Mountains

Mountains held an important place in almost every ancient culture. If a society lived near any sort of alpine terrain, it was inevitably woven into the culture’s myths and legends. More often than not, it was seen as the realm of the gods. Perhaps the most recognizable example in Western culture is Mount Olympus as the home of the Ancient Greek pantheon. Mount Sinai, in all Abrahamic religions, is the place where some of the most important teachings of God were handed down. Mount Fuji in Japan is home to countless Shinto temples all long its base. Mount Kailash and Mount Meru both play an important part in many Hindu myths. Native peoples such as the Taranki in New Zealand, the Incas in Peru, and the Wintu in California centered their religious life in nearby mountains.

It’s plain to see why so many cultures were inspired by the grandeur of mountains. Their peaks represent a place beyond humanity. Mountains impose their immense figure on the surrounding landscape for leagues in every direction. It is hard to look at a far-off mountain and not get a sense of power. The mountain seemingly leep up to the stars and clouds. Its rocky peak is the only thing to break up the monotony of a clear, azure sky. Mountains were as distant and insurmountable to the ancients as the heavens above. The gods were seen as a bridge between the human and the divine forces. It’s only fitting that they would call the mountains their home.

Human settlement has never touched the highest peaks. It is simply impractical to sustain civilization at great altitudes. All of the necessary ingredients for a society such as agriculture, commerce, and architecture are made difficult. Because of this, most ancient cultures were uninterested in conquering them. Life at the lower elevations was difficult enough. The activity of mountaineering for pure pleasure is a thoroughly modern pursuit.

A good candidate for the first mountaineer is Petrarch, a 14th-century scholar and poet. He completed an ascent of Mont Ventoux in southern France in the spring of 1336. He described the entire event in a letter to a friend, which has made it into the general body of his work. Being an unknown activity at that time, he goes to great lengths to justify his desire to climb. He describe to his friend how he was inspired after reading a text by Livy. It told of a general who desired to survey the terrain an upcoming assault with his army. Only the highest vantage point would satisfy the general, so he climbed a nearby mountain. Petrarch thought this sort of act was singular to the heroic nature of the ancients. To better understand this ethos, he too would climb a mountain.

He spends the remainder of the letter describing his ascent of Mont Ventoux. On his way up, his thoughts wandered to his every day life. He became pensive in a way that he had never been before about such things as the woman he loved, the books he was reading, and the direction of his life. Upon reaching the peak, he was struck by the new appearance his surroundings took on. He able to see across great expanses into France, including the path of the river Rhône and the neighboring Cévennes range of mountains. He stood on the peak for quite while, contemplating the beauty of nature and why men are almost universally moved it. On his descent, he grew silent and melancholic, bemoaning the insignificance of men’s actions on the larger world.

As with Petrarch’s climb hundreds of years ago, mountaineering today gives an immensely personal experience. One cannot simply see a photo from the heights and be inspired in the same way a climber can. Mountain climbing is a inherently heroic accomplishment. It is only through struggle that the activity gains meaning. No one but climber can bring himself to the top of a mountain. It must be conquered through perseverance, an active application of strength, and the endurance of one’s own will. It is not an accomplishment that can be attained through patience, prudence, and passivity. The climber can turn around at any point on the ascent. The path downward will always be easier than pushing forward.

There is a rare kind of purity and simplicity in mountaineering not found in other sports. It does not require any special equipment except in the harshest of conditions. It offers as much or as little challenge as one desires and at any pace the hiker sees fit. The easiest hike can be a peaceful stroll while the most dangerous peaks kill thousands every year. Mountain climbing reflects in life in this sense. More satisfaction is derived from a hard accomplishment than an easy one. By their very nature, mountains bring out the will to excel and push oneself to greater heights. The ever present peak is in the distance throughout the entire journey. The climber has a constant reminder of what he is struggling for.

Once the climber approaches the zenith of the mountain, he is greeted by an intense and inhospitable environment. The very air itself is hard to breath. Shelter from sun is non-existent. He might be lucky to find a boulder large enough that can protect him from unhindered gusts of wind. No water, plants or animals can exist here. Only the everlasting snow and glaciers break up the monotony of the stark landscape.

The world below has changed as well. The climber is free to peer over the precipice on the opposite side of the peak and see an entire world once obscured to him. Even the largest of trees are now only part of an indistinct sea of green. It carpets the slopes below as far as the eye can see. The contours of the valleys hills are now plainly visible. Cities and towns are no longer made up of homes, stores, and offices but rather a sprawling mass of concrete, brick, and asphalt.

Beside the climber are the other peaks of the range. Their silent majesty appears even clear now that he is on equal footing with them. Each of them in turn, beckons him to ascend once more. They might provide a tougher journey, filled with wider horizons, freer skies, and clearer air.

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The return of nothing

“From desire I rush to satisfaction, but from satisfaction I leap to desire.”
–Goethe

Go outside right now. Wander off your concrete porch and go find that patch of ugly part of your yard where nothing grows. Reach down and stick your fingers into the barren earth. Pick up a dry clump of dirt. Hold it in your palm and look at it closely. Squeeze your hand tightly and crush it. Feel the filth compact and break into a million little pieces.

You’ll get an urge to wipe your hand clean on your pants. When you wipe away the dust, you’ll be getting rid of millions of life forms from you. Among them are thousands of small worms known as nematodes. Even the most doubtful can get a powerful enough microscope and see them.

To think nematodes have a purpose just doesn’t make sense. They sit in a larval state for the majority of their life. They emerge in a single day. They mate with other worms. Afterwards, they quickly die. This cycle has been that has been perpetuated throughout aeons, billions upon billions of years. An innumerable amount of these minuscule worms have lived and died without any record of their existence.

Their life doesn’t add up to anything but more worms. No one judges them. Nematodes don’t dream. They don’t love or hate. There is no afterlife for them. They appear to be only an slightly interesting, self-sustaining chemical reaction. Eat, survive, reproduce, and repeat. Give them the right environment and they multiply. Pour liquid nitrogen on them and they all die.

Humans are different in only superficial manners. We like to think we have a purpose. We might want that new job that will give us more money for doing less. We might want that new house that is bigger and better than our cramped apartment. We might want to go on a date with that girl you’re always hitting on at the bar. We all want to prove we are worthwhile.

The truth is, these all come from the same place. They all come from the will to persist. This is plainly evident in single celled organisms because they are so simple. We are often so caught up in our own little lives that we fail to see the same behavior in ourselves.

Look into your own desires. Examine what brings you satisfaction. Is any of it lasting? We all are born and we all die.  We are all given desires to want.  We all have dreams to chase.  Surely, they must serve some purpose. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be there.

Ancestral sanctum

And what could be more divine than this, or more desired by a man of sound mind, than to beget by a noble and honored wife children who shall be the most loyal supporters and discreet guardians of their parents in old age, and the preservers of the whole house?
–Aristotle, Oikonomikos

The more time one spends in nature, the more clearly one sees the role of mankind.  Reflection requires a reference point to be meaningful.  It is impossible to compare and contrast something without having anything to compare it to.  Modern thought often presents man as outside of nature. As a consequence, it stifles understanding about mankind’s place in the environment and the world at large.

One of the most striking differences between man and beast is how their young are treated.  Some of the strategies animals use appear altruistic.  Fish like the Chinook salmon go to great lengths to spawn, only to die long before their children are ever born.  Many species of insects will lay hundreds of eggs and wait. The mother will offer her body for sustenance as soon as the larva hatch.

Other strategies appear cruel and selfish.  When a new alpha male takes over a pride of lions, one of the first things he does is to kill any of the still nursing cubs fathered by the old patriarch.  Sand tiger sharks gestate many of their offspring in the same embryo.  As each of the young sharks develop, they kill and eat each other to ensure only the strongest makes it out into the open sea.

On the surface, all of these behaviors seem wildly different. In truth, they are far more similar than most recognize.  They all exist to ensure the survival of the species.  Each strategy for producing fit offspring is dictated by the habitat and niche the species has adapted to.  If the offspring are born into hostile environments, they must be strong when they emerge into it.

Human offspring are born into a world with its own unique set of perils.  By the time the child grows up, he must develop a wide range of abilities to cope with the complex world he is born into.  If he does not, he will not be successful.  Raising a human child is an intense and difficult process for this reason.

Humans mature slowly at almost every stage of their life.  From the moment of conception. a single child brings with him a great deal of effort.  Gestation takes the greater part of a year and takes a heavy toll on the mother.  Her body undergoes a great deal of physiological changes in order to support the offspring. For most of the pregnancy, she is incapacitated from doing many activities she would normally be able to do as part of her daily life.

Once the child is born, it still requires a great deal of attention and support during the first few years of his life.  Many mammals, when separated from their mothers at a young age, are able to survive on their own.  Most humans, even in the most primitive settings, would be unable to do so until they are well into their adolescence.  People are simply not equipped with the instinctive knowledge other animals have.  Humans can only counteract this with many years of development.

Our ancestors came up with many strategies to deal with these biological shortcomings.  The most prevalent and successful is the creation of the nuclear family.  The concept of a family reaches beyond culture and time.  Since the dawn of man, they have been a constant source of support, cooperation, and survival.  The family is there for a person over the span of his entire life.  They are a basic building block in human survival and happiness.

In ancient and feudal societies, the family was central to the way of life.  It provided much of the safety net that modern governments provide today.  It provided a stable environment for both men and women to contribute raising offspring.  If one became injured and unable to work, his family would care for him until he became well.   When old age came, a man could depend on his family to provide for him when he became too feeble to do so himself.

Customs in these societies dictated when and how family members would share resources and cooperate.  Cultures adapted to the general circumstances that their environment put upon them. Many families in these societies had a strict structure.  Each member was delegated with an important role.  Everyone had to perform that role in order for the system as a whole to work.

Concepts such as paying dowry when a daughter was married, all inheritance passing to the eldest son, and marriage without the possibility of divorce seem strange and foreign to modern people.  The common criticism is that they unnecessarily limited freedom and encouraged inequality. This was not the case to the people who used them. To the societies that created them, they served an important role in daily life.

Modernity is a stranger to theses customs because it no longer needs them. Technological advancements allow these old customs to be replaced.  Family in the western world has grown increasingly weaker since the enlightenment.  Many of these archaic cultural practices have disappeared completely.  Children no longer need to stay close to home to help with the harvest.  They need to move to a big city, where all of the jobs are.  Women are no longer needed to raise children.  They can put all of their offspring into daycares while they are improving their careers.  The elderly no longer need to be taken care of.  They can now be monitored at all hours of the day in retirement homes.

With each passing year, the family has become less important to human existence. Modernity has a propensity to sunder ties of kinship.  It is not hard to imagine a future where they are no longer necessary.  When that day comes, living with a traditional family will be a disadvantage.  It will burden anyone who dares to use it with unnecessary restrictions.  Taking a year off of their job to care of their sick father would be nothing more than a hassle.  He would loose invaluable job experience that would hurt his career.

In many aspects, modernity has declared war on the family.  Ultra-modernist political systems call for a utopian society where everyone is treated equally.  The very concept of family subverts this sort of society.  When a fire breaks out, a mother will always choose to save her own child over anyone else.

There are certain things that a family provides that modernity will never be able to replace.  No matter how productive someone is without a family, he has lost an immeasurable source of human identity.  The closer two people are related, the more likely that they will come to each others aid.   Humanity, since its inception, has always gained a great sense of happiness and purpose from family.  Without families, we can never be a son, daughter, father, mother, sister, or brother to someone else.

These relationships mean something more than pure, raw survival.  The roots of these relationships grow deep within our genetic make up.  We have inherited them from our ancestors.  To have a family is part of what it means to be a person.  Until we stop being human, family will always be central to our lives.

The value of wilderness

It would seem that nature has been rendered useless for quite sometime now. As a species, we’ve grown up. We no longer need to forage for our food, we can just pick it up a the store on the street corner. We no longer need to find a cave for shelter, we can just rent an apartment with a great view of the city. We no longer need to protect ourselves from predators or competition, wildlife simply does not exist in our cities.

Nature has been reduced to nothing more than a vestigial organ for society. It had a purpose at one point in our evolution.  It was hard and cruel but it still sustained our species.  However, this wilderness is no longer vital for our survival. Why spend all of this money and effort into saving species so weak that they are about to become extinct?  Why do our countries create all of these forest preserves when that land can be cleared to give us cheaper real estate price?

This makes sense for a world that is only concerned with its own growth. With this  narrow mindset, nature can only be a hindrance. We see this philosophy in action each time a society values its own vainglorious desire for power over all else. Whether it be modern China, medieval Iceland, or colonial America, the end result is the same. It always brings about the total destruction of its wilderness. If its purpose lies in more and more humans, the land is doomed.

Suppose your nation valued something different. What if it valued not the quantity of its people but their quality? Those untamed and wild areas suddenly have new meaning.

They become places where you can go to escape those epicenters of human production we call cities. They become places where you can feel your body become pure as you breathe air unpolluted by smog. They become places where you can get lost among the stars in the night sky instead of the orange glowing haze of city lights. They become places where you are are something more than a cog in the machine of human progress. You are your own person in wilderness.  You are free.

When you go into wilderness, you see a world outside of modernity. It is a true alternative.  It is a land both ancient and ageless. It is a land not affected with the multitude of petty issues people create for themselves.  It’s cold, hard reality without any frills or unnecessary parts.

If you want your own society to be simpler, more effective, and more profound, immerse yourself in nature.  It’s an endless source of inspiration for a society that works.

Dogs and the ancient in man

The winter has been particularly harsh this season.  Grime encrusted snow lines the streets.  I’m sure part of snow pack is still from the first that snow fell over four months ago in November.  It has rarely gotten above freezing since then.  Piss soaked patches of yellowish-brown ice sporadically dot the snow pack from the beginning to the end of the block.

I live in a large city.  The only time I  interact with dogs is on the sidewalk when I am going somewhere.  Usually, the dog is relieving itself and the owner is impatiently waiting for it to finish.  You can’t help but feel sad for both involved in this interaction.

What drives these urban apartment dwellers to possess an animal that consumes much of their free time and spare money?  Is it some desire to connect with wildlife?  Some desire to make any connection whatsoever?  For whatever reason, it is painful obvious that the animal isn’t getting a good deal.

A dog in their natural state is able to roam free.  It is able to explore the wilderness.  Leaving a dog in an apartment for twenty hours a day is pure cruelty.  When you limit a dog to only a few walks a day around city blocks, you are depriving it of its nature.  It is no wonder these animals are pathetic to look upon.

To understand a dog’s natural environment, one must understand where they come from.  Dogs are wolves domesticated by humans in the paleolithic era.  A symbiotic bond was formed between humans and wolves.  They might be the first animals that humans domesticated.  Shortly after their domestication, dogs became ubiquitous across all human cultures in the world.

They were popular domesticated animals because they served a purpose.  They helped the paleolithic man in the hunt. Because of this role, they share a unique role in relation to man.  They are the closest connection man has to the animal kind.

When I see a modern city dweller pine to have a dog, I see a yearning to return to a time when they had a connection to the past.  I see a yearning to return to the hunt.  Like most modern attempts to reconcile their past and heritage with their current situation, it only turns out as a cruel mockery.  We see dogs bred into pathetic and misshapen forms.  We see humans forced to heed to every beck and call from their animals.

Anything deprived of their usefulness is something without a purpose.  Unfortunately, most dogs today can be characterized by their uselessness.  Only in their proper environment, can both man and dog survive as they were intended to.  Anything outside of that is foolish and ultimately pathetic.