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.

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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The Privilege of Wilderness


When the United States established the first national forest at Yellowstone in 1891, the conservation of land for recreation was nearly incidental. Instead, the primary motivation was to protect game, water, and timber resources. They weren’t even called “National Forests” at first—Yellowstone started out as a “Timber and Land Reserve” and graduated through “Forest Reserve” in 1902 before arriving at “National Forest” in 1907.

The general public now associate National Forests with recreation, but the reality is that many of our policies still treat National Forests as reserves of resources—not for conservation’s sake, but for ongoing exploitation. I find it a little worrisome that our largest national protection of wilderness does so out of economic self-interest instead of intrinsic value. A part of me wants to say it doesn’t matter if the end result is the same—but the more I think about it, the less I believe that.

When we think about our wilderness as an economic resource instead of a social resource, the way we manage it changes. It leads us to assume that access to wild places is a peripheral privilege, and like so many privileges, it is given mostly to those who can afford it.

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Elementary Challenges

BaldfaceWhen I worked in the wilderness for days at a time, I had the dubious privilege of camping and living in some of the worst weather New England has to offer, and bad weather is something hardly lacking here. The Mt. Washington Observatory proudly proclaims itself home of “the worst weather in the world.”

Hyperbole or not, the elements in the White Mountains will not be disrespected. In the winter and the summer both, weather systems climbing up along the east coast meet cold air pouring down from the Arctic Circle. As the systems meet up with one another, their winds amplify each other. In the wake of storms major and minor, winds in the mountains climb comfortably to hurricane-force. When I noted that, I went to check and found that twenty-one of the preceding thirty days in the Whites were recorded, on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, as being at least class one—“very dangerous winds, will produce some damage.” Of those, eight passed into class two—“extremely dangerous winds, will cause extensive damage.” Three reached the level of a class three hurricane—“devastating damage will occur.”

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A Philosophy of Wilderness

The Gobi (high contrast)At one point some years ago, I stood on one edge of the Gobi desert and looked out into a vast place mostly ignored, not because it is hard to reach but because it is wide, and dull, and hostile. I found that incredibly alluring; I was seized at the time by an urge to start walking into the dunes and just go, as far as I possibly could.

Of course, I didn’t—the feeling was heady enough. But that, to me, was the feeling of wilderness: a place that doesn’t need you, doesn’t want you, and will scarcely notice your passing.

The relationship between people and wilderness continually pulls me in two directions. On the one hand, I love wild places and want to experience them as fully as I can. On the other, there is something about wilderness that shies away from the presence of people; the more people there are, and the more easily they can get there, the less wild a place becomes.

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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.