Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Denali 5. …shit.

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Day 4:

Slept very well. Woke up cozy in my sleeping bag and slept in. Made move to camp 3 in 2 trips. I just don’t want to carry the heavy pack too much. Left tent for second trip. Finished move around noon as weather makes clear signs of rain. I hurry to deploy tent. It is windy, nevertheless I do the best job of it yet. Practice. I put on rain gear and pack water kit for a trip down to the river. Glassing the valley across from me I see what appears to be moose antlers. I decide to investigate at a later date. Rain on and off as I go to river and explore upstream a bit. Many moose tracks. What is proper moose avoidance behavior? it begins to rain harder as I collect water and head back. After dropping off water I go on a scouting mission to explore what might be an alternate route to the road. It isn’t, but I clarify the best route. I am planning to do this early on the morning on the 11th. I don’t look forward to the heavy pack, so I want to eliminate route mistakes.

In retrospect and even at the time, it is amazing to me how much I obsessed about what day it was, how many days I had been there, and when I was going to leave. This little trip to the road was all about trying to quell constant worries about whether I knew the way well enough. Also, I had been quite distressed by how hard I found it to hike with my full pack, and the return to the road on the morning of the 11th was the next time that I would have to face that.

I go all the way to the road. It rains hard most of the way back but the sky is clearing. Also: earlier after pitching the tent I was able to get a signal on the Weather-band radio. Isolated showers and thunderstorms. Clearing up by Monday. So I am not profoundly worried about the weather.

I had tried the radio at both of my other camps and got nothing. I assumed it was a bust and I had wasted money on the thing, but I think the higher elevation of camp 3 gave me a signal. I had to hold it in a very specific way which was not a lot of fun, but the robot voice of the automated weather radio system at least gave me a point of reference in terms of my own observations of the weather. The new camp was in fact a little exposed and I was worried about storms.

My rain gear is working well. Tent egress is tricky.

I rest in the tent when I get back and wait for a break in the rain to go out and cook dinner. Louisiana beans and rice with Earl Grey tea. Very good. I see a lone hiker with the red pack working up the river. I pack up the Jetboil, and check the hikers progress… skipping my valley. I go back to food storage to get a vitamin tablet after brushing my teeth. As I return I see something across the valley.

Grizzly bear.

It is slowly working its way back and forth across the valley opposite me. But he is definitely coming towards me.

The camera is not doing justice to this situation. Even at maximum zoom, it’s just that fuzzy dot. But in the flesh he was huge and coming closer and soberingly real.

I’m not sure what to do. We’re supposed to avoid them and not let our presence alter their behavior, but what if it’s coming towards your camp? It appears to see me at one point when it gets to the bottom of the valley. I wave my arms and yell “Hey Bear!” It rears on its hind legs to get a better look, and then follows the valley floor around to the south, avoiding me.

I follow it with the binoculars as it heads, ironically, in the direction of the site of camp 2.

After watching it for long enough to see that it is not decidedly leaving the area, I put up Lynn’s bear fence for the first time.

A huge part of what was so distressing about this encounter was that for some stupid reason, I had thought that the fact that I had seen no bears in my immediate vicinity and only scant bear-sign, meant that there were “no bears around here.” This is why I hadn’t ever put the fence up. It was now painfully clear that this assumption was based on ignorance. I fell for the oldest trap in the book, even though, intellectually, I quite familiar with the maxim that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” How stupid could I be?

And then when this guy shows up, all my knowledge about what to do in bear encounters is a tea-spoon of comfort in an ocean of doubt. I’m still not sure if what I did was the right thing. I was downwind and up-hill of him. But I was banking on the thought that he would avoid me if he knew what and where I was, early enough to save face. I knew that as threatening as it was, when he reared up he was probably just trying to get a better view of me. I was pretty sure that we were far enough apart that I wasn’t in violation of the distance principle, but I kept a mantra going in my head about most charges being bluffs.

I knew I didn’t know enough. I also knew that no amount of knowledge would be enough. This is reality. It can be pretty scary. Even a pretty mundane encounter like this one, can be pretty scary.

I’m pretty sure he saw me and will avoid me, but I’m not absolutely sure. Just when things were tiny bit in control… Or seemed that way.

Finishing up this post in Madrid Spain, almost eight weeks after the day in question has put this day in a different context for me. For one thing, Madrid has, as a heraldic symbol, a bear eating from a madroño tree, so everywhere I look here, I see bears. And then a couple days ago I got an email from Lynn Schooler, with a link to a news story. It is no longer true that there have been no bear-fatalities in Denali park…

A 49 year old man from San Diego was found dead along the Tolkat river on Friday August 24th. There appears to have been a violent encounter with a bear. A bear which was sighted from a helicopter in the immediate vicinity of the remains was shot and killed as well. It has been established that this was the bear that killed him. The man’s camera was found, and the last 26 pictures on the camera were of the bear that killed him. The bear’s behavior in the pictures appears to be placid grazing, however there only appears to be about 40 yards between the camera and the bear. This is by Denali regulations, way too close. However, as David Tomeo wrote me in an email after the incident:

“…pictures likely don’t tell the whole story. Why was he so close to this bear and not backing off, perhaps other bears were just encountered behind him, in the direction of retreat. The bear in the images appears to be feeding, but it is known that bears will often ‘ease up’ on their prey by casually moving closer and closer. If this hiker backed away as soon as he saw the bear, would things have been different. We may never know the full story.”

As I said, the incident throws my own little encounter into a totally new light for me. If I were back at my camp today and I saw that bear again, I would probably try to move away without letting it see me and try to find a vantage where I could watch my camp and the bear from a “safe” distance. The fact of the matter is that I will never ultimately know if what I did was the best choice. I didn’t have a “negative incident” so, on one hand, I was categorically correct, but I will probably always wonder about it.

Aside from my sympathy for the lost man’s family, I worry about the repercussions of last week’s tragedy. For the park. For the bears. For the community of people who work in the park. And for my own sense of proportion about it the next time I’m in grizzly country. David says:

“I’d like to emphasis that in some ways this is very much like a rare lightning strike or a weather-related car accident. It does happen, but not very often. Thousands of people walk through grizzly bear country everyday, some may take it for granted, but sometimes, just sometimes lightning strikes.”

I know that it is MUCH more rational in my life to be afraid of cars and busses. I am much more likely to get hurt or killed by these dangerous things that surround me every day. But I am a product of millennia of evolutionary programing, and that programing has a very old and powerful piece of code that asserts itself in the presence of a predator. Rationality has little to do with it at that point. And that piece of code just picked up another little bit of power last week. It hunkers down, deep in my amygdala and mutters: “…see… I was RIGHT!”

From the very first time that I went hiking in Alaska the presence of grizzlies, and my knowledge that in that environment I was NOT on the top of the food chain, was the active ingredient in the acidic solvent that I could feel, burning my hubris away. However, I do not think that the humbling nature of the cosmic perspective gained, is worth being actually mauled and eaten for. David is right, and wise, to point out how rare these incidents are. But if the lightning is striking you, there is really nothing you can do about it.

I don’t know of anyone in my acquaintance who has earned the right to a full-spectrum response to this kind of thing more than than Lynn. And I think he summed it up exceptionally well when he said in his email that his first thought when he heard about the incident last week was: ‘shit…shit, shit, shit.’

Kiva! Help save the world… for FREE!!

Monday, August 1st, 2011

I’ve been using Kiva for a little bit now and I’m very impressed with it. It’s basically a web-based micro-lending site, where you make loans of, usually, 25 dollars to people who can really use them. Then when the loan is returned, you can reinvest it with someone else.

It’s great. Go to the site. Check it out.

The thing is that for a limited time Kiva is allowing members like me to offer a free trial whereby you can make your first 25 dollar loan for free. There are only a limited number of these so please act now!

Here’s the link


You’ll be glad you did. I promise…

I’m working on it…

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

I’m working on a couple of blog posts (replete with pictures) about my experience with the kayak rangers in September.


I’m back in Juneau. Working on The Blue Bear.

This article about Voices Of the Wilderness came out today. There’s a section about me:

Yeee haaaa…

Stay cozy everyone!

Zone 4 Zest

Monday, March 8th, 2010

This posting is an unsolicited plug for my sister Faith’s new blog Zone 4 Zest: Growing and Foraging for Fabulous Food in the North. I don’t live in Zone 4, nor do I have a garden, so a lot of her stuff doesn’t apply directly to me, but I always appreciate her writing because she has a kind of philosophical bent that I have always liked.

For me, she meets Alan Watts’ definition of a philosopher as a slack-jawed yokel who stands in awe before things that most other people find obvious or too mundane for serious, extended attention. I remember one time during a visit to her home in Vermont, she took me out into the woods because there was one particular tree she wanted to show me. When we found it, she presented it to me with the exclamation “Isn’t he handsome!”

I’ve been a frequent beneficiary of the edible fruits of Faith & Eric’s labor, but she topped it all two Xmases ago when she gave me a worm-bucket. I am now an avid urban vermicompster, and have been sharing my worms far and wide.

Faith once said to me, “Civilization will finally fall, when there are no more people in it who touch dirt every day.” Thanks to my worm-bucket I touch dirt… in my kitchen… every day. So go ahead civilization. Do your worst. Make your iPads and Academy award ceremonies… Faith and I have your back.

Check out Z4Z. Let it inspire you.


Saturday, August 29th, 2009

People keep dying.

Celebrities. Relatives. Some obscure people. Some powerful people. People no one has or ever will hear of.

More U.S. Solders died in Afganistan this month than in any other since the current war there started (beating out last month’s record).

Why does this seem remarkable? Is there anything different about it right now? How many times in this last year have we heard the phrase “…end of an era” as a way of marking the death of someone or another. I do wonder if it has to do with the whole Obama thing giving us a sense of historic focus. But then we also have the wars and the recession/depression thing too.

Today is the confluence of Michael Jackson’s birthday (which is remarked upon because of his death), the funeral of Ted Kennedy, and the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting the gulf coast. Add to this, personally, that one of my uncles just died. What to choose… What to feel… hmmm…

Totally off topic here but I do have a Ted Kennedy joke I’d like to share: You know it turns out it wasn’t the tumor in his head that killed him. It turns out there was another tumor on the grassy knoll…

…too soon?

One thing I’ve been glad of is that I haven’t seen very much reference to the “Celebrities Die in Threes” trope. It’s always bugged me. I mean it has to be one of the stupidest things EVER. It could well be that when the human race slips into extinction we will find out that the total number of humans who ever existed will be a multiple of three. Or at least the total number of celebrities will be divisible by three. But its more likely that the number will not be a multiple of three, and more importantly, as the species disappears, is this REALLY going to be the most important question?

ANYTHING can be grouped into threes. Look at the stars. They’re all arranged in threes!… I’ve even noticed that after a cycle of three days, my life repeats and has ANOTHER cycle of three days!… spooky… Like all forms of numerology, it says more about the creativity of the numerologist than the nature of any kind of hidden order.

There is a thing about “Beginning-Middle-End” that makes groups of three deeply calming to our innate desire for order. So when two people die, we probably look for the third as a way of containing death. So that it won’t go on some kind of rampage in which EVERYBODY eventually dies, which is of course the big truth that we spend most of our lives distracting ourselves from. The theory of three deaths, is like a mini religion.

Truth is the boomers are dying. The post-war demographic bulge of births from the late 40s to the early 60s is falling off the cliff of time. And people who were important to the boomers are being noticed as they go. Presumably this will go on for awhile.

Or is it just that I’m getting to that age when I notice the obituaries more…



Thursday, December 11th, 2008

I live a few blocks from NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. This is a huge complex that is essentially two ivy-league medical schools (Columbia and Cornell) and a cluster of Hospital units. It is considered one of the most comprehensive university hospitals in the world, and is currently the largest private employer in New York City. People like Malcolm X, Richard Nixon and Jim Henson died there. It’s where Sunny von Bülow “vegged” out.

NYPH has a palpable demographic impact on this area of the city. If I walk south from my apartment, I see people in scrubs. And it feels less like I live in the Dominican Republic. I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about this. The NYPH vibe is a bit snotty and “white.” I like the fact that Dominican political candidates come to my hood to campaign for elections that are happening on the island.

Fort Washington Ave, cuts right through NYPH. So there is a stretch of it where you are basically in the Hospital. One of my options for bike routes down town takes me through that stretch and from time to time I see things that are poetically potent.

There was one a few years back that has etched itself in my mind: There’s a small courtyard/garden at one point. Sitting on a bench I saw a young doctor talking very quietly and carefully to a man in a robe with his head in his one remaining hand. The evident struggle in this man to find a way to keep going after the amputation of his arm was shattering. And the struggle in this young doctor to find a way to cut through the futility of words…. It was just a moment, but I can’t shake it. Of course it might have been nothing. It might have been a life-long amputee with the flu listening to his son explain why he’s quitting medical school. But the image stuck.

Then a couple days ago, while waiting for a light to change: I watched a hearse negotiate some construction to pull up to a door on the side of one of the buildings, around the corner from the bustling main entrances. I see ambulances around there a lot, and I wondered if this hearse was unusual. If I just haven’t been noticing them. Or again if it was nothing. In any case, the image is sticking…

A meerkat on the eve of election

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

I’m back in Boulder Co. One thing I’ve learned about coming up to this altitude is that physical exertion (and daily Emergen-C) is the best way to acclimatize. To me, the most attractive physical exertion available round these parts, is hiking in the front range of the Rocky Mountains. So I’ve been going out almost every day for extended sojourns into the almost stereotypically beautiful woods.

There is an astounding degree of horticultural and geological variation in the few square miles of public lands just outside of Boulder, and the well groomed and well used trail system is a testament to a community that knows what’s it got here and doesn’t take it for granted. Aside from serving as a large scale dog-run and non-threatening casual date spot for the E-conscious CU gang, it is also a training ground for a wide variety of athletes. There’s a good number of olympians and other serious performance junkies who live up here specifically to train at this altitude, and there’s nothing in the world like the feeling when you’re picking your way up a steep rocky trail in all your hiking gear, and a guy in shorts tee-shirt and running shoes (no water) bounds past you up the slope faster than you can run on a flat surface at sea level.

Near the end of the time that I was here in March I hiked to the summit of Green Mountain (8144’). This suddenly connected the hiking that I was doing here to the “mountain climbing” that I used to do in Japan as a teenager. The difference here was that I was doing it alone, whereas in Japan I always went with other people. Now that I’m back here I find that I’m drawn to summits. I’ve already been up on Bear Peak (8461’), and South Boulder Peak (8549’). Although these are far from serious mountains on the scale of mountains in the world, these climbs are significantly more strenuous than the flatter trails people are walking their dogs on. They require a modicum of planning and preparation, and I find that, at my current level, I need recuperation after them.

So I’ve been trying to figure out why it is that I’m so drawn to these peaks. Getting to the top of a mountain is a singular thing. Tibetan monks prescribe it as a cure for depression. It is literally elevating and suspiciously spiritual. But in my experience a sense of conquest is not a part of it. I’m acutely aware that I’m not climbing these things cause I’m a boy. Part of how I know this is that back in the day in Japan, the sense of conquering the mountain was more a part of it. Now it’s coming from something else.

I think it’s the meerkat in me. Walking around in the woods, I want to get up above the trees to look around. Not to command. To locate. I want to know where I am. To experience where I am. Turn my head and see Denver, a mile high below me. Turn my head and see the Nazca lines of Aspen, telling the space aliens where we ski.

Green Mountain is very present when you’re in Boulder it looms above the Flatirons like a theatrical backdrop. But when you actually walk to it, it’s much further back in the range than it seems. The Front Range is actually deeper than it is high, which is hard to feel in the foreshortened perspective from the Whole Foods parking lot. Maps hint at this, but a map is not the territory. I “know” that I’m on the surface of a sphere, but when I look across the sweep of the Rockies at peaks I know are higher than the mountain I’m standing on, and they’re “below” me, I’m actually experiencing the curvature of the earth with my senses.

The map is not the territory and a picture is not the scenery. There is no way to climb a mountain except by climbing it. Putting one foot in front of the next. One at a time. This is catnip to my current philosophical obsession with the idea that the really important truths about reality are not only obvious, but self evident and right in front of our noses. We have used our massive cerebral cortex to invent confusion and ignorance.

But the reason the meerkat stands up is because it’s scared. And it’s scared because there are things threatening it’s survival which seek to exploit limitations in it’s sphere of awareness. If it ignores a slice of it’s sensory pie, thats the angle the predator will use to come in.

It’s possible to see the woods as a Disneyscape of benign peace. But it’s also a corpse strewn deathscape filled with nervous animals desperately scratching out their survival between the crush of last winter and the next, amongst the cadavers of trees, shattered and rotting. The other day, there was a fly buzzing around me and I thought to it “What are you doing?” And it answered, “Checking to see if you’re dead so I can lay my eggs in you. What are YOU doing?” “Touche!”

It has been found that if you were to translate into human emotional terms, the experience of being almost any animal on the planet, the default state is one of fear, bordering on terror. Yet, when I look at the birds, squirrels and deer along the trails, I see them not as scared, but alert. It is clear that this fear they live in is not a negative thing. It is an essential component of their vitality. When they lose it (in a zoo for example) they are in a way similar to many humans; dead.

There is something deeply compelling about walking into a place where a misstep could result in serious injury, and a mountain lion or bear, could in an instant remind me where I actually am on the food chain. And as beautiful as it is, when I’m out there, part of the experience is that I’m afraid. I think that’s normal. I think that’s healthy.

I’m going to go to the top of the mountain and look around. See what’s coming to get me.

Fear (addendum)

Saturday, September 20th, 2008

After I posted yesterday’s entry I was watching some Ted talks (as I am wont to do), and saw the new one by Jonathan Haidt. I’ve seen him speak before and he always challenges me in really interesting ways, but the more I thought, and talked about this talk, the more profound it became to me. I also couldn’t escape the relevance to what I was trying to get at in yesterday’s post.

I haven’t read it yet, but Anne Bogart says that Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom is one of her favorite books.



Friday, September 5th, 2008

Over the last year or so, I’ve been, in the most nerdy way possible, increasingly excited about the impending start-up of the LHC (the Large Hadron Collider). As a result of this excitement, I have subjected more than one person to an enthusiastic and long-winded outpouring of amateur particle physics that I barely understand.

But I can’t help it. I’m excited. This is, by certain measures, the largest machine ever constructed. It is designed to collect data that will, in theory, illuminate some very basic things about our universe. And if that weren’t enough, Dr. Brian Cox, who is currently my favorite rock-star astrophysicist (sorry Dr. deGrasse Tyson), is working at the LHC.

A lot of news about the LHC has focused on the supposed danger of the collisions in the accelerator causing the formation of black holes that will destroy the world or even the universe. This is misguided fear. Although the level of energy that the LHC will allow scientists to work with, is of an order of magnitude larger than what has been possible before, it is a level of energy that is common in the wild. Particle collisions like the ones that will happen in the LHC are happening in our atmosphere all the time, due to solar radiation. The LHC will allow us to actually observe and collect data on a very common phenomenon. Although from a strictly scientific standpoint, it is not impossible that a dangerous black hole will be formed, it is on an order of probability so low that it hasn’t happened yet (that we know of) in our atmosphere.

More interestingly to me than the black hole is the “hole” in the Standard Model. The Standard Model is a complicated but relatively elegant mathematical equation that accounts for… everything. It is a mathematical description of reality as we know it. And although it fits on one page, there’s a hole in it. There is a section of it that demands the existence of a particle that we have yet to observe. This is the Higgs Boson particle. It is a theoretical particle. It is a marker in the standard model that allows it to work. Without the Higgs Boson, the standard model has no way to explain why matter has mass.

Like any large scientific endeavor, no one knows what the data that the LHC will allow us to collect will reveal. But there is little doubt that it will either confirm or deny the existence of the Higgs Boson particle. If it confirms it and we see the little dude, then the Standard Model is stronger, and we move on. If it denies it, then we’re really in for some exciting stuff. It means we have to re-think a whole lot of things. Either way we win. That’s the beauty of science.

The Higgs thing is just one of a whole raft of stuff that will be worked on with this dilly.

I’m a complete amateur with this stuff. I look at the standard model and I can’t understand it AT ALL. But my life is filled with things I don’t understand, and that doesn’t diminish my excitement for them. This is pure research. Aimed at answering fundamental questions. And although the stuff that is found will have military and commercial ramifications, it is not a military project. It is not a corporate project. I think this is to be celebrated. I think it’s exciting.

And if you’re still stuck on this: Yes. I have favorite rock-star astrophysicists.

If this means that I’m a nerd then I embrace that.

Here’s a vid that’s been getting a lot of play lately, in case you haven’t seen it:


Friday, August 29th, 2008

I think it was New Mexico governor Bill Richardson at Mile-high stadium yesterday who said that “John McCain may pay hundreds of dollars for his shoes, but we’ll pay for his flip-flops.” Cute. I like Bill Richardson for the most part. But I take exception to this.

What’s wrong with flip-flops?

As foot-ware, I think they are wonderful. I wear them as much as I can. Spend any time with me at all and you know this. There is an acupuncture/pressure point between your big toe and it’s neighbor (right where the thong of a flip-flop goes), the stimulation of which, engenders well-being and longevity. This is why I’m as good-natured as I am, and also why I don’t expect to ever die.

Politically, I think the demonizing of flip-flops has been detrimental to discourse, and morally grounded leadership.

When I was in LA in August, my friend Anthony was talking about how when Arnold came into office, he had all these strong opinions and ideas. He loaded up the ballot with all kinds of initiatives with the expectation of sweeping changes. They got beaten. Badly. So Arnold changed his mind. And he is now passionately pursuing things that are almost the opposite of what he was saying during the re-call election. This seems profoundly healthy. It is democracy as dialogue. It is an elected official understanding that his job is to act upon the will of the people, even when that’s not what he said he was going to do. Democrats love to decry Republicans like Schwarzenegger as ideologues. Clearly he is not.

When did we start valuing consistency and “keeping promises” over listening and adaptability? Isn’t the ability to read the lay of the land and respond, more valuable than the ability to articulate positions that will hold no matter what?

It’s fine to have a plan. Good to have a map. But a map is not the territory, and a plan is nothing but a launching pad. Often it seems like people who “stick to their guns” are like drivers who follow their GPS systems into walls, or off cliffs. This is one of many things that bothers me about any form of partisanship. Given the inherent complexity of life, your team/party/country/gender/mythology, no matter how wonderful, is not always going to be “the best”, so to claim that it is, is to set yourself up for stupidity.

I’m not a complete idiot. Of course there are consistencies that are grounded in reality. But whether the universe is primarily characterized by change or consistency is a matter of scale. I would argue that if you pull back far enough, violent, wrenching chaos is pretty characteristic of this thing we’re calling reality. So wisdom seems to dictate flexibility and articulation in our being within it.

When Barak Obama articulates his convictions about our fundamental responsibility to each other; that we are each others’ keepers, I hope he doesn’t change his mind about that. But there are plenty of things that I don’t agree with him about. There are plenty of things I wish he would go further on. I support him to the extent that I trust that he will stay awake in office, and change, listen and flip-flop when needed.

If you look at many of the worst leaders in history, their behavior features astounding levels of consistency and trustworthiness. They stick to their guns, often literally. I don’t think I need to name the obvious examples.

Abraham Lincoln (a Republican president who turns out, apparently, to be Obama’s grandfather), did not enter the white house intending to abolish slavery. He did it, when it became an expedient measure in winning the war to unify the country. I think we can argue about whether or not the union was important enough to justify a bloody war; something Lincoln was unwavering in his certainty about. But I don’t know a good argument against the abolition of slavery. And that was something Lincoln flip-flopped on.

My namesake, Trotsky, was killed because he thought the wheel of revolution should keep turning. Most revolutions turn sour because once in power the revolutionaries become inflexible, consistent, stones. Solid and certain of their positions and their hold on power.

Anne says: The result of certainty is violence.

Cause I’m a jerk, I say: Are you certain of that?

She hits me, and I realize she’s right.

I hope Barak Obama wins. I encourage us all to get out there and do whatever we can to bring this about. It’s not in the bag and I hope we don’t blow it again this time. Given the current political realities in the United States this is probably going to mean presenting him as consistent, solid, unwavering and trustworthy. But whether he’s going to be a good president is going to depend on how flexible his spine is. His facility for mental yoga.

So, again, I hope Barak Obama wins. And I hope he wears flip-flops in the white house.