Surprise. On the way to (yet) another race, I’ve pulled off the New Jersey Turnpike — desperate for coffee, water, a break from unpredictable traffic (speeds of up to 95 MPH) — and here I find myself, suddenly, in the Walt Whitman Service Area. Whitman being, to some, the greatest artist America has produced. The singer of the open road. The poet of Democracy. I did not know there was a Service Area named for him. After the race I’m planning to visit his gravesite, which lies a few miles distant. First, though, I must complete the Delaware Running Festival Marathon in nearby Wilmington, my 100th event of marathon distance or longer. Which begs the question — what next?
In April 2021, I reached my 7,000th mile of hiking, running, and walking barefoot, accumulated over roughly seven years. Now — five months later — the mileage stands at 8,034. I seem to be picking up the pace. Which supports the thesis that practice makes you stronger (at least until age catches up). The real thesis, though, is that life is better with more nature and less technology.
The pivotal scene in the 2019 science-fiction film, Alita: Battle Angel, occurs when the heroine emerges from the lake, cradling a headless metallic body. This is the shell of a Berserker cyborg warrior. It will give Alita the strength to go into battle against her foes. You see, Alita is herself a cyborg — the only part of her body that’s human is her brain.
The movie presents a future in which people swap out flesh and blood for technology. For the current generation, this is fantasy, but for the next generation (or their children), maybe not. So let’s ask the question — what’s the downside to this trade?
The Nine is not for the faint of heart. It’s a daunting 20-mile route which summits nine of the Catskill High Peaks — and it’s longer if you get lost, for what’s especially challenging is that five of the peaks have no trails, which means it’s necessary to “bushwhack” or move through the forest using map, compass, and GPS. Even with this gear, navigation is no simple task, for the terrain is steep and rocky, and the forests thick and tangled, which renders “the eye of little service,” as Catskills author John Burroughs wryly noted.
I had completed the Nine, or parts thereof, on several occasions: once trying to run it for speed, once at night, once in the winter. In April 2016, as a novice barefoot hiker, I tried to complete the Nine without shoes, but after six of the peaks I’d had enough. A year later I tried again and this time gave up after a single peak, defeated by the rocky trails.
Over time, my practice of running and hiking continued to evolve in a minimalist direction. I developed an interest in “natural navigation” (moving through the forest without technology — meaning no map, no compass, no GPS). I began to incorporate intermittent fasting into my dietary and training plans. And I became somewhat more experienced at going barefoot. One day these themes coalesced in my mind, and I came up with a grand plan: to complete the Nine not only barefoot, but navigating naturally, and without carrying food or water. I would call this the Diogenes Challenge, after the ancient Greek philosopher who advocated for simplicity and self-discipline.
Upon reflection, however, the Diogenes Challenge seemed like a little too much, even for an arch-minimalist like me. I quietly let it slide and focused on other things.
Until one day my friend Kal Ghosh asked, when were we going to do it?
As a teenager I studied the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Now, decades later, here I was on an airplane flight from New York to Texas, rereading Beyond Good and Evil, when I came across one of his most widely-quoted aphorisms: “When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”
I paused to ponder what Nietzsche might have meant. Was this a comment on the risk of excessive introspection? (He’d prefaced the statement by cautioning that people who fight monsters may themselves become monsters.) Or was he expressing a concern about the spirit of nihilism, for elsewhere he wrote that the self contains an “abysmal sickness, weariness, discouragement” – symptoms of the impoverishment of life that results when the “will to power” turns against itself.
The dictionary defines abyss as “a deep or seemingly bottomless chasm.” I imagined a tunnel deep within myself, reaching back into my distant memories, or perhaps even farther back into a realm of ancestral knowledge. Maybe this tunnel would lead all the way back to the beginnings of life, maybe it would contain clues to the primordial forces that animate living beings.
Looking up from the book for a moment, I glanced out the airplane window and found that staring straight at me was — a cloud.
This was a year or two ago. Since then this strange idea has stuck with me, namely, that deep within the abyss you might find a cloud….
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 rightAcross the lines of straighter darker trees,I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stayAs ice-storms do.
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.
In a recent essay for the New York Times, performance coach Brad Stulberg advocates for the “unbalanced” life. He explains that “the times in my life during which I’ve felt happiest and most alive are also the times that I’ve been the most unbalanced.” These were times when he was fully consumed by a particular activity, whether trekking in the Himalayas, training to set a personal record in the triathlon, or writing a book. Sticking with a more balanced lifestyle might have precluded these “formative experiences.”
Brad goes on to quote elite athletes who also urge people to “give it your all.” The idea is enticing: who wouldn’t want to clear away distractions and throw themselves passionately into a single special activity?
But whether unbalance is the best strategy is debatable. There’s a simple approach to allocating time among activities, and that’s to spend the incremental hour where you get the highest pay-off. Because talents and aspirations differ, what seems balanced for one person might be unbalanced for another. The more important question is how to achieve a state of inner balance.
In The Practice of The Wild, Beat poet, Zen student, and environmentalist Gary Snyder writes of stepping off the beaten path. This metaphor brings to mind the 19th century Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who advocated for “absolute freedom and wildness,” and who strongly preferred sauntering through the woods to walking the public road. These authors have attracted a large following among nature-lovers, environmentalists, and even anarchists, many of whom crave independence from the constraints of modern society, and some of whom advocate for “rewilding” or a return to ancestral lifestyles. But a close reading of Snyder and Thoreau finds little support for “human wildness,” i.e., a state of being free of social constraint. Rather, they portray wildness as a fleeting experience and use the word more as a metaphor for creativity and originality. Once we understand this point, we find that the key to absolute freedom is not to be found in nature, but rather in the spirit of self-reliance and self-discipline – or put differently, the wild must indeed be “practiced.”