just through a series of finding homes, but also through a series of respecting hurting longings. Longing as a measure and proof of non-presence, of grandeur, of separation, and of need. I didn't imagine anything in particular, but I imagined that whatever was hard, or cruel, or joyous, had sense for me. Had its place in making evident that the loudest way I can speak is with my whole entire life; where on the planet I place my body, what pieces of the earth I invite to animate it, and how I spend each one of my days. 

  

Far Away and In Between: Two small pieces written in exactly the same place, Coyhaique, Dec 30- Jan 4

    1. Arriving

When you are in between, one thing happens and then another thing happens and then you write them down and they rub up against each other and make no sense and also make some sense. 

Like the one morning when I was waking up in Augustini camp and directly hiking to the mirador of Glaciar Grande as Cerro Torre speared through the clouds. Then the next morning, when I was waking up on a warm, poorly ventilated bus next to a large snoring man with his legs spead.

Or that same morning when I was in Argentina and I walked and kept walking and a town dog followed me and then left and then I was in Chile and some mechanics gave me a ride in their pickup truck and I was on the shores of the deepest lake in South America.

Or that evening on the ferry when my lonesomeness consumed me and I stood on the top deck purposefully pelted by wind and unpredictable splash and spray so I could weep and howl under my sunglasses and hood and it didn't matter because the lake was also weeping and howling. 

And then the very next day when they invited me into the cycling shop for a cafecito in a tiny glass cup and I talked to Pasto about organic farming and yoga and then biked to Momo's house and sat under cherry trees drinking homemade damasco/ plátano/ miel juice, toasted bread filled with pork fat, beef and lamb asado. And I think they knew, or someone knew, how much I needed to swing back and forth and drift in and out of sleep and hear Spanish and be around people who care about what I care about, but even more. And when I left at sunset I promised to bring the bike back in time for tomorrow's cycling and fishing expedition.

Then the next day when I returned the bike, pulling open the gate and balancing a sticky orange popsicle, and instead of preparing an expedition, Momo was knocked out in the hammock and Ricki was crouched under a cherry tree chewing on leftover asado, with both all and none of the evidence that they had moved since I left. 

It was something about how empty the streets were on that first day of the year that made me feel I was no longer in between. There was nowhere to go. In order to be definitively not passing through, I only had to say no to one idea harvested in a haze of transitions; I would not in fact be hitching 67km down a dirt road (the Carretera Austral) in order to board the cargo ship I had a ticket for, which, over the course of 28 hours, was indeed going north but not actually where I wanted to go.

So my tent has been 'armada' in the same place for six nights as I wait for the Tuesday ferry, and also wait for nothing. I am leaning against a tree and a grey cat comes crawling under the hanging yellow flowers and rolls in the grass and I become the cat and nap, curled and following the sun around the trunk in a semi-circle through the afternoon. And I wonder how much we create our places of arrival. How much I was taken in, or held back, and how much I chose, slowly, gratefully, for this not (just) to be a passing through. 

img_1400 

2. The Cheese

In order to write every day, I will have to write every thing. By that I mean not just acontecimientos, the things that happened, but also the other things, that didn't exactly happen, although they took place. For example, this: I was preparing dinner in what I would like to call my Chilean writers' shed. There is a wooden table with two tree stumps as hooves which lend more the idea of a work bench than a desk. I like that. It inspires mechanical tinkering as an almost physical pursuit. My locale from here is very explainable- necklaced by all different sorts of tree beads which flatter me that my writing head is this tall airy thing in the middle of the grove. 

Through the trees I can see the blue of the French couples' tent who arrived the same night I did. I hope they don't leave, because the way they read in the sun and hang their clothes to dry and don't go anywhere feels like evidence that there's nothing better for me to do, either, than sit here in the grass and describe how I can see their tent through the bushes. 

But the story I meant to tell was about how I was preparing dinner in what I would like to call my Chilean writers' shed. A quarter litre of water was boiling to rehydrate mashed potatoes and I was cutting slimy cheese with my swiss army knife. The cheese was slimy because I bought it four days ago, on the other side of that blustery ferry ride and a trip through the mountains in a minivan for local commuters. Not so much that, but perhaps just the fact that I had carried it around in my warm backpack since then, not wanting to part from it on the off chance that I would miss the moment when it became less slimy and more appealing. As I flicked some pieces of dirt from the oily surface, I laughed, sort of, and thought 'I deserve better than this.' 

But hold on. Really? Why do I deserve better than this? Why do I not deserve better than this? I reached no conclusion, apart from noticing that sometimes how I live outside makes me feel like a humble thing of the earth. I smell so bad. How I live outside is not so humble, yet I have lived better. And by better I guess I just mean less near to the bugs that crawl on the ground. Do I deserve this- both in majesty and in filth? Do I deserve anything? This was a thing that took place, while it didn't exactly happen.  

    

  

I am drinking the mountain: Encounters with the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, Fitz Roy Range, Argentina, Dec 23-29 and Torres del Paine, Chile, Dec 9-15

  After the river there is no sound left. The stove doesn't hiss, and birds flit unsingingly. For once the wind is outroared. It is easy to be alone by the river, because everyone, suddenly, is alone.

I meet Laguna Torre in the long evening, when the day hikers have gone home and the campers are all crouched in the woods eating noodles and mouthing silenced river words. After crossing a rocky, moon-like crest, the glacier has me pause, and relieves me, upon meeting, of the burdensome 'why am I here?' I care not, says the glacier, as the gentlest wind pushes each iceburg slowly across the grey-green lake. The movement is so still that I may in fact be the one drifting. 

  What concerns me now is this- how the iceburgs seem alive, as they clink, plop, or roll on their bellies, how their reflection is doubled atop the cloudy rock flour water which at once obscures their entireties. How my chest is tight against icy vastness, but when I breathe deep with a hand on my thigh, the air is there. How behind the shrouded peaks, the mountains thunder in unwitnessed avalanches of snow and ice.  

They say that these peaks are guardians of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, but I feel they are truly guarding my own imagination, ordering it into details, ledges, cascades, spires, hard things and watery things, lightness and dark.

 

In the nearer distance, a hunk of snow pack falls in total silence, and seconds later, the trailing boom of routine calamity. What vast change has taken place this evening. What constant, impossible attention. 

//

   Torres del Paine is days of travel away and still its peaks are stroked and grated by the stretching fingers of the southern ice field. We are the first to cross Paso John Garner, trudging through knee-deep snow with an ever-heightening view of a dark morning valley behind us. Halfway up the most exposed incline, I crouch behind a boulder from the whipping wind, rising black tips surrounding me and pulling away from their shelves of hanging ice. I feel myself to be in a place- in a delicate, hazardous, significant place, but nonetheless, just in a place- on a pass- on my own fortunate planet.   

We had spent five days approaching this pass, and had heard tales of a snow storm and extreme winds from hikers turned back. Our wild anticipation was completed, though, in screams, as Glaciar Grey unfolded before us. This is the thing about crossing passes- when you cross a pass, a whole world opens that was completely inaccessible before. For a brief moment, you can behold both worlds at once, before the old one quickly falls away behind a high horizon. Everything changes. Now the more difficult and dangerous route is to go back from where you came. 

  This crossing reveals to me that the world as I have dreamt of it is real, and somehow easily so. This land is more real than anything- its object is fact, its existence beyond meaning or essence. Its madness and blues and sharpness and ongoingness- rolling or brokenness- without any intent. 

But at once, timidly lording over the glacier from this height, inaugurating tracks in fresh, calf- deep snow, I feel its knownness is tiny, its mass fragile. A certain sureness comes over me, that all of this lost is worth nothing. That if I could know how my resource use led directly to the diminishment of what I beheld, I would sooner lie down and rot among the snowy precipices. 

Descending into wet forest, the trail follows the glacier all day long, and between the trees its looming presence is easily forgotten and, with awe, rediscovered. Its deep fissures are a habitat of blues and shadows. By the time we cross Campamento Paso, I am sick with the magnitude. I pause and cry, not wanting to let my eyes fall over the vasting below and extending beyond me, yet unable to look away. I want someone to speak simple things of who I am, I am so transluscent. 

Like evenings everywhere, at the end of the day the glacier drops into its lake in a factual and majestic way. At this hinge, the glacier makes its way into our world and bodies, and in gentlerness, allows itself to be contained by the mountains. In turn, the melt too contains- ground rock flour glinting sunlight towards unnamable earthly colors.

At first I thought the glacial lakes announced themselves as verses places, of breakings and spaces. But this I want to say with a sense of all oneness. When I say I am drinking the mountain, I mean it. I am really drinking the mountain.   

Trekking to the southern tip of the continent: Cabo Froward, Dec 17-21, 2015

IMG_1256I'm not exactly sure where the closest person is. We passed Juan eight hours ago at the second river crossing, he was waiting for the second bajamar (low tide) of the day, when the sky would be darkening, around 11pm. Yesterday we passed Rodolfo, who has thick shoulders and high boots, who has Arabic script printed vertically over the tendons on his neck, and who caught a yellow bird with his fingers and put it in his pocket as he was talking to us. He collects names of those venturing beyond the lighthouse, where he alone lives, and will call the Chilean Armada (Navy) if we're not back in six days. His route information involves a sweeping gesture of the coastal map on the wall- it's all hard, this is a trek that tests, take nothing for granted. There is a solitary motor sound that passed, and now a slender siloughette of a distant fishing boat that my eyes keep catching and losing in the gloam. That's all for today- several thin fins of dolphins passing by in a way that feels routine- each thing passing by each other thing- each thing holding tight to itself for long enough that it lets the other be the one to change- the mountains cresting and caving, trees emerging but mostly collapsing, and tides, tides, tides. The clouds collecting at will, greying and filling so as to be one, or more than one. We each hold each other in our places, we are passing by.

We napped in the tent this afternoon, and I awoke quickly when the motor sound appeared close. My mind, already diffused to the scale of this place, and sleepful, wondered if it came to search for us, to deliver a message, and here we were huddled down in the woods below the trees where no message by air or sea would reach. But it too passed by and suddenly we were neither hidden nor evident, just asleep at the edge of the tip of the world.

This is what it's like. We follow the Straight of Magallanes- mostly along rocky beaches, and try to find the hardest sand or rock. At times there is a trail that cuts off a point, marked usually with flagging tape of any color, shreds of plastic bags, teared pieces of a yellow fisherman's suit, or a glass bottle hung on a tree branch. The trail was once part of a project to create a continuous path down all of Chile but it is now in dangerous disrepair and none of the human-made features can be trusted. Yesterday I stepped on a bad plank and toppled backwards and head-first down a rocky precipice for a couple of meters as the log of wood chased me down. There are enormous trees uprooted that bid for your whole body to cross over, vertical rock and mud sections, everything is unsteady. It seems there is no amount of human labor that would preserve these trails from the savagery of winters here. But, it elicits a gratitude that there is a human path, which is noteworthy for us who live in planet places and mental spaces seemingly too full of already human paths.

There are two important rivers to cross on this trek, and their crossing must be timed to coincide with low tide. We crossed both today. The water is icy- we are in the region of Chilean Antarctica. The first reached my upper thighs and the second my waist- we cross right where the river opens out into the ocean at a wide, shallower point. I went in my swimming trunks the first time and then went naked, going into myself for those minutes. Across the estrecho, enormous snow-capped mountains rise out of the sea- the Darwin range. Our first day was unknown here- perfectly clear, and it took several hours to determine if one particular peak, completely snow-covered to it's base, was in fact a land form and not a cloud. The mountains rise high behind us too- their black rock and light snow in contrast like a statement of sanity and meaning against the indistinct horizon beyond. The tide is going out now and a spit of land has opened up, returning the far side of the river to the state in which we found it six hours ago. I see smoke rising across the way, perhaps Juan has made it, or perhaps my senses fool me- it is just grey trees and early twilight.

I was afraid that the end of the continent would not seem like such a place and now I am afraid that it does. Keaton and I take turns walking in front and gathering our minds into the space of our bodies when the other is floating. This is a place that could easily be called creepy, but I stop him from saying so. It is a place of death- rocky points marked with weathered crosses for shipwrecked sailors, a sense of abandonment and unfinishedness in the human objects that appear. Death, or mere survival, but not of living. The captain of Darwin's Beagle decided to kill himself gazing upon this vista, and he is buried up the straight. As a student of history, I have asked who were these people, who left their homes and knownness to sail the seas? In the presence of these toothed peaks and slanting light, I rather wonder- what is this land that makes its visitors forget who they are? And when I remember, that sense arrives here like a late recollected thought that has become irrelevant.

This trek got in our brains- camping at the third river we laughed in strange ways we had never heard before and said words one after another that became sentences by coincidence rather than by intent. This cruel eeriness is the natural world, too, and it is inevitable for us who wish to encounter wilds on their terms and not our own. I often experience such places as sublime or relaxing, or miserable in a petty, impermanent way, but unusually so subsuming of my spirit, so covetous of my level-headedness and my yet-unhurting body.

We reached the austral cross after a steep, muddy climb, after five hours of humbly picking through coastal rocks covered in seaweed and barnacles. The cross is high up, only the final crest gives way to a vista of the confluence of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Snow-capped peaks rim bright blue extents where the wind makes designs as it whips hard around the horn. Walking beyond the white metal cross you can see a mighty concrete cross collapsed from the gusts. These oceans are such separate places in my imagination- I come from a country whose existence is explained in their distance. What was evidenced at the tip was not two things coming together, but merely one thing broken apart in my mind.

On the return, the wind was at our backs, and seemed too to know where we ought to go. In many ways, this land seems to know much more than we do, as we scratch our way through. Heading north, though, we trace our own story back, and the subtle footprints and plastic shreds of others' waymaking hold less significance.

The return revealed gems which perhaps by their nature demanded a precedent of lonesomeness- the sun breaking out for our two waist-deep naked river crossings, faithfully following the dispersed remnants of a trail over high cliffs and dropping back to the rocky shore and a thick Patagonian rainbow. After walking for nine hours, we boiled water for mashed potatoes and sat down to eat in a cove, leaning against a hunk of driftwood as two fishermen in a colorful boat found their evening catch on the far side. Dolphins came to dance in front of us, leaping in high, shocking arcs out of the water. Like much of what I find here, it seemed to be without explanation, but if I had a silky white belly and could jump in and out of the sea in evening joy, I certainly would. The moon was a gleaming gibbous, and at half past ten we could still see a hundred miles down distant mountain islands.

They are building a road here. Each year, they make it a little further. We get dropped off as far south as the open road goes, then trek past several kilometers in the making, lean felled trees actually crashing down in front of us. So many roads I have travelled began this way, and the dark bruises of a more human journey are unknown to me. This is a place where green is very much like purple, where we look into each other in the morning and, with kindness and some despair, say please let's take care of each other today. I don't want it to be different.

An update on living outside: Fall 2015

I’m back in Los Angeles for one day and noticing things newly. Living outside is a complete joy in Southern California, and I had the good fortune too of encountering friends at Naturalists at Large who are a complete joy to be with. In the back seat of Emily’s car I found a book called ‘The Crossroads of Should and Must’ and it contained the following quote by Howard Thurman: ‘Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who come alive.’

Being outside makes me feel completely alive and I need to figure out why this seems somewhat unique relative to many other people. There are plenty of things holding us back from being outside more, and maybe that’s it. I’ve started by making a list of the sacrifices and gains of living outside, which has also helped me think about what it means to be ‘inside.’ My outside and my inside are culturally and historically and individually specific.

Watching the lunar eclipse from Ryan Mountain in Joshua Tree. Big horned were out at twilight watching too

Sacrifices

Sleeping in a bed

Knowing what I look like/ caring what I look like

Having cell service and the capacity to communicate with faraway people

Using a refrigerator

Showering and not smelling gross

Using a faucet rather than licking dishes

Sturdy shelter from wind, heat and cold

Widespread light after sunset

Using a variety of utensils and kitchen space and more than one pot

A constant supply of electricity and lack of concern over where to find it

Using more than one type of soap

Furniture and soft surfaces

Storage and overneccesary supplies

Daily clothing choices which account for style

Being in a room alone and closing the door

Regulating the temperature and avoiding reverting to primal brain due to heat or cold

Controlling my sensory intake

Proximity to civilized destinations and a variety of transportation means

Knowing each day where I will lie down for the night

Decorating spaces which are my own

Feeling entitled towards ownership of a particular place

Indoor plumbing and using toilet paper rather than rocks and pinecones

Appliances that eliminate human labor eg. washing machines

Spaces designed for focus

Faith in the capability of my shelter to keep out wetness

Feeling completely safe and at home

Ice cream

The view from my front door for a week in Joshua Tree

Gains

Watching the passage of time in the movement of the sun and stars

Writing letters as a realistic means of communication

Knowing the moon’s comings and goings and remembering events by it

Hearing coyotes sing before sunrise

Making fires for necessary warmth and sharing body heat

Seeing the sunrise and sunset every single day

Seeing up to 80 miles just by looking around/ a wide range of vision

Being around glowing, happy people who are also outside

Knowing it has rained for the smell of creosote upon waking

Showering in a rock cave in the hot desert sun

Hearing the small animal sounds—feathers flapping wind, bird feet walking

Falling asleep looking at the stars and moon

Late night scrambles over and through crazy rock formations

Sharing resources and strength and laughter with the only people around

Falling asleep in fresh air

Cooking dinner with a full view of the rising moon over the desert

The feeling of extreme gratitude crawling into a tent bed

Sleeping with only a foam pad between me and the contours of the ground

Being constantly surrounded by natural majesty

The sense of present-mindedness which emerges

Being humbled into sharing things of the earth because around me is not my own

Liberation from the temptations of technology

Freedom from architecture and design which dictate how I should move my body

Gladness in filthiness, bodily humility

Perspective on human constructions

Relief from loneliness, a sense of never being alone

Being immediately surrounded by mostly alive rather than mostly dead things

Walter's Camp on the Lower Colorado River, the sun rising over Arizona

On November 23rd I’m going to fly to Santiago, Chile with no plans but a return flight on January 25th. I want to go as far south in Patagonia as I can, I want to be outside all the time, and I want to learn how to be silly in Spanish. I’ve met so many bold, kind, adventurous educators this fall who have told me week after week that this is a good idea. Here are three women I’ve each met only briefly in person but who I believe in, in life and words, and whose storytelling I’m keeping close right now:

Vanessa Friedman : ‘There’s something magnetic about the fearless, badass women exploring our world, some charisma that draws me in. The feeling is not unlike a crush. I am just so in love with every single wild adventurous woman. I love them not just because they are rad and brave and fun and good company, though they are certainly all of those things, but most of all I love them because they inspire me. This is my life, they all seem to be saying steadfastly, their hearts thumping along in rhythm with my own.’

http://www.nylon.com/articles/my-world-my-words-travelling-alone

Rylee Owens: http://ryleeowens.bandcamp.com/releases

Aurora Kushner: http://aurorakushner.com/about/

I got my ticket to Chile using Starbucks wifi after an exhilarating romp with Marce through Yosemite-- napping under El Capitan, jumping in Tenaya Lake, camping overlooking Mono Lake, then driving to Joshua Tree through the Eastern Sierras down the 395

What is Outward Bound education? 1/4: Value-forming experiences

The Outward Bound school that I work for is a school, and when students graduate from the school they receive a certificate, which contains this quote from Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound: ‘The aim of education is to impel people into value-forming experiences, to ensure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an indefatigable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial, and above all, compassion.’

The process and philosophy of effecting that aim has offered itself for miles and miles of conversation and contemplation on lakes, mountains, and ocean. At the very least for my own clarity, I will try to articulate what I think matters most about that earnest project.

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Who are the ‘people’? One of Outward Bound’s central values is inclusion and diversity. Each year, only two or three out of over a hundred courses that the school I work for runs are for ‘struggling teens.’ This summer I had twenty students. They were from Maine, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, North Carolina, California, Hawaii, and South Africa. They were Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, White, Latino, African American, Asian, Native American, they had grown up speaking English, Spanish, French, Cantonese. They came from totally disparate educational experiences, and lived in a housing project, a big city apartment, a newly remodeled home, on a farm, on an island. But they ended up singing the same songs and said to one another things like ‘finally someone who understands me.’

The significant majority of the students I taught made it to Outward Bound through achieving an external scholarship, and many others who didn’t worked and saved for their course. Students attended through Summer Search Boston, Summer Search New York, the Morehead-Cain Foundation, the Portland High School Leadership Award, the Boys and Girls’ Club, Minds Matter New York, the Taber Academy Scholarship, and Outward Bound scholarships. Summer Search is an excellent organization which provides mentorship to promising inner-city minority students, and there are often several students from Summer Search alone on a course, in addition to other organizations with similar goals.

The diversity of experiences within the Outward Bound student body is a central component of the process of Outward Bound education. One model for the Outward Bound process was articulated in 1976 by Walsh and Golins:

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A student (motivated, committed) is placed into a unique physical environment (contrast) and into a unique social environment (allows both individuality and group consciousness, both conflict and resolution), is then given problem-solving tasks and challenges (organized, concrete, incremental, manageable; which require mastery of technical skills) which leads to stress/ anxiety (possibilities: succumbing, coping, thriving) to which student adapts by mastery/ competency (because student is motivated, alert, has group and instructional support, is presented problems that are structured to facilitate mastery) which expands capacity (increased self-awareness, increased self-esteem, increased acceptance of and service to others).

A wilderness expedition provides the opportunity that Kurt Hahn invokes for ‘value-forming experiences.’ On a course, there are some elements that are likely to present a problem-solving challenge to everyone—poling upstream in a rapid, hiking or paddling from 4am until 9pm, spending several days of reflection alone during Solo. Each student may then encounter innumerable other individual challenges that others can’t know. The meaning that they make of those challenges is their own. They may know immediately, they may learn it in ten years.

The end goal of an Outward Bound course is for students to achieve the mastery to run an autonomous expedition, traveling at a distance from their instructors. That means doing it all themselves—figuring out how to provide for their essential needs with new people in a foreign environment while continuously striving to push themselves in challenging expedition travel.

What is this all for? Why invite ‘value-forming experiences’? Why do hard things? Kurt Hahn said, ‘there is more in us than we know, and if we can be made to believe it, perhaps, for the rest of our lives, we will be unwilling to settle for less.’ The root of Outward Bound is that the discovery of that capability allows us to exercise service and compassion towards others. I’ll write about that in the next post.

Sufficiency and Endlessness

‘Admire the world for never ending on you—as you would admire an opponent, without taking your eyes from him, or walking away.’—Annie Dillard in The Writing Life Sleeping on the earth and wanting for nothing

I had a feeling in the Northwoods that I want to recover. We baked bread in a Dutch oven on hot coals, and woke up more than once at 3am to paddle under the stars. In Lobster Lake, I slipped out of the canoe and swam backstroke behind the convoy, belly-up to a wide sky. I slept on the ground in random places and wanted for nothing. I felt that all I needed was immediately at hand.

After a day on the Northeast Carry, an historic canoe portage between the Penobscot River and Moosehead Lake, our students stopped at a small country store, shared stories with the clerk, and picked out Pringles and Skittles. We bobbed in our canoe, looking towards the shore as our students licked their fingers and loaded their boats. The thrill of eating food that didn’t emanate from a shared plastic bag drifted, though. I, too, felt that my prevailing sense of sufficiency required no snacks or surprises. And I wondered how to continue to create opportunities for students to discover sufficiency in the face of another possibility.

Coupled with this sense of sufficiency was an instinct towards endlessness. At each moment of facilitation, choices are innumerable, and we hope the one most needed rears its head. The project of instructing is an endless one, and we were carving a singular trail. One afternoon on Moosehead, I sat on a slab of driftwood and Eli, barefoot, on an island rock, as our students led their own process. We held a waiting sort of contemplation that flows around times of instructing, the cliffs of Kineo a black silhouette before the evening sun. Our four gear packs were set to load into our canoe, a Winonah with high sides and a forgiving lightness. The waves foamed and crashed, everything was completely wet and completely dry all at once. The endlessness was about us and within us.

An expedition, a group forming, an instructing project takes so many gatherings and dispensings. Then there comes a point where what’s there is there and that’s sufficient. Like plaster slowly molding in your hands, the moment arrives when what is gathered becomes what the experience is-- the food packed, necessities collected, rivers run, moose, wrong turns, laughter, rain, weariness, exaltation, workings-out, yellow skies, moony paddles.

Preparation

These are days of preparations. Of sortings and imaginings and mundane seeming necessities and small purchases and payments and fulfilling obligations. These are days not long remembered, but they call ahead to others. These days of preparation are days placed in cities, nearby refills, washers and replacements. They are the servants of the days they realize, in farther, wilder places. The city’s preparations are tangible and evident in each small object lined up at attention before the journey, in each text and tool and means. In eagerness, their necessity is bemoaned but never doubted.

The city came as a complete shock. There was nothing, in the roughness and stillness of three weeks of woods and waterways, that prepared me for such cross purposes as the city, even small community, presented. How would it feel for the wilderness to be a preparation in equal measure? That almost asks too much.

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One day I cycled 100 miles through the mountains to Vermont and lived by Lake Willoughby for one week all alone, in a little private space. I wondered if it was neglectful to not see being away as a preparation for re-entry. Away from what? I feel at times that I want a small life, an unpublic life, a life where all of my outputs, of every sort, are accounted for. I think I come from people who try to make sense of large things, who comprehend their meaning and place and service within a wide society, where the public is a calling. I want to live close to water, mountains, and animals, and do things that I consider to be service happily and frequently. I want to exchange skills and make things regularly, to build fires, and to easily forget to shower. I want each object that I use to be multi-purposed, re-purposed, sturdy. I want to live with hopeful people who are physically strong of their own creation. I want to read books and to admire how words make one place into many. Can a private, wild life be an impactful life?

This is a blunt prod:

‘Why not stay out there in the wilderness the rest of your days? Because that's not where men are. The final test for me of the legitimacy of the experience is “How well does your experience of the sacred in nature enable you to cope more effectively with the problems of mankind when you come back to the city?”’ – Willi Unsoeld

Five and more surprising things about the past

Sometimes people ask me to tell them some charmingly entertaining thing about the past. I’m not very good at trivia and at procuring astonishing tidbits but there are plenty of strange things I come across that make me go ‘whaaaaaat?!’ Here are five and more random things. 1. There was no email.

Robert Hooke was a technician for the Royal Society in the late seventeenth century and he came up with an idea for quickly conveying messages across long distances: hold up large letters on the roofs of buildings which form a code which can be read at a distance through a telescope. (1)IMG_0719

Hooke was fascinated by optics. Here's his image of a period as seen through a microscope. (2)

2. Rocks went to the doctor.

‘It is important to note that materials we now think of as inanimate were not regarded as such in the pre-industrial world. Minerals and metals grew in the earth and they had to be purged and tempered in order to bring them into a healthy state. Books of secrets often indiscriminately mix medical recipes for human health with instructions for pigment, dye and metallurgical recipes. This should not be seen as a random combination, for all these recipes operate on the basis of the same coordinates of the four humours and qualities and the same principles of tempering in order to bring about balance (and thus health).’ (3)

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This is an image from a sixteenth century mining treatise of the blood of Christ working through the seven planets (sun, moon, and five planets then known) and then into the seven metals (illustrated by the horizontal and vertical bands) at the center of the earth. (4)

3.a. We are only recently lucky enough to be plagued by repetitive, identical ads.

As Adrian Johns argues in The Nature of the Book, ‘it has been widely claimed that the deployment of identical texts and images on a very large scale is central to the experience of modern life.’ (5)

3. b. What people did when they said they were reading in the past was different.

Johns: ‘Almost all historians put themselves in the place of early modern readers and assume that their own act of reading replicates that of their historical counterparts. But this substitution may not be entirely innocuous. A rather different approach is suggested if one identifies reading itself as a skill, just as historically specific as the more obvious dexterity involved in experimentation. If reading has a history, then assuming that modern readers’ responses to a printed page accurately reproduce those of seventeenth-century men and women becomes problematic.’ (6)

3. c. You had to do more than write to be an author.

Johns argues that in the seventeenth century, ‘An author is taken to be someone acknowledged as responsible for a given printed (or sometimes written) work; that is, authorship is taken to be a matter of attribution by others, not of self-election. A writer is anyone who composes such a work. A writer therefore may or may not attain authorship. A text is the content of any written or printed work, considered apart from its particular material manifestation.’ (7)

4. The geography of the earth is in our minds!

Continental divisions and the organization of oceans that we now see as normal were formalized in the nineteenth century and serve specific political interests. Continents and oceans are just one way or organizing our knowledge of the physical world, among others. Our understanding of continental divisions as natural glosses the historical production of geographic divisions and leads to environmental determinism. This is the argument of Lewis and Wigen’s influential 1997 book The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography.

5. In a little town in early modern Spain, acorns were infinite.

‘The acorn harvest must have been an exciting and impressive time. According to the council of Montánchez (Cáceres), the local oak woodlands produced an ‘infinity’ of acorns which supported numerous herds of swine and other large and small animals.’ (8)

Notes:

  1. R. Iliffe, ‘Material Doubts: Hooke, Artisan Culture and the Exchange of Information in 1670s London’ in The British Journal for the History of Science, 28.3 (1995), pp.285-318.
  2. A. Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (2000), p.430
  3. P. Smith, ‘Ch.2: What is a Secret? Secrets and Craft Knowledge in Early Modern Europe’ in E. Leong and A. Rankin, eds., Secrets in Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500-1800 (2011), pp.47-68.
  4. P. Smith, ‘Ch. 1. Making as Knowing: Craft as Natural Philosophy’ in P. Smith, A. Meyers and H. Cook, eds., Ways of Making and Knowing: The Material Culture of Empirical Knowledge (2014), p. 17- 47.
  5. Johns, p. 629.
  6. Johns, p 46.
  7. Johns, p xxi.
  8. D. Vassberg, Land and Society in Golden Age Castile (1984), p.37-8.

Remembering the wild

It is in vain to dream of a wildnessdistant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog of our brains and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream.

-Thoreau’s Journal Aug 30, 1856, epitaph to S. Schama, Landscape and Memory (1995).

I’ve been missing the wild. Maybe what that means is I’ve been missing the rhythms of what’s not me in me. I’ve been missing having myself before me and outside me, where what I do is nouny and rough and evident. But what is missing the wild? Where did it go?

The wild offers itself as something material and bodily to be missed. Last August I wrote an entry in my journal on Day 17 of a 22-day course, ‘Things I will miss: this feeling I have now sitting on a log in the evening at Shelter Cove and being in the middle of the woods but feeling clean and dry, not wearing a bra or underwear as the summer wind blows and the sun shines through the trees, choosing each consecutive action, apart from this brief moment of writing, on the basis of often selfless necessity, feeling in my body still the rocking motion of a canoe afloat, being more freckled, more muscular, watching the sky for vital signs that will define my day, waking up at 3:30am and seeing Orion set and the golden sunrise from the canoe, knowing exactly what to do and having enough energy because I have to know what to do and I must have enough energy.’

It’s only a dream of modernity that the wild is not always, always pressed against me. That my rhythms are all my own. Early modern people had a wildly different understanding of ‘the bog of our brains and bowels’ based on the Hippocratic theory of health. Hippocrates upheld a humoral view, where good health depended upon the balance of various humours within the body (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile). The primary source of that balance was an equilibrium between an organism and its environment, and the theory acknowledges a great degree of permeability between the two.

This view dramatically shifted in the nineteenth century with the introduction of bacterial theory, which blamed an external agent for illness, rather than an overall equilibrium. Disease came to be situated specifically in the body, and the surrounding environment, as Linda Nash argues, became ‘a passive and homogeneous space’ (211). The enlivening of our own wilderness and the wilderness outside us is mutually dependent. When I am missing the wild, perhaps I am missing the fact of my own wilderness, I am missing this wide wide sense of health.

On the environment and health, see: L. Nash, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge (2006). Nash takes the California Central Valley as a case as she advocates for a view of disease which takes more account of environmental factors. She contends that ‘the narrow situating of disease in the organic dysfunction of bodies and particular pathogens begins to look like a brief period of modernist amnesia’ (6).

G. Mitman, ‘In search of health: Landscape and Disease in American Environmental History’ in Environmental History 10.2 (2005). Greg Mitman similarly focuses on histories of landscape and disease, and contends that the concept of health offers a ‘means of rethinking nature and how we come to know the natural world.’ When we separate our own wilderness from the wilderness outside us, Mitman is suggesting, both have perished.

A. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949; 1966). In Leopold’s famous environmentalist journal, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold understands both human health and the health of the land to be based upon the possibility of ‘internal self-renewal.’ Leopold observes that what we take to be facts of degradation are rather symptoms of a sick land. ‘The art of land doctoring is being practiced with vigor, but the science of land health is yet to be born’ (251).

I recently came across Kathleen Dean Moore, a writer in residence in 2013 at Denali National Park. I think her short essays are a reminder of how health and the wild can be remembered in words.

Waiting

It seems like the students are waiting for something. I’m teaching a class at a public middle school in Boston, and on my first day of teaching it struck me that everyone was waiting. They’re waiting for the next activity, for the class to end, to go home at the end of the day, to be out of middle school, sometimes to be out of Boston. The middle school is large, and dismissal takes place over the course of at least 20 minutes, during which students remain in the classroom of their last class and wait for their bus to be called over the intercom. There’s a transition, then, from waiting as posturing during class, to literal waiting, when students aren’t allowed to leave the room for any reason, even to use the restroom. The transition to dismissal time is sometimes subtle, and the sense of waiting for the time to pass pervades. It seems like teachers are waiting too, for the sense of relief as the hallways clear, for students to settle down, for support, for appreciation. The waiting itself is distracting. I’m in a special position, though, coming in as a volunteer unbeholden to anyone else’s timetable. I want my students to stop waiting, just for awhile, and be right here. I want them to feel that they’re part of what happens around them, that their not-waiting is needed and that they are needed. I want what they learn to be so fabulous and necessary that they go after it and want it to not be over. If they wait, I want it to be with breathless anticipation. If they wait, I want it to be a waiting that feels the passing of time more heavily than not, the waiting before finding out.

For Dewey, being in the moment is central to learning. ‘We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future.’ That eloquent statement comes from Dewey’s rejection of ‘preparation’ as a way of validating education in and of itself. I think this sort of future-oriented education is ever more pervasive, and one of the criteria I’m told to meet through my middle school class is college readiness. There can be slippage between preparation and waiting. I want my students to know today, though. I want them to feel in their bodies what it’s like to be in eighth grade, and how the sun moves across our sundial in March specifically, in the cold air, today.

The website of Teaching for Understanding, an initiative through the Harvard Graduate School of Education, poses the question ‘what is something you really understand?’ When I read that, I wondered if I could write a short list. I discovered that there are few things I really feel I understand, and those things are not the things that I spend most of my (academic) time trying to understand. This was a sort of delightful realization, though, and I didn’t really mind. Realizing you don’t understand something reveals a certain sense of acquaintance.

So there’s another alternative—if not an uncomfortable, eager, motivating sort of waiting, I want for my students a delighted waiting. I want a waiting that acknowledges endlessness, where that endlessness is inside. I want waiting for understanding to be a curious internal unfolding. There are so many ways to provide situations for this type of learning, and so many ways not to. I like imagining these students as their best learner selves, in curious eagerness and curious patience, and I go from there.

Dewey, Experience and Education, p.49.

Craftsmanship and Good Enough

There are four pillars that guide Outward Bound education—physical fitness, self reliance, craftsmanship, and service and compassion. I think craftsmanship means doing things with excellence, ‘whatever you do is worth doing well.’ It means not only performing a skill with excellence, but also doing little things like taking the plastic cap and ring off a milk carton in the recycling. I find this principle the hardest to understand right now. I consider myself a fairly thoughtful and careful person, but when I have craftsmanship in mind, I’m sometimes taken aback at how many little things I do without the utmost craftsmanship. Paddling with Robbin on course last summer

I just finished a book on the relationship between Taoist philosophy and experiential education, Simpson’s The Leader Who is Hardly Known, and it helped me think about craftsmanship in a different way. Simpson outlines a number of qualities of Tao leadership which are qualities also valued in experiential educators. These include humility, tolerance, wu-wei (non-action, or non-contrivance ie. teaching through teachable moments which arrive of their own accord), calm steadiness, and moderation. Simpson describes the quality of moderation as the understanding that ‘good enough is good enough.

Thinking about doing work that’s good enough, rather than done with craftsmanship, brings into focus the question, ‘good enough for what? for whom?’ Last summer we taught our students the knots necessary to set up camp. Knots are a great lesson because if you can make a knot with craftsmanship, it works, and you know right away. Mid-way through the course the students invented the J-knot, which was a tangled mess of p-cord, but which several of them could replicate, and which also worked. It wasn’t crafty, and it wasn’t good enough for the learning goals of the course, but it was good enough for the circumstances, and the students decided that it was good enough for them.

Calling something ‘good enough’ also introduces a sense of endlessness, whereas ‘craftsmanship’ feels more static. A few days I had a great session doing yoga—I felt strong, and attentive to many parts of my body, and deliberate about my alignment. I got good feedback from my instructor, and I felt proud that I had just spent two hours focusing on doing something specific with excellence. It seemed like it would cheapen the accomplishment if I told myself that I had done yoga in a way that was ‘good enough.’ Yet I’m just a beginner at yoga. Perhaps it’s more cheapening to call what I had achieved after several months of practice ‘craftsmanship.’ It was really just good enough for where I am right now.

Simpson suggests leading students to discover what is good enough through providing challenges where the measure of good enough is obvious to everyone. The wilderness often gives us instant feedback. Simpson also suggests leading students in activities that are intrinsically motivating. ‘A way that an experiential educator can train people to develop their sense of good enough is to help students find happiness by doing the things that are important to them—doing them without fear of not being good enough—doing them without concern for how long it takes’ (60). It seems that when people perform skills that they perceive to be intrinsically worthwhile, the distinction between ‘good enough’ and craftsmanship fades.

Steven Simpson, The Leader Who Is Hardly Known: Self-less Teaching from the Chinese Tradition (2003).