I was fifteen years old at the time, on a month-long mountaineering course, west of the Grand Tetons, on a high mountain plateau. Our instructor pulled us together as a group. He said, “Here’s the plan. You’ll be bivouacking tonight. You can use your clothing. But you can’t use your sleeping bag or tent. The point of this is to give you a sense of what a real bivouac in the mountains would be like. Have a good night. We’ll see you in the morning.”
I retrieved all of my clothing from my backpack. I had wool trousers, a wool sweater, a wool jacket, a rain jacket, a hat, socks, and gloves. I found a spot on some rocks overlooking a canyon, with the Tetons further to the east. There were about 12 of us students, and the others were doing something similar, and finding nice spots. The night came on. It got dark. I sat there. It got colder. I sat there. Mountain air. Cold stars above. I tried lying down, but it was not so comfortable, and colder from the rocks. I started getting chilled and pulled my clothing tighter around me. Actually, I was having a very good time. I thought, “I’m really doing it! I’m bivouacking!” After a while it got colder again and there wasn’t anything more I could do. I just sat there and went a little numb. Time slowed down. It just was. I couldn’t hurry it. For some periods I must have dozed. Later into the night a crescent moon rose in the east and provided some gentle light to the canyon below and to the snow-capped mountains. My mind slowed down, but there were times when it was very alert. Stillness. It went on. Then, finally, from that spot I began to notice ever so slowly the sky awakening and I watched the sun rise as if it were the first morning in Eden. In hindsight, all these years later, I marvel at my youth. To have experienced such purity and innocence, and to be aware of it at the time, but not aware, not in this sense that all of us have of looking back on our youth and setting it in the relief of a lifetime. It’s like young love. It is a benediction on life.
In this chapter I would like to put forward a new term, Ecological Presence. It will be a little odd to use words to talk about ecological presence, because at its core it is not about words, or ideas, theories or evidence. Ecological presence is an experience of perceptions that can emerge through interaction with nature, wherein those perceptions can then settle into a mind’s awareness without conscious mind activity. Sometimes nature can lead you pretty directly into ecological presence. You have likely experienced it in your life, maybe often. I got a glimmer of it during my bivouac.
The Ontology and Epistemology of Presence
As humans, we are degrading, polluting, and destroying nature at an astonishing rate, and distancing ourselves from what remains. In response, lines of scientific research have emerged, and at times coalesced, that have been showing that people need to interact with nature to do well, physically and psychologically (Hartig, Mitchel, de Vries, & Frumkin, 2014; Frumkin et al., 2017; Kahn, 2011; Wilson, 1984). The research literature shows, for example, that interaction with nature can reduce stress (Berto, 2014), reduce depression (Taylor, Wheeler, White, Economou, & Osborne, 2015), reduce aggression (Younan, Tuvblad, Li, Wu, Lurmann, Franklin, et al., 2016), reduce crime (Kuo & Sullivan, 2001), reduce ADHD symptoms (Kuo & Taylor, 2004), improve immune function (Rook, 2013), improve eyesight (He, Xiang, Zeng, Mai, Chen, Zhang, et al., 2015), improve mental health (Bratman, Hamilton, & Daily, 2012), and increase people’s social connectedness (Holtan, Dieterlen, & Sullivan, 2014). There is also research on how interaction with nature contributes to the science of “positive psychology,” which focuses on the pleasant life, good life, and meaningful life (Seligman, 2002).
These are important lines of research because most of us live with a Western worldview that privileges scientific knowledge, and if science says that human-nature interaction is important, then that provides leverage for many agendas that seek to conserve and enhance nature and people’s interactions with it. But at their core, all of these approaches not only treat nature as yet another resource to be consumed for human benefit, but assume that the empirical world is the only domain that human consciousness can apprehend, and that is thus worthy of systematic inquiry. Other worldviews provide a wider perspective on what we in Western thought traditions call ontology and epistemology.
Ontology refers to the nature of being, existence, and reality, and of categories therein. Ontological questions include, for example: “What exists?” “What’s real?” “How can we describe what’s real?” “Are there basic categories of being, such as ‘alive’ and ‘not alive,’ and of ‘time,’ ‘number,’ and ‘space?’” “What does it mean for something to have existence?” In turn, epistemology takes any truth claim, especially ontological truth claims, and asks the question “How do we know?”
The modern scientific response to such questions is to assert (or seek to establish) that what exists, ontologically speaking, is objectively “out there” in the physical universe, and established, epistemologically speaking, through hypothesis-based studies, with measurable outcomes that can be replicated by independent people.
There are, however, other responses. One of the basic ontological moves of such responses is to assert (or seek to establish) that there are dimensions of reality that exist beyond the physical world. Some of these responses draw on thousands of years of Asian or Indian metaphysics. For example, about 2,500 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching about the Tao as that nameless quality that exists without physical existence (form), but which underlies and makes form possible.
Tao is empty
yet it fills every vessel with endless supply
Tao is hidden
yet it shines in every corner of the universe. (Tzu, 2001, Verse 4, p. 17)
How can something be empty and yet fill? Hidden yet emergent? By analogy, if you are in a room right now, look around at what is there. As I look around my study, I see a desk, bookcases, books, a mirror, a light fixture, and several photographs. But what is missing in such a description is the empty space that makes it all possible. If there was no empty space in my study, it could not be a room; it would be a solid mass of physical form. Or using a similar analogy, Lao Tzu writes:
Clay is molded to form a cup
yet only the space within
allows the cup to hold water (Tzu, 2001, Verse 11, p. 24)
Thus something is ontologically constituted by what it is, its form, and what it is not, its empty space. That is the Tao.
We could also use the word Being, in place of Tao. That for something to Be, it has to have a form and no form. A human Being can also be understood in these terms. As a Being, we are ontologically constituted by these two dimensions. The dimension of form includes not only our physical body but also all of our thoughts, which can be thought of as “thought-forms,” and emotions. The dimension of no-form is that of emptiness. Eckert Tolle (2004) calls it, Presence. In Buddhism, it is called, Nothingness, Śūnyatā, or the great void.
A term such as “Nothingness” is hard to grasp because to grasp it is to lose it because it is not a thing, and because its ontological properties make it resistant to concepts and language. This idea frames the very opening to the Tao Te Ching:
The Tao that can be spoken of is not the Tao itself. (Tzu, 1977, Verse 1, p. 1)
Of course, Lao Tzu then proceeds to speak of the Tao through all of his verses. He obviously believes there is something that can be said about the Tao that has value. But at its core his basic message is: do not confuse the words about the Tao with the Tao.
Words in this sense can be thought of as a signpost in the woods. Imagine hiking for a few days toward a destination, call it Big River, and getting somewhat disoriented and then coming upon a signpost that says: “Big River, 3 miles,” with an arrow pointing to the left. The signpost is helping you get oriented, but it is not to be confused with the entity it is pointing toward. If you were thirsty at the signpost, it would not provide you with the water that lies at Big River. So we can talk about Nothingness, Space, and Being, but all the words of the world are not the thing. No form of the world is the thing because Being is no-thing.
There is a Zen story of a Zen master, Gutei, who was often asked questions about Zen (Reps, 1985). You can imagine some of the questions he received were short and sweet, such as “Master, what is Zen?” That is an ontological question. Some questions likely combined ontology and epistemology, such as “Master, how do we know you know what Zen is?” Whatever the question, Gutei was known to always answer it the same way: He raised his finger.
That answer is not so satisfying to the human mind.
The Zen story then goes on to say that a boy, a young student of his, began to imitate the Master’s answer. Whenever anyone asked the boy what Zen was, the boy raised his finger. When Gutei heard about this, Gutei grabbed hold of the boy and cut off his finger. The boy cried out in horror and began to run away. At that moment, Gutei called to the boy to stop. The boy stopped, turned around, and looked at Gutei. Gutei raised his finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened.
There: is that more satisfying to the human mind?
The story is both entertaining and hard to decipher, as most Zen stories are. One of the commentaries on this story emphasizes that the enlightenment of both Gutei and the boy had nothing to do with the finger; and if one believed it did, one was hopelessly deluded; perhaps as one would be trying to drink water from a signpost that read, “Big River.”
That said, Nothingness, Emptiness or Formlessness, Space, Being, Śūnyatā, Zen, or the Tao that “is empty yet it fills every vessel with endless supply”—whatever the name—can emerge in human consciousness. But we know it is not by virtue of raising a finger or cutting off a finger. How then?
Another Zen story offers a suggestion. Student goes to Zen master and says that he will be leaving the monastery but would greatly appreciate if the master could write down detailed instructions for Zen, so that he has them while he is gone. The student gives the master a piece of paper and brush. The master writes, and then hands it back to the student. The student is expecting some profound writing but all he reads is the word, “Attention.” The student says, “surely, master, there is much more to Zen, can’t you please write a little more?” The master takes back the paper and brush and writes, and then hands it back to the student. The student then reads a second word, which reads: “Attention.” And then the student is feeling a little frustrated, believing that surely the master is holding back vital knowledge, and so he presses one more time; and one more time the student is to read “Attention.” All told: “Attention. Attention. Attention.” Perhaps the Master was trying to say something.
Being has the potential to become known when ordinary compulsive conditioned thinking stops and the mind is highly attentive. The emergent awareness is not what happens when we go below thought, as when we sleep, or “zone out” watching television or playing video games. It is not the going below consciousness that happens when we have a couple of drinks, and then perhaps a third or fourth. For, in those states one is aware of mostly nothing, but not Nothing.
With this as backdrop, I can now begin to situate what I mean by Presence. Presence is that awareness of Nothing, Space, and Being that emerges in human consciousness when compulsive conditioned thinking stops and the mind is attentive.
Is Presence Mumbo-Jumbo?
If you have not experienced something like Presence in your life, then much of the writing so far may well seem nonsensical. That is fine. You would have some good company. Freud, for example, had trouble fathoming the experience that a friend of his had expressed in terms of an “oceanic feeling.” Freud had sent his friend his book, The Future of an Illusion, wherein he (Freud) argued that religions espouse false dogmas that people accept because of infantile wishes. Freud (1930) then says:
[My friend] answered that he entirely agreed with my judgment upon religion, but that he was sorry I had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, he says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded — as it were, ‘oceanic’. This feeling, he adds, is a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith; it brings with it no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of the religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless also exhausted by them. (pp. 10-11)
Freud goes on to say: “The views expressed by the friend whom I so much honour…caused me no small difficulty. I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself” (p. 11).
And there is the rub. If you have not experienced the oceanic feeling – a similar term for Presence, Being, or the Tao – how can you believe it as anything but dogma or illusion, or both? One answer emerges when we ask: Ontologically, what might lie within the realm of reason?
There is a cabin in the mountains of Northern California that I built, and I spend my summers there, writing and living close with the land. The cabin is off the grid, with a few solar panels for electricity. There is an outhouse with a view of big mountains. There is a hot shower under an enormous oak tree. During the heat of the summer, wasps fly though the open back door into the cabin and then try to leave through the plate glass windows in the front. They cannot get out that way. They spend all day flying around that glass window trying to get out. They die trying. At the day’s end, I sweep up dozens of dead wasps. I have tried to help them by explaining to them that there is an open window next to the plate glass window, which I specifically keep open for them, and if they flew just 5 feet over they would exit the cabin and be well and live free. But their brains are not constituted to understand human language, or even rudimentary human truths that involve how physical objects spatially exist in relation to other objects.
Like a wasp, we are also a product of biological evolution, with capabilities and limitations. Thus it seems to me patently evident that the human brain is constituted to understand some but not all of what exists in the empirical world. As a case in point, consider that traditional Polynesian sailors once navigated over thousands of miles of open ocean by observing and interpreting, with intuition, the stars, sky, and the currents and swells of the ocean (Davis, 2009). We, as modern people, are not able to do so. This difference would seem to indicate that we are more capable of understanding the world than we give our brains credit for.
According to Einstein’s relativity theory, if we sped out into space at just about the speed of light for a year and then turned around and came home at the same speed, we would be two years older while everyone else would be about 14,000 years older. Time is not what it seems. Indeed, as early as 1908, Hermann Minkowski said that time is connected to space. Einstein described it as a space-time continuum, which becomes distorted by objects. Or try to imagine another astronomical idea: that our universe came into being 14 billion years ago through a Big Bang that originated from a single entity that was smaller than an atom – that was actually about “a million billion billion times smaller than a single atom” (Szokan, 2016). Can you imagine anything that small? Can you imagine our universe that small? In terms of a spatial ontological question: What was on the “other side” or “outside” of that infinitesimally small particle? In terms of an ontological time question: What existed before the Big Bang? Some astrophysicists posit a “two-headed time” theory where time traveled backward to the Big Bang and is now traveling forward in time. Other astrophysicists posit that currently multiple universes simultaneously exist.
Using language established earlier, I would say that the ideas and theories that come from astrophysics are remote signposts to a reality beyond what we think of as the “real” world. The questions we ask – such as “What existed before the Big Bang?” – make sense to us because of the way our brains are constituted through human evolution on this planet. But surely these questions cannot be answered, not in the way our minds ask them. It is a little like a wasp asking, “Can I get through the plate glass window at its top or at its bottom?” The answer is neither.
I am suggesting then that it is entirely rational that a rationalist would agree that we cannot rationally understand everything or perhaps even much, not in a deep sense, about the universe. If that is true, and if you are the skeptical rationalist, then I would like to invite you to keep an open mind, and not immediately seek a reductionistic account of Presence. Such a reductionism occurs when it is proposed, for example, that the experience of Presence is an illusion based on the wishes from childhood (as Freud did), or is simply an odd byproduct of human evolution, or is epiphenomena of human mental processing.
In the wilderness area some twenty miles away from my cabin, one chooses summer routes carefully with attention to water. When I was there last August, I had hiked up over the summit of a mountain and dropped down onto the other side to where a small spring shows on a map, and which I had passed some years earlier. But it had been a hot summer, and the spring was just damp mud. It took me a few hours and nightfall to reach another spot I knew of with a trickle coming out of the earth. Later on that trip, I left a river valley and set out cross-country up a desolate ridge that some years earlier had been burnt to a crisp in big fires. Since then this area had regrown with endless tall thickets of thorn bushes; and so as I was hiking upward I sought with each step to find both good footing and a way through the thorns, as much as that was possible. I could smell the burned fallen trees, and often had to climb over them. My body was smudged with charcoal. It was hot. I knew I needed to be pretty good with my route-finding because I only had two liters of water for the full day, as I sought to cross from one mountain drainage to another. As I was climbing, I sensed a slight hint of green up a distant slope. I set course for that. When I got there I saw that the green vegetation was some 10 feet tall. I dropped my pack, and poked around the vegetation, and then pushed my body into it. And there I found a little spring of water. It was a hand deep and a hand wide, coming out of that harsh ridge. I drank my full. It was an oasis. It was a spot of time that stretched forever, even as I was dripping sweat and swatting bugs.
Interaction with nature has a way of helping us to be attentive, and to stop the endless mental chatter, and thus affords us the opportunity to experience Presence in nature, with nature, and through nature: that is another way to characterize Ecological Presence.
Three ancestral ways of interacting with nature tend to engender Ecological Presence. In our evolutionary history, these forms where often seamlessly connected. For illustrative purposes, consider a method of hunting used by the Ju/wasi bushman on the Kalahari desert in the early 1950’s, and which presumably mirrored a way of hunting that existed in our evolutionary history (A Kalahari Family, 2002; Thomas, 2006). On a hot day, with temperatures hovering around 120 degrees F., the hunter with spear in hand would find and then begin to run toward a bull eland. The bull eland could run fast, and did, and would run some distance away. The hunter would run after him. As the now resting bull eland saw the hunter beginning to get close, he would run away again. The hunter would keep pursuing. The eland would run again. This pattern repeated itself for an hour. Two hours. Four hours. It could continue for 5 hours or more. At some point the bull eland would overheat and collapse from exhaustion. The hunter would then be face-to-face with an exhausted but still dangerous wild animal.
Up to this point in the hunt, the hunter’s emotions are pretty even-keeled, with a uniform expenditure of energy. There was alertness tracking the bull eland. The hunter stayed aware of his surroundings; aware of potential animals that could be harmful to him; aware of his own strengths; aware of the weather; aware of his location. It was a calm but very focused awareness that lasted for hours, and emerged through the steady stream of his physical engagement with his natural landscape.
But at the moment of his direct encounter with the collapsed bull eland, the hunter’s physically-engaged calmness changes dramatically. Highly alert, the hunter assesses the eland’s condition. Is it possible the eland could quickly rise and charge him? His senses seek and provide relevant information. His mind synthesizes it, mostly intuitively. There is no formal calculus that says “the sands are two inches deep at this spot which slows my normal striking stride by 43%; bull eland has been running 5.63 hours, which in this heat translates to his being at 6% efficiency; temperature of 118 degrees F. has led to my active pulse rate of 90 beats per minute, which means that….” No, that is not how it works. Rather, through Ecological Presence the understandings emerge. The hunter raises his spear. He balances it in his hand perfectly. He chooses when, or it could be said he lets the choice choose him, because there is now no difference between these two statements, and he takes three long quick steps toward the bull eland, just as close as presence tells him to, and immediately thrusts his spear deep into the animals’ midsection, and as it hits its mark he just as quickly scampers some additional feet away, because a wounded animal is unpredictable and most dangerous. Adrenaline courses through the hunter’s body. The bull eland dies right there in the desert sand.
It is a peak experience. Primal aggression. The hunter has killed big life so that he and his people can live. His genetic programming makes him optimally geared – physically, intellectually, and emotionally – to engage in killing like this. The hunter is in the moment, highly conscious: ecologically present. Killing requires his full attention. For this form of Presence, he does not need a Zen monk scribbling on a piece of paper the words Attention, Attention, Attention. He has learned this lesson through nature. Attend or be unsuccessful in the hunt. Attend or be killed by the animal you are hunting. Attend or die.
But now here is the thing with the hunter’s heightened experience of the kill. He does not keep enacting it. He has killed the eland. There is nothing more to kill. What happens next? Well, the hunter disembowels the animal, and quarters it in ways that allow him to carry it. That takes time. And then there is the long slow walk home, to his camp, to his people, with the immense weight on his back. The adrenaline that had surged in his body during the kill is now gently absorbed. This could be said to be part of nature’s natural system of stress reduction, which becomes even more restorative once the hunter arrives at camp. For there he is greeted by community and family, feels safety. Dusk settles. Fires are lit. The meat begins to roast over the coals. Night comes on. There is meat for everyone in his small tribe. The hunter rests around the fire ring, eating, talking, filling his belly, replenishing with liquids, sharing stories of the day, of the hunt. He lies back and looks up at the night sky: a million stars overhead. Sleep comes easy.
According to the biophilia hypothesis (Wilson, 1984; Kellert & Wilson, 1993; Kahn, 1997), we have adapted and evolved from our ancestral days, but still have affordances and constraints, dispositions, loves and fears that are the product of our ancestral selves. From this perspective, it is possible to see expressions of the hunter’s experience of the kill in some modern-day activities. For one thing, over 16 million people a year go hunting each year in the United States. Most of these people do not require the meat from the animal to sustain their lives, so there appears a legacy of this desire to hunt, and to experience the kill. Less directly, could it be said that we see vestiges of the ancestral hunt when people today engage in dangerous adrenaline-producing physical activity in nature, such as climbing thousand-foot vertical walls in Yosemite, parachuting out of airplanes, or kayaking raging rivers? Perhaps vestiges can been seen in competitive sports, like football: a receiver catches a pass and a linebacker, running full speed, times his hit perfectly, smashing the receiver to the ground; it is almost like he is using his body as a spear. Millions of people watch such sports and live it vicariously. Indeed, ancestral parts of ourselves, when distanced too far from healthy expression in nature, may find expression in increasingly distorted and sometimes addictive pursuits. There are people, for example, who spend large chunks of a day engaged in violent video games, killing in a digital world. It could be said that this part of our ancestral brain allows people to get addicted to stimulant drugs, such as amphetamines and cocaine, wanting more and more of the “action,” not being able to say no.
Constraints and affordances of our genetic code give new meaning to Shakespeare’s dictum, “What’s past is prologue.”
I have conveyed three ancestral means for how human-nature interaction can foster Ecological Presence. One is through even-keeled physical exertion in a wild landscape. A second is by dealing with an immediate challenge and/or dangerous natural situation. A third is through gentle restorative immersion in nature. These ancestral means are diminished today because of our destruction of nature, and of our control over it. However, in principle they are still available to our modern minds, certainly in partial forms: by means, for example, of hiking through old growth forest, birding in urban wetlands, swimming in big ocean waves, encountering a coyote, lying in sunshine on a beach. Such forms of human-nature interaction offer a portal into certain forms of Being. They can open up some Space in human consciousness.
Yet these ancestral means are not the end of what human consciousness is capable of ascertaining in terms of Ecological Presence. They are our beginnings. By means of an analogy, consider a radio telescope – a dish that collects radio waves from distant galaxies and converts the waves into electrical signals, which astronomers then analyze. The first one was developed by an engineer, Karl Jansky, with Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1932, and was able to receive short wave radio signals at a frequency of 20.5 MHz. From this radio telescope, he identified radio signals from three sources: nearby thunderstorms, distant thunderstorms, and what he eventually deduced was the Milky Way Galaxy (Radio Telescope, 2017). Since then, these radio telescopes have continued to increase in their size and sophistication. The largest one today (completed in 2016) is 500 meters in diameter with an area the size of 30 football fields, built into a hillside in China. They need to be pretty big because radio waves are extremely weak. “A cell phone signal is a billion billion times more powerful than the cosmic waves our telescopes detect” (What Are, 2017).
Modern mind emerged from Paleolithic mind. Where, when, and why is another story, and not easily told (Erhlich & Ehrlich, 2008; Kahn, 2011). But our minds today, in comparison to Paleolithic minds, have developed to be more creative, experimental, inquisitive, and driven toward novelty and innovation, and to have greater flexibility and more degrees of freedom. These qualities provide our modern minds with the potential to access Presence more directly and deeply, as modern radio telescopes provide access to radio signals that originate from farther and farther reaches of the universe.
That said, Modern mind faces certain limitations in accessing Ecological Presence. For one thing, in comparison to Paleolithic interactions with nature, we have nowhere near the depth of relation with nature and wild nature that helps engender Ecological Presence. For another, our modern minds are often engaged in endless churning of thought after thought after thought, as if thinking can save us from our thoughts, and can access Presence – if we just think harder or more – which it cannot.
I remember one mountaineering trip when I attempted a solo climb on the West Buttress of Denali. It is a popular route, but you can still die on it. On the lower part of the mountain, I pulled 60 pounds of gear in a sled up the glacier, while carrying another 60 pounds on my back. I felt like a pack mule on skis. While trudging upward, my head would be pointed mostly down. But whenever I rested and looked around, and if the weather was clear, I would begin to see the Alaska Mountain Range emerge, and then step by step fall beneath me.
At 11,000 feet, with crampons and ice ax on the now steeper terrain, I split the load, and did carries to establish myself at 14,000 feet. The hard work of carrying heavy loads to this point seemed to have had two effects on me. One was that the seemingly endless commotion of my mind eased up over the hours and days. Maybe that is because there was hardly any new social stimuli coming into my mind, and because the challenging environment required my attention in the moment. Another effect, likely because of the first, was that my psyche opened up to the mountain. I felt that I was a small part of it, with it, strong in body and mind and yet but a speck in that vast white landscape, humbled as one who lies in a remote forest meadow, and, before slumber, looks up at the endless stars overheard, a bounty of awe, galaxies beyond galaxies, who can fathom.
I waited out some storms at 14,000 feet, and then chose my day to head up a thousand-foot headwall onto the West Buttress, which comprises one of the classic lines on the mountain – a ridge line, sometimes only a few feet wide, ascending. It was an unusual day in that I had the route basically to myself. At one point I had intestinal troubles – I’m trying to find a polite way to say, diarrhea – but the terrain was too steep for me to do anything, so I continued upward like that, holding, holding, holding, and then finally I found a spot level enough, and then dove my ice-ax into the icy-snow, kicked out a little spot for my feet, unzipped my down pants and then after 30 seconds of intestinal expulsion I see that I have made a potentially enormous mistake, as my ice-ax is no longer tethered to my harness or wrist, but free standing in the icy-snow – I placed it there because I was desperate to get out of my clothes before I defecated in them – and the ice ax starting to come out, it’s starting to fall the 2,000 feet directly below, and I grab at it – I had only one shot for it – and somehow bring it back to me. It’s my lifesaver. I cannot believe I made that mistake.
I clip the ice ax back into my harness. I hold it to me. In other situations, such as in running a marathon, you can cross over the edge of your limit and live to learn from it. For example, if you go out too fast in a marathon, much faster than you had trained, you might cramp up in pain at mile 22 and have to drop out of the race. That is not so bad. You will get home that afternoon. But if you are solo on a big mountain and go past your limit, that is bad. There is no back-up. You will die up there; or die falling. And the thing with getting close to the edge of one’s limit is that there is no answer book that can tell you where exactly that edge is. I pulled my pants back up. I sipped a little tea that was still warm in my thermos. Then I was surprised to feel that my stomach was alright. I thought “Okay. Wow, I’m okay to keep heading up.” I regrouped. There are three potential points of contact when climbing like this: two feet with crampons, and an ice ax in hand. For safety, the technique in climbing is always to maintain two points of contact. I remind myself of that. Ice ax and crampon in the ice and the other foot steps up. Breathe. Move ice ax up. Step. Breathe. Step. Move ice ax up. Step. Breathe. Step. Move ice ax up. It had started happening earlier that day, but at this point I became aware of it directly. All of my consciousness was focused on the immediate demands of the moment even as all of my consciousness was becoming aware of another dimension of Presence that lay just behind this physical one. I was living two lives at once. I kept track of time. It mattered. But in another sense time did not move like it usually did. It felt stationary, like a vast ocean, as if my movement created the flow of time itself. At 17,200 feet, at a plateau on the ridge that formed the high camp on this route, I willed my legs past and upward but they would not respond. I have always believed that one’s body can do more than one’s mind says it can. But at that point, I knew that I was not going higher.
I rested in the snow. I needed to regroup again. I needed to draw on new strengths to get myself down. I remind myself that most accidents happen on the descent. Downward I go. I repeat a sort of mantra: “I’m strong. I’m paying attention. I’m strong. I’m paying attention.” I would like not to fall to my death. The clarity of Presence has now mostly left me. My mind has partly shut down. I’m not balancing well. Hours later I get to the top of the headwall. I drop off the ridgeline. The first five hundred feet of the headwall has a fixed line, and I am relieved when I clip into it, and more relieved later when I clip out, awkwardly jump over a bergschrund – a crevasse formed by the glacier separating from the ice on the headwall. I see my tent in the basin below. If I fell now, I could stop myself easily. I let myself look with satisfaction on the mountains and glaciers cascading below me. By 10:30 pm I’m only minutes from my tent. A member of another climbing group is outside his. He watches me approach. He asks if I am alright. I say, Yes! I am flooded with feelings of safety. He says that I was walking very slowly and weaving from side to side. He said it looked like I was drunk and double-checked that I was okay. I thought I had been walking this last part fast and steady. Perhaps I was a little closer to my edge than I had known.
For an experienced mountaineer, this is not usually a difficult route to summit. But that is a statement that compares one to another. What I find more interesting is how wild nature at whatever level of physical activity one can bring forward can bring one into Presence. When I am an old man, frail in body, I would like to be able to open my door and walk the 5 minutes outward away from the safety of my cabin, across a little stream, through a few feet of forest, to a meadow that looks out onto the mountains of my youth. Maybe I will need a cane. Maybe I will need a walker. Maybe I will look like a drunk weaving from side to side. But through it I hope to feel the Presence that is at the center of us all.
The way forward? I would like to suggest that we build on our Paleolithic mind, which is still, in some deep ways, a part of us. For that, we would do well to bring into our lives the three forms of human-nature interaction described above: daily physical exertion in a natural if not more wild landscape; dealing with natural challenges and occasionally somewhat threatening natural situations; and daily gentle restorative immersion in nature. We would do well to rewild the world and rewild ourselves (Kahn & Hasbach, 2013).
But is such rewilding really feasible with over 7.5 billion people on our planet, and with more than half of the word now living in urban areas? In some ways, yes, certainly incrementally (Hartig & Kahn, 2016). Indeed, I have been working in this area for some years as my colleagues and I seek to develop a design methodology – what I call Interaction Pattern Design – that provides the means to deepen and rewild not just nature, but the interactions that people have with nature (Kahn et al., 2018; Kahn, Ruckert, & Hasbach, 2012; Kahn, Ruckert, Severson, Reichert, & Fowler, 2010; Kahn & Weiss, 2017; Kahn, Weiss, & Harrington, 2018).
What is an interaction pattern? Think about a meaningful way that you have interacted with nature, and then characterize it in such a way that you could see the same thing happening with different forms of nature. That is an interaction pattern. For example, it is wonderful to walk along the edge of a lake or along a river. The pattern could be named as walking along the edges of water. Notice that this pattern, once named, can be enacted in countless different environments. Walking along the seashore or walking around a lake in the city. It can be enacted walking alongside a public fountain that is designed to allow for this form of interaction. Each enactment of an interaction pattern is different – and can embody attributes that are more urban or more wild – but each pattern shares this common feature that you can easily recognize the pattern whenever it occurs. Knowing this, every form of interaction can be made slightly more wild: and with the vision for rewilding, and the ways that it helps lead to Being and Presence, Interaction Pattern Design then becomes a practical and visionary way forward.
I remember some years ago attending a talk at my university by a Buddhist monk. He said that our outer environment is not so important; nor does it really matter what happens with our technological systems. What matters, he said, is where our consciousness is. Afterward I said to him that I understand it matters where our consciousness is, but given that we have physical form, and have biological affordances and constraints from our evolutionary history, doesn’t it merit our sincere efforts to shape our built environment and protect our natural environment to help foster more aware and present consciousness?
It is in this sense that Ecological Presence is a virtue. It is part of a theory not of what is right – as in right and wrong, which guides traditional analytical moral theorizing, often focusing on consequentialist and deontological arguments (Scheffler, 1988; Williams, 1985). Rather, Ecological Presence is aligned more with a theory of the Good, with roots to Aristotle and Nicomachean Ethics, but with Eastern tradition deepening it. Ecological Presence becomes a way of living. It is a way of being in the word. With past as prologue, nature helps us to recalibrate our modern minds by minimizing thinking when it is redundant or counterproductive, which it often is. When we live with Space in our consciousness, then when we think, our thoughts are more often of high caliber, and original. Compassion and love become not efforts but natural expressions. The human brain, through mind, has the capacity to integrate the form and the formless, and to perceive endlessly deep into an ontology of Presence, living within it, through it, as an elevation of life itself. We do that and we will redefine our species.
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