A week or so ago, our friends Ann and Jules invited me and my wife over to dinner, and after an excellent meal, Ann played a recording for us. It was the poet Robert Frost, reading his poem, “birches“:
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do.
Having just returned from a hike in the Catskills, I had to interject here and point out that in the mountains of southern New York, it’s not the birches that are bent over after winter storms, but rather the fir and spruce saplings, which are often crushed to the ground under heavy loads of snow. Robert Frost lived in New Hampshire, I explained, and no doubt conditions up there are different.
Needless to say, on the very next hike in the Catskills, I was overwhelmed by bent-over birches….
InWhitman: 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.
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.
With respect to completing the Grid for September, I was full of valiant intention, prepared to squeeze hikes in at odd hours, take the month’s last week off entirely, whatever it would take — but there was still the sore ankle to contend with. So I settled for a 6.6-mile round-trip to Panther Mountain, at night since that was the available window, and instead of covering a lot of ground, I’d look and listen and ponder.
In a recent post on lichens, I quoted from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” I also mentioned that Whitman’s poetry echoes 13th-century Japanese Zen Master Dogen, who wrote: “There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass.” These sages question the modern propositions that big is more impressive than small, that sentience is only a human quality, that loafing around is a waste of time.
My last climb for August would be Windham High Peak, and as I began to plan the hike, I suddenly recalled that unlike many Catskill mountains, the path to Windham is lined with grass. There would be, it seemed, the opportunity to achieve three goals with one hike: to reach the summit, to observe the grasses along the way (and perhaps identify a species or two), and to reflect on Whitman’s message.
During a recent visit to the Adirondacks, I couldn’t help but admire the lichens. These diminutive vegetative creatures (a mix of fungus and algae or cyanobacteria) thrive in the boreal forests that cloak the high peaks. Why lichens? Once you learn to focus in on very small scale, you discover a world of beauty and mystery. This idea was expressed by 13th century Zen Master Dogen using the metaphor of the moon reflected in a drop of dew (“there are mountains hidden in hiddenness”) and 600 years later in the opening stanza of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: “I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.” Appreciate the small patterns of nature, and you will never suffer from a lack of beauty, which is why Henry David Thoreau wrote that the “lichenist fats where others starve….his provender never fails.”
With thanks to nature photographer John Franklin for helping me identify the species, here is a sampling of what I encountered:
I’ve been reading a very good biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that’s been encouraging me to think about and try to articulate why I seek to spend so much time on the trails:
As modern society is becoming more and more digital, I want to stay physically active, as it seems to me mind and body completely are intertwined, so one can’t be healthy and happy without the other
As the world is becoming more and more artificial, I want to spend time in nature, which seems like the real source of joy and exhilaration, of which media and other content are but faint imitations
As people are becoming more and more interconnected, I want to cultivate an attitude of self-reliance, not meaning that I shun relationships, but rather how can you interact meaningfully with others if you can’t stand on your own two feet
Which brings me back to the Grid, which is the goal of climbing all 35 of the Catskills’ high peaks in every calendar month. Heading into August, I was in pretty good shape, with 27 done and only 8 left to go, thanks in large part to my August 2016 attempt to thru-hike the entire 35.
Here are some notes from a recent hike where I completed 6 of the remaining 8 together with my friend Alan D.