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.

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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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.”