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.
With a sore ankle slowing me down and limited windows of time, it wasn’t going to be possible to complete the Grid for June, but if I could get a few more peaks done now, then there’d be less work next year. Meanwhile, with the weather finally warming, it would be a wonderful time to explore the mountains and experience the changing conditions of late spring.
Indeed, the variability of the natural environment is one aspect of its beauty. The east coast nature-writer John Burroughs commented that you cannot have good without evil, health without sickness, or pleasure without pain. Applying this philosophy to spring in the Catskills implies you cannot truly appreciate a cool breeze on a warm afternoon without suffering the humidity, haze, and insects that also come with spring. In any case, whatever the mountains might have in store for me would beat the climate-controlled office environment where I spend most of my time.
The day was overcast when Odie and I set out for High Point, not the best conditions for appreciating the 100+ mile views, but you never know when the winds might shift, or what you might see if you opened your eyes.
Thoreau wrote about the brilliant colors of New England’s fall foliage, but I wondered, what about winter? And I found such a wild mix of impressions during my winter runs: sun dazzling against fresh rime ice, clouds rolling in and smothering the world in dim light — one hike was a slog through sand-like snow that spilled out from underfoot and dribbled down the rocks, another a desperate scramble over sheets of ice, and then a storm rolled in with pelting sleet and lightning. Even at night there was a huge variety of sights: solitary farm lights sprinkled across the darkened plains, snowflakes sparkling in the headlamp’s beam, moonlight shining on snow-packed trails so bright you could run without lights, or the crescent moon rising above a distant mountain ridge and glowing in such a strange mix of orange and purple it seemed like a hue that’d never been seen before.
But now it was spring — and everything was changing so quickly, it seemed if you blinked you might miss it all.
So I kept my eyes open as best I could, and here’s a collection of spring impressions, things I noticed while hiking the Long Path along the Hudson River and in the Catskills.
“I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass,” wrote Walt Whitman (1818-1892) in his poem, The Song of Myself, an eerie echo of a theme in 13th century Japanese Zen literature:
There is a world of sentient beings in clouds. There is a world of sentient beings in the air. There is a world of sentient beings in fire…. There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass.
— Mountains and Wates Sutra, Eihei Dogen (1200-1253)
Could there be a world of sentient beings in a piece of lichen?
Last weekend my friend Steve Aaron and I had the privilege of accompanying nature photographer John Franklin on an expedition to Slide Mountain. John is working on a book about New York lichens, and he kindly shared many observations with us as well as some spectacular photographs which are showcased below together with some apropos quotations from Henry David Thoreau.
Inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Autumnal Tints”, last fall I’d headed out in early September, while the mountains were still green, in search of the first red maples turning scarlet. That experience got me thinking: while we all love the fall foliage, what about winter colors? And spring?