On Climbing La Lance, II

I am reading The Note-Books of Samuel Butler at the moment. Butler was an English novelist, painter, early convert and then opponent of Darwinism, sheep farmer and aphorist, and his Note-Books have been one of those rare reading experienes in which I find things I’ve been thinking about already beautifully and perfectly expressed. Sometimes, a book arrives in your life at exactly the right moment, when your mental and/or emotional path seems to completely overlap with the author’s. Butler’s has been just such a book for me. Often, the correspondances are startling, as in this passage, which I read yesterday, after posting On Climbing La Lance: “Everything that is worth attending to fatigues as well as delights, much as the climbing of a mountain does so. Chapters and short pieces give rests during which the attention gathers renewed strength and attacks with fresh ardour a new stretch of the ascent.”

That’s exactly how I feel about climbing mountains, and about surmounting supposedly insurmountable obstacles. It’s also a brilliant explanation for why aphorisms are short (see my first law of aphorisms). And it reminds me of a somewhat overwrought aphorism about aphorisms and mountains by Nietzsche, who was an avid mountain climber:

Whoever writes in blood and aphorisms does not want to be read but to be learned by heart. In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak: but for that one must have long legs. Aphorisms should be peaks—and those who are addressed tall and lofty.

Which leads me to another paradox about climbing mountains: during the descent, there is far more opportunity to look up than during the ascent. We didn’t quite make it all the way to the top of La Lance. That would have taken another two hours or so of strenuous walking. Our goal was the old farmhouse in the pasture, and when we reached it we sat down in the grass to enjoy the view. Naturally enough, heading back down the mountain was a stroll in the park compared to climbing up it in the first place. On the way down, I passed various landmarks I first noticed on the way up, like that fossil ammonite. But I also revisited spots where I had stopped to rest, places where I plopped my sweaty, exhausted self down on a rock during the climb and thought: ‘I’m never gonna make this. I’ll just wait here til the rest come back down.’

These little moments of weakness, crises of confidence are all part of the climb. But walking past those spots again during the descent, I was in a much better position (and state of mind) to notice my surroundings. More often than not, the places where I sat with my head in my hands contemplating my aching feet offered astoundingly scenic views, panoramas I didn’t notice at the time because I was looking (and feeling) down. It put me in mind of another mountain-related aphorism, again by a Dutchman, Multatuli, psuedonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker:

A standpoint reached as the result of an ascent has a different meaning from that same standpoint reached as a result of a fall.

Like Butler’s remark, it’s worth keeping in mind when climbing mountains, surmounting (or failing to surmount) insurmountable obstacles, and suffering the fatigue and delight that comes from attending to whatever is worth attending to.

On Climbing La Lance

I have to admit that I’m not much of a mountain climber, or even a pleasure walker. Which is strange, because I’m normally very much into “goal-directed activities.” One of the reasons I used to dislike taking walks, or at least the excuse I frequently cited for not taking part in them, was that I didn’t see the point. You’re not actually going anywhere when you take a walk, you’re just taking a walk. That’s not a goal-directed activity, you see, so I wasn’t interested. (I have been woefully wrong about taking walks for years now–walks do have goals, often extremely worthwhile ones, like conviviality–and goal-directed activities are way over-rated anyway, but more on that in a separate posting.) Climbing a mountain is fundamentally different from taking a walk in that there is a very clear goal from the outset: getting to the top. I have my wife to thank for finally convincing and cojoling me into getting to the top of La Lance, a modest mountain in southern France, and thereby opening my eyes to the wonders of walking.

Fortunately, no ropes, pulleys or ice picks are involved in getting to the top of La Lance. There’s a nicely maitained path, steep and very rocky but navigable, that goes all the way to the top. In early spring you can see the path from a distance, criss-crossing the mountain like Harry Potter’s lightning-shaped scar. From the other side of the valley, my daughter called it “the writing on the mountain.” The path is like one very long sentence that tells the mountain’s story. You read it as you walk it, the way young children run a finger along each word as they move down the page. La Lance has an old story to tell. Embedded in one large slate slab in the middle of the path is a fossil, a partial impression of what once must have been an enormous ammonite. Millions of years ago La Lance was underwater. A more recent chapter in the mountain’s history is found near the summit: an old farmhouse perched on the edge of a lush green field that was once grazing ground for sheep, back when people still kept sheep around here.One of the paradoxes of climbing a mountain is that the very nature of the task forces you to look down while the whole point of the exertion is to look up. To get up that steep ascent I crouched into a kind of hunched position: my upper torso was almost parallel with the path while my legs were still perpendicular to it. It felt kind of like leaning into a strong wind; the mountain wasn’t going to make it easy for me. In that posture I crunched my way slowly up the path. On few occasions have I been as acutely aware of the muscles in my buttocks. If I hadn’t assumed this position I would never have noticed that ammonite fossil. Or the various animal tracks that were preserved in the soft earth beside the path. Or the strange feces on a flat rock from a species none of us could identify. In short, if I hadn’t been climbing La Lance I would never have noticed what was right there under my feet.

The Dutch aphorist Frans Hiddema has a great aphorism about climbing, which is slightly strange for a Dutchman since the only thing flatter than the Netherlands is a poorly delivered speech by President Bush:

He who is always climbing sees less and less of more and more.

Occasionally, I paused and looked up from the climb, remembering my goal. And then I was stunned at all I could see: mountains and pastures, vineyards and villages for close to 50 miles all around; in the furthest distance, the silver sliver of the Rhone. It was awesome. Climbing a mountain has a dual effect: it rubs your nose in the earth, making you work hard for every step, then unfurls a majestic vista that stops you in your tracks and can only be appreciated from a distance. During the climb, you get the mountain in close-up. When you stop, you get the big picture.

On Posture

There is good posture and bad posture; the former being that state in which all of the bones and muscles in your spine are in proper alignment, the latter being that in which they are out of joint. For a very long time I have had bad posture, the result of too often working 12- to 14- to 16-hour days hunched over a computer keyboard. The result: for the past eight months or so, I’ve had intense pain just below my right shoulder, under my shoulder blade. There is a spot there that feels like a knot in a thick old rope, the kind you see holding abandoned, weather-beaten old boats to the sides of dessicated docks. It feels all rough and gnarled, like someone ploughed gravel deep into the muscle fiber. I imagine it must look like a contorted tree root that years ago encountered some obstacle to its growth and twisted itself around it. I’ve been trying to straighten it out.

That’s not easy, though. Posture is more than anything else determined by force of habit. You acquire bad posture by repeatedly taking the wrong stance. Do anything long enough and you become it, or it becomes you. That’s equally true of emotions and thoughts, which is why the word posture can also apply to psychological states. You can adopt a defensive posture toward the world; an attitude of confidence, comraderie or cynicism may be just a posture, that is, an assumed position rather than one that comes naturally. Repeat it long enough and your thoughts and feelings begin to take the shape you have imposed on them.Correcting that is very difficult since habits are very hard to break. And if you’ve been in the habit for a long time, there can be a long way to go to get back to your natural state. My first step toward regaining good posture was to be aware that I didn’t have it. Right now, I’m sitting up very straight, with my shoulders back and my thighs level with the floor. Unfortunately, this really hurts, because my bad posture has so completely taken over the way I sit and inflicts pain every time I try to change it. Eventually, though, if I persist, good posture will prevail. As that knot in my back slowly unravels, the boat will slip quietly out to sea.

In one of his typically paradoxical aphorisms, the Taoist sage Lao Tzu wrote:

To remain whole, be twisted. To become straight, let yourself be bent. To become full, be hollow. Be tattered, that you may be renewed.

I bet Lao Tzu had pretty damn near perfect posture. But I’ve been bent out of shape for too long, twisted into too many knots. I have to say, though, that I’m grateful for the pain. Otherwise, I would never have known anything was wrong, that there was a different, better posture to take. You only really discover the strength of your spine when your back is against the wall.

On Seeing A Frog on My Street

London is remarkable for the variety of wildlife to be found on its streets. Our neighborhood is practically seething with foxes, for example. You see them skulking around trash cans late at night, or hurrying across the road in a flash of headlights. I always imagined foxes as sleek and elegant animals, but that was before I had any direct experience of them. On closer inspection, they are really pretty mangy creatures. Maybe that’s the price they pay for living in the city. London also supports a wide variety of birds and amphibians, partly because so many homes sport little ponds in the gardens. Ponds is perhaps giving these tiny bodies of water too much credit; they are really nothing more than glorified puddles. It is no doubt from one of these that the frog I saw on my street the other day had wandered.

I was walking my daughter home from school when we saw it on the sidewalk, leaping determinedly along a garden wall. It was totally unperturbed by our presence, its sides gently pulsing with respiration. We stopped and watched it for a while. I wanted to put it back on the other side of the wall, where it was less likely to be run over by a car or become an impromptu science experiment for a group of local boys. I tried to get it to leap into my daughter’s lunch box so I could toss it over the wall, but it refused to co-operate. I grew up in the suburbs, so it never occured to me to actually pick it up with my hands. But a builder who happened to be working nearby strolled up, grabbed the frog and clasped it to his chest, showed my daughter one last time and dropped it over the wall, where it plopped into the grass.I’ve only ever had one other close encounter with an animal in a city. It was in San Francisco and this time it was a reptile, a snake. At the time, I was studying Buddhist philosophy and psychology and was walking home from a lecture at the San Francisco Zen Center, which was located just a few blocks from where I lived. The Zen Center was in a pretty dodgy neighborhood, so I was always very alert to my environment on my walks home, especially at night. This time, though, I remember I was completely lost in thought, still immersed in the ancient Buddhist texts we had been discussing. As I walked up the street, completely oblivious to my surroundings, I was astonished to see a snake writhing and hissing right at my feet, right in the middle of the sidewalk. This was no grass snake, though, slender, scared and harmless. It was long and it was thick and sinewy, and for a moment I was scared witless. The snake seemed just as startled to see me, and it quickly slithered off, first into a patch of weeds and then under a parked car. I think it eventually climbed up into the wheel well.

I just stood there dumbfounded for a minute. Where could a snake like that have come from? I didn’t imagine they would occur naturally in a neighborhood as urban as this. I thought maybe it had escaped from someone’s aquarium, or maybe some bored kid got tired of it and just decided to let it loose. But those Buddhist texts were still in my head, and in Buddhist mythology snakes are very auspicious creatures, symbols of wisdom rather than evil as they are in the West. So it occured to me that encountering this snake on the sidewalk was a very good thing, a sign that I was on the path to wisdom, a road that I desperately needed to travel at the time. I walked the rest of the way home in a very good mood.

So what did this frog on the sidewalk symbolize? Well, at the moment my daughter is very much into fairy tales. One of the games we often play together is Sleeping Beauty. She pricks her finger on the side of her bed and then swoons dramatically, pretending to fall asleep on the floor, with a huge grin on her face. I then kiss her and she wakes up. But when she wakes up she’s not a princess, but a very angry lion who roars and brandishes her claws. The only defense against this lion is tickling her. I don’t think my daughter has come across the story ofThe Frog Prince yet. But every time I peck her cheek and she wakes up, I do indeed feel like a king.

And here’s the only aphorism I can think of at the moment that pertains to amphibians. Happily, it is irrelevant to the rest of this posting. It’s from Chamfort, who clearly must have kissed some unpleasant frogs in his time:

A man must swallow a toad every morning if he wishes to be sure of finding nothing still more disgusting before the day is over.