Archive for February, 2010

Feb 24 2010

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The Madness of Civilization

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Civilization is indoor plumbing, a dependable food supply, health care, waste management and the social contract among other things, not to mention a host of amenities. Civilization is good for so many reasons that I am reluctant to speak ill of it, even when I’m feeling the wildest of urges.  Then comes tax time and suddenly I’m face-to-face with the absolute madness of it.  Those of you who do your own taxes and can’t use the EZ form know exactly what I’m talking about.  There are 101 ways that civil society can drive one to distraction, but none quite as effectively tax preparation.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against paying income taxes.  I leave that complaint to those who think they can fund a well-oiled government by other means.  I’m against the madness of the tax code in general, that has turned tax preparation into a cottage industry in this country.  But an inordinately complex and downright absurd tax code is exactly what you get when you let a bunch of lawyers and other congressmen fight over the rules of it for a hundred years.  Good thing I studied advanced mathematics back in college.  Unfortunately, I studied logic as well.

The madness of civilization isn’t limited to tax code.  Far from it.  There is also airport security, civil litigation, lobbying, insurance, plea bargaining, internet fraud, financial derivatives, bundled mortgages, gridlock, an emergency-room health care system and the war on terror, whatever that means.  I could go on but there’s no need.  You know what I’m talking about.  The madness of civilization are all those vexing aspects of modern living that we’ve simply come to accept. . . until they affect us personally.  Then we tear our hair out.

Emerson, Thoreau and those other Romantic thinkers of the 19th Century turned to wild nature for escape from the hustle and bustle of industrializing society, but that seems like a rather quaint notion to those of us living today.  We are buried in corporate and governmental bureaucracy, menaced constantly by false advertisements, mind-numbing paperwork, irrational rules, conflicting facts and doublespeak.  Nowadays, we turn to the wild out of sheer desperation.  Without it, there is no way to achieve balance – no way to know what is real and what is not.

When I was on the Appalachian Trail last summer, I noticed a direct correlation between the overall well being of those I encountered and how long they had been in the woods.  The long-distance hikers were the happiest.  What’s wrong with this picture?  What is it about modern living that makes torrential downpours, blood-sucking insects, mud, sweat and the many other miseries of wilderness travel look good?  All nature-lovers marvel at the beauty and wonder of wildness, but it’s what they don’t say that gets my attention.  Clearly, the madness affects us all.

An aerodynamics expert once told me that the best airplane designs are the most elegant ones, meaning that truly advanced technologies are marked by their simple beauty.  Systems grow more and more cumbersome until finally a quantum leap occurs and suddenly they’re user-friendly.  Computer software design in the 80s and 90s is a good example of this.  The same can be said about social systems, I think.  And with this in mind, we ought rightly to turn to wild nature for guidance.  Otherwise humankind is doomed to live out the rest of its days in a rat maze entirely of its own making.

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Feb 18 2010

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Winter Hike

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Several inches of hard-packed snow lay beneath an inch of fluffy stuff, making conditions good for hiking, so I left my snowshoes behind when I went to Honey Hollow last week.  With a rucksack loaded full of essentials and my dog, Matika, at my side, I started up the narrow lane.  The lane was closed for winter but someone had groomed it for skiers or snowmobiles.  No matter.  I had it all to myself that chilly, overcast day.

Half a mile up the wintry lane, I left it for a trail leading down towards Preston Brook.  Matika and I followed the trail until it emptied into a small yard harboring an ancient wild apple tree.  There we picked up a set of deer tracks running parallel to the brook.  A light snow fell as man and dog disappeared into the woods.

I traced those deer tracks for a half hour or so, as my canine companion cavorted all over the place.  Happy dog, sniffing and running.  Man plodding along.  The brook murmured beneath the ice, peeking out occasionally from broken seams.  Patches of hemlock green adorned the otherwise naked forest.  The snow blanketing the ground muffled all sound.  I passed a fresh, rectangular hole drilled into a nearby dead tree, but no woodpecker came into sight.  No birds at all, in fact.  Intense quiet.

I unrolled my foam pad atop a snow-covered boulder next to the brook, and sat down on it.  Short lunch break at midday.  Matika ate a cup of kibble from a hole I dug in the snow then lined with plastic.  I nibbled an energy bar left over from a backpacking trip last summer, dreaming of warmer days.  Although shrouded by ice and snow, I recognized a deep pool in the brook about twenty yards downstream and imagined casting my line in there again as I have many times in the past.  Hmm…  Opening day of trout season still two months away…

Sometimes I come out here to ponder the mysteries of the universe.  Other times I come out just to sit quietly by the brook, letting its gentle murmur wash away all my thoughts.  The chill of my own sweat got to me, though, before either thought or no-thought could occur.  I packed up my rucksack and headed farther upstream.  The surrounding mountains were calling my name.

At some point early in the afternoon, I gave up my aimless wandering and returned to the lane.  Then it was an easy walk out, crisscrossing the tracks of animals just as restless as me.  The snow flurries, which had stopped at midday, started up again.  I reached my car much faster than expected.  And I ran the car heater full blast during the long drive home.

It was good to get out and stretch my legs, but I’m really looking forward to spring.  Hungrier for it now than I’ve been in years.  Not sure why.

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Feb 08 2010

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A Wild Urge

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I’m not a big fan of winter.  I envy those with winter sports to keep them outside all day.  When I go for a winter walk, it rarely lasts more than an hour or two.  I have snowshoes but only strap them on when conditions demand it.  I’d rather just walk, and dream of early spring when the cold mud underfoot yields to my step.  Truth is, I’m just biding my time, waiting for warmer days.

Before crawling out of bed this morning, I felt it: the urge to wander aimlessly through the forest.  Some days the urge is greater than it is other days.  This morning it is especially strong so I’ll head for the hills as soon as possible.  Snowshoes or no, I’ll bolt as soon as I’ve taken care of any pressing business.  Or maybe I’ll say to hell with work and just bolt.

Some people call it cabin fever; I think of it more as a wild urge.  The mind can be a wild place and I’m comfortable living in my abstractions most of the time, especially during the colder months.  But there comes a time when even the wildest thoughts are not enough.  At such times the short walk I take during my midday errand running seems more like a prisoner’s daily hour in the yard than a bona fide outing.  Then I know it’s time to bolt.

The mind can be just as wild as the body.  Most people don’t get that.  They think wildness involves lawlessness, irrational behavior or sexuality.  Sometimes it does, but there’s much more to thinking wild than that.  I call it creative thought, at the risk of confusing it with purely artistic urges.  But I digress.  There are times when wild thoughts simply do not suffice.  There are times when the body must be as free as the mind.

So enough blather already.  A wild urge isn’t placated by abstraction.  I call myself a woods wanderer because, when push comes to shove, that’s what I have to do to keep from going crazy.  Words fail me.  I’ve gotta go.

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Feb 02 2010

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An Antiquated Humanism

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Last week I finished reading a book called The History of Nature and drew surprising insight from it.  I found the obscure tome in the science section of a used bookstore a few years ago.  The book was published in 1949 so you can imagine how out of date the science in it is.  But the last few chapters – “The Soul,” “Man: Outer History” and “Man: Inner History” – looked interesting.  I bought the book and read it despite its age.

The book was written by C. F. von Weizsacker, a German nuclear physicist.  Von Weizsacker was the first to identify nuclear reactions as the energy source for the sun and stars, so he was no slouch when it came to science.  The first three-quarters of The History of Nature is a good review of what humankind had learned about Earth and the cosmos by 1949.  But this heavyweight scientist wasn’t much of a philosopher, as the last quarter of the book clearly illustrates.

This comes as no surprise.  Few heavyweight scientists are heavyweight philosophers, as well.  In this age of specialization, we don’t even expect it.  As C. P. Snow pointed out a half century ago, science and the humanities have developed into two separate cultures.  Therein lies the problem.  The more we compartmentalize knowledge, the harder it is for any of us to see the big picture.  I give von Weizsacker credit for attempting, at least, to bring all knowledge together in a synoptic view of things.  Most thinkers don’t even try.

That said, what struck me about von Weizsacker’s worldview was the inconsistency of it.  “Body and soul are not two substances but one,” he states outright, suggesting a worldview one that would expect from a Platonic thinker, a Rationalist from the Enlightenment, or a Buddhist.  Then he blathered on about the rise of free thought over instinct, good and evil, and the virtues of the Christian love, as if this kind of dualism wasn’t at odds with his original body/soul statement.  Fuzzy thinking at best.

As I finished this book, it suddenly occurred to me that Humanism, preached by religious and secular thinkers alike in the middle of the 20th Century, is now antiquated.  The contradictions of it have simply become too glaring.  That we, Homo sapiens, are qualitatively different from the rest of nature is something any informed person living today must find very hard to swallow.  What basis is there in science for this kind of thinking?  At what point did we abandon our animal selves?  When exactly did we divorce nature and become human – when we turned to agriculture and started building towns, or when we started burying our dead and painting on cave walls?  How about when we fashioned the first tool?  When Lucy walked upright across the savanna, was that the beginning our separation?

No, I don’t see it.  I don’t see human nature apart from Nature.  Nor do I see human progress as the gradual removal of our selves from the physical environment.  Certainly, our ability to think abstractly – to love, hate and reason – is an integral part of our humanity, but so is eating, sleeping, dreaming, bleeding and sex, to name but a few of our more down-to-earth attributes.

If we are serious about being fully human, then we must cultivate our affinity with wild nature instead of alienating ourselves from it.  Besides, the wild is as much within us as it is out there.  Like all things in nature, we are evolving, but the words “progress” and “human” do not go together very well.  For better or worse, a human being will always be an animal to some extent.  And I for one revel in that fact.

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