Tag Archives: Emerson

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.

The Importance of Respect

respect

The first precept of karate is that it begins and ends with a bow of respect. If you respect your opponent, you respect yourself. If you respect yourself, you respect your opponent. Similarly, one of the four principles at the heart of the Japanese tea ceremony, rooted in Zen, is Kei, or respect

I don’t physically bow to the rock before I climb, but perhaps I should start. I’m sure it would draw some funny looks, but it would also be a good reminder of what I’m doing there in the first place: looking for a challenge to help me deepen my knowledge of self and broaden my understanding of the possible.

When mountaineers speak of conquering or doing battle with a mountain or using siege tactics, they use the language of colonialism and war. They confuse the matter by implying that there is some sort of victory or ownership to be won on a peak. Words are easily disregarded as mere labels, but they influence our thoughts and our perspective even as we speak them. When a climber says he wants to “crush” or “take a dump on” a climb, it is funny in one regard, not serious. But on another level, it makes it harder to come to the climb with respect.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a great lover of nature. He saw it as our first teacher and a mirror to the self. “Nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part,” he wrote in his oration “The American Scholar.” “One is seal, and one is print. Its beauty is the beauty of his own mind.” Climbing is an intimate interaction between human and stone — it teaches us through direct experience. Rock and body, nature and mind — all spring from the same source. When we puzzle out the lessons of the stone, we can’t help but learn something of ourselves.

Or at least, we can learn something if we approach the matter with an empty cup. When we come to a climb without respect or an interest in learning, we see nothing but a goal to be achieved. In such a state, we might wish to skip to the end by any means, as a child who moves his piece to the final square of a board game and mistakes himself the winner. We might want to announce our accomplishment or log it on a scorecard, but what we have really learned cannot be verbalized or assigned a numerical value.

I have never physically bowed to a rock, but perhaps I should start. Or at least make the bow in my mind. If nothing else, such a gesture will serve to remind me why I am here in the first place.

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.

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.