The Naked Ground

P1010021Around this time last year, I parked my car, put on my snowshoes, and climbed the steep mound of snow at the edge of the woods. It was cold, but not terribly so, and the light crust across the surface was just enough to make a pleasant whoof with each sinking step. At lower elevations, the snow inside the forest’s edge was only a foot or two deep, but as I climbed higher it increased to three and more. On the high benches above the valley, a comfortable four-foot thick blanket hid most everything.

I spend a lot of time off trails, wandering and traveling in less-beaten, less-accessible places. The rolling topography of New England woods is flattened by a blanket of snow—transformed, really, into a different sort of terrain. Between wind, storms, glaciers, and time, the less accessible parts of the forest are generally strewn with logs and branches, covered with loose soil and leaves, and scattered with heaps of exfoliated rock. The combination of deep snow, moderate crust, and a few soft inches on top makes jumbled forests into new, glorious highways—for animals, and for people who know to take advantage.

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On the Pleasure of Finding Things Out

puzzle_viaLetIdeasCompeteRichard Feynman famously described science, and curiosity broadly, as “the pleasure of finding things out.” There are certainly few things I enjoy more than to turn over ideas and work them through to some new place, even moreso in quick and intelligent company. I consider it a life philosophy to avoid stopping at the obvious conclusions, and instead to see what more may be learned with a few judicious questions. It isn’t science per se, but it has in common a reliance on method. In learning, as in science, one must start with the assumption that one is wrong.

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The Unknown

Not long ago I had the privilege to stand with friends in a place no human being had ever before seen.

P1040707Standing in a new place is an unusual experience, but more usual for me given our penchant for finding and exploring undiscovered caves. Even so it remains thrilling and humbling both. Caves are alien places, and new caves are as unknown as the surface of another planet. You know that everything you see has never been seen; that you are among the first of a very few; and that you are experiencing something most people never will.

We work very hard for the privilege of being the first people into any given place. Humans are very good at getting to inaccessible places, and there are few places left, on the face of this planet at least, where no one has preceded you. For better and worse, besides the deep ocean and the undiscovered caves, there is almost no untracked wilderness left to see.

In many ways we rely on this in life—we learn from the experience of others, the knowledge accumulated by our forbearers, and the maps made by explorers before us. We experience nature mediated by knowledge and safety, regimented by the careful cataloguing of predecessors. Certainly it makes such places more accessible—to roughly paraphrase Terry Pratchett, most every mountain peak first reached by valiant explorers at great risk of life and limb will, one hundred years later, have grandmothers strolling up for a picnic.

The comfortable known places are exactly that; but we don’t learn and grow very well in comfortable, known places.

Not everyone has the time or energy or inclination to excavate new caves in search of their unknowns, but that is only one dramatic example. I also seek out my unknown in new ideas, new ways of looking at the world, and new solutions to old problems. And I seek out my unknowns in things well-known to others, but new to me: to be one of the lucky ones who learns something everyone else already knows.

I think every time I learn something new, I also learn myself a little better. A new idea, a new place, a new cave—each sharpens my mind and my thinking.

And there are so many things still to learn and see. I hope there will always be.

Memories of Change

sunset_viaIanBarbourThe echo-chambers are echoing loudly of late. Crisis and fear always seem to pick off the scabs of history. In our media and our minds, a slurry of racist, sexist, xenophobic, and islamophobic ideas ooze back to the surface and spill out into the world around us.

I want to write people off when they say such things, and certainly it becomes harder to believe that people can change. I want to write them off because enemies are simple. But people are complicated; we can change, and we do. We just tend to forget that we have, and thus to judge that other people can’t. Simplifying ourselves encourages us to simplify others, reducing them slowly and surely to enemies.

I think a part of the way forward is to look back: to remember our own changes. To talk about them. To wear changing our minds as a badge of honor rather than shame.


I used to be anti-abortion.

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A Little Thanks

I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the world, trying to break ideas into pieces I can understand and use. Many of those pieces I find disturbing, dismaying, or depressing. It seems like every time I unpack something, I find horrible people at the back of it. They aren’t horrible in an abject, evil sort of way—just in an unselfconsciously greedy and destructive sort of way. And for some reason, we keep putting them in charge of things, which makes me worry that even if we can change this mistakes we make daily, we won’t.

But here in the U.S. it’s Thanksgiving. So instead of worrying about the horrible people, I decided to take a moment to dwell on the wonderful people. Because, when I stop to think about it, I actually know a hell of a lot more wonderful people, and I practically don’t know any horrible people.

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Deep Time

ChocoruaTime, like comfort, is a relative thing. Only in the recent centuries of human existence have we stretched ourselves enough to imagine truly deep time. Understanding the history of any rock or cave leads inexorably to the origins of life, and the origins of our world before it, and the origins of our universe before that.

Individuals both daring and careful have paved the way for us to not only see such things, but to understand. Slowly, the great scientific minds of humanity have reasoned and tested their way into a world much larger and older than even the most exotic flights of imagination. Not content with a hand-waving dismissal of history before History, we have asked ourselves “why” and “how” so many times that we can now trace back the creation of our world to its temporal horizon: the big bang. This event is the current edge of our knowledge, and beyond it, time itself seems to have no meaning.

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We Are the Horsemen

horseman_viaWaltJacobscoI find it repeatedly baffling that human beings can being so short-sightedly human-centric. Yes, I know we have little ape brains evolved to think about little ape things, but we are also, arguably, the smartest animals on this planet. Despite that we seem intent on devaluing the distinction by behaving as though we are the only animals on this plant.

Now, a great deal has been written about conservation and how it makes a huge difference to our survival as a species. Likewise a great deal has been written about how the only effective way to conserve things is to appeal to our own self-interest. Finally it has been argued that it doesn’t matter what we do to the ecosystem, because we will just adapt and find new ways to go on as we always have. Leaving those debatable assertions unchallenged for the time being, I want to ask the question, “what does it look like from a different perspective?” This is a question I find repeatedly illuminating in myriad circumstances. Thus, if I were some other creature on this planet, what would I encounter?

As one of a select few, such as deer, pigeons, crows, or rats, I would find that while my evolved niche was now more or less absent, the detritus of humanity was rife with new niches for me to occupy. In my own unthinking way, I would go happily onward multiplying and expanding my territory and enjoying a very human way of life.

If I were just about anything else, though, I would have a very different experience.

If I were a migratory bird, I would find that the places I migrate are torn up and remade, from my perspective, overnight. It would be the equivalent of a human being going on vacation and returning to find their house, and all their neighbors’ houses, leveled and replaced with a 50-acre parking lot. And yet, the users of the parking lot would see no reason why I couldn’t go on living how I did before, just absent my house.

If I were a whale, perhaps, I would find that the oceans are growing increasingly crowded and noisy. I would live a long time, so I would remember just a few decades ago when I could talk to friends and family across long distances. Lately I would be more and more frustrated by an ever-loudening drone. I would feel like someone had started a perpetual rock concert in my home, and yet they expected me to go on living and communicating with my friends just as before.

If I were a wolf, I would probably already be dead. I might be dead because a farmer shot me, or because a car hit me, or because the government put a bounty on my pelt. I might be dead because some people tried to bring me back, but didn’t warn me that I would be eagerly killed if I strayed across the invisible line between Yellowstone National Park and The Rest of the World.

If I were any small mammal, I would find that someone had set up Indiana-Jones-Style speeding blades of death between me and several of the usual places I wanted to go. I would run the gauntlets daily, breathlessly, and with limited hope of survival. My average lifespan would have dropped because I am not very good at outrunning cars.

Human beings tend toward a human-centric worldview, and within that view we have a great fear of extinction. In our myths and cultures and stories we have the idea of an Apocalypse, where Famine and War and Pestilence and Death ride down upon us in fury to destroy us. But thinking about the world from the perspective of everyone else, I think we have it wrong—the Apocalypse isn’t coming for us; it’s coming for everything else trying to share this planet with us.

We are the horsemen, but we’re not riding out of fury. We’re not even riding out fear, or out of self-righteousness. I’m afraid we’re riding out of the worst thing I can think of: total indifference.

Must we?

The Relativity of Comfort

ColdHikeI have come to consider comfort a state of mind more than of body. There are myriad discomforts, to be sure. Cold, hunger, an injury. And, too, the rejection of others, the misery of boredom, the unsettledness of being lost. These are sensible discomforts within the frame of our needs. They are, in a sense, an awareness of a need not met.

But in today’s civilized culture, these basic discomforts are compounded. For many who have become used to their culturally enforced isolation from nature, the presence of nature is discomfort in and of itself. For those of us who wish to believe ourselves separate from the animal kingdom, the functions of animals are distasteful or taboo. Our needs for warmth, food, water, shelter, pain relief, psychological relief, avoidance of effort, and so on, are quickly met by fast food and plumbing and ibuprofen and Xanex and couches and escalators and cars. The range of comfort in which we live in has become stunningly narrow. Needs have become rights. Desires have become needs. Preferences are becoming laws.

In part this is because with a narrow range of comfort, a small scale, we cannot measure the things that fall outside it. Near-death of cold feels the same for us as having to wait an extra five minutes at the drive-through—not because they are equivalent but because we have no framework for experiencing them differently. We have lost a consciousness of our desires and the ability to set them aside.

This is why I believe comfort is a state of mind. I have learned with great difficulty that it is not so much the cold or the tiredness or the physical pain that makes me uncomfortable so much as it is my desire for it to be different. Discomfort is magnified immensely by our unwillingness to accept it and our inability to manage it. Accepting these things for what they are, and making choices to deal with them, makes them easier. I can distinguish now between the many slight discomforts—most of which are just my preferences—and the few significant discomforts that are my body’s way of warning me of true needs. What’s more, I can experience the comforts I do have as a richer tapestry of experience. As my scale of comfort expands, I can distinguish subtleties that would otherwise pass unnoticed. Lastly and, I think, most importantly, I can be content with less.

This has not come easily for me. My first expeditions in the White Mountains were marked by cold, frustration, and a constant fight to keep up with the environment. Only with time and deliberate effort was I able to reach beyond that. Caves were emphatically uncomfortable for me on my first encounter with them. Dark, damp, cold, and above all, claustrophobically small. Now, having spent long hours climbing, crawling, and laying on cold rock, in small spaces, those points are no longer the focus. The discomfort is familiar and ignorable. Lying in viscous mud the consistency and color of chocolate pudding no longer fills me with revulsion—in fact, I almost look on it with fondness. It is, after all, the trade-off for seeing things few human beings ever shall, the cost for traveling inside the alien bones of our planet. Chambers, pits, and brilliant and untouched places of stone and earth are open to me in ways they could never otherwise be.

Once I pushed past those discomforts, I discovered a deep and compelling passion, a connection with the Earth and the natural world that holds, for me, more power than any other. This is the value of expanding my sphere of comfort—that I can move past what might seem to be unconquerable discomfort to see and understand things that, until that moment, were eclipsed by my own distress. Every step outside my comfort zone is a step into understanding of the broader world, and a step into unselfish citizenship in a community of nature.

Despite my lofty ideal, and partly because of it, being comfortable now requires work. I have a habit of being comfortable in places where I once did not. It is still a choice, and I sometimes forget. When I am tired, hungry, thirsty, and sore, being comfortable is a chore. My, and our, instinct in such times is to blame others, to complain, or to be sullen. When I am at my best, I notice my hunger and eat; notice my thirst and drink; stretch tired muscles and rest as needed; and all smoothly, without interfering with my tasks at the time. When I am at my worst, I do none of these things and only wish that I had after the fact.

My only choice, then, is to make the expansion of my comfort zone a practice. I can habituate myself to discomforts, thus lessening them. I can negate the things that slow me, or interfere with my clarity of purpose. But the strongest and most effective thing I can do is to choose, mindfully, to be comfortable when I am not, and to be still when my mind is agitated. This choice, repeatedly made, is the habit that truly carries through. This is the choice that makes discomfort something to pursue rather than something to flee.

Curating the Wilderness

South from JeffersonMy first encounters with wilderness were, like those of so many others, controlled. One of my favorite places to visit growing up was the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., and the Natural History museum in particular. There one can wander through a really spectacular wealth of knowledge in a building too large to see in one day and too extensive to recall if you could. The exhibits describe, display, and explain some of the most marvelous and extraordinary creatures and features of the natural world. They do so in a way that is compelling to children and adults alike. And of course, there are dinosaurs, the ultimate power of nature in the mind of a child. I loved the cool texture of fossilized bone in the one exhibit you were allowed to touch. To touch a dinosaur bone is to reach across a hundred million years and connect with the wild. It is to evoke a wilderness that is impossibly absent in our contemporary world.

I spent four and a half years working at a wilderness program for troubled youth in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I’ve hiked a great many of the trails in that area, and a lot of places with no trails at all. It is some of the most beautiful country in New England. Everywhere are rugged granite peaks, rocky cliffs, hidden streams, and the severe, steep-sided glacial valleys. Yet even in this, a harsh and less-than-accessible country, one is never alone. In the summer, the trails are busy on the most popular peaks. When I hiked the presidential range with my partner late one August, we came frustrated to the summit of Mt. Washington in midday, with its gift shop, cog railway, auto road and parking lot, and ever-present crowd of tourists. There was a line of perhaps a hundred people to take photos at the summit signpost, which we passed by almost without slowing down. The relief as we hiked away from the crowds and buildings was nearly overwhelming.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with making beautiful places accessible to the general public. This can and must be done, because we are small-minded creatures with short memories, and we rarely value or remember that which we do not encounter. But a parking lot on the summit of Mt. Washington or the edge of the Grand Canyon is not a wilderness. Something is lost by our encroachment on these places, and while millions more may see and appreciate these things, the very fact of their presence will prevent them from seeing what was there before. They will not feel the journey, the struggle, or the isolation. Secure in the company of fellow tourists, automobiles, wearing shorts and flip-flops and carrying little dogs, they cannot be humbled by a vastness that does not need them. They cannot feel… small.

Some may disagree with me. This is the trade-off of these developed places in the wild; for someone who leaves the city and drives to the summit of Mt. Washington, it may be the most isolated they have ever been. They may feel exhilarated and released by the comparative lack of people. They may have one of the most powerful experiences of their lives—but this is always relative. Their comforts are close at hand. When the wilderness begins to overpower them, they can go into the gift shop, buy a t-shirt and a “This car climbed Mt Washington” bumper sticker, and then load themselves back into their cars and depart. The wilderness that once existed at the summit is a distant echo. Perhaps they never even glimpsed it, or perhaps they felt its shadow. Perhaps, going only on instinct, they are fleeing from discomfort that has begun to settle like the summer haze. As do we all.

At the program where I worked, we would sometimes ask the question “Why wilderness?” of our students, a broad spectrum of “at-risk” youth. They were often failing in school, drug-abusers, dealing with depression, children of broken families, or suffering from autistic-spectrum disorders they did not understand and had never learned to manage. They were often entirely urban and privileged, and the world that existed beyond them was only a concept. And yet, when faced with the larger world, when taken to the summits of mountains and shown the tracks of a moose or coyote, and when they were able to see the value in walking softly and leaving no trace of one’s presence, they were often encouraged and emboldened and engaged in a way the cynical would not imagine possible.

The society we live in doesn’t generally promote wilderness. The Whites, even the wilderness areas, are crisscrossed with trails, developed and crowded. But for some young men and women, the granite trails are so far outside their experience that they come to a larger perspective. When you are out in the forest, carrying everything you need to live and relying on your skills to survive, everything else is balanced out.

Far from the cars and cities and sidewalks and crowds, far from friends and school and the internet, you are broken down to the core of yourself. Your assumptions, your hubris, your beliefs both right and wrong, are exposed in the face of the pervasive discomfort of being one small creature in a vast creation. On the summit of Mt. Washington, the tourists may begin to feel this before they leave. For my students, their expeditions into the Whites brought them farther into this place.

In real wilderness, this discomfort settles all the way to your soul, until you realize that the discomfort was there all along and the wilderness is only scalpel, slowly cutting down to remove it. The must be done. A kernel of discomfort is the beginning of a pearl of wisdom. When exposed, it is replaced by humility and smallness, and, finally, the companionship of rocks and trees and water and wind, and creatures who have no need of you.

The Perspective of Antiquity

Big Loop - RapidsThe steady drumming of falling water is meditative as it strikes the marble. Every drop eats away an imperceptible fraction of the stone, carving scallops and flutes more perfect and delicate than any sculptor could manage. One by one, crystals of calcite and graphite melt away or give up their bonds with one another to go skipping down the passage in liquid suspension, deposited later as flowstone or sand elsewhere in the cave, or washed completely down to the aquifer. Some are returned to the surface when the water gushes from a spring. Infinitesimal bit by infinitesimal bit, the stone is being relocated.

This is the entire origin of caves. The rooms and passages of this cave are the footprints of the stream that made it, a living negative space through which we may humbly travel. Standing in this room, looking at the water, I contemplate the shapes of the stone. The room is fishbowl-shaped, telling me that the waterfall, which now tumbles over a far edge, used to enter this room where I did, in the center. It splashed, pooled, and swirled to form this chamber. Where the water now enters is a fluted pit the size of a closet; it has been falling there for some time to carve away so much rock, but not so long as it spent where I stand. And behind me is a narrow crack with a channel leading to a different passage entirely, smaller and older. Everywhere are the signs of what came before.


Following the tracks of the water in my mind’s eye, I see this cave forming. Water follows the joint for a long while, perhaps thousands of years, before volume overwhelms the small passage and begins to carve my fishbowl. Eventually, all the water poured off the ledge above where I stand, eating away the marble for more thousands or tens of thousands of years—but higher in the cave, erosion was working just as strongly. Eventually, relatively recently in the cave’s history, the water bypassed the ledge above me and ran along through the wall to my right to enter the room where it now falls, each drop of water building on the work of billions that came before it. To me, this is beautiful.

The cave is beautiful without this knowledge as well. Deep flutes and grooves sweep through the walls, scallops are cut into the floors, and the entire form is laid into a white crystalline marble with jet-black highlights. Imagine walking through cookies-and-cream ice cream, and you will have some idea of how this marble looks in cross-section. The black is in chunks and streaks, bits of other rock that were broken up in the marble as it formed. The white is lightly banded in shades of off-white and cream, scattered through with sliver crystals of graphite that catch and reflect light like a field of glitter. Up close, I can see the tiny, interlocking crystals of calcite and graphite in the walls. At a few inches, the walls of the cave seem to be made of jewels.

This, too, has a history. The story of the cave is the story of the water that made it, but the stone tells a different, older story. Marble is limestone that has been buried deep in the earth, subjected to the great heat and pressure thousands of feet below us, and then exhumed by erosion. Usually it is smooth, and the crystals are almost invisible to the eye—this marble was cooked for millennia to form crystals so large. When it was buried millions of years before, it was limestone inter-bedded with shale and dolomite, but rocks are not static things; deep in the earth, on a scale of thousands of years, they move like plastic or putty. The limestone recrystallized to form the pure white marble, each crystal growing for millennia. The dolomite and shale became tan marble and schist respectively, and, less plastic that the white calcite, broke apart in the matrix as it was compressed. Eventually, the whole complex was lifted by the geological movement of the earth on a continental scale, thrust upward even as the surface eroded away. Eventually, perhaps a hundred thousand years ago, the marble was close enough to the surface for water to begin its work.

The limestone and dolomite and shale, the parents of this marble, have again their own history. They were laid down in the shallow seas below a great mountain range that ran through this place more than a billion years ago. They were the accumulated bits and pieces eroded from those mountains by the waters that ran through gullies and caves of their own, long before humans ever existed and before all but the most simple forms of life even graced this planet. Those mountains in turn were lifted by the colliding plates of the crust of our earth, then torn down, replaced and torn down again many times since.

Now, more than a thousand million years into the process, I stand in this room, watching water carry off the stone to lay it down elsewhere, as it will continue to do until the whole of these mountains too are leveled, and their detritus builds new rock that, in a far future, may hold another cave. Brushing the wall with my fingers, I am touching the rough traces of a billion years of history, and more, as the mountains that made this rock were assembled themselves in depths of time so impenetrable that they defy comprehension.

This is one reason I visit caves—to stand in a place where the shear weight of history is intoxicating and touch time itself. To see, as the famous geologist James Hutton wrote, “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”