Spring has come to the Shawangunks: sunny days, crocuses bursting from damp earth, red clouds of maple buds, pin-pricks of yellow on the forsythia canes. There are birds everywhere: robins hopping through the grass, tufted titmouses calling out, “PETER, PETER, PETER,” red-winged blackbirds darting through the fields, swallows racing across the sky. And from deep in the woods, spring frogs peeping away!
But reports are coming in of more snow in the Catskills, and on the drive out of the city, the distant mountain wall is deep white, flawless, flowing, molded white, white like porcelain. Not what I’d hoped for….
The next morning I’m off for the first hike of April, and no fool, I’ve brought spikes, snowshoes, the arctic sleeping bag, all the burdensome winter gear.
To the north, the Catskills stand out shining white just like the day before, but today a swirl of clouds is sitting above the peaks, the result of air flows pushing up and over the three thousand-foot mass, creating a weather system unique to the mountain environment. To the east, bands of clouds alternating darker and lighter gray and shading to blue along the horizon — no movement here, rather an impression of stasis, as if time has come to a halt. That’s a function of my limited perception: speed up the clock, and the gray layers would be billowing like a blanket being shaken out, or like waves rolling in with the tide. And just like the tide, Spring is surely flowing in, but the trend is obscured by enormous variability, such as that surprising warm spell in February, which was followed by four snowstorms in March. A wave of warmth is poised to break upon the mountains, just not quite yet.
And definitely not today: I watch the car’s thermometer gradually sinking, until arriving at the Biscuit Brook trailhead, it reads 23 F, and just as I feared, the parking area is covered in snow. “Endurance is nobler than strength,” John Ruskin advised, “and patience than beauty,” and he must have had people like me in mind.
What is it about winter that’s so trying? Not everything is bad: this morning the trail is well-trampled (snowshoes carried but not needed), there’s a glimmer of sun, the Biscuit Brook trills in the distance. I step across a small creek, where cold water pours off a ledge, ice glitters on on the rocks and covers a small pool with a translucent skim, sunlight shimmers on the bottom — the scene has a certain crystalline clarity. But it doesn’t warm the heart. Besides the stream, the forest is quiet. The vegetation slumbers, the animals are hidden, the birds silent, the insects waiting to hatch or emerge. Everything is covered in a dense white coating — and while this substance was recently tumbling within the clouds, and while it will soon enough find its way into the streams — for now it is totally inert.
One might describe this forest as a winter wonderland, but for our distant ancestors, it would’ve been a deathscape, eager to suck the warmth from unclothed bodies, and providing little in the way of sustenance. The winter forest evokes in me the same feeling that Thoreau expressed with regard to the barren rocky shoulders of Mt. Ktaadin:
Vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature has got [the solitary climber] at disadvantage, caught him alone, and pilfers him of some of his divine faculty. She does not smile on him as in the plains. She seems to say sternly, Why came ye here before your time. This ground is not prepared for you. Is it not enough that I smile in the valleys? I have never made this soil for thy feet, this air for thy breathing, these rocks for thy neighbors. I cannot pity nor fondle thee here, but forever relentlessly drive thee hence to where I am kind. Why seek me where I have not called thee, and then complain because you find me but a stepmother? Shouldst thou freeze or starve, or shudder thy life away, here is no shrine, nor altar, nor any access to my ear.
— Henry David Thoreau, “In the Maine Woods”
The route to Fir’s summit leaves the trail and heads uphill through open forest. It’s all fresh snow with no tracks, and even with snowshoes now on, each step sinks in 2-4″, puncturing a thin crust where the sun has touched the surface, while under dense foliage it’s all silky powder. Either way, the snow sucks out the momentum from every stride. My GPS watch reads 0.7-0.9 mph, a miserable pace, and my frustration grows.
What’s wrong with this winter environment is that it’s so sterile, there’s so little to see or experience. Although to be fair, here’s a glimpse of sheer cliffs guarding nearby Spruce Mountain’s summit, and off in the distance, there’s Slide Mountain’s stern profile, a dark gray-purple frown underneath gray sky. But these glimpses are not enough. At a faster pace, these observations might sustain me: they would flicker by with enough speed to create the impression of life, which is to say speed would serve to animate the landscape — but right now as far as pace, I might as well be marching through molasses. The overwhelming sense of frustration reminds me of how I’ve felt from time to time working in an office when there wasn’t much to do, or walking along a city block, crowded, dirty, dank, depressing — these are for me similarly sterile environments.
I clump on through the snow, the scene grim, the pace pitiful, the frustration boiling away (it’s a feeling of getting trapped!) — when a branch knocks the hat off my head. It’s too much, I wail in helpless rage.
Socrates was said to have a “daemon” (or “daimon” or “daimonion”), which in Ancient Greek lore was variously described as an inferior deity, a local spirit, the soul of a dead hero, a personal oracle, a “divine something.” Socrates’ daemon had been with him since he was a child and acted like a guardian spirit, speaking up on occasion to prohibit courses of action that would have had unhappy outcomes. It occurs to me that possibly I have a daemon, too, although mine acts a little differently: it craves intensity and variety and demands motion, and when there’s nothing going on, it gets angry and starts cracking the whip. Perhaps this kind of urge to move is universal, or perhaps my daemon is the spirit of a long-dead scout or messenger, who’s no doubt frustrated that he can no longer run.
I persevere to the summit and am chased back down by a handful of snowflakes, and by the time I’m back at the car, I feel somewhat winded. Slumping on the heated seat and listening to music seems like an attractive option, but there’s more to do because April’s another big month for the Grid with eighteen peaks left (now that Fir is done). Driving north I crest a rise and come face-to-face with Giant’s Ledge silhouetted again Panther Mountain, the two peaks arranged in enfilade. This striking view decides the next hike.
Giant’s Ledge is a popular destination, and here the trail has been compacted into a snowy/icy surface as hard and level as a sidewalk. I power hike up the hill at a pretty good pace and immediately start feeling better. From vantage points on Giant’s Ledge, Woodland Valley spills out below into a convoluted maze of valleys and ridges. There’s a view of Slide to the south, looking like a Sphinx with head and haunch held up as the beast rests on folded legs. John Burroughs saw it somewhat differently:
The horse has got his head down grazing; the shoulders are high, and the descent from them down his neck very steep; if he were to lift up his head, one sees that it would be carried far above all other peaks, and that the noble beast might gaze straight to his peers in the Adirondacks or the White Mountains. But the lowered head never comes up; some spell or enchantment keeps it down there amid the mighty herd; and the high round shoulders and the smooth strong back of the steed are alone visible
— John Burroughs, “In the Heart of the Southern Catskills”
Cornell has a toothy grin, a band of sandstone ledges near the top, where on one side you clamber up and can look back and admire Slide, and on the other side this is the notorious “Cornell Crack,” a fissure in the blocks you must lower yourself down carefully.
Moving quickly now, it’s on to Panther’s summit, and when I get there, a discovery: a view of St. Anne’s Peak, North Dome, and Sherrill, roughly nine miles away to the northeast. For all the times I’ve been to Panther (ten times — although admittedly sometimes at night), this is the first time I’ve looked to the left and picked out these peaks — in fact, I’ve never seen these three from afar from any vantage point (this sight alone is enough to justify all the day’s exertions!).
From the ledge on Panther’s summit, there’s an 180-degree vista of mountains billowing like waves: rising with the convulsions in the earth’s crust, falling as the water cuts away at their slopes. Low-lying clouds are moving in from the north, and blowing mist soon obscures the mountain scene, but to the south it’s clear, the valley plains are free of snow, the sky glows robin’s egg blue along the horizon. I watch the cloudshow with fascination, despite hands that are getting cold.
Eventually the disturbance passes and drags away the haze, for St. Anne’s Peak snaps into view with an astonishing clarity, as if you could see every tree on its slope, while down below in Woodland Valley a handful of houses pops out in sharp relief.
I hustle back along the trail, feeling like I’ve found something valuable and eager to bring it home before it can spoil. Pindar wrote of the daemon that “it sleeps when the limbs are active,” and now my daemon (if that’s the right term) seems quiet or perhaps it’s feeling in sync with the quicker pace and passing views. Spared of the whip, my conscious mind wanders freely about, chattering to itself about various topics. My left ankle complains from time to time on the steeper descents. That part of the “I” which is really me tries to make sense of this three-ring circus, while watching where to step.
On the drive home, the sun setting somewhere out of sight, the bottom of one twilight-blue cloud glowing orange, while mist falls to the east.
References to Socrates’ daemon and other quotes come from Alton R. Pope, “Daimonion of Socrates : a search for definition and an epistemological assessment,” 1969.
I have a certain divine guide, I have had it from childhood. It is a kind of voice
which, whenever I hear it, always turns me back from something which I was going to do, but never urges me to act….I am persuaded that it was better for me to die
now, and to be released from trouble; and that was the reason why the guide never turned me back. And so I am not at all angry with my accusers or with those who have condemned me to die.
— Socrates, in Plato’s Apology
They do not see the cause, their own inner tunelessness and discord, from which Socrates our friend had been set free, as the oracle given to his father when he was yet a boy declared. For it bade him allow his son to do whatever came into his mind; not to force nor direct his goings, but to let his impulse have free play, only to pray for him to Zeus Agoraios and to the Muses, but for all else not to meddle with Socrates; meaning no doubt that he had within him a guide for his life who was better than ten thousand teachers and directors.
— Plutarch, Life of Socrates
What is commonly called Socrates’ “genius” is of course simply this, that he was accustomed to follow his inward inclinations, and thought that the outcome of his
undertakings would be successful if he had a secret feeling of joy, but would be unsuccessful if he felt sad. But it is true that it would be superstitious to trust in this as much as he is said to have done; for Plato relates that he would even stay at home whenever his genius did not advise him to go out. But as touching the important actions of one’s life, when they appear so uncertain that prudence cannot teach us what we should do, I think it is indeed right to follow the advice of one’s genius, and that it is a good thing to be firmly persuaded that the tasks we undertake without repugnance, with that freedom which usually goes with joy, will not fail to come to a good issue.
— Rene Descartes
Socrates’ daimon was perhaps a sort of impulsion of the will, which made itself felt without waiting for the counsel of his reason. In a well-purified soul, prepared
by the constant practice of wisdom and virtue, as his was, it is very likely that his inclinations, though rash and unconsidered, were always weighty and worthy
to be followed.
Socrate etait un fou, [he was a madman who] believed himself to be attended by a personal genius perceived certainly by the sense of hearing, perhaps also by that of sight, and that these false perceptions or hallucinations grew with his years and with his conviction of their divine origin, until he persuaded himself that he was able by a sort of moral magnetism to exercise a beneficial influence upon his associates, and that at last the hallucination became so strong that it determined him at the trial to throw away his chance of acquittal by a willful defiance of his judges.
— Claude Lelut
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