Islands in the Sky

30696526576_22541054dd_o.jpgI love hiking above treeline. But perhaps more than that, I love hiking above cloudline.

Here in New England, getting above the clouds is a rare gift. It’s not that our clouds never come in low and heavy; they do, and often. In fact, our clouds are monstrously unpredictable, sometimes building up to unreachable heights, sometimes collapsing damp and tired in the valleys, sometimes racing by far above as trailing wisps or untidy cannonballs.

But our peaks are comparatively low, so it takes a special sort of day to get above the clouds. It takes a day when the clouds are wet and heavy, weighed down by exhaustion from a storm the day before, and with brilliant sun and wind at their backs. Then, if you’re lucky, and you don’t mind climbing through the mist, you may find yourself in an inverted sky.

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One Hour From the Surface

imgp1988When I go into caves, I think a lot about the juxtaposition of time. Travel on the surface is nearly effortless by comparison. To reach this point, a point never seen by human beings before us, we had to put in days of effort digging out the constrictions in the passages between, returning to the same project over months and gaining a few feet every day.

Even now, when the only limits that will stop you are your own, to reach this point is not easy. You must climb, crawl for hundreds of feet, negotiate vertical drops on and off rope, endure cold water and gritty mud, and make your way slowly through passages that few people ever have.

These passages that developed for their own purposes, none of which involve people. The floors are uneven. The ceilings are irregular, and often low. The walls are carved into alien shapes. The air is dusty and damp. Streams occupy the space insistently. A person may coexist with these things, but there is no illusion that you are an important part of such a place.

The juxtaposition of time is that to reach the place where I took this photo, we traveled in the cave for over an hour. There is approximately 150ft of solid rock above this place, and then trees, and then sky. If you begin at the entrance and travel to the nearest point on the surface, it is 150ft away, and it takes you only three minutes. But that last 150ft might as well be a mountain between the two.

Unexplored

imgp1817While scouting for cave entrances, we found a way down into a deep canyon. At the bottom, a large entrance doubled back under some fallen rocks. The mix of daylight and darkness was enticing, which prompted this photo, but because it was a scouting trip, we didn’t go any farther. The cave continues in through some fallen rocks and drops down past some debris to a small hole. Through that hole is a canyon passage at least twenty feet high, but to get in we’ll have to move a few rocks.

So, for now, it is unexplored. Certainly unexplored by our survey team; perhaps unexplored by any human being.

Strange Places

IMGP0859There are places that are quintessentially human, and places that are emphatically other. For my part, I much prefer the places that are other, where humans are less involved and have spent less time paving over the intricacies of nature with their own ill-considered urbanity and ham-fisted simplicity. Entirely human places tend to annoy me, because they so often lack the depth and breadth and intricacies of the world, and instead enable us to gaze comfortably at our societal navels without thought to the foundations.

I had the opportunity to explore a 200-year old copper mine a few days ago. It is a remarkably odd place, not least because it defies categorization in my taxonomy of places. It is an undeniably human place, but it also has an overprint of deep strangeness–of natural processes in the act of reclaiming it.

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Slow Violence

P1070060.JPGBecause I spend a lot of time below ground, the raw marks of geology are a regular part of my life. When I think of bedrock and mountains, I don’t think of them as solid things. They shift uneasily in my mind, and their brittle skins are not enough to disguise restless history. People who live near fault lines or volcanoes remember this; the rest of us generally forget it.

I think the structures of a society are very similar. The slow violence of geology and the slow violence of society are both ever ongoing.

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Between a Rock and Another Rock

Morris, the first pinchI am lying sideways in a crawlway barely large enough for my body, taking a breath before moving on. Beneath me, a cold, viscous mud is soaking into my right arm, which is becoming stiff under my weight. My neck is sore from tilting my head to see ahead of me. My kneepads, once protectors, have hung up enough times on protruding knobs of rock that they are probably around my ankles—I cannot look back to know for sure, but I can feel the gravel biting into my knees. A drop of cold water falls in my ear and I cringe, awkwardly pulling off my left glove and wiping the wetness away with moderately clean fingers. I take another breath, replace my glove, and continue on.

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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.