What matters in life? A redundant question, as thinking that something would matter outside of life (which is to say, existence) not only makes no sense, but is quite unthinkable. Life is an echo chamber, where meaning is discovered like a skier in a whiteout: unable to see anything, the skier yells out, listens, and skies slowly forward, knowing the location of mountain walls only by the echo. We only know, anything, because of the presence of other stuff in our lives.
At first thought, it seems like the “other stuff” can be divided into two categories: other people, and everything else. Our relations with fellow humans tend to be rich and dynamic, echos coming back quickly, the relationship therefore easy to define and understand. Our relations with mountains, however, (and we do have relations with such things) are more prolonged, subtle, and on the surface at least one-sided. Both kinds of relations, those with other people and those with nature, define who we are, but do so in different ways.
Or do they? I’ve long thought that existence is quite a bit messier than that. Inter-human relations can be quite shallow and truncated, the influence of nature is always more profound than we can easily understand, relationships with animals and the land (farming) seem to point to significant grey areas, and technology has of late exaggerated the many ways in which non-face to face relations can nonetheless be enormously influential.
In short, defining how we are who we are is not so simple, and how you ask the who question is enormously important.
Ed Abbey’s central thesis, both in his work in general and in Desert Solitaire in particular, is concerned with this question: how does our relationship with the world define us? The coextensive and thus contradictory need to be both a part of something (secure) and a separate person (independent) can be played out between two people (most poignantly in romantic relationships), or between a culture and the land (manifest destiny and America’s fetishization of The West). We cannot be truly independent people, because the possibility of our existence is defined by the presence of other people and of the larger world. Yet, a degree of separation from others and the backdrop of nature is essential for much of our thinking and action.
Bedrock and Paradox.
All of which is to explain two things:
I see philosophy and the tradition of intellectual exploration as rooted in nature. Aristotle was a philosopher and a naturalist. Thoreau went walking in the Maine woods (but what wonders would his mind have created had he went west with Muir?!). Siddhartha Gotama sat under a tree in Varanasi. Jesus wandered in the wilderness. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra sat in his cave. As our world becomes more and more full of our fellow humans, experiencing the other side of existence, not in solitude, but being in the sole and overwhelming company of nature, is more and more relevant. This is, generally speaking, why I do what I do, and why this blog is what it is.
I am very glad I went down to Missoula to visit with my friends this weekend, my sisters-in-arms from grad school (they’re all women, after all). We cooked and ate food, drank beer and wine, sat around and laughed and talked, and went skiing, snowmobiling and skinning up to a high ridge with a tremendous view to lap turns and turns on a slope of perfect snow. Because on some moments you can be, all at once, in the company of everyone and everything.
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