I don’t feel like writing anything today

Keyboard with no letters - The Stone Mind

After breakfast Sunday I waded desultorily through my mental list of possible blog topics, and all I could think was, “I don’t feel like writing anything today.” My wife and I took the dog for a walk and ate some leftover saag paneer for lunch. Then I thought some more about writing and decided to read another chapter of Dune and take a nap.

It was just one of those days. I wasn’t feeling inspired. Then I remembered that thing Chuck Close said in a letter to his 14-year-old self, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Which is a weirdly inspiring thing to say.

So I sat down at the ol’ laptop and clacked out, “I don’t feel like writing anything today.” Even as I typed it, a second half of the sentence jumped onto the page: “I don’t feel like writing anything today… but I’m going to do it anyway.”

From there, the thoughts began to roll. I followed one thread, decided I didn’t like it and backtracked, followed another one. I started reading some blogs on the topic of inspiration and motivation. I re-watched some videos that touched on similar ideas. Connections started to make themselves and ideas spawned new ideas. I wrote the better part of a blog and deleted it and then wrote this one.

In that same letter to his boyhood self, Close wrote, “Every great idea I ever had grew out of work itself.” It’s worth pinning up over your desk, or carrying around in your wallet or something.

In a post celebrating his blog’s three-year anniversary, my friend Brendan wrote, “Basically this thing turns three today because I’m too stubborn to not let it turn three.” His very popular blog, semi-rad.com, is by turns uplifting, insightful, hilarious, and touching. And it would not exist if not for stubbornness.

Stubbornness gets a bad rap. When someone stubbornly refuses to admit they made a mistake, for example, it doesn’t do anyone any good. But all those people society holds up as great and significant were, I guarantee, stubborn as hell. It’s the only way to really accomplish anything in a world heavy with inertia and full of seemingly good reasons to give up on whatever it is you’re interested in doing.

I think stubbornness can be an excellent attribute to cultivate, though, because it allows us to move forward even when everything seems to be pointing in the other direction, even our own desire. Often people attribute the drive to push ahead to passion, but that’s really only half—or less than half—of the story. There are too many days when the passion just isn’t firing. You gotta be stubborn, unwilling to bend to the whims of the moment. Confident that you’ll thank yourself later, as when the alarm goes off for dawn patrol.

In a TEDx video, pro skater Rodney Mullen explains that for every few seconds of success on a skateboard, there are hours and days of failure. “What we do is fall…all the time. And we get back up,” he says. Climbers engage in the same quixotic pattern, stubbornly chasing the moment when impossible becomes possible. To do anything well and explore it deeply, this ability it required.

It’s of primary importance to show up again and again and do our thing, whatever that may be, with earnest effort and open mind. Dig deeper, work smarter, think different—yes, yes, and yes… but first you have to show up. And sometimes that’s the hardest part. It was for me when I started writing this.

In the end, if we’re stubborn (and lucky) enough, the result might be something revolutionary or ground-breaking or world-changing. Or it might simply be a life well-lived, which I think is even better.

Blocks Pushing into Space

There are a lot of climbing photos in my Instagram feed, but pro climber Chris Schulte’s have been standing out to me recently. His images aren’t paintstakingly composed and Photoshopped, like those of the pro-photographers I follow. Nor are they focused on the sickest climbing action. Instead, many of the Schulte’s pictures capture the sculptural shape of the stone itself, the climber sharing the scene rather than dominating it. His writing likewise gives off a thoughtful, philosophical vibe, so I asked him to put together a short essay, illustrated by his photos, for The Stone Mind about his explorations and bouldering exploits in the famed desert crack-climbing destination Indian Creek, Utah. His artful reflections follow…

Chris Schulte following the tao of Indian Creek blocs.

What initially struck me about the “the Creek” was the sheer volume of climbing: there are enough cracks there to live and die for it all and never touch the same seam twice. On my first visit, some 15 years ago, my friend and I climbed what little we could with my rack of doubles, the whole time looking over our shoulders at the blocks scattered across the valley floor. I was struck by the purity of the shapes, the clean stone, the lack of holds… I’d never seen rock like that. Everything looked unlikely. I was a new enough climber then that it was hard to picture lines up such blank shapes

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That aspect of climbing still attracts me most: the apparent impossibility; a path through the nothingness; unusual, technical tactics combined with charging thuggery to surmount the most basic, pared-down essence of a block. When there are only two holds in a massive space with no feet, you try as hard as you can without expectation, and things start to happen. You start actually moving up through the nothingness, you start to do an impossible thing—then your whole perspective changes. All these blank, impossible things open up to you… I think of it like the first ship built, or the first planes: suddenly you can sail about where once there was nothing.

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The draw to these blocks is, for me, the shapes. I enjoy the movement required, its funky balance between udge and grace, but it’s the pure, crystalline shape of those stones that pulls the focus. A poet from a bygone age once described the stones in the rock garden at Ryōan-ji Temple, in Kyoto, as “bumps pushing into space”; the scattering of stones there behind that old temple has a pattern about it that seems to lead the mind to a state of pliant reception. I think of the stark shapes in the desert at Indian Creek in the same terms: angular, dense, so very present! You can’t argue against these icons of bouldering, they just sit there like the Idea of a boulder: sharp, smooth, impersonal, and yet organic in structure and placement—a bridge between form and function.

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Couple that with the possibility of breaking off a flake at 20 feet, and you’re really bending minds! The approach to such problems is a combination of calculation, meditation, and fuckit. Some boulders have no downclimb, no way to preview or clean. It’s a real mélange of perspectives, the setting, the shape, the moves, the goal, and the possible consequences. It’s a lot to process, making for a very rich experience, very dense climbing. And at the same time, there’s nothing to it at all: you just pick a pretty one, and try to get up it.

Apart from the blocks themselves, the area is beautiful and silent. The crowds all go to the walls, and in the cold cold winter there isn’t a soul around, save for the occasional cowboy or FedEx truck rocketing towards the park at the end of the road. The quiet, the empty, the lonesome all draw me. I like to sit and hear the blood pumping in my ears or the crushing swash of crow wings passing overhead. I like being the only one out there, working on the work, whatever it may be, sniffing juniper and fine red sand.

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I like to follow the thawing rivulets in the drainages, creek crossings that need another day or two after the snow. Hints of someone else’s vision quest. Signs of life from long ago.

I’m outside of one world that makes me feel like a nanobit, traveling around performing functions in a scintillating field of activity; instead  passing through another world, an organism, feeling like blood or sap or creek water, but also an absolutely unnecessary perspective lucky enough to travel through this place at that time and appreciate it at that very moment, be it a megamonumental pillar of awesomeness, or a lizard crunching desiccated groundscore fly, or looking in through the door of a home made from earth and stone, willow and juniper, recalling that for whoever once lived here this life was the only life there was, thanks be.

 

schulte_mugshotChris Schulte has been opening new boulders for 20 years. He is supported by Black Diamond Equipment, Five Ten, The North Face, a knotted string of jobs, and his lady Jackie. 

What is the Value of A Climb?

 

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It’s hard to pin a value on climbing. Like art, it has no clear purpose. Like a poem, a route is open for interpretation. How much would you pay for a perfect fall weekend in the Gunks? I’m not talking about the cost of a plane ticket or campsite or day pass, but the actual worth of the experience. How would you even express it?

Consider the first climber to push a new line up a peak. Like an artist laboring over a painting, he undertakes the act for mostly self-serving reasons: to explore and expand the limits of his ability, understanding, and conviction. He seeks the personal rewards of success or, as a consolation prize, the lessons of failure.

The artist and the first-ascensionist alike learn as they work, surprising themselves, discovering that the path they plotted in their minds might not be the path that works in the end. This discovery is part of the excitement and the value of the creative act.

And at the same time, this act can create value for others, too. Transmitted verbally or through a topographical map, a guidebook, an article, or a blog, it becomes a conceptual blueprint for a powerful experience.

Like a story, a route is inexhaustible. Every person who repeats a route or reads a book can have his own journey of discovery, much like the original creator had. Every one of us can grasp the same holds and enjoy much the same view as Royal Robbins and Pat Ament experienced on the first free ascent of Yellow Spur, in Eldo, fifty years ago.

“A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist,” wrote the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. By extension, when many people experience a work of art, the separation between one receiver and the next can be broken down just a little, too—a shared experience is created, and from this a culture, a community.

Spend any time around a campfire with climbers, and you’ll witness the bonds formed by the shared experiences of icy couloirs and lichen-encrusted rock walls, of headlamp-lit rappels and stomach-flipping whippers. Politics and educations and upbringings may differ, but something found in those high places unites.

The essential value of a climb cannot be measured in dollars nor, as is more commonly thought, difficulty ratings or even guidebook stars. Nearest I can tell, it is measured in the transformations it enables and the communities created by those transformations.

Transformation cannot be sold, bought, or processed. The value of a climbing is as intangible as the value of reading Moby Dick or seeing the Mona Lisa, yet no less profound. The more it resists codification, the greater climbing’s value becomes… or maybe it’s just that the idea of value grows a little fuzzier around the edges.

Salt and Spirals

The Spiral Jetty 1
The Spiral Jetty 1

“I expected it to be bigger,” I say.

“Yeah, me too…” my wife responds.

We stand at Rozel Point, in Utah’s Box Elder County, where Robert Smithson’s famous earthwork strikes out into the shallow, super-saline waters of the Great Salt Lake. The work comprises over 6,000 tons of black basalt and earth taken from the surrounding landscape, arranged into a 1,500-foot long spiral that looks precisely like a fiddlehead fern. Smithson and a team of workers with heavy machinery built the great shape in 1970, before either of us was born.

To get here, we drove north from Salt Lake along the still snow-capped Wasatch mountains, past gravel mines and oil refineries, grain silos and endless miles of fenced-in farmlands, past small towns full of people who’ve never heard the name Robert Smithson. Past ATK, “a world-leading producer of ammunition, precision weapons and rocket motors,” and the Golden Spike National Historic Site, where the rails of the Union and Central Pacific Railroads were joined in 1869.

For most of the trip out to the Jetty, signs of human industry and habitation are unavoidable, persistent. But on the last stretch of fenceless gravel road, surrounded on all sides by open grassland spotted with scrubby brush, you could be almost anywhere or in any time if it weren’t for the dark clusters of cattle with their fluorescent ear tags.

Loitering in the hillside parking lot overlooking the Jetty, we speak briefly with some reporters from a local newspaper who came out for the same reason we did: to watch the “Return to the Sea,” the culmination of Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto’s salt-based installation piece at Westminster College.

“I’ve lived in Utah my entire life and have never been out here,” one of the reporters says.

During his brief stay in Salt Lake City, Yamamoto meticulously created a huge, labyrinthine pattern on the floor of Westminster’s science center using only a squeeze bottle and monastic patience. After a few weeks, the piece was swept up for a symbolic return to the source—in this case the Great Salt Lake, which was once an inland sea. (I wrote an essay about the installation for the blog dxMag. You can read it here.)

Now, a large group of students and other folk carrying the remains of Yamamoto’s work in baggies and boxes and tubs unceremoniously flings the crystals into the water, shouting and laughing. It’s more of an undirected celebration than a contemplative gesture. Still, I imagine Yamamoto must be happy to enter into such an artistic dialogue with the legendary Smithson, even if neither man is directly present for it.

After an hour or so, the group departs and the Jetty almost immediately feels like a place out of time, a bridge between nature the familiar creations of human ingenuity. This simple shape, set in an expanse of salt and mud and mirror-like water tinged red by bacteria, somehow blurs the lines that normally separate and define. Is the Jetty natural or man-made? And what’s the difference, really? “The flowing mass of rock and earth of the Spiral Jetty could be trapped by a grid of segments,” wrote Smithson wrote, “but the segments would exist only in the mind or on paper.”

The space surrounding the jetty is littered with the remnants of old industry. In describing the site in his 1972 essay “The Spiral Jetty,” Smithson mentions a wooden hut that “could have been the habitation of ‘the missing link.’” On our visit, the hut is no longer, though its decrepit wooden pilings remain, as does a rust-corroded steel ball sunk partway into the muck. “This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes,” Smithson writes.

At the same time, Smithson saw an eons-old palimpsest when he looked out into the horizon at Rozel Point: “The products of a Devonian industry, the remains of a Silurian technology, all the machines of the Upper Carboniferous Period were lost in those expansive deposits of sand and mud.”

Like a musician with synesthesia (or perhaps like one under the influence of LSD), who sees shapes and colors with every note, Smithson experienced the site for the Jetty in his viscera, “it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake.”

As we walk down into the jetty and trace its course on foot, its spiral form breaks down. We are too close to see it whole. Instead, we see the arcs of the spiral as rough forms mirroring the mountain ranges on the distant horizon. We see black rocks, belchings of a long exhausted volcano, with white and yellow and green rings of salt crystals grown up in delicate papery fringes around their peripheries.

We stand out on the salt flats around the Jetty and look back. The sculpture appears bigger now. On the blank canvas of the flats, perspective changes every couple of steps. “The scale of the Spiral Jetty tends to fluctuate depending on where the viewer happens to be,” Smithson explained, and we experienced his observation repeatedly throughout the day.

Another excellent place from which to experience the uniqueness of the Great Salt Lake is Antelope Island, some 30 miles southeast of the Spiral Jetty. But here, looking out into the expanse, there is little to connect our humanity to the place. Everything is background, with no subject. Smithson’s spiral gives us a subject, uses the materials of the place and the tools and mind of human intention to offer a subject, at once natural and unnatural, through which we can enter and participate in this particular bit of geography. Like Wallace Stevens’ jar on a hilltop in Tennessee, “the wilderness rose up to it, and sprawled around, no longer wild.”

The Spiral Jetty, nothing more than a bit of rock arranged, is also a portal—a reminder that we are no more out of history than the dinosaurs who once dwelt here. We, dear reader, just happen to be at the current tip of history, soon to be subsumed in its ever-spiraling line.

My personal experience of The Spiral Jetty was moving, but not dark or fatalistic, which is why I was surprised to read Smithson’s own words on the piece. “On the slopes of Rozel Point I closed my eyes, and the sun burned crimson through my lids. I opened them and the Great Salt Lake was bleeding scarlet streaks,” he wrote. And, “Perception was heaving, the stomach turning, I was on a geologic fault that groaned within me.” It was if the place wracked him with an existential dread. I couldn’t help but recall Meursault’s walk on the beach in The Stranger:

Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.

Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift.

It left me glad that the intent of the artist and the experience of the art are, if not entirely, then mostly separable. I tend to prefer the more Eastern perspective on time and mortality in Motoi Yamamoto’s artwork. He, like Smithson, uses the symbol of the spiral, but in a purified form and isolated indoors, to be destroyed in a controlled manner. The Spiral Jetty was meant to be slowly eroded by the work of weather and tides, by nature in all its entropic messiness.

It’s as if the two artists and the natural world are all saying the same thing, only in different languages.