Monthly Archives: January 2010

Of rock climbing, paradox, and the live encounter

As part of my job directing a high school outings program, I coordinate a rock climbing club.  There is a core of about six committed kids who show up every day we meet – three times a week after school – and then there is a loose affiliation of 10 or 12 others who come when they can, when they are not rehearsing for the play, practicing with their team, getting an early start on too much homework, or otherwise meeting the obligations of an over-scheduled adolescence.  As a club, we divide our time each week between training on campus, climbing indoors at the local rock gym, and climbing outdoors at one of several nearby crags.

Perhaps not surprisingly, our club meetings are most well attended on gym days.  There is a lot that’s fun about showing up at the gym, paying for our hour or two on the walls, hearing the music, stepping onto the padded floor, and looking around at a lot of other people struggling up routes, pulling hard moves, and falling off, and all of them in their struggles against gravity and themselves issue us a kind of kindred nod.  It is a tacit affirmation that we are all here together, of common intent, and that we are doing the right thing.  It is an easy family, membership bought.  Come on in.  You are one of us.

I don’t mind going to the gym with the Climbing Club – at least I tell myself that.  I tell myself that it serves our purposes, keeps membership up, and it is a good way to get kids, many of whom would be more hesitant about climbing outdoors, into the basics of rock climbing, especially in the winter months when it rains a lot here.  But going to the gym isn’t rock climbing.  At best, it is good practice.  At worst, its a kind of circus, a spectacle, a scene.  And the problem is for young climbers just getting their feet wet in climbing and without the ability yet to distinguish between pulling plastic and rock climbing, it warps both sports –aggrandizing the one and trivializing the other.

And I have this conversation – or one like it – seemingly weekly with my students.  I try to, anyway.  They get it, but the tawdry pull of the rock gymnast is strong.   It is a cheap thrill easily attained and anyone can do it.  Most of the people at the gym – not all by any means – but most are there not to deepen a connection or to experience themselves in a new way.  Most are there for the relief that escape brings.

And climbing at the gym is fun, no doubt.  It’s like eating a pint of ice cream in one sitting or reading Harry Potter – rock candy – but it constitutes rock climbing only to the extent that soccer practice constitutes soccer.  Or rehearsing a play constitutes acting.  It is true that in practice or rehearsal you find yourself doing similar things and making similar decisions, and practice can be enormously satisfying, but it isn’t live, not in the sense we mean it when we say, “this one’s live.”  And it is not what we live to do.  But the comforts of a controllable environment  make us forget that.

The difference between performance and practice, experience and non-experience is the live encounter.  A live encounter brings one into immediate proximity with the thing itself, not its likeness, not its representation.  It is spontaneous, intuitive, and raw, and the outcome of the live encounter always has an element of unpredictability.  And the live encounter almost never takes place in a context of full control, a fully contrived environment.

Yes, I know.  I hedged my bet.  I wrote “almost never.”  Is it possible for a live encounter to happen in a rock gym?  It is possible.  Does it happen?  Almost never.

Why is the live encounter important to pursue and cultivate?  Because of the relationship it creates in one to the infinite.  Success and failure in a live encounter are never solely the product of one’s wits or strength, the determinable factors.  In fact, success in the live encounter always brings with it a sense of good fortune, that one was, in part, fortunate to find oneself at the epicenter of success, that it didn’t have to happen that way, that the outcome was only affected by a confluence of forces, resultant of some unlikely combination of indeterminate factors.  And in that is the sense of the infinite and one’s relatively small place in a system of limitless variation.

The live encounter leads to a sense of wonder and hope and belief that there is more to it than one can know.  Any particular outcome  becomes a slim chance that tries credibility.  A miracle.  And in the presence of a miracle, one has the sensation of participating in a system of limitless variation, of infinite possibility, like a stone face, the face of rock.

On rock – actual and real outdoor rock – the variations are infinite.  The possibilities for holds and opposition and the forces one can exert to propel oneself upward are endless.  A challenging route presents a dauntingly complex mental puzzle, which in the midst of the physical challenge of actually pulling the moves can be debilitatingly frustrating.  There is topography of irreproducible minuteness that enables individual expression of unique and infinite variation.

And therein lies the paradox of the live encounter with rock – for there is paradox at the center of every live encounter.  Rock climbing at once affirms both the individual’s uniqueness and his insignificance, two awarenesses, which, in more or less equal measure, combine to create humble confidence, tempered power, and a sense of one’s unique place in an infinite universe.

Not so on manufactured holds – though I have no investment in that idea.  I have faith that it is possible to have a live encounter on simulacra.  After all, the live encounter only requires spontaneity, intuition, proximity to the thing itself, and unpredictability of outcome, but for all of the times I have seen a student exalt in triumph at the top of a climb, coming down in awe of rock, I have never seen anyone in awe of plywood and plastic.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

There is an interesting dialogue going on down at the Marin Beekeepers Association.  I wouldn’t call it a schism, not yet, but it certainly has the makings.  It is about what is happening to our honey bees, why they are dying off so fast, and what we can to do about it.  The thing that really interests me, apart from the fact that there is a highly motivated, highly concerned group of really sharp people thinking carefully about sustainability, is that people are being forced to confront their more closely held convictions in response to calamity––and they are being asked to take sides.

Hobbyist beekeepers are a funny bunch, fanatical and intriguing to me in a kind of metacognative way––I mean, I am one, but what captivates me about beekeeping is a bit unclear.  I don’t know why I do it beyond the fact that I find it challenging and fun.  But I know there is more to it than that.  There is something deeply compelling about bees but what it is isn’t obvious or easily expressible.

Commercial beekeepers are different, of course.  They do it for different reasons.  They may or may not love what they do, but for them it is a livelihood; why they do it isn’t mysterious.  Most commercial beekeepers keep thousands of hives, they rent their colonies as pollinators to farms and orchards, and they harvest bee products to sell, honey wax, pollen, propolis.  It is a kind of farming like any other.

Hobbyist beekeepers (read: those who don’t have to do it to make a living) on the other hand, all have at the root of their connection to bees a mystical experience.  A faith in something bigger than themselves.  Ask.  Find out.  You’ll be surprised.  You might have to probe a little.  Many of the initial answers you get may seem superficial, but if your questions are skillful, you can get deeper into their attraction to beekeeping and their communion with bees.  Go beyond “What do you like about beekeeping?” and get to “What drew you to keep bees?  Why did you start?”

In the beginning, at the center, holding them, you will find a mystery, a set of questions that cannot be answered but can be contemplated, a truth that cannot be touched but can be approached by keeping bees.  People keep bees to be in the presence of a great and ineffable thing, and in that way beekeeping has a religious tone to it.  And people will express that in the language they use, their own words, and the stories they tell.

A friend of mine told me this story of his first experience with bees.  He said while walking in the woods near Santa Barbara years and years ago he came upon a swarm of honey bees clustered on a low hanging branch.  He said it was the size of a basketball, and docile, as bees tend to be when they are swarming.  The sound it made he said he will never forget, a deep, resonant, biological, single-noted hum.  He said it was beautiful and fascinating to see, captivating, and he was drawn to it by a curiosity that was stronger than his trepidation.  He approached the buzzing mass of bees and as he got close, to within just a few feet, it expanded, all at once, all together, to the size of a beach ball.  The sound it made went up in pitch, too, now a full, high, almost electric buzz.  He froze, stunned and amazed, and then slowly took a step back.  As he did the bees contracted, all at once, all together, as one organism, to the size of a basketball again.  He stepped closer, and it got big.  He stepped back, and it got small.  He was absolutely awestruck and profoundly amazed that this mass of insects doing its thing on the tree branch was aware of him––and he felt that it was communicating with him, the whole swarm as one entity, perhaps twenty thousand bees all expanding and contracting together, in unison, agitated by his approach and relieved by his withdrawal.  It was a live encounter with raw, powerful nature.

He said that more than anything else he remembers feeling like there was something going on and he was in the presence of it.  He felt in the presence of something big and natural, highly ordered and in control.  He felt he had to know more.  Soon after, he landed an apprenticeship with a beekeeper in Santa Barbara and started learning about bees.  His experience had become a quest for answers.  He is gardener now by trade but he has been keeping bees for 30 years now, ever since, and what bees can do has never ceased to amaze him.

And that is typical.  Beekeepers are a zealous lot and they tend to talk about their faith as a quest or a calling.  So, I suppose it is not surprising when faced with the plague of Colony Collapse and the loss of fully one half of our hives in December to Varroa mites and the diseases they vector, I suppose it is not surprising that the discussion takes on an apocalyptic tone.

It is hard to describe, but when a hive dies, it is rending.  You feel like something’s gone wrong, like it has turned and gone sour, like it is rotten, like the center cannot hold, and things are falling apart.  We keep chickens, too, and it is not like when a bobcat takes one of our chickens.  That is unfortunate, sometimes maddening, but there is nothing really wrong about it.  It is not unnatural.  But bees are magical and powerful and mysterious, and they are supposed to be able to take care of themselves, to do it on their own, and when they can’t, you wonder why?  What happened?

Now, take that up a few degrees.  Intensify it by an order of magnitude.  The feeling you get when you raise your hand, one among many in answer to the question, “Who among us has lost a hive this season?” and you see that fully half of the room has its hands in the air, the feeling you get is a kind of low level panic that something very big is happening to the bees and not just your bees.  You begin to feel like dark and ubiquitous forces are at work.  Like something is loose upon the world.

And you say to yourself in words that are your own, “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”

The Truth is Out There

The mists are thick today, offering only occasional glimpses of the mountain.  Perched on the south side of our little ridge, we look out upon an airy vista and the full north face of Mt Tamalpais.  In clearer weather, that is, we look upon it.  Today the mists drifted up our valley in thick billows obscuring and quieting everything.  Even the birds have gone quiet in the thick white stillness.  The mountain energizes this valley with its presence.

At 2,571 feet, the mountain’s East Peak overlooks most of Marin County and San Francisco Bay.  And it looms like a guardian over our little valley, keeping watch and casting shadows.  It draws the eye and dominates the skyline with an imagined outline of a sleeping lady.  It is the source of myth, the place of local history, (including at least two plane crashes, airplane pieces from which you can still find if you know where to look) and a fount of experience and play for many of us who live and have grown up on its slopes.

The Coast Miwok people who lived on the shores of what would later become Marin and Sonoma Counties and inland are said to have believed that the mountain embodied a Sleeping Lady.  As the story goes, a heart-sick beauty wandered the mountain pining for her heart’s desire, a gorgeous young man of incalculable attraction who, as it is told, jilted her.  The broken-hearted woman laid down on the slopes of the mountain and died – what else to do? – of sadness.  The mountain, feeling her pain, gave her a final comfort in an eternal resting place incorporating her into its ridges and valleys.  She can still be seen where she lay in the mountain’s outline – from certain angles, to be sure.

It is a story not unlike many you might hear about many mountains, and you shouldn’t be bothered by the fact that it turns out not to be entirely true in that apparently this was not a Miwok belief so much as a white one about the Miwok and their mythologizing of the mountain.  In fact, that is true about a lot of the things we tell ourselves about indigenous peoples; the stories and our beliefs about people, upon closer inspection, turn out to be not so much about them but about us.  The fact is we don’t know that much about the Miwok and their way of life.  But whether it is a story about the Miwok or about the gold hunters who flooded the area in 1848 and their struggle to understand the people living here, the story exists in our local lore and it seasons our relationship with the mountain.

And there is more.  In his beautiful book Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History, and Prints, Tom Killion, and his co-author Gary Snyder, gives careful and insightful context to a lot Tamalpais history and lore in the chapter called Poetic Histories, specifically the section in it called The Sleeping Lady: Invention and Appropriation.  I am still exploring the pages of this beautiful book, and I am finding it an important addition to the Tamalpais corpus.

As mentioned above there are two sites of circa WWII plane crashes on the mountain.  The engine block of one still lies in a creek bottom.  It is greatly decayed, of course, but not as much as you might think.  It is still easily identifiable as an airplane engine with its jutting piston housings and large center axle.  And it is big, really big.  I was surprised.

Legend had it when I was growing up in the 70’s that the top of Mt Tam was the site of buried  nuclear missile silos, and therefore was a prime target for the Reds, one of the kinder epithets for Russian Soviets in those days.  As kids experimenting with bravado, we all said we were glad to be living so close to a first strike site, that it was the best place to be in a nuclear war because who would want to survive?  There is, in fact, an old and long since dismantled military base on Middle Peak and there are concrete bunkers and the foundations of large cannon emplacements all over the headlands in Marin, but as far as I know there was never a nuclear weapon buried inside the mountain.

There are several native species of terrestrial orchid that grow in the woods of Mt Tam, including one that some people have assured me is endemic to the mountain, although I have had some difficulty verifying that.  Nonetheless, it is a satisfying story and a satisfying hunt in March up at Rock Springs to find the small, delicate pinkish flowers blooming under the firs.

There are stately, grand Coast Redwood trees that were hollowed out by various the fires this area has seen over the years, some so big you can get an entire family inside.  And there are a few, relatively hidden or off the usual paths, in which folks I know occasionally gather and sometimes spend the night in candlelight vigil for mother earth.  There is a 15 mile circumambulation route that was laid out and first tramped by Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder.  It passes through what is called the Serpentine Power Point which has been described as “the spiritual driver’s seat of the Bay Area” – not sure what that means, exactly, but it indicates something, for sure.  And there is a place on the north side of the mountain, a grove of trees, firs and oaks and bays, wherein hangs a symphony of wind chimes around a couple of small natural benches.  As light filters and diffuses through the trees, winds rustles in the leaves and the chimes sing, and at those times one feels absolutely invited to sit and think and be – to take a moment to experience oneself as a human being, as a friend of mine, an inspired educator, sometimes says.  This place is a cathedral as sacred as any stone edifice.

In the time it has taken me to write this paean, the mists have thinned and lifted somewhat.  There is a brightening in the valley.  I can see across to the far hill where horses graze, and beyond it I can see the ghostly, featureless outline of the mountain resolving slowly into detail.  It is becoming present in our valley again.  Or maybe it is me.

The truth – of the mountain or history or our lives – is out there, but seeing it with complete clarity never happens.  We are always looking for the truth through fog and billowing mist.  Sometimes the fog is so thick and settled that it obscures everything into a featureless stillness, a white silence, as it did for me only an hour ago.  Other times it breaks and thins and rises, and the mountain appears briefly but with crystalline clarity, reestablishing its presence as we reset our anchors.  Most of the time is somewhere in between.  There is a rippling veil between us and the world and it mediates our experience.  Our perception of the truth is influenced as much by our belief that the mountain is still there when we can’t see it as it is by our senses that tell us otherwise.

To me that is what makes life particularly interesting.  I can’t know what the truth is about the Miwok people or their belief in the sleeping lady.  And I don’t know if there is really any power at the Serpentine Power Point or if there is anything religious about the Nave of the Wind Chimes.  Truth be told, it doesn’t matter too much to me whether the Calypso bulbosa orchid only grows on the slopes of Mt Tam or whether it is widespread and far ranging.  It is the story that creates the Truth, and we are as much the authors of those stories, with all the attendant authority, as anything that might be termed that facts of the matter.

Is that right?  I don’t know.  I am headed outside to find the truth.