Baden-Powell 3: Thoreau, or, Living in the Body

I was alone on the northwest flank of Mt. Hawkins leaning against my pack and squinting into the sky. The grass and branches of the manzanita stirred. Both of the maps we’d consulted in planning our nineteen-mile trip up Mt. Baden-Powell indicated a spring a short distance down the slope. The online PCT logs I’d read said that the spring was robust and supported a dense colony of broad-leaved plants; hence its name, Lily Spring. The Husband and Sons had gone bushwacking down the side of the mountain in search of it while I stayed back to rest in sun brighter than it was warm.

I’d been trying to hike at a pace comfortable for me instead of trying to keep up with The Husband, as I had done for most of our relationship. In the Philmont Days, being able to hike far and fast was a precondition for getting into the club of rowdies and misfits he so loved, and I worked my tail off to keep up with his mountain-man friends. During one outing, I became so enraged with his hiking out of range of me that I hiked myself into an apoplectic frenzy to catch up with and outpace him. I don’t think he noticed how upset I was (and I felt too foolish to draw attention to it once I’d caught up to him); he was simply pleased that I’d taken the cue to up the pace a little.

Years down the line, I’d decided to hike just as fast as I wanted and no faster. I no longer have anything to prove. I no longer fancy myself an athletic outdoorsperson. I’ve finally realized I have a right to be in the mountains and call myself a backpacker whether I hike three miles in a day or twelve. I’ve found out that many of those Titan friends the Husband so lionized are complicated humans with vexed relationships to womankind. I have learned to leave other people’s misogyny on their own shoulders instead of making it my problem by trying to invalidate it through a targeted performance of sheer awesomeness. Still, lagging behind isn’t easy for the likes of me. That day, I felt tiny shock waves of resentment as The Husband pulled ahead and out of sight once again, leaving me to shepherd the kids up the trail. Whatever, I told myself. I put one foot ahead of the other, feeling my contact with the mountain’s granitoid spine.

So at Lily Spring I was, I told myself, perfectly happy to rest while they explored. In general, as I shared before, I like sticking with programs. I like knowing I’m going where I’m supposed to go, to places and views presumably planned and coordinated by people with more knowledge and expertise than myself. The trail was on the maps, but I couldn’t see it on the ground. Just a lot of yucca blowdown and manzanita rattling their brownish berries to the wind’s toneless music. So I waited.

I tried out just being there. In “Sounds,” one of the most written-upon chapters in Walden, Thoreau celebrates idle reverie, times when he “could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands.” As the title of the chapter suggests, this experience of stillness gives him the chance to listen to what he calls “the language which all things speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard.” Intellectually, I am fascinated by this concept, the idea that nonhuman or more-than-human sounds comprise a kind of language. After all, one common way people draw a partition between human animals and nonhuman animals are our language’s dynamism and expressive capacities. Characteristically, Thoreau contradicts this truism about human language. Even better, he inverts its implicit celebration of language’s abstraction and ambiguity, downplaying what we in literary criticism generally take as language’s crowning achievement, its metaphoricity or figurality, its capacity to mean more than its definitional components. My intro-to-English college sophomores spend most of their intellectual energy in one course learning to perceive and articulate the nuances of figurative language. Indeed, figurative language is a wonder, metaphor’s capacity to bear meaning beyond or over, to help us see something we thought we understood in a new way, bringing novel characteristics and possibilities to light in one thing by throwing the shadow of another thing upon it.

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The railroad by the site of Thoreau’s cabin

 

But Thoreau is having none of this literary wanking. “Much is published,” he says of the copious and standard language which all things and events speak, “but little printed. The rays which stream through the shutter will be no longer remembered when the shutter is wholly removed.” In other words, written language is seeing through a glass darkly. To experience the world firsthand is to see God face to face.

Having this experience isn’t necessarily a given, though. You have to look for real and always be changing the way you’re looking: “No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.”

Now I admit that I am partial to Thoreau. I cried at the end of his biography, even though I knew how it ended: the luminous eyes and heated conversations of chronic tuberculosis that killed him at the age of forty-four (and was precipitated perhaps by a cold Bronson Alcott gave him during a visit in November 1860, damn his eyes); his sister reading to him from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, his account of a boating trip he took in his twenties with his brother John who died of lockjaw not long after the outing; and his last intelligible words, “moose” and “Indian,” perhaps in reference to an earlier trip to the Maine backwoods or to his astonishingly extensive researches into pre-Columbian history of Native American tribes. I’ve read articles by scholars who dismiss Thoreau as uptight on the basis of the passage quoted above about discipline. On the surface, it advocates a kind of regimentation – being “forever on the alert,” channeling our Puritan ghosts in the service of capitalism’s will to productivity.

But in context, the thing he calls a discipline serves a willful nonproductivity, a morning of daydreaming, a reverie induced and maintained by listening to the language of the more-than-human world. Look always at what is to be seen. See what is before you, and walk on into futurity. I know all my historical-materialist alarm bells should be going off, but these phrases crash right through the ceiling of my 21st century life. The practice of engaging with what appears to be outside us is the strange, tenuous thread we follow into an uncertain future in which something new in us can emerge, something unplanned and not of our authorship.

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The Husband and Son the Younger immerse themselves in Walden Pond, or, as Thoreau would have it in Walden‘s shortest sentence, “Sky water.”

So I sat and watched ants handling crumbs of gravel with their supple legs, twisting their heads and waggling their antennae at me or the breeze or the errant bees, combing their surroundings for information. I let the sun touch me and, like Thoreau, I listened to the mountain’s far-off, untranslatable language. I tried being a body on a planet’s surface, a clot of flesh soon enough to burn to ash or wither to person-jerky in an airless underground vault.

The next morning, we paused for water in Windy Gap, the saddle between Mt. Islip and Mt. Hawkins, over which winds from the Los Angeles basin pour into Antelope Valley, turning bandanas and shirts cinched around waists into stiff flags. I was shrouded in pain-triggered endorphins, vision slightly tunneled, not feeling particularly outgoing. When I caught up with the Husband and the Sons, they were already talking with a trio of hikers who’d come up from Crystal Lake. One was high on exercise, electrified by the wind. He and The Husband were extolling the hiking life, and when we talked about getting older and our sons starting to outpace us (read: me), he pulled out his senior citizen card and crowed about taking his picture with it on the top of Mt. Whitney – the highest peak in California and in the contiguous United States – earlier that fall.

And I get it. I totally want to be summiting Whitney when I’m in my sixties, and I totally want to hike the PCT – all of it – with my kids. I love the idea of it and I love the idea of being able to tell other people I did it. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I want to do certain things, and when I am able to observe it closely and for real, a la Thoreau, I can see that a lot of what I want has to do with making other people think of me in a certain way. When I see other people experience certain kinds of success, I experience a certain pang. Some usually unworded part of my consciousness wants other people to have that kind of pang when they see the things I’ve done. As I’ve been able to bring that impulse to the light of language, I have also begun to see that it’s not a very kind impulse, because those pangs are unpleasant. If I want other people to feel about me the way I feel about other people who are successful, then I essentially want other people to experience anxiety and disappointment in themselves. I’m trying to come out of that deeply embedded mental habit, but it’s a complicated practice, because I also want these accomplishments or abilities in and for themselves, because of some calling or compulsion woven into me. By way of example, I’m a trained singer and have sung professionally since I was in my teens, but for a stretch of time, I couldn’t sing due to a bout of depression that caused my ever-present stage fright to become absolutely debilitating. So I gave it up, I wrote myself off as a singer. But when I heard others sing good stuff, something started up in me, a recognition, a voice telling me, “You can do that. That should be you.”

I sometimes have to remind myself: live in your body, not other people’s heads. Other people’s minds are a frustratingly elusive and painful place to live; you have to spend so much energy conjuring and maintaining them. And you have so little control over them. You can’t control what they think, I tell myself, not even totally sure who “they” are, although different conglomerations of people morph in and out of the “they” at different junctures of life. What’s more, you don’t know what they think. And if even if they do think everything you’re afraid they do, why do you even give a fuck? Who made them the authorities on your life? Oh, that’s right – you did.

So I stumped down the mountain on my sweet hot knees and creaky hips, lagging behind and letting my body be my company. Trying to let some of the ecstatic wind into the leaden trough between my shoulder blades, aching from humping so much weight, the extra food and extra water, the sunblock and camp pots and mummy bag. As a friend of mine likes to remind me, you don’t find happiness, you make it every day. Wisdom or happiness or awareness isn’t a substance you can accrue like extra jars of Nutella for when the Big One hits. It’s a faculty, and if you don’t use it, you lose your chops. I tried then as I am trying now to feel what Thoreau calls the nick of time, where reality continuously cleaves in two the you you thought you knew.

On Influence

This project was partly inspired by seeing and then reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which reminded me that I’ve always wanted to do a long hike and made me see that now is the time to do it: I’m into my 40’s, and things I used to be able to take for granted (like my back) I suddenly can’t, while my kids, on the other hand, are becoming independent, and getting stronger and more skilled. This is the sweet spot, when we can all hike at the same pace and with the same intensity.

The conceit of Strayed’s book is that the hike allowed her physically to work through the grief and turmoil following her mother’s untimely death: the promotional material on her website says the hike “maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.” While I do think about my backcountry experiences as a way of confronting myself, I’m not hoping for closure, and I am trying to resist writing much of it into the account (though it’s a hard impulse for me to resist). I’m old enough to know that the breach doesn’t get closed in this life. I’m scratched up and bleeding and don’t expect not to be anytime soon. My aim is to live attentively within the painful contradictions of vocation, matrimony, and parenthood, not to resolve them.

Crossing a river in central Mongolia
No bridge? No problem!

And then I was fired up by this, a project that made the rounds of the liberal news media this summer. Like a lot of the cultural coverage by NPR, it’s insidiously androcentric. This particular project details ten or twelve literary road trips, an undertaking with which I have a lot of affinity, being a kind of road trip afficionado myself. Only just this summer I drove from LA to Boston and back again with the kids. (This is not even to mention the Russian-jeep-dirt-road odysseys of physical and emotional endurance I undertook in Mongolia). On the pedagogical side, I used to teach Kerouac’s On the Road to high schoolers using a map as a (only mildy effective, it turned out) learning aid: part of our “reading comprehension” at the beginning of each lesson was for one lucky student to win control of the sharpie and push pins and map out the route covered in the previous night’s reading. But check out those trips the Atlas Obscura memorializes: only one is a woman’s, and it’s Cheryl Strayed’s. I call bullshit on literary projects that lionize the male establishment and do squat to incorporate the voices of nondominant perspectives. If they don’t even try, they’re just rehearsing the grand argument that’s been handed down to us by a traditionally patriarchal literary establishment: that a white male perspective stands in for, trumps, and is generally richer and more interesting than the more “particular” perspectives of women and racial minorities.

I incorporate texts by authors writing from nondominant social positions in my scholarship and in my curricula, but why not write my own road trip? Why not pipe up? Why wait for the word when I can write it?