Last fall I was amazed by the autumn foliage. It was an especially vivid season, and also Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Autumnal Tints,” had inspired me to seek out the colors. This year the foliage has been somewhat muted. A disappointment? — only if you must have big bright shapes. Lean to focus and there’s always something to observe. I’ve found when seen up close a single maple leaf fills the field of vision, just the same as the forest from a distance.
With a Nor’easter blowing in, it was touch and go, but I managed just barely to complete the Grid for October, and along the way was the chance to explore some off-trail ridges. These are magical places that make you feel like you’re walking across a suspension bridge, or the battlements of a castle. They give you a break from the claustrophobic tangles that blanket much of the Catskills, reveal the wild and soaring topography of the mountains, let you revel in space and light.
In Whitman: A Study, east coast naturalist John Burroughs presented his friend Walt Whitman as the poet of democracy, primal man, visionary of the open air, barbarian in the parlor, force of nature, prophet. The famous literary critic Harold Bloom goes even further, placing Whitman on par with Shakespeare and describing him as “the greatest artist his nation has brought forth” and “as close to an authentic American saint as we will ever know.” I was thus very excited recently to come across Whitman’s memoir, Speciman Days, which would give me a chance to better understand the poet’s vision.
Speciman Days is not a conventional life story but rather a series of vignettes. What I loved the most was how Whitman described the simple experience of being outdoors, which was for him a source of health, joy, and even ecstasy, and also the standard of beauty against which he judged art and literature. In fact, the outdoors life was in his view critical for “the whole politics, sanity, religion, and art of the New World.” Without a direct connection to nature, he warned, American democracy would “dwindle and pale.”
Readers of this blog won’t be surprised that I sympathize with this view. But in modern America, the outdoors life is for the most part a thing of the past: according to recent data, the average American today spends only 7% of their time outdoors.
Should we be worried?
The original Blade Runner movie made a deep impression on me when it was released in 1982, especially the last few seconds, when the protagonists escape from the dark, rainy, urban disaster zone of future Los Angeles into sunlit forests and mountains — the only glimpse of nature in the 1-hour 57-minute film. Thus I was very curious when Blade Runner 2049 showed up in theaters a few weeks ago.
The timing was fortuitous, because I’d recently read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the 1974 classic by Robert Pirsig, which opens with a motorcycle trip into the fresh air and sunshine of the countryside, an attempt to escape a lifestyle increasingly shaped and dominated by technology. Or perhaps, as the novel’s protagonist muses, it’s not technology itself but some kind of force that gives rises to technology: “something undefined, but inhuman, mechanical, lifeless, a blind monster, a death force.”
Dread of technology is not recent. A copy of Walden tucked away in the protagonist’s motorcycle saddle-bag calls to mind Henry David Thoreau’s warning that “men have become the tool of their tools.” For Thoreau, dependence on technology was a form of enslavement, and his famous observation that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” seems to be the implicit premise in both Pirsig’s novel and the tech noir genre to which the Blade Runner films belong.
Of course, we need technology to survive. Pirsig adds that without it, “there would be no possibility for beauty in the arts,” as the words “technology” and “art” both refer to the process of making things…. But the fear remains: that technology has taken on a life of its own, that it is reordering human existence according to mechanical rules, that the end result for us will not be the light and beauty of nature, but rather despair and the grim urban decay through which the blade runner stalks his prey.
The fall foliage this year has disappointed, possibly due to warm temperatures persisting into late October, but on the drive up to the Catskills, the maples growing high atop the Shawangunk ridge were glowing in such exotic shades of yellow, orange, and red — and creating such a kaleidoscopic effect that it took a conscious effort to focus on the winding road.
It was time for something new. I could hardly count the times I’ve done the 8-mile loop from Balsam Lake Mountain (BLM) to Graham and back, starting and ending at the Dry Brook Ridge parking area. OK, I’ll try: three times this year, once last year, and a long time ago I took my son Philip, then five years old, on approximately this route for an overnight camping trip. I’ve also come at Graham/BLM from Doubletop, which entails a difficult bushwhack across a steep divide; most recently in August 2016 as part of an aborted attempt to thru-hike the 35, and once the year before.
Studying the map, I’ve discovered a different route connecting these three peaks, one that circles around into a valley to the west through which the Hardenburgh Trail runs — an area I’ve never seen before….
With 232 Catskill climbs under my belt, I’m 55% of the way through the Grid. I wasn’t able to put much of a dent in September, only 43% complete — there were too many conflicts, like the SRT Race and and a trip to the Adirondacks — but October is coming together nicely with 74% done and plenty of time left in the month.
Here are a few notes from recent hikes, the purpose being to document the experiences before they’re forgotten…. Continue reading “Random Notes – Fall Hikes”