Monthly Archives: March 2007

Literature: Arctic Dreams

“In the reprieve at the end of a day, in the stillness of a summer evening, the world sheds its categories, the insistence of its future, and is suspended solely in the lilt of its desire.” –Barry Lopez, in Arctic Dreams (1986)

Arctic DreamsEven though I’m back in warmer climates, I still have a longing for cold places, and Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams (1986) satiated some of that desire by taking me into the Far North, an enchanted place of snow and ice where shrewd animals, resilient people, and hardy plants do much more than simply survive in the cold. Arctic Dreams is, by now, a modern classic in the natural history category, and although I wish that I had read it sooner, I found that it does indeed have that enduring quality—which is good for those of you who still haven’t read it. This book won’t drop into literary oblivion before you decide to take it up.

In the book’s Prologue, Lopez says “At the heart of this narrative, then, are three themes: the influence of the arctic landscape on the human imagination. How a desire to put a landscape to use shapes our evaluation of it. And, confronted by an unknown landscape, what happens to our sense of wealth.” Arctic Dreams sounds like an ambitious narrative, and it is. Lopez slowly draws us into this world through early chapters devoted to the area’s unique wildlife: muskoxen, narwhals, polar bears, snow geese, and whales. His later chapters forge more complex relationships between these animals and their historical connections with people and place. In the end, one understands what Lopez means when he says: “For a relationship with a landscape to be lasting, it must be reciprocal.”

The best parts of Arctic Dreams are its adventurous bits—the parts within which Lopez, himself, is a part of the narrative, and in other sections, I wanted to see the author more involved. But maybe that’s just me. Lopez takes on a huge project with this book, and I admire him deeply for it. For anyone wanting to read more natural history, this book should be read and will certainly be admired for its ability not only to reconstruct the physical aspects of a place but also to uncover how a place makes its home in our dreams.

I’ll end with one of my favorite Arctic Dreams passages (not because it has anything to do with what I’ve said above about the book, but rather because it has everything to do with what I have been thinking about lately):

“No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself. If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”

Landscape: Sexy Lines

Sexy Sandstone CrackSometimes I think that furniture is sexy—especially the design kind you see on display at most museums of modern art—or architecture, or even a certain style of automobile (usually of the vintage Volkswagen variety). I’ve been laughed at for making comments such as: “That’s a sexy chair,” or “Check out that chrome bumper,” but seriously, folks, sexy lines abound. Here in the Utah desert, they’re everywhere you turn.

A sexy line can often be found in the natural world when there’s a certain slant of light (thank you, Emily Dickinson), or when two different colors meet each other abruptly, or when a line, as seen from above, seems to meander sexily through its surroundings. If you’ve never looked at something in nature and thought, “Humph. That’s sexy,” I’ve picked out a few examples (below) for you from Monday’s climbing venture to Indian Creek’s Finn wall—just so that we can all be on the same page about our use of the word “sexy” to describe a landscape feature.

Sexy line produced by a certain slant of light:

Sexy Sandstone Shadow

Sexy line produced in sky after jet fly-by:

Sexy Skyline

Sexy lines of road and dryish creek bed, as seen from above:

Sexy Dirt Road?!

As this site is devoted mostly to things natural, I won’t go off into a discussion of sexy appliances or other instances of good industrial design (instead, perhaps, reference Philippe Starck’s work at for ideas)—but I do encourage using the adjective “sexy” to describe inanimate objects, if used reverently. I happen to be sitting in a very sexy chair at Moab’s gorgeous/new/designtastic public library, and even though I would rather be outside, it’s nice to rest my bum here on such aesthetically pleasing upholstery while the weather is keeping me indoors.

Life: The Camps

Colin Todd BivyAfter a lovely weekend in Denver with The Sister, I’m heading back to a campground at Utah’s Indian Creek. We’ve had nice coffees, gone for groceries at the Whole Foods Market, and watched a few DVDs (Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, the best of them). But now it’s time to get back to the tent—and I’m not complaining. In the last few weeks while traveling in New Zealand, campsites served as the launching point for some beautiful adventures, so that’s why this post is devoted to those stellar stopping points. And in a week or so, when I get back online, I’ll have more news from this week’s camp.

Earnslaw CaveNew Zealand’s Southern Alps are full of little mountain huts, and most are equipped with cooking areas and bunk-style beds. The cost depends on location and cush-factor, but it averages out to be a few dollars a night. Rock bivouacs (bivys) are also common, as are opportunities for old-fashioned, sleep-on-the-dirt-type camping. These are, as I like it, free. The first photo above is an example of a rock bivy located outside of the Colin Todd Hut at the base of Mt. Aspiring. To the upper left here is a photo of my dear pal Cece inside the score cave-style bivy where we slept en route to Mt. Earnslaw.

And below, the sunset from that rock bivy, which is perched above New Zealand’s Rees Valley:

Sunset over Rees Valley

After the cave bivy, Cece, the Brit, and I proceeded to the Esquilant Bivouac, which is really a sheetmetal hut at the base of Mt. Earnslaw. It sleeps six:

Esquilant Bivouac

Okay. So just a bit of campsite revelry today. Surely other more deep, you know, and organized posts to follow…

Literature: Vox Clamantis in Deserto

“What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote.” –Edward Abbey

Utahhhhhh!You can’t walk into a bookstore in Moab, Utah without noticing that “desert anarchist” Edward Abbey (1927-1989) is this area’s most beloved writer, and it’s not hard to understand why. Abbey worked for a time as a seasonal park ranger in Arches National Park, just outside of Moab, and he was also a naturalist and an (oftentimes fierce) environmentalist. The Southern Utah landscape that charmed Abbey often serves as the backdrop for his tales of adventure and monkeywrenching in the American Southwest.

From the shelves of Moab’s Back of Beyond Books, one of Abbey’s titles jumped out at me: A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (Vox Clamantis in Deserto): Notes from a Secret Journal. That the title somehow resonates with and/or accurately describes my current emotional state likely explains why I purchased it and then went on to experience great pleasure while reading it.

Throughout his life, Abbey kept a journal “fairly faithfully”, and A Voice Crying in the Wilderness is, as Abbey says, “simply a collection of fragments from that twenty-one-year-old personal record.” The little travel-friendly book of aphorisms gathers together hundreds of Abbey’s punchy comments on topics ranging from politics to nature to sport. Sometimes funny, sometimes absurd, and sometimes spot-on, Abbey’s musings are at least a consolation for those of us out there who are feeling like nothing more than a voice crying in the wilderness. I suppose we should take heart; Abbey was there, too. And eventually people listened.

Some goodies from A Voice Crying in the Wilderness:

“There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.”

“Democracy—rule by the people—sounds like a fine thing; we should try it sometime in America.”

“Freedom begins between the ears.”

“It is not enough to understand the natural world; the point is to defend and preserve it.”

“In the American Southwest, I began a lifelong love affair with a pile of rock.”

“Farting is such sweet sorrow.”

The details:
Back of Beyond Books
83 N. Main Street
Moab, Utah 84532

Landscape: Indian Creek Canyon, Utah

Greetings from Indian Creek, yo.Greetings from the Utah desert! The camping at Indian Creek is free, which is what you generally expect from a place that lacks phones, showers, toilets, running water, and Internet access. But I’m sure that people would pay to camp here, and someday they surely will. For the next few weeks, I’ll be staying at various campgrounds in the area and posting to “Down and Out” from Moab, the outdoor lover’s kind of town just an hour away. In Moab, you can get wireless at the library and used books at a number of bookshops on the town’s main drag. In Moab, you can get showers (unlimited time) for $5, and you can fill up water jugs at no charge inside an outdoor store that sells Cliff Bars for $.99.

Moab’s little luxuries are still a good hour’s drive from Indian Creek, but I didn’t find myself missing them too much last week, as I was surrounded by red sandstone pillars and sleeping underneath a blanket of stars. Coyotes call in the night, and lizards scurry over the desert’s polished rocks during the day.

Bridger Jack at night

With a few other friends who are also at Indian Creek to climb the area’s Wingate sandstone cracks, we established a camp near a rock group named Bridger Jack. In the evening, Bridger Jack’s towers look black against the purple sky.

Bridger Jack by day

And in the morning, the sun reflects Bridger Jack’s red faces, with their characteristic Wingate cracks, which fracture the rock cleanly in the vertical plane, making it the choice sandstone for climbing. Almost all of the rock at Indian Creek is Wingate sandstone, and the chocolate-smooth walls reach up to 450 feet in height.

Desert walkAt this time of the year, the desert is in bloom, and the temperature ranges from low-50s to high 70s. Indian Creek—the water source that gives the area its name—is low enough that we can cross it easily in a Jeep, but the purple meadow flowers are somehow finding enough water to color our morning walks to the crags.

Life: Switching Hemispheres

Switching HemispheresAfter nearly six months in the Southern Hemisphere, I’ll be crossing the equator this weekend. It will be something silly like a zillion hours in a plane, and a dear friend will pick me up at the airport in Denver so that we can go directly to the Utah desert. I’m hoping for some balance again—more work and maybe less play. This will probably mean that I’ll be writing on my laptop from the confines of a tent…or that I’ll get the van started and use it as a mobile office. Both scary thoughts, honestly—but we’ll see how it goes, the tent/van-writing that I see in my future.

See you back on “Down and Out” soon.

Literature: Spirit in a Strange Land

Sunrise over Rees ValleyAs promised, I took a book of poetry with me on last week’s climbing trip up New Zealand’s Rees Valley to the summit of the area’s most distinctive peak, Mt. Earnslaw. The three-day excursion had us navigating across a river, sleeping in a cave, exploring a high mountain ridge…and reading poetry out loud while snacking in the evening sun.

Spirit in a Strange Land: A Selection of New Zealand Spiritual Verse is the poetry collection I took with me on the journey (purchased at Christchurch’s Scorpio Books—see previous “Down and Out” post for more about that). I bought this book because I find poetry easier to read in the often-chaotic throes of travel, and I also enjoy reading things that explore connections between nature and theology.

Spirit in a Strange Land is divided into sections grouped according to theme, and I found the most pleasure in a section called “Book of the Land,” which seems to be the collection’s most nature-centric group of poems. Noteworthy in this section is Bill Sewell’s “Sutton”:

A landscape which lets us let go of time.
Rocks which might be ruins, but are not:
far older, they have twisted their shadows
away from the sun and held back time.

everything slows down there (excepting time)
into a routine which has no tedium:
parts of the day for assembling, for gin,
steak, Scrabble; others for ambling away—

To vegetable patch, siesta, the hunt for rabbits
or mushrooms; whatever. Like the rocks these
are constants, however quickly they vanish—

So we can understand, that in the summer,
when it’s time for the lamp at last, the light
wants to linger, making the far land glow.

Now, imagine reading that while sitting on a stone and sipping tea at 2200 meters. The sun is flirting with jagged peaks on the horizon, and white clouds are set against a salmon sky. Waterfalls tumble down the cliffs on your left, and you can see across the valley where a landslide has taken a bite out of the mountain’s side. You’re getting chilly because you’ve been sitting for a long time on a cold stone, but you don’t want to move because you like it when you’ve got this kind of context for reading poetry.

Landscape: Earth from Above

Earth from AboveBe on the lookout for Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s Earth from Above: An aerial portrait of our planet towards a sustainable development. The Earth from Above text and photography installation has already been translated into 24 languages, and more than 80 million people in about 100 cities have seen this exhibition, set outdoors. If Earth from Above isn’t coming anywhere near your area, you can still view it as a glossy coffee table book. The photographs in this exhibit range from aerial views of the pre-9/11 World Trade Center’s twin towers to the turquoise waters of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to fields of tulips growing near Amsterdam—their yellows, greens, reds, and pinks arranged in perfectly geometric rows.

The purpose of Earth from Above is to document the “state of the planet” at the beginning of a new millennium and to invite viewers “to think about the changes of the planet and the future of its inhabitants.” Yann Arthus-Bertrand, as a witness photographer, hopes that his work will illustrate the fact that our “present levels and modes of consumption, production and exploitation of resources are not viable over the long term” but that we are at a “decisive stage” where alternatives offered by sustainable development can still bring about positive changes for future generations.

Wanaka Waterfront Earth from AboveI saw Earth from Above on display this week at the Lake Wanaka waterfront in New Zealand. Being able to view the exhibit in a country as beautiful as New Zealand added to its emotional and evocative power. Rain clouds threatened our peaceful afternoon, and the installation text had been tailored for local viewers—offering interesting tidbits such as “67% of visitors to New Zealand say they visit this country for the landscape.” The landscape, in particular, is not the reason why I am in New Zealand at the moment—but, I agree, it is probably this country’s most attractive feature.

For further exploration:

Life: Climbing Aspiring

Tim on the North West RidgeShattered. It’s the best word to describe how I felt last week over the five days that we took to climb New Zealand’s Mount Aspiring. There’s nothing to get a person prepared for long days of climbing with a heavy backpack but long days of climbing and a heavy backpack. And it hurts. But good times with friends and stunning mountain views made up for the quarter-sized blisters, achy legs, and bug bites that I picked up along the way.

Team Faff:
The Mutant, climbingWe called ourselves Team Faff, faff being the British word for any sort of disorganized state. Tim Burton, the unstoppable Brit, proved to be somewhat of a physiological mutant. He’s a ski mountaineer with excellent route-finding skills, great balance, and a wonky wit. Cecelia Mortenson—Cece—is also a mountaineer and a guide, and everything she does in the mountains seems wickedly calm and collected, whether that means she’s leading over a crevassed glacier in vanilla-shake fog or walking with crampons on an exposed rock ridge.Rockstar Cece Mortenson I struggled to keep up with these two, being the least experienced member of our team and not really possessing any superstar skills beyond the necessary ability to suffer intensely for prolonged periods of time.

The summary:
Day 1: Eight hours or so of walking into Mt. Aspiring National Park with seven days of food. Sleep at streamside camp because we can not find the rock bivy mentioned in our guide. Cece wakes up in the middle of the night puking (Was it the food? The water? She’s nauseous but otherwise fine the next day).
Day 2: Hard scramble up through Bevan Col to the Colin Todd hut at the base of Mt. Aspiring. No room in the hut, so we camp in a rock bivy just outside.
Day 3: Recce climb on the Rolling Pin. Sleep inside the Colin Todd hut.
Day 4: Early start (4 a.m. wakeup) and long day climbing Mt. Aspiring’s North West Ridge. Tim pukes three times on the glacier as we descend (Temperature change? The relief? He’s sick of Americans? He recovers within minutes, the mutant). Sleep at Colin Todd hut.

Day 5: Weather deteriorating, so we decide to walk all the way back down the valley. We leave excess food and fuel at the hut to walk down with light packs. Showers in Wanaka and nice dinner out.

I suppose I could go off about the actual climbing of Mt. Aspiring—it was a good, hard, long scramble through rock and scree, and at the top, we cramponed up some decently steep snow and ice. We returned home tired. It was sometimes scary and probably a bit dangerous. Those things were expected.

But I’d rather mention that the climb was more about getting to know people and a place. Being in a mountain hut with other climbers is a beautiful thing—sharing food and stories, sitting out on the deck and cursing the curious Kea birds that dug up buried sausages and ate our gear. My partners chided me for taking daily snowball showers, which involves stripping down and rubbing handfuls of snow all over my body. I find grainy snow to be a refreshing exfoliate, and maybe that makes me too girly or soft or self-consciously clean. Maybe I am, but those little natural pleasures are what make being outdoors such an invigorating experience. Seriously—try it. Next time you see a patch of snow, just cup some of it in your hands and then bury your face in it. And if you like it—I dare you—strip off your clothes and jump right in. Go on.

(I apologize for the lack of photos at the end here–for those of you who just look at the photos!  But I’m on a public computer and having many techy difficulties. Arrrgh. Hopefully more photos to follow.)

Life: The Hills are Alive

Packing up and heading back out into New Zealand’s Southern Alps.  Team Faff (Cece, the Brit, and I) are taking food for four days and will return soon…