Arrive With Every Step

Hikers walking along a trail in Wild Iris, Wyoming. The Stone Mind.
Hikers walking to the crag at Wild Iris, Wyoming.

My wife hadn’t been in the mountains much before she moved to Colorado from Philadelphia eight years ago. So the first time she came out with me and my climbing buddies on the long, steep approach to Chaos Canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park, she got frustrated. “Why are you guys hiking so fast?” She asked. “The boulders will still be there if we slow down, I bet.”

At the time, I attributed her comments to the suffering of a sea-level dweller struggling at altitude, but looking back, I see it differently. What were we hurrying for, after all? I still find myself doing it: hustling to the crag like it was some sort of a race, with competitors hot on my tail. But now I try to slow down and make more of the process.

I’ve been listening to a Zen monk named Thich Nhat Hanh on Spotify. His soft, accented voice and halting cadence are mesmerizing. In one of his lectures he talks about hiking up a mountain—Mount Wǔtái, a Buddhist sacred site in northern China:

There was a tourist guide to lead us and she was holding a little flag. … But we did not follow her—but we did not follow her way—so we made a strange group who climbed very, very slowly. And after having made 10 steps like that we sit down and enjoy looking around. And then we stood up and continue for another 10 steps. We had plenty of time—nothing to do, nowhere to go. Just enjoy. The means become the end. We want to arrive with every step.

His words reminded me of that early hike with my wife. She wanted to look around, take in the mountains and the plants and the little alpine critters skittering and fluttering around us. Up in Rocky Mountain National park, things are always changing: clouds rush in and soften the daylight, storms boom lighting down around the high lakes, winds stir fallen leaves, huge snowflakes fill the air like sudden moths…

But me? I just wanted to be sure to get to my project 15 minutes faster. I guess I thought it could mean the difference between sending and not sending.

“Mindfulness” always struck me as a word tainted with the scent of new-age cheese. It conjured images of dreadlocked kids in Boulder sipping yerba mate from dried gourds and wishing namaste to all the passers by. But again, I’ve come to see things differently.

At root, mindfulness isn’t about ideology but about discovering for ourselves: what are we thinking and feeling, what are our motivations, what are the effects of our actions? To act mindfully is simply to act with deeper awareness and honesty. Rushing towards goals is rarely an act of mindfulness but is instead a result of our desires or fears.

It’s a little much for me to walk quite so slowly as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, but I do remind myself to be more mindful on my hikes: to bring intention to every step, to be aware of the breath in my nose, to let my skin tell me little stories about the direction of the wind, humidity, the energy of the sun… .

Even when climbing a route, I think most of us could do better to direct focus away from the burning in our forearms, the distance to the next clip, or visions of success or failure. Instead, return focus to the moment, breathe and inhabit the heartbeat. Feel what it is to hang from a sheer wall of rock, which muscles can be relaxed and which should remain tight, and so on.

In short, really experience the climb rather that rush to finish it. The climb itself becomes a joy. The means become the end. With each move, you arrive at the destination.

When In Doubt, Go Higher

Looking out from the Lost Canyon Trail, Zion. Photo: Justin Roth / The Stone Mind

“When in doubt, go higher.” It’s the tagline for a classic outdoor publication called the Mountain Gazette. I worked at the paper briefly, once upon a time.

“…Go higher.” It’s a fun little phrase, though, if not one apt to get you into trouble. (“When in doubt, go down” might have better served many an unfortunate climber or backcountry skier, alas.) Still there’s something to it. It resonates with a certain type of person.

When I was young, I unintentionally lived by this dictum. I went too high up the giant conical pine trees in our front yard and came down covered in insoluble sap. No more than six years old, I chossaneered up short, exfoliating shale cliffs in the ravine by my house in what felt like Honoldian feats of soloing.

“When in doubt, go higher” was knocking around my head this weekend as my wife and I plodded up Zion National Park’s steep Hidden Canyon Trail. What makes going up so damned appealing, I wondered?

I’ve been reading a book called The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease, by Daniel Lieberman, which offers evolutionary explanations for many of our traits, from skeletal structure to mental issues and food tastes. The book, in theory points towards a possible answer to the above question.

Maybe many of us feel an unconscious pull towards higher ground for the same reason that bodies of water are almost universally attractive: at some point, they might well have been instrumental to our survival.

According to The Story of the Human Body, our evolutionary ancestors of 5-8 million years ago—our last common ancestor (LCA) with chimps, its believed—lived most of their lives at height. The LCA, a primate, sought out high perches for sleeping as a means of protection from predators. Most modern monkeys and apes sleep in trees, and chimps even build comfy nests there. Gelada baboons spends their nights like big-wallers, dozing on cliff faces.

Human ancestors not only sought shelter high above the earth, but they found sustenance there, too. Sub-Saharan Africa, where the LCA lived, was a warm and wet place around 10 million years ago. Rainforests there would have been abundant sources of nutrient-rich fruits.

But between 10 and five million years ago, a cooling climate caused the rain forests to recede. In their place grew up woodland habitats where ripe fruits became, as Lieberman puts it, “less abundant, more dispersed, and more seasonal.” To cope, the LCA started walking more and more on two legs, venturing out in search of additional sustenance.

Obviously, we humans still walk on two legs and no longer live in trees. But like many old, seemingly outdated biological traits picked up along the evolutionary way, a love of getting up off the ground has stuck with us. One might call it a vestige of a former life.

So then maybe “When in doubt, go higher” is a phrase born subconsciously from an ancient pull towards a vantage point that offered some comfort in a wild and dangerous world. Go higher for a view of any large carnivores lurking on the horizon. Go higher for those pulpy fruits that fuel a hungry metabolism…

Go higher for a sense of peace and freedom that many of us to this day seek on the cliffs and mountains, despite the enormous changes that have made the modern world all but indistinguishable from the one our ancestors navigated millions of years ago.

Inside Out

Mountains in the Wasatch

The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

I stare into the glow. My mind races. Images and words scroll by without end. The river of information, of which I see only one tiny rivulet, rages on, a mighty Ganges of human experience from the absurd to the sublime.

As I scan, my mind dances through a chaotic jumble of emotions: delight (kittens, baby sloths), envy (pics from friends’ exotic vacations and climbing trips), annoyance (knee-jerk political posts, chronic over-sharing), frustration (all the intractable problems of humanity’s own making), confusion (what does it all mean?!)… . There is so much information “out there,” but staring into the screen only pushes me deeper into my own head, creating a cacophony of disembodied voices and stoking a sourceless anxiety that feels all too real.

I set down my phone (does anyone else think it’s ridiculous to call these things “phones” anymore?) and drive up into the nearby canyons of the Wasatch. I park my car and walk away from the road as quickly as possible, rock-hoping up a steep talus slope towards a different headspace.

An hour of slow plodding later, perched on a high boulder with the noise of the road a faint shush, I get a view out across the facing slope of the canyon and to higher peaks in the distance. A large bird lands on the twisted old branch of a long-dead tree and watches me across a wide expanse of open air. We sit like this for minutes, both of us the most recent representatives of our respective, billions-of-years-old evolutionary trees. The scale of this place starts to pull my gaze out towards the world, away from my own special blend of worries and desires. The considerations that earlier had filled my entire awareness now feel small and inconsequential.

“How important is a constant intercourse with nature and the contemplation of natural phenomena to the preservation of moral and intellectual health!” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his journal back in 1851. Sitting on a plank of granite, feeling its cool rasp, following the acute green arrows of a hundred thousand pine trees all pointing in unison towards distant peaks and cloudless skies, I cannot help but agree.

Now the metaphors of the natural world begin to present themselves. There are lessons in the talus fields (something about chain reactions and unintended consequences). There is meaning in the bushwhack (a funny realization that you can only really be off-trail if you have a destination in the first place). Looking out over a landscape marked only faintly by human passage, I start to get the sense that the separation between “here” and “there,” between “me” and “it” is much fuzzier than it felt just hours before. Like the moon in the daytime sky, these realizations were always present, just hidden.

My phone is in my pocket, just in case: maybe I’ll score a selfie with the local moose, or need to call for help when that seemingly stable talus block shifts ever so slightly onto my tibia. Later, I’ll use it to map the coördinates of the boulder I found, as big as a McMansion, near the top of the ridge. Later still I’ll open up my laptop and start typing this blog post. I’ll use Google to find that Emerson quote I was thinking of and to look up the etymology of the world talus (disappointingly, it’s French for “embankment”). There’s nothing inherently wrong with the world of the screen, after all, just the eyes with which we regard it.

That night, half asleep in my room with the window open, the crickets chirp so loudly and in such synchrony that for a moment I think the neighbors alarm system has been triggered. A stormy wind respirates the curtain in and out. Thunder rolls back and forth across the sky. The trick of taking lessons from nature is, I think, carrying them with us wherever we go: at home, to the office, in the subway, on the airplane. It’s keeping the perspective that nature offers us on our tiny but integral place in this world and on the even tinier worries that loom large until we hold up a finger and realize they’re no bigger than our thumbnail and no closer than the moon.

Social Climbing

Crowded climbing area
The climber in isolation is just a thought experiment.

Climbing, for all the complexities we may encounter on a big objective or during the course of a long project, is relatively simple: we find a line and we try to go up.

People, on the other hand, are complicated. We are full of contradictions and conflict; we hate each other for weird reasons or made-up reasons or no reason at all; we blame and expect and manipulate. Meanwhile, most of barely understand our own motivations. And don’t even get me started on politics.

This messiness of humanity is, I think, what draws a lot of us to climbing and back to nature. We crave the clarity of climbing’s challenge, the solitude of the high mountains and boulder-strewn deserts. The bright mist of stars over our heads at night asks no questions. The cactus prickles our skin but not our conscience.

But climbing is about people as much as it is about nature. If you’re a free-soloing hermit, maybe you can avoid humankind for a while. But for the rest of us, there are belayers and regular climbing partners; love interests or former love interests we can’t help but run into at the gym; that career couch surfer we met once two years ago and who seems always to need a place to crash. There’s that one partner who doesn’t like that other partner, so we do a little scheduling dance to make sure they don’t overlap. So many dynamics to consider!

And of course, there will always be the friends and family members waiting nervously for our safe return. They’re the ones visiting us in the hospital after a bad accident, attending the funeral after a worse one. Was it worth it? people will ask. Is it a consolation when a spouse or parent dies doing something he or she loved? Are we brave or selfish or stupid who risk our human bonds for the “freedom of the hills”?

For the climber in isolation, such questions hardly mean anything. There is only the line, the path that resolves itself one move at a time. There is only the weather scrolling in and the decision: go up or come down. There is only the rasp of stone on skin, the cold prick of spindrift in the face, the lungful of air tinged metallic with primal exhilaration and fear.

Ultimately though, the climber in isolation is just a thought experiment. We are social creatures by nature, and no matter how high we climb, we cannot extricate ourselves from the tangle of human interdependencies. Thoreau knew this even as he wrote Walden, which many view as an ode to the hermit’s life, disengaged from society, but which Thoreau wrote while frequently visiting town to dine with friends and while engaging sufficiently in political activities to get him thrown in jail.

We cannot live or climb in a vacuum. Even in the mountains and remotest crags we encounter politics and seemingly intractable social issues: the relationship between climbers and Sherpas on Everest, for example, or the “ethics” of bolting and fixed draws, debates over the land-use rights of native people versus recreating people, the environmental impact of our rapidly growing pastime, and so on. Even when we want not to take sides on such matters, sides are often assigned us.

The simplicity of the challenge is what draws many of us to climbing. One spire, needling against the clouds, one body with more-or-less known capabilities. A few knots and safety systems. A weather report. We see the challenge, we accept it, and we adapt ourselves to it. Maybe our only choice is to adapt ourselves to the challenges of our messy human life the way we adapt to the challenges of the ice and stone: navigating it as well and with as much style and idealism as we can muster, making the best decisions possible while realizing that not everything is within our control, and not every well-intentioned choice ends up the way we expect.

It is common to divide the natural from the cultural, but maybe it’s not a valuable distinction, after all. “Those who deny that nature and culture, landscape and politics, the city and the country are inextricably interfused have undermined the connections for all of us,” writes Rebecca Solnit in her great essay on Thoreau.

Climbing would be so much simpler without the climbers, but the problem with that sentence is clear, isn’t it? Pull at one thread in the tapestry and we find they’re all apiece, after all.

Stuck Without a Spork: 10 Workarounds for Eating in the Outdoors

The classic: biner as beer bottle opener. Photo: K. Marine

I was seated on a rock amidst the loosely consolidated dirt of the southern-Utah desert after a long morning of climbing, and I was feeling mighty hangry. The only sustenance I carried in my chalky old pack was a cup of delicious strawberry yogurt. Eagerly, I peeled back the foil lid and reached for a spoon, only to discover there was no spoon! I felt stranded, with no way to stir that fruit-on-the-bottomy goodness or convey it to my pie hole.

How little we appreciate the simple functionality of a spoon until we find ourselves without one! And while foods like sandwiches, fruits, and trail mix yield handily to manual eating techniques, others, like yogurt, soups, and saucy pastas, pose more of a challenge in the absence of proper utensils.

Science has shown that our nearest evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee, is quite deft in the use of tools for accessing and ingesting food items. So, too, have modern climbers and other outdoors people devised ingenious eating implements out of necessity. I, for example, was able to fashion a primitive scoop from the flimsy foil circle I peeled from the top of my yogurt cup, giving me the precious energy needed to finish out the day and perhaps live on to spread my genes.

Following are a 10 clever cutlery workarounds spotted in the wild. What tricky tactics have you employed when caught without a spork?

Sticks – Among the most obvious improvisations, a well-selected stick, de-barked and whittled to varying degrees, can be used to spear and roast foods like hotdogs and marshmallows, scoop messy foods, and even to stir things like cocktails or coffee.

Vadim using toothbrushes as chopsticks
Toothbrushes chopsticks. Photo: Gail Rothschild

Toothbrushes – Most climbers carry old toothbrushes for banishing excess chalk from handholds. The rigid plastic stems can double as chopsticks—particularly handy for noodles or salads.

Rocks – A good sharp rock can serve as a knife, while a slightly scooped stone takes on spoon-like properties. Large, flat ones can even be used as makeshift frying pans or plates. Pro tip: brush off dirt, lichen, or bugs before using.

Carabiners – The quintessential climber bottle opener. There are many ways to pry open your favorite non-twist-off bottle of suds with a biner—just be sure you don’t cause any sizable gauges in the rope-bearing surface, as it could end up snaggletoothing your rope’s sheath.

Shoes – Hard to open without a purpose-made tool, a wine bottle can be made to give up its cork with repeated blows against a wall using a shoe as padding. Behold, this instructional video stands as proof:

Knives – An advanced technique known as “the lip splitter” involves using the blade of your Swiss army knife not only for cutting, but also spearing and scooping food into your mouth. Zen-like focus is required to avoid terrible injury.

Nut tools – Sometimes all you need is a way to shovel stuff out of the container and into your hungry face. A climber’s nut tool, with its flat metal end, can tackle this task quite handily. These tools can even be used to cut or spread soft cheeses or similar.

Tin foil – One friend of mine commented that he has used tin foil to make a cup, bowl, shot glass, and spoon. The origami skills required here are not as advanced as they might sound, depending on the food substance you’re looking to contain or manipulate. Getting peanut butter out of the jar with a foil tool, however, requires a working knowledge of engineering principles.

Here have a tin foil hat.
Tinfoil: you’re using it wrong.

Bread – In Ethiopia, the Middle East, and various other cultures, flatbreads are used to pinch and scoop deliciously messy foods. If you have a slice of rye, crackers, or a tortilla among your rations, you have with you an edible utensil! Pro tip: the under-appreciated heel of the bread loaf here becomes the hero, offering superior scooping power.

Fingers – When all else fails, we return to the original eating implement: our fingers. These marvels of engineering can manipulate a vast array of objects, including those stinky tinned sardines in oil you brought because someone told you they were high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Hopefully you didn’t forget your wet-wipes, too.

Post Picks from 2013

Image from top posts 2013

As Seth Godin wrote recently, “My most popular blog posts this year weren’t my best ones. … ‘best’ is rarely the same as ‘popular.'” It’s a worthwhile reminder, even though most of us intuitively sense the disconnect between popularity and quality. The problem is, the fast-flowing social Internet buoys up catchy, controversial, or otherwise, “sharable” content, while everything else sifts to the murky bottom. On the other hand, this means that for those hardy souls willing to dive for it, there is a fortune in buried treasure to be had.

For this reason, today I’m sharing not only The Stone Mind’s 10 most-viewed posts of 2013, but also a more personal list, comprised of posts that I’m particularly fond of. In keeping with Godin’s quote, only a few of the posts on the first list would have made the second.

If your favorite post didn’t make either list, consider posting a link in the comments. I’d love to hear what you enjoy reading (and why) and to make this post more valuable to others.

See you next year!

Top 10 Posts of 2013

  1. Thanks, Climbing… 
  2. Surviving A Honnold “Rest Day” 
  3. 10 Tips for Climbing on Opposite Day
  4. Everyday Climbing
  5. Put A Lid On It: Some Thoughts On Helmets In Sport Climbing
  6. 10 Rad Valentine’s Day Gifts for Climbers
  7. Fear, Fun, and Trying One More Time
  8. How to Make a Climbing Movie
  9. “The Sensei”
  10. The Professionals

10 Picks from the Author

  1. On Balance 
  2. Memento Mori
  3. The Art of (Almost) Letting Go
  4. Hueco Lessons
  5. The Importance of Respect
  6. Climbing Yourself
  7. Good Luck and Bad Luck
  8. Bouldering Alone 
  9. Running It Out
  10. The Mind/Body Problem

Hiker’s Zen

We don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian Pipe plants along the trail and say, “that’s not good enough.”
I don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian pipe plant along the trail and say, “That’s not good enough.”

I like to mediate in the morning. I don’t have a shrine or even a particular belief system that I’m meditating for. I just get up early, sit down on a pillow on the floor of my dimly lit living room, pull my legs into a half-lotus position, and focus on breathing. I focus more on breathing out fully, as the inhale seems to take care of itself. I try to keep good posture, as if my body was suspended from a string affixed to the top of my skull (I read somewhere this is a good way to think of it). Sometimes it’s hard: my legs ache, my back aches. But I try to come to the meditation as if I’m going hiking on some new trail. Maybe this sounds strange; let me explain.

When I go for a hike, especially on a new trail, I don’t expect things to look a particular way. I set out walking to see what is there. Sometimes the trail will be flat and easy, sometimes rocky and full of ups and downs. Sometimes there will be water, other times I’ll see a moose. I don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian pipe plant along the trail and say, “That’s not good enough.” I say, “Oh, look, an Indian Pipe!” When I come to a bridge over a babbling stream, I don’t think, “I wish this stream were deeper and those rocks were more angular!” The stream has a natural beauty however it is. The trees are in just the right places. The grass is just the right color.

This is how I think about meditation, only instead of a trail, I’m moving through my internal landscape. It’s full of strange thoughts, old memories that rise to the surface like water from a spring. I encounter fears and aspirations, feelings of pride and embarrassment, high-priority items on my to-do list. Meditation is my time to let go of the attachments I bring to all these things. I see them, but I don’t assign them a particular value and don’t let them create anxiety inside me.

Some days I get stuck on an idea, and I don’t feel my meditation went very well, but then I remember that I’m just taking a hike. Some days on a hike, it’s cold and snowy, but who could deny that a snowy hike is as wonderful as a sunny one? Some days it rains, turning the lichen on the rocks a brighter green and making the leaves glisten like jewels. You wouldn’t think, “I wish these leaves would shine brighter and the rain make a sweeter music.” It doesn’t make sense. The mountain peaks we see on our hikes are rough and asymmetrical, but they are perfect. There is no argument against their form.

In life, every day we judge our actions and the actions of those around us. It’s very hard not to. But the idea of the hike can be useful here, too. On a hike you might twist an ankle far from shelter. You might get lost, or a big storm might make it hard to find the way. You could call this bad luck. Still, when you’re alone in nature, there is nothing to do but face the difficulty. You can get angry or scared, but for what? You have a challenge, and how you feel about it won’t change that. In fact, your strong feelings about things can be harmful, as panic tricks you into working against your own best interests.

Climbing a mountain is a big challenge, but we don’t resent the mountain. We look inside ourselves for the right mindset to go up, to deal with the difficulties we meet along the way. The challenge is actually what we love. Why should we see the other challenges in our life so differently?

The Seven Pleasures of Climbing

Climber's miming moves
Kenny Barker loves climbing THIS MUCH!

“Oooooohhhh… yeeeaah,” moaned the old woman with pleasure, her jaw dangling, a pair of binoculars pressed to her eyes. Around her, a motley group of bird watchers, their binoculars similarly erect, stood transfixed by a little orange and black ball of feathers high in the trees above. This odd and comical scene from the documentary Birders: The Central Park Effect underlines the deep obsession and primal pleasure that birders can take from their pleasantly innocuous, if not a little nerdy, pursuit.

As I watched the movie, a central theme of which is the total dedication of a small group to something that most people don’t understand or care about, I kept feeling strikes of recognition. The way in which these birders were taken over by their “hobby” seemed to perfectly parallel the climber’s obsession.

“My fiends mock me for what I do in the spring,” explains a character in Birders named Chris Cooper. “Because … from April 15 until Memorial Day, they won’t see me. Because I’m birding.” He describes the same communications barrier that climbers with non-climbing friends must navigate.

How does the climber translate for the non-climber the strange sign language he uses to mime the moves of a route? Or explain that he’ll be missing another work party because he’s making a 4am start on tomorrow’s multi-pitch outing? What words can convey the joy of wedging your hands into a sandstone fracture and scraping and grunting your way up until your knuckles, knees, and ankles bleed, until your shoulders fail, until you fly through the air and smack into the rock like a clacking ball from an executive’s desk accoutrement?

How can you make someone understand when they just don’t understand?

Well, you could make a list…

In an effort to express why he watches birds in the park for hours a day, every day, to those who would really rather not, Cooper created a list he calls “The Seven Pleasures of Birding,” as follows:

  1. The beauty of the birds
  2. The joy of being in a natural setting
  3. The joy of scientific discovery
  4. The joy of hunting without the bloodshed
  5. The joy of puzzle solving (figuring out what bird you’re seeing based only on little glimpses of color and form as the specimen flits between lofty branches)
  6. The joy of collecting (bird species)
  7. The unicorn effect (the moment of awe that comes when you see for the first time a bird you’ve only ever read about in field guides)

I think three of these could be transferred directly to climbing without much adjustment: numbers 2, 5, and 6. Clearly, the natural setting is a huge draw for your average climber. Solving puzzles, yes, obviously — whether through finding the right line up a mountain, the right gear to protect a route, or the right moves to unlock a sequence. And how many of us collect climbs? Colorado’s 14ers or 5.12s or all the four-star routes in a guidebook… . There are nearly as many ways to collect as there are climbers driven by collecting.

The other points are connected a little more loosely, but I think they can be made to work. Number 1, the beauty of the birds, for example, could be seen as a more general aesthetic appreciation. Here, too, lies an attraction for many climbers; the look of a beautiful line or of a particular movement certainly enriches the climbing experience.

The joy of scientific discovery could be turned inside out to suit the climbing life — instead of learning about the external world, we rock rats meticulously monitor and experiment with our own physical and mental states as a way of improving, overcoming psychological barriers, and collecting new climbs.

Hunting without bloodshed (number 4) could be seen as the urge to find new routes, new cliffs, new climbing areas or mountain faces to be scaled — it is the developer’s urge, the thirst of the first-ascentionist for the new.

And then there’s the unicorn effect, which at first blush might seem hard to recognize from the climber’s high-angle perspective. But rotate the idea just a quarter turn and you’ll likely recall the first time you visited a classic area or climb you’d only read about in magazines and seen in videos: Yosemite, Cerro Torre, the tenuous summit formation on Ancient Art. My alpinist friend spent hours scrutinizing aerial photographs of a peak in Alaska he was planning to climb. He must have experienced the unicorn effect when he stepped on to that glacier and for the first time encountered his objective’s mythic visage.

So, then, would the Seven Pleasures of Climbing be as follows?

  1. The beauty of the climb
  2. The joy of being in a natural setting
  3. The joy of discovering and overcoming ones own limitations
  4. The joys of exploring new territory
  5. The joy of puzzle solving
  6. The joy of collecting
  7. The unicorn effect

A while ago, I wrote a blog called Climbing Is (Not) the Best. In it, I argued that climbing is no more or less special that any other pursuit. Birders reminded me of that idea and reinforced it, but also helped me to remember that just because it’s hard to convincingly argue for the primacy of one passion over another, that does nothing to diminish the value, the depth of meaning, that a passion holds for the passionate.

Whether birding or climbing, gardening or knitting, cooking or painting, any pursuit can help us to see and feel deeply. Why any activity snares the wild heart of one person but not another remains fairly mysterious. But the mystery, I think, only adds to the fun of it.

Still, I’m not sure these seven pleasures really encompass all the many things about climbing that bring joy to an obsessed climber. What would you add to the list?

A Trip to the Zoo

JKR_9201_sm

I went to the zoo this weekend, and as always I departed feeling a little ambivalent. When you see creatures like leopards, lemurs, elephants, and apes in those drab enclosures, mere simulacra of their natural habitats, it’s hard not to feel sorry for them. I doubt any faux rock cliff or pool of hose water will ever fully engage their wild intelligences. As I wandered the paved footpaths between continent-themed enclosures, I remembered how my sensitive, vegetarian friend Ben used to call zoos “animal jail.”

On the other hand, these creatures are safe — from predators, from food pressure, from droughts, from us. And isn’t safety what we humans have been striving for since the very start? Our drive to find shelter and protection, to isolate ourselves from the constant threats of the world (coupled with an overdeveloped prefrontal cortex), is the very thing that’s made us so successful on this planet. Maybe it’s because we’ve grown comfortable in our world of boxes that we feel animals will take some sanguine comfort in a zoo’s protection.

But why then do most of us assign a certain sadness to animals in zoos? Is it because we grok that it’s a fine line between being protected and being trapped? Personally, when I feel that boundary growing threadbare, a trip into the mountains becomes particularly important to my sanity. I can only imagine how the silverback gorilla feels as he peers through the glass day after day, at the gallery of baby strollers and hairless apes with cameras, while waiting for his food to be delivered.

A mother tending lovingly to her young, a playful polar bear, a sad-looking gibbon — you can hear the children exclaiming in surprise how the animals are just like people. Through the fences and over moats, the creatures in the zoo always seem to remind us of ourselves, but rarely do we invert that logic and draw the conclusion that we are like them. Or not so much like them as are them.

Granted, it can be a problematic perspective to take. After all, when the boundary between “us” and “them” grows blurry, so do many things we hold to be self-evident. Better to do as I did and gaze with wonder at that enormous, flat face in the glass, with its black leather skin and dense fur and searching eyes, and then get back in your little box of glass and steel and drive away.

One of the Most Important Things to Know About Snorkeling or Pretty Much Anything Else

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik
Photo courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik

“Those who can be like a puddle become clear when they’re still,”
– Lao-tzu

The first time I panicked while snorkeling was when I hit the water. Immediately, I felt like I might sink. Or if not immediately sink, quickly exhaust my energy, snorf a lungful of sea water, maybe vomit, and then sink.

Just 30 seconds earlier, I was standing at the edge of the catamaran. I turned to one of the guys working the tour.

“So just jump in?” I asked, peering through the smeared and scratched glass of my mask. He smiled big and reached out to tighten my straps.

“Yeah, just hold your mask when you jump so it doesn’t come off.”

I took a deep breath, peered down into the azure sea as it fwapped against the boat hull, and jumped.

Let me say that I am a poor to mediocre swimmer and had never snorkeled before this trip. Right away, I was in distress. Trying to keep my head up in the air while dumping water out of a snorkel felt way too complicated. At first I used one arm to handle the snorkel and straighten my mask, but quickly realized I’d need both hands to get everything in order. To accomplish this, I pedaled my flippered feet madly, exhausting myself. As if to mock me, the small ocean chop kept slapping me in the face.

You’re not going to drown, I assured myself. I stopped futzing with my snorkel and paddled away from the boat. As soon as my thrashing slowed, the ocean floor became visible through the crystalline water. The sand was pale, inviting, and I could make out the indistinct shapes of sea creatures moving below. Excited to see more, I bit down on my snorkel and started to breathe. It felt funny, not surprisingly like pulling air through a tube. I dunked my face into the water and panicked for the second time.

For some reason, it felt much harder to breathe with my face submerged. I sucked desperately on the mouthpiece just as a wave welled up and filled my snorkel with sea water. I gulped a mouthful and narrowly avoided regurgitating my grilled mahi-mahi lunch. OK, man, time for a reset, I thought. I went to my happy place, found my power animal, and reminded myself that I was not the first person to use a snorkel. Several million people, many much older, younger, more out of shape, and/or worse at swimming than I have successfully snorkeled. I just needed to relax.

It’s amazing what not freaking out can do for you. In a very general sense, freaking out is the best way to make all of your fears come a little closer to reality. When rock climbing, freaking out makes you the worst climber you can possibly be. This also holds true for traveling, cooking, trying to pick someone up at a bar, playing badminton, or pretty much anything you can think of. The only good time to freak out is if you’re an actor whose character is freaking out, or if you’re in a freak-out contest, which I’m not sure even exists. When you don’t freak out, you’re much better at having fun and, not coincidentally, you’re more fun to be around…

Or, more poetically, “When we stop struggling, we float,” to quote Mark Nepo. It’s counterintuitive, but there’s a truth to it. Calmer, I found I could stay comfortably on the water’s surface with little effort. I tried looking down again, but since I was no longer hyperventilating, I could breathe.

In my field of view appeared spectacular mounds of pale coral speckled with sea urchins. Some were black and spiny, like balls of lacquered toothpicks. Others had rounded spines like fat pink tongue depressors. A small, dark green sea turtle with a light band around its neck glided by. Big black fish with flowing fins, yellow stripped fish, a long, silvery fish with an eel-like body and pencil-thin nose… A little bit of water flopped into my snorkel, so I puffed it out with a sharp breath, like the guys on the boat suggested. Not only wasn’t the experience scary or hard, it was relaxing, almost meditative.

“Don’t do this,” explained one of the tour leaders before we jumped in, waving his arms and legs in demonstration. “If you’re thrashing around down there, you’re scaring the fish.” So I moved slowly, comfortably buoyant, serene. I dove down into the water-warbled light and gently touched a lipstick urchin. Schools of fish divided unhurriedly at my approach. I was a visitor in their quiet world for a moment and they seemed OK with it. I was OK with it too.

Walking on Lava: A Pedestrian Lesson from Hawaii

Lava sunset

Take the helicopter tour, one friend suggested. You can hire a boat that takes you right up to where the lava meets the sea, someone else offered. But when the guy at the hotel info desk mentioned a walking tour to see the Mauna Loa lava flows in Kalapana, on the Big Island of Hawaii, my wife and I decided immediately and in unison that was the way for us.

We signed up for the tour and drove the Saddle Road to the town of Hilo, on the other side of the island (walking this leg of the journey would have taken days — a little long for this trip). We ascended nearly 7,000 feet on the drive, passing over the southern flank of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world provided you measure from its base on the sea floor, and through several different climate zones along the way.

In rainy Hilo, we met our tour guide, a young blond girl from Massachusetts who’d just graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in volcanology. We were the only two on the tour that day. We followed our guide to the lava viewing area just outside of Volcano National Park, parked our cars, and started to walk.

Walking is by definition a human-scale endeavor, measured in footsteps. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking,” Nietzsche said, and maybe there’s something to this. I certainly use walking to clear my head when things get too crowded up there. Thomas Jefferson praised walking as a key to good health for the body and the mind. A slow amble puts us down in the landscape, on intimate terms with the real cost of getting from here to there. On foot, we get to experience the fine textures and details of a journey.

We crossed the expansive lava fields, our shoe soles the only barrier between skin and blasted black landscape. We trod on the cracked and crazed mounds of lava rock, wove in an out of big broken domes called tumuli, crunched over the fragile folds of ropy pahoehoe. The trek offered a sense of what the beginning — or maybe the end — of the world might look like.

Our guide stopped and knelt carefully. The ground was mostly silica, and can cut with a touch. She pinched what looked like a fine, straw-colored hair between thumb and forefinger.

“Have you heard of Pele’s hair?” she asked, handing me the fragile strand. “It’s lava that gets spun out by the wind and cooled into a thread… Who knew Pele was a blond?”

Three miles over this terrain and we felt it in our legs and ankles. Each step landed on a different texture or angle. In the distance, a plume of pure white steam rose from the lava entry at the water’s edge. We walked by homes and vehicles that had become embedded in the lava flows. Studded with little bursts of red flower, an ohia tree 10 feet tall stood as a measuring stick to the decades since the lava had passed that spot.

An hour and a half into the hike, we came to the sea cliffs. Here, molten stone broke through a burnt veneer and globbed into the foamy, chaotic surf, generating steam billows that rose up and black sand particles that filtered down.

“There aren’t many places you can see new land being created like this,” our tour guide said with a geologist’s indefatigable reverence.

Nearby, we found a fresh “toe” of lava that had broken through its crusty containment and bulged up and out, folding over onto itself repeatedly, like glowing red layers of hot fudge. It quickly cooled and sealed over, only to break through again. We poked it with long sticks, which burst into flame on contact. Our shoe rubber grew soft.

On the way out, it started raining, offering a welcome coolness. The sun set behind the shoulder of Mauna Loa and we clicked on our headlamps. Certainly, the different perspectives of a boat or a helicopter would have been interesting, more cinematic maybe, but we already observe so much of our world through screens and windows. Better, we thought, to go face to face with the lava fields — slow, with effort, scorched and soaked and awed by the primordial beauty of it all.

Walking is not the fastest way or the easiest way to do just about anything. Humans have invented countless modes of conveyance to spare ourselves from the drudgery of conducting our many chores and journeys on foot. But in this age of acceleration and expediency, walking remains important. It gives us a chance to think or, if walking with another, to discuss, unhurried by the relentless ticking of The Clock.

We returned to our cars in the drizzling darkness, dreading the drudgery of the slow, winding drive back across the island, but happy that we’d chosen to go by foot. Walking is a great reminder that the journey is, at the very least, as important as the destination… If there even is such a thing as a destination, after all.

 

Animals that climb

Baby squirrel climbing concrete wall

We humans sure like to make a big deal out of our climbing feats. But anyone who’s spent much time on the rocks knows that nature has produced all manner of creature that excel at high-angle maneuverings in a way we clumsy Homo sapiens sapiens could only dream. Here’s a collection of 11 such variations from Mother Nature’s menagerie, all of which utilize unique and often strange modes of vertical locomotion.

Bears

This video of climbing bears started making the rounds in April, 2014, and really caught fire—probably because the climbing bears look so much like climbing humans when they move. According to the YouTube description, these “Endangered Mexican Black Bears” are scaling the walls of Santa Elena Canyon. The videographer spotted the momma and her cubs while kayaking and whipped out the ol’ camera, just in time to make an Internet sensation.

Baboons

Like most primates, baboons are excellent tree climbers. But did you know they also climb rocks? And because they’re built a lot like humans, they look like us when they climb, too. Aside from a killer strength-to-weight ratio, baboons benefit from long tails they can fling around for balance, and prehensile toes that can grasp the rock as ably as fingers. Baboons dig congregating on sheer cliff faces because it keeps them pretty well beyond the reach of natural predators, like leopards and cheetahs.

Geckos

These radass lizards have been the subject of endless scientific study due to their ability to calmly stroll up even the smoothest surfaces — glass, for example. They achieve this sweet trick thanks to their hairy feet. Not quite as gross as it sounds, geckos use superfine hairs called setae to adhere via van der Waals forces (which attract molecules to each other) to pretty much any surface. Adhesives have since been created that steal a page from the gecko’s playbook, and we will no doubt soon have climbing shoes coated with setae. Which would be totally cheating.

Sloths

Sure, they’re a little pokey, but what the sloth lacks in speed, it makes up for in efficiency. Sloths have long hook-like claws they use to dangle from the tree branches they call home. If you were to ask a sloth for climbing advice, he would probably say, “Simple. Don’t let go.” That’s advice these shaggy, muppet-looking creatures really take to heart — so tenacious is their grip, they’ve been observed to remain suspended in a tree even after they die.

Squirrels

We’ve all seen squirrels blast up a tree at warp speed, but did you know they can also climb a blank concrete wall? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself, when a baby squirrel in Colorado fell from a tree and then scampered for the nearest wall to climb away from danger. Squirrels’ sharp, hook-like claws, coupled with a highly mobile ankle that allows them to rotate their rear feet around backwards, lets them hang from and climb a variety of surfaces. In the case of the baby squirrel I saw, tiny air-bubble pockets in the concrete were just right for claw placements.

Snakes

Like squirrels, the fact that snakes can climb trees is no big deal. But, troublingly, they can also climb other vertical surfaces — brick walls, for example. Researchers have found that snakes use what’s called a “concertina” mode of locomotion, in which some regions of the body stop and grip while others extend forward, to climb. Snakes not only have amazing flexibility (due to their hundreds of vertebrae) and muscle control, but they can also extend tough scales on their underside for increased grip.

Mountain Goats

Perhaps you’ve seen this photo, showing a bunch of goats (mountain ibex, specifically) chillin’ on the wall of a dam in Italy like it’s a nice place for a nap. Aside from a Honnoldian head for free soloing, many goats also have feet custom-made for vertical exploits. This passage from Douglass Chadwick’s book, A Beast the Color of Winter, describes the mountain goat’s special climbing footwear: “The sides of a mountain goat’s toes consist of the same hard keratin found on the hoof of a horse or deer. Each of the two wrap around toenails can be used to catch and hold to a crack or tiny knob of rock…The mountain goat is shod with a special traction pad which protrudes slightly past the nail. This pad has a rough textured surface that provides a considerable amount of extra friction on smooth rock and ice.” The list of all-terrain features goes on…  Five Ten take note…

Crabs

Wait. What? That’s right, crabs can climb — or at least one kind can: the coconut crab, which is an arthropod related to the hermit crab and is found across the islands of the Indian Ocean and parts of the Pacific. (FYI, the coconut crab can grow to be almost ten pounds and three feet across.) These fruit- and vegetable-loving critters will actually climb trees using their long, spiny legs and grab coconuts, which they then smash open using their powerful claws and eat.

Cats

As we all know, cat videos are the heart and soul of the Internet, so it was easy to find videos of cats climbing things. Still, it’s impressive that cats have so thoroughly honed their face and arête climbing techniques. Cats big and small rely on tactics similar to that of the squirrel — i.e., sharp claws and an awesome kinetic sense — to scale trees and manmade structures alike. I’d bet a can of Fancy Feast maneuvers like those shown in this video are the root of the term “cat burglar.”

Spiders

Like geckos, spiders legs are studded with microscopic hairs which, scientists postulate, allows them to stick to walls via electrostatic attraction (the afore-mentioned van der Waals forces). Spiders and most insects also sport tiny tarsal claws that can grip the minute texture of surfaces that, to our eyes, appear smooth. Hence their ability to hang upside-down on the ceiling and then drop on you. Which is totally creepy. In fact, I think I feel a tickle on my neck right now…

Snails

Lubricated with a mucus layer secreted by a gland near the mouth, snails are able to glide, albeit slowly, on a layer of slime. This terrestrial gastropod mollusk’s flat underside undulates in a wave-like motion to propel it forward. Its slimy excretions, combined with a smooth, flat base, creates a powerful suction, allowing snails to climb walls, trees, etc. This method of climbing, although effective, is undoubtedly the grossest method, and it really louses things up for other creatures who might want to climb afterward, like that super sweaty guy in the gym.

Connecting the Dots: Climbing and the Creation of Meaning

Rat Rock in Central Park. Photo: © Andy Outis - andyoutis.com
Rat Rock in Central Park. Photo: © Andy Outis – andyoutis.com

White chalk patches speckle the dark grey schist of Rat Rock. Sunlight streaming through the leaves layers another pattern on top of the first. Horns honking, jackhammers chattering, radios squawking, passersby conversing, cyclists chirring, flocks of pigeons exploding into flight… Central Park can be chaotic.

But on Rat Rock, a block of stone the approximate size and shape of a single-family home that’s been partially squashed, I met a middle-aged Japanese guy named Yuki who slowly but surely worked to create order on the boulder’s surface.

I first encountered Yuki in the late 1990s, when I was a college student at NYU. On my early visits to Rat Rock, he was there: wiry and hollow-chested, forearms snaked with muscle. He had short-cropped black hair and a stout mustache and wore a T-shirt, slacks, and an old pair of black and green Boreal rock shoes to climb.

Smooth and choreographed, he climbed as if performing a vertical Tai Chi. Every move was perfectly calibrated for balance, so he could reach from one tiny edge to the next without having to jump or swing or snatch. He was quiet and unobtrusive, but if prompted, Yuki would offer sage snippets of climbing wisdom to the young, graceless climbers like me as we yanked on the holds like we wanted to take them home as souvenirs.

“Center your hips. Pull more with your toes. Hold less but reach farther.”

So thoroughly had Yuki explored the possibilities of Rat Rock that he eventually took to climbing in patterns, geometric shapes. One day, he suggested I join him in this new challenge.

“Try to climb in circles.” He said, and proceeded to show me a path of concentric rings he’d discerned connecting the chalky dots. First a tight circle in the center of the face, then a larger circle encompassing that, and a larger one still, never touching the ground. I tried, but found myself unmotivated. Yuki’s circles seemed overly contrived, and the lack of a grade probably made them less appealing, too. But now, more than a decade later, they make more sense to me.

Climbing a rock is undeniably arbitrary. When we set our sites on a mountain or a piece of stone, we overlay logic onto something random. We see the potential for movement, for a challenge, but the surfaces themselves are meaningless. The climb exists only at the intersection of stone, body, and mind — not in any of these alone.

The universe is chaotic and is growing ever more so (see: the second law of thermodynamics) — this chaos has shaped our brains, trained them to hunt for order and patterns as a means of survival. It’s how we learned to predict the motions of the bison across the plains and how best to hunt them. Perhaps it is even the same reason we painted the bison’s likeness on the walls of caves. It’s why we see familiar objects in the shapes of clouds and human faces in the knotty grain of a wooden fence. It’s why we name the world and map it. Why we make music and formulate equations. The act of ordering offers a comforting sense of understanding and control.

“Through art, create order out of the chaos of living,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote. Like art, climbing is an act of creation. Through climbing, create order out of the chaos of stone.

Top 10 Most Popular Posts of 2012

The_Stone_Mind_Top10

I started The Stone Mind less than a year ago, in February 2012. In some ways, it feels like I just started. In other ways, it’s like I’ve been writing it forever. At first it was just a way to keep me working with words after I left my job as a magazine editor. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted the blog to be about. I posted product reviews, photo galleries, an interview or two, personal essays, even a short story. As the months passed, things came into their own focus, and now most of my posts deal with climbing, nature (human and otherwise), and Eastern philosophy, and the many ways in which these topics connect, overlap, and inform each other.

In 2013, I plan to explore these topics further, while at the same time reserving the right to strike out in new directions — this blog, after all, is nothing if not an experiment and an act of personal passion.

Before moving ahead, however, I thought it might be nice to take a quick look back at the most popular posts of the past year. Here are the Top 10 (out of more than 100), ranked by page views. For various reasons, these are the ones that have garnered the most eyeballs. There are many other posts that are dear to me on this blog that have received only a fraction of the views. I know time and attention are the Internet’s most precious commodities, but if you like any of the posts listed below, you might consider taking a moment to poke around in the archives, too. Either way, I hope you find something that interests you.

As always, thanks for reading.

–The Blockhead Lord

Top 10 of 2012

  1. How to Spot a Climber in the Wild
  2. Couch Crushers to Widgeteers: 10 Climbing Personality Types Identified
  3. It’s Not Cool To Care
  4. Can You Cold-Brew Coffee With A French Press?
  5. From Chalk to Salve: Crap Climbers Put on Their Hands
  6. 50 Shades of Plaid: The Unofficial Uniform of Outdoor Retailer*
  7. Seven Deadly Sprays
  8. The Rotpunkt Method
  9. RIP Urban Climber Magazine
  10. Master of Movement or: Why Bear Grylls Is Running Through the Desert

*This “50 Shades of Plaid” ranking does not include the tens of thousands of page views if you add up all the separate images in the gallery — with those it would easily be the top post!

Now Year’s Resolution

The view from a narrow part of the Angel's Landing trail, Zion National Park

Dec. 30, 2012 – My wife Kristin tells me how much fun she’s having. We’re out bouldering in the lunar basin of Moe’s Valley in St. George, Utah, and she’s not even climbing — just hanging out and offering moral support, which I think is damned decent of her.

“I like to get away from home … from our day-to-day life,” she explains. “I feel like I can actually see you now, without all the anxiety about work and schedules and things we have to do.”

I feel the same way. We see each other differently out here, surrounded by nothing but dirt and rocks and sky. It reminds me of those early days of our relationship, when there was still so much we didn’t know or assume about each other. We were experiencing “beginner’s mind” — that state of being where everything is new, even if you’ve seen it a million times, as Kristin and I have seen each other.

In one popular Zen story, a teacher pours tea into a student’s cup until it overflows and spills out across the ground. The student jumps back, surprised, and asks the teacher what he’s doing.

“Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations,” the teacher answers. “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Travel can help empty one’s cup, as it did in Moe’s Valley for Kristin and me. I also think it’s a grand goal to be always working to empty your cup.

Most folks take the turning of the year as a time to reflect on milestones and accomplishments, to set goals and make resolutions. Indeed, the month of January is named for Janus, an ancient Roman god with two faces, one looking towards the past and the other to the future. Personally, rather than looking behind or ahead, I like to think of the new year’s transition as a great time to start living precisely in the center, in the eternal Now.

The day after our trip to Moe’s Valley, Kristin and I headed to Zion National Park, about 40 miles northeast of St. George. We wanted to hike to Angel’s Landing, even though we’d heard it could be  sketchy this time of year. In the visitor’s center, a woman told a group of tourists, “Oh yes, Angel’s Landing: people fall to their deaths on that hike all the time!” Which seemed a little alarmist to me. We decided to go anyway.

The hike was mellower than we had expected, not too steep and well-paved most of the way. Towards the end, we donned Microspikes — little chain-and-spike slip-ons that give your hiking boots great traction on ice and snow. We clambered up some steep sections of snow-frosted stone secured with chain handrails. The going got a little hinky, so Kristin hung back on a flat platform under a dead tree where a California condor the size of a small child hunched silently in the sun. I went ahead a ways to see what the terrain was like.

I headed out across a narrow bridge of stone, maybe two feet across. The ground dropped away hundreds, maybe a thousand, feet on either side. Striated red walls reared up again in the distance, forming towers and walls and arêtes. A meager river meandered through the valley to my left. I felt the wide-open void pulling at me. I let the moment radiate out from me and back into me. My thoughts tumbled into space, melting into air as they fell. My cup was empty.

In his essay “Zen and the Problem of Control,” philosopher Alan Watts writes “When the will is struggling with itself and in conflict with itself it is paralyzed, like a person trying to walk in two different directions at once.” It is tempting to look ahead and back, not just at year’s end, but all the time. We see the world in terms of past and potential actions. We’re constantly writing and rewriting the narrative of who we are and what we might be, all the while judging ourselves against this fictional character. I do it. We all do it.

We can reach specific goals through this process, but we can also lose track of the more important things that underlie those goals. We think, If I can just lose weight, or climb a certain route, or make more money, then I will have succeeded! Those are all fine things, but really what we’re after is to feel more like what Watts describes as a person “all of a piece with himself and with the natural world.” We assume we know the path that will make that happen, but for many reasons — because we’re trying to walk in two directions at once, perhaps — it’s easy to misdirect our energies.

Our resolutions may or may not move us towards a sense of deeper satisfaction, but I’d like to take this symbolic entering of a new year as a reminder, like the ringing of a bell in a Zen ceremony, to start this moment with an empty cup. As for the next moment, I’ll deal with that when I come to it.

A Moon for Halloween

Moon and Tree - photo: © Justin Roth

 

The night before last, I was standing in an empty field just as the full moon rose through the branches of a tree. I took this picture. A grand, pale orange form as it mounted the horizon, the moon appeared to shrink smaller and smaller as it rose, until it hung like a bare bulb in the sky above us. The sight conjured a Zen story from Zen Flesh Zen Bones, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. The lesson, as always, is one of perspective:

The Moon Cannot Be Stolen

Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.

Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you shoud not return emptyhanded. Please take my clothes as a gift.”

The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.

Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow, ” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

Happy Halloween…

– The Blockhead Lord

The Language of Stars

Boulders and stars, Triassic, UT.

If the stars should appear but one night every thousand years how man would marvel and stare.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

This Friday I turned 34. Other than that fact that the first and second digits are consecutive, it was not a particularly significant birthday. Rather than throw a party in honor of the occasion, Kristin and I packed our trusty Honda Element and headed south and east of Salt Lake City, to a bouldering spot called Triassic, which feels every bit as prehistoric as the name would imply.

Located between the rural town of Elmo (pop. 368) and the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, site of “the densest concentration of Jurassic-aged dinosaur bones ever found,” Triassic is a desert sandstone bouldering area comprised of a few caches of rock in what was once an ancient seabed. The feeling one gets in this desolately beautiful spot is one of timelessness, as if a herd of Allosaurus fragilis might at any moment come lumbering over the crest of a hill.

Triassic: the land that time forgot

Although the environs at first appear lifeless, an attentive eye will pick out the movement of many a creature — little rock-crawling lizards, chipmunks, jack rabbits, and even antelope — all camouflaged in the dusty tones of the landscape. Humans tend to be the least represented creatures in Triassic. Which is half the reason why Kristin and I chose the spot in the first place. We went there to climb, but also to spend the night isolated in a more wild setting, enjoy a celebratory drink in front of a camp fire, and, among my favorite pastimes in nature, stargaze.

That night, the stars were out in their full regalia. By 11pm, the sun was long gone, the moon had not yet crested the horizon, and all the constellations were razor-sharp and twinkling. Through the middle of the sky was a broad swath of diffuse light, the combined glow of billions of stars forming the spiral-armed Milky Way, seen from on edge like a cosmic Frisbee hurtling towards us.

Communing with the campfire

Dinosaur fossils, the pictographs of ancient civilizations, great geologic landscapes like the Grand Canyon or the Himalaya, the open ocean — all of these are magical to behold, but nothing puts a person in his or her tiny, insignificant place quite like a full-blown sky full of stars, viewed on a clear cold desert night.

To each observer, the vast starscape becomes a celestial Rorschach test. What we see in the unfathomable vastness is a testament to what our hearts most want to see. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “How is it they live in such harmony the billions of stars – when most men can barely go a minute without declaring war in their minds about someone they know.” To him, stars were an example from God of how humans can better carry out their lives. Marcus Aurelius saw them as exemplary of a realm above and beyond petty human concerns: “Look round at the courses of the stars, as if thou wert going along with them; and constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another; for such thoughts purge away the filth of the terrene life.” Van Gogh said simply “The sight of the stars makes me dream.”

Basic view of the Milky Way

To me, the stars serve as proof that we’re the center of nothing in particular, and that our actions leave not a scratch on the broad side of the universe. In the Zen tradition, they remind me to take “serious” things more lightly, and “small” things more seriously, and remember that our only legacy is the example we set in this life, and our ultimate return to the elemental star dust of which we’re made.

The next morning when we woke, the stars had once again disappeared behind the blue veil of the sky. We approached the day with no particular goal in mind. Alone, in the desert, with some water and a few crash pads, we set off walking to see what we could see. But the stars had left their faint impression in our minds and, at least for a little while, we would follow their example.

Photo Friday: Living Creatures

As an aspiring photographer, science and nature lover, and generally curious fellow, I find few things more fascinating and aesthetic than the forms of living creatures. They are at once alien and familiar. A strange mirror, they show us something of ourselves we are quick to forget.

Look at the frog, with its smooth, glistening folds of skin — can you not see some obtuse hint at our own origins? Look at the long muscles of its leg, not so unlike our own quadriceps. Look at the bulge of the belly, the short, chubby forelimbs; do they not remind of that rotund man at the gas station with his tight watchband and straining shirt? Regard the wide-set eyes and broad mouth; are they really so different from ours? View a frog from head on, add a jaunty hat and a pair of spectacles and what do you have? The gent you passed on the street the other day, grinning with a distant look in his eye.

The deer, the grasshopper, the squirrel, the snail, the giraffe… they are our not our charges; they are our brethren. They eat, mate, seek shelter from the elements and from predators. Had they only the words, can you imagine they would express sentiments so different from our own? But as they cannot speak, the best we can do is observe them closely and learn the lessens their ancestors have been teaching our ancestors for time immemorial.

A frog at a birthday party in New York.
A frog at a birthday party in New York.
Male deer in suburban Boulder, Colorado.
Male deer in suburban Boulder, Colorado.
A grasshopper in my yard in Salt Lake City, Utah.
A grasshopper in my yard in Salt Lake City, Utah.
A mother squirrel looking for her baby, who fell from a tree in suburban Boulder, Colorado.
A mother squirrel looking for her baby, who fell from a tree in suburban Boulder, Colorado.
A snail on my dinner plate, or Ce n'est pas dîner.
A snail on my dinner plate, or Ce n’est pas dîner.
A giraffe in the Denver Zoo.
A giraffe in the Denver Zoo.

The Doodanglies of Spring

I’m walking my blue heeler, Bodhi, through the serene grass and pavement matrix of our Salt Lake City suburb, when some creature issues a short, high cry from up above. It’s a mysterious call that could well have come from some denizen of a distant, cacophonous rainforest, but here it is a lone, wild voice against the ticking and hissing of sprinklers and the lawnmower’s drone.

I’ve heard this vocalization before and know what it means. I scan my surroundings and within seconds I spot them: a family of California quail, teardrop shaped puffs of grey strutting around in someone’s front yard, pecking the ground in search of seeds and shoots. My fiancée has given these beautiful birds, with their scale-patterned feathers, rust-brown caps, and white-limned black faces, the name “doodangly” birds, after their flapper-era black head plumes that wiggle with every step. It’s now the only way I refer them in conversation, leading to much confusion.

The family — a mother and six chicks — putters onto the sidewalk just as their high lookout, perched on a roof peak a few houses down, detects my presence and issues his warning. They hasten into a single-file formation and hightail it away from me, legs swinging in a blur, road-runner style. Doodanglies almost never fly unless startled at close distance. They opt instead for more pedestrian means of locomotion and can move surprisingly fast over open terrain.

The family ducks into a driveway and behind a little rise of grass. I stand and watch, waiting to see if they’ll reemerge, and they do. I’ve noticed that these strange little terrestrial birds are seldom dissuaded from their course. They scramble whenever a human, cat, or car comes too close, but soon, with caution, pluck back towards their original course. Like pigeons and doves, they are well adapted to the grid-paved wilderness of the burbs.

Every spring, the doodanglies begin to show themselves in the Salt Lake valley. They are my favorite local nature sprites, embodiments of some ancient energy that humans have been endeavoring to bury in layers of concrete, glass, and metal for the past hundred-odd years. The doodanglies appear first in pairs, but soon in families. Their chicks are precocial, meaning they’re ready to roll straight out of the shell. Still, the parentals shepherd them closely when they’re on the move. It is common quail practice to have one scout posted up on a fencepost or tree branch, watching for threats like Bodhi and me. Of course, we’re not really a threat (or at least, I’m not), but they don’t give us the benefit of the doubt, and I don’t blame them.

If I’m lucky, I’ll make doodangly sightings every day, when I’m out walking my dog or running. Their simple, wild presence in the spaces between our houses and our cars, like that of the baroque, green-armored grasshopper or the flashing, iridescent hummingbird, reminds me of the way the world once was, and still is in our ever-shrinking preserves of  natural places. It reminds me that no matter how far “above” nature we try to arrange ourselves, we are and always will be a part of it. As Emerson says in his essay “Nature,” “The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable.” He could just as well have said  “man and the birds.” It reminds me that we humans, the rich and the poor among us, must make a life for ourselves one day, one year at a time, just like the doodanglies, plucking towards the future powered by an innate stubbornness that I can only see as nature’s beautiful, irrational argument against the chaos of the universe.