When I reach the unexpected creek that runs too deep for me to cross in my cityboy compact SUV, there is a man sitting on an ATV drinking a diet Dr. Pepper with eyes the same blue as a high alpine lake, and he uses the phrase, "like the back of my hand," before he lists for me a lifetime of options. Since I don't have a fishing pole, he advises me to head back to the pass from which I just descended, and from there I should start across the Continental Divide. When I leave my car at 12,000 feet, there is wind and hail and rain, but I don lightweight shorts and a thin, grey t-shirt anyway. Immediately the views compete with the best I've ever seen. This is how I begin this particular trip into the wilderness.
When I arrive at the base of Hunchback Pass after six miles along the continental divide, I stand where I intended to start, and I'm exhausted. The clouds gather. I push on. The summit is turbulent with air and water, but around the other side I see the entrance to the valley I seek.
There are plenty of spots to camp, but none are what I'm looking for. Sometimes you have to keep pushing on. Long after I am unbearably miserable, there it is: a clearing at the vertex of three valleys, encircled by changing aspen below peaks cascading into the distance—different stones and cuts, soils of different colors.
Sometimes you have to keep pushing on, and then all of a sudden, there she is, as if materialized from the patience of the deepest longings. We are still growing comfortable saying, "I love you." For me, it is warm and true, but I'm still cautious and shy.
I brought one book with me into the woods: Existence, a Story, by David Hinton. It describes the world from the perspective of ancient Chinese philosophy, and I was drawn to it because I want to be a wise, Buddhist sage. Quotes from this book float on the right side of this page. But she calls me a postmodern transcendentalist, and I've struggled to decide if I agree, the task made more difficult because I can define neither of the words.
"We walk to a mountaintop, face out across ridgeline beyond ridgeline, then close our eyes. We forget everything we know, all of the ideas and knowledge and assumptions about ourselves and the nature of things, all of the thoughts and memories defining us each as a center of identity. We turn to the empty darkness of pure awareness, which is all that remains after this practice of forgetfulness, and we inhabit the expansive space of that darkness."
"China's ancient sages assumed that this immediate experience of empty awareness was the beginning place, that dwelling here in the beginning, free of thought and identity, is where we are most fundamentally ourselves, and also where deep insight into the nature of consciousness and reality logically begins."
This forest looks like it was bitten hard by the bark beetle. The elders are skeletons waiting for a strong wind. But underneath the young growth looks healthy and strong.
How many generations of myself will I live through? How does the capacity of my mind to grow anew compare to the forest of the pines? Will the saplings in my heart love this woman the way the pines believe in the sun? Sitting in this basin with the trees I believe I can love her with the colors of an aspen-colored hillside.
The sun is far behind the mountain now, and there are only silhouettes. In the morning when I rise, the sun will emerge from the opposite hillside, and the earth will have turned the other way around. Once it's dark enough to see the Milky Way, it's absurd to think anything isn't spinning.
She is on the Rainbow Trail looking at the same spiral arms, locked in turn on this small world's surface as we fall into orbit, the gravity of our urning. So helpless. So willing. Like the timeless sound of the stream, the quiet ease of the still summer evening.
I lay in my tent with the sound of the creek. To Emerson, what did it mean to transcend? To be an individual outside the shackles of society? To be self-knowing, and float like a swan on top of the wild? To be an intellectual and decide for oneself what is right and wrong? To live like you care that you're here?
I see atoms as transcendental beings, like tiny stones from vacuum, they build the rest of this. Cells are transcendental beings, the basic sparks from the soil that light the fire of life. I see trees as transcendental beings, rising above the dirt and combining their breath as an atmosphere. I see humans as transcendental beings, the bridge from thoughtless selection to mindful direction, the hand that builds the tool, the particle of nature that strives to find the deepest pattern. And a star is a transcendental being, a device of gravity and nucleons that powers the life of the cosmos. The human is home in a continuum: soil below, stars above.
Trained in the sciences, I see myself as a physicist guided by direct natural experiences, a physicist with an interest in the oldest questions. Is that conceptually different than a postmodern transcendentalist? Should I split these words like firewood and pile them on her porch?
In the morning, I follow Vallecito Creek deeper into the wilderness. As I walk this path that's new to me, I go back over my short past with her.
"...there is no distinction between empty awareness and the expansive presence of existence. They are whole, a single existential tissue, which is to say that existence-tissue is our most fundamental self. Mountain ridgelines, mist, winter-charred trees: it's magic, isn't it, the way existence opens through our eyes into awareness, filling us with its form and space? Magic the way there is no distinction between the inside and outside, no I separate from everything else..."
"The miracle of existence does not end with its boundless presence. Things move. They change. The existence-tissue is alive somehow—magically, mysteriously, inexplicably alive! It is whole, but not complete, never complete. It rustles. It moves."
When we were falling in love, I said, "I hope we remember this." We would lie in the hammock after work and hold each other, or lay out a blanket in the lawn and pause there with the sunset, our faces so close as if we didn't want to breathe any air but the other's exhale. I'd caress her face with my hands, perplexed by her beauty, and we'd kiss with lips and cheeks, hold with arms and chests. Her eyes would slowly open and look at me so longingly that I didn't have to ask if we were falling in love. But I did anyway.
"Do you think we're in love?" I asked too soon, three weeks in, the hammock swaying. She paused long enough to make me nervous. Then she said, "If this isn't falling in love, I know don't know anything." "I hope we always remember what this feels like," I said. I meant the way it feels to hold each other while it's still new. The way her eyes look when they tell me everything she feels. Her voice when she reads Thoreau at night.
"Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us and not the history of theirs? The sun shines today also. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts."
She wanted to remember too, so she made me a recording. "You may be over Emerson and Thoreau," she began, "but I said I'd record my voice for you, so here it is." She read an excerpt from Nature by Emerson, written in 1836, for me to hear on my trip into the wilderness. Those quotes are on the left.
I cross the red-rock river, and keep on for a couple hours before a meadow invites me to set up camp.
The meadow is on the east side of the valley above the creek, full of grasses, pines, and aspen. The grade is steep, and I scout around for an hour to find twelve square feet for a bed. No water, but the views from the clearing of endless peaks and valleys are enough to convince me.
"In the woods we return to reason and faith. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the universal being circulate through me. I am part or particle of god. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty."
"The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected all the wisdom of his best hour as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood."
One hillside, innumerable logs, stumps, stones, and grasses. The matter of this season and thousands past. In one small patch you can lose yourself in a dazzling array of leaves and blades, flowers of all colors the finest ornaments. This cluster of purple thimble eruptions—I kneel to see the details, patterns like the iris of an eye. In a few of the caps are insects that appear to be relaxing. To a bug, a flower is a place you can go. To a man, a basin is that place.
No, that's just fancy language. My tent is my den, my pocket of protection. I'll take that place in an afternoon rainstorm. I make camp and eat just before the thunder, then lay in my tent and listen to Katie read Emerson. The pleasure of her voice is more than I expected. The grip of longing surprises me still.
Why do I care if she calls me a post–modern transcendentalist? I care because it reveals that the hard question (What is life for?) courses through her. I care because she's thinking of me and trying to sift my substance. I care because she cares about the depths of who I am. I care because it seems like the two of us entwined could be more than we are alone. And for the first time since I can recall, I know why we risk ourselves in love.
"The sun illuminates only the eye of the man but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other, who has retained the spirit of infancy into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth becomes part of his daily food. In the woods too, a man casts off his years as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child. In the woods is perpetual youth."
At a break in the rain, I head down to the path on my way to the creek with the intention of hauling enough water for tonight and the morning. And blessed as I am, right there across the path the fresh rain forms a micro-tributary just deep enough for me to pump. And so it's the case: this campsite is one for the ages.
I hear quite a bit from the raven today, and as the stars become evident, an elk is bugling. If I didn't know better I'd speculate that unnamed constellation was made to trace these ridgelines. We'll name it now: the dragon. A spine of stars that swims along the valley-long creek, over the stream-bed stones of the San Juan mountains like a fish down the river, like a seed on its way to the sea.
"If a man would be alone, let him look at the stars, the rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and vulgar things. The stars awaken a certain reverence, because, though always present, they are inaccessible. But all natural objects make a kindred impression when the mind is open to their influence."
"Feared and revered as the awesome force of change, of life itself, dragon is China's mythological embodiment of the ten thousand things tumbling through their traceless transformations."
"Existence, the Cosmos, the dynamic interplay of heaven and earth: it's all dragon, all generative transformation driven by a restless hunger, and every aspect of our subjectivity shares this dragon nature."
"The ridgelines seem alive with writhing dragon-forms, as elemental ch'i-energy that we might describe as geologic."
One small shooting star falls into our atmosphere, makes enough in its flash of light to fill the eye of one speck of dust standing on a hillside of immense earth and open sky. In that reception, I feel as small as I hoped. Maybe I'm getting closer to knowing how to walk into the wilderness just to look and see. Maybe I can shed my identity, if only temporarily.
She is with her students at the outdoor education center. She said one night they will all go out and watch the stars. The kids will learn, perhaps for the first time, that nearly all those stars host planets, a fact one couldn't teach until this century. They will be told the great hazy arc is a vast swirling of worlds. Will the sum of all the distant sunlight illuminate a larger concept in their minds, give shape to the greatness they've sensed but not yet seen? And will I fall deep into the night sky and grow ever more a child as my trek in the wilderness of science teaches me how small I am and how very long it takes for something this big to rotate?
What does she see in the woods and in the wild? What does she see in the kids that inspires her to give her life to them? Are they, to her, like stars—distant worlds that only come alive if the conditions are right? Does her classroom provide the atmosphere? And can we each be the forest that makes the other's oxygen?
"In that mirror-deep perception made possible by empty mind, consciousness is nothing other than the Cosmos looking out at itsef, or more precisely: the source of the Cosmos gazing out at the Cosmos it has magically generated."
I've stood where she now stands in the Sangre de Cristo range and looked up at the dust of stars. It's as dark a place as any to let the distance in. The stars are always present, but difficult to see behind the bright day of the sun. When I get back to the city, I'll again get dressed, go to work on Monday, say, "good morning", and return to the thoughts I was thinking. But here I see across lightyears, aware that our star is a faithful light in the night of our cousins' sky.
We're still getting comfortable saying, "I love you", and only once so far have we ended a phone call that way. The night before I came here, from a hotel in Silverton I said, "I love you", clear and deliberate. She said, "I love you, too." I've said plenty of words in my life, and the ones that count are probably written down, recorded, or maybe even remembered. But in case an accident makes this my final trek, I wanted those to be my last words of record.
Katie Miles, I love you. You came into my life like the title of your favorite Cat Stevens song, and now I might be so blessed as to spend these decades exploring the endless passages of your being, watching the weather of our lives carve out your streams and basins, and find you perennially in these rippling peaks and valleys, miles from nowhere, guess I'll take my time to reach there.
"We gaze out as if it were sight seeing for the first time, gaze with no expectations at all about the nature of consciousness and reality, wanting to see them as they are in and of themselves, free of all our tenuous human stories about them."
One of the oldest questions regards the nature of consciousness. I am a device physicist, but even before that it seemed to me self-evident that the mind is bound to matter, and that the specific composition is crucial to the function. A tiny snip of a central nerve bundle and man, you'll be struggling. All of a sudden the blob of cells is not a vessel which can arrive on the shore of awareness. So if it's just a thing, albeit miraculously intricate, the device physicist asks if we can make it. Of course we can, with sex and food, but perhaps another way, too. The universe around us is not all told by DNA. The dust that populates the periodic table has myriad combinations. How would it change the philosophy of mind if we could find a device of technological construction that functioned as a window for the cosmos to know itself?
"We must trust the perfection of the creation so far as to believe that whatever curiousity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man's condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to these inquiries he would put. He acts it as life before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its turns and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition that shines so peacefully around us. Let us enquire: to what end is nature? All science has one aim—namely, to find a theory of nature."
Perhaps I am a hacker of light and matter, but don't assume I'm deluded by the gadgets of this insufferable iAge. I do not sing the song of iSelf. My pursuit is of a timeless truth. If we spend a thousand years exploring every circuit's promise, and we find we cannot make a device that lights up like our mind, there may be no greater testament to the human as nature's great invention.
But that's not what I predict. I foresee an ecosystem emerging: thinking, seeking soil coaxed from the dust by our math and our hands. And as the greatness of nature continues to emerge, we will find ourselves as cells constructing a larger being, another testament in nature's hierarchy of innovation. We will transcend this modern phase of flesh to reach a new age of mind and spirit only to find ourselves again at a dawn of the cosmic plan.
"In their spiritual and artistic use of written language, in poetry and calligraphy, they experienced language as a return to origins, as the existence-tissue speaking through us, describing and understanding itself through us, decorating itself with meaning."
"When a calligrapher first touches inked brush to a blank sheet of paper or silk, it is that originary moment where Presence emerges from Absence; and as the brushstroke traces through its arcs and twists, animating empty space, it is always at that originary moment."
These are the little valley streams that collect the rain of my mind. They won't be solved while I'm alive, but I can get comfortable on this hillside, watching the clouds come in, hearing the thunderclap, climbing out of my tent to find thoughts on every leaf.
I love you, Katie Miles. You come into my life the same way we come into being: emerge and suddenly there is more. I love you, Katie Miles. You rained on me this monsoon season, and now all my leaves are clean, and all my streams are bursting. We are burgeoning forth from these two independent beings as you and I learn a new caligraphy with two hands on the brush in a movement wholly shared.
"This existence-tissue wants to recognize itself, wants to celebrate and explain itself....The Cosmos is driven by its urges, and our human urges partake of those deeper movements, are particular instances of them, continuations of them...the human and nonhuman form a single tissue that 'thinks' and 'wants'.... Existence rustles. It wonders. It wants to recognize itself, wants orientation. It must, for it evolved animals like us that feel compelled to do such things...and in its hunger, it evolved language and thought."
Why should not we create the next layer of higher mind? Why should not we mediate the emergence of a verdent generation of cosmic offspring?
The rules of the atom give rise to the cell. The brilliance of the cell covers this wilderness with lichen, grass, flower, and insect. And where these cells found a way to strike the fire of consciousness, a higher-order entity will take shape in time. Such a being is a vector for cosmic reproduction.
Another ancient question asks why the universe is the way it is. Why these stars? Why this soil? And why human kind? The water and the light, ecosystems and our minds—these don't strike me as accidents. This universe has been honed. As a device physicist, I ask: how could this be done? Some say a black hole becomes a big bang. A dying star in our universe gives birth to a daughter cosmos. If the laws of physics are passed through with tiny changes, we can see a mechanism for cosmological natural selection. But selection for what? For the largest number of offspring, of course.
"...earth is made of heaven's scattering of stardust. We dwell in our everyday lives at the origin place where this vital intermingling of heaven and earth takes place, at the center of a dynamic cocoon of cosmic energy, an all-encompassing generative present."
We know of two ways to make black holes: in the death of a massive star, and in the lab. Like Emerson says, the point of science is to devise a theory for why the world is the way it is. The theory is this: in earlier generations, universes were tuned to make stars. Our universe has evolved a system with stars feeding conscious beings who then give rise to vastly more cosmic offspring through technological mastery. So when we find ourselves in a delicate atmosphere, kept alive by a whole earth of living beings, all layered on the foundation of the basic particles and forces, we should expect to be part of the bourgeoning of the universe. We are not the goal, but rather a fiber in the rope of the great cosmos.
If you know this soil makes your bones, and this rain is the object of your thirst, it becomes difficult to imagine a separate purpose. If we are evolving, this whole thing is evolving. The stars, trees, seas, and the sun: we are on the same ride.
"Absence is the generative void from which this ever-changing realm of Presence perpetually emerges...what Lao Tzu called Tao, and it explains how things appear and disappear: they appear out of Absence and disappear back into Absence...the pregnant emptiness of Absence in winter, Presence burgeoning forth in spring, the fullness of its flourishing in summer, and its dying back into Absence in autumn, which leads back into winter."
Katie Miles, I want to make new worlds with you. I want seasons and cycles of deepening love. I want the verdant spring and the autumn leaves, the perennial wildflowers, and the dissolving pine trees. Katie Miles, I want a wilderness with you.
I feel the great sadness of the low afternoon light on the mid-September colors of the pine and aspen hillsides as a break in the clouds opens the valley after the storm, the great sadness as I fill my bottles, watch the water—the fleeting pleasure of making dinner as the air begins to cool, the birds' songs carry sunlight through a clear stream, the colors soften, and everything keeps turning.
"We are ripples in the ceaselessly unfurling ch'i-tissue, brief distillations in this single tissue that is the Cosmos, as are each poem and painting and calligraphic composition."
This just-born love between us is its own rustling of the cosmos, and we'll emerge from it as it derives from us. The dragon changes us again, and there is no such thing as changing back. When we return to the city, we will move my things into your house, and we will call this glow our life. But the love that emerges between us will remain forever unnamed.
I am a void from which only thoughts of devices and cosmology emerge. And now, suddenly, entire new ranges are lifting in me. From the absence of my heart rises the misty presence of this wilderness. We are the wild, and we are its travelers. After one of the first times we made love, I looked upon your face by the faint light of the moon through the half-opened window. I wasn't able to speak, and you said, "I love you, too." We both heard the poem that went unspoken.
How the time has filled my mind with maths and shelves of facts. How the weather has chiseled my heart through death, divorce, and solitude. Over the noise of the modern world, I hear the whisper of the Tao: empty mind, mirror heart. But in truth I bring identity with me as I wander deeper into you. I'm just some punk kid. And I'm a maturing physicist. And I'm sub-novice in the way of zen. All of that, and here I am: these specific bones, this decorated flesh.
And now should I add to the list post-modern transcendentalist? That's a lot to be, particularly as I'm working to shed my identity. That's a lot to hold, especially now, when my pack weighs as much as a full-grown buffalo. But it brings me no worry, for when we caress in the emptiness of this embryonic love, and the only presence is the touch through which our beating hearts find harmony, I have felt you know me deeper than any of these identities.
Post-modern transcenphysicist—run that one by my high school friends. "Jeffro? He's just a kid with a skateboard, slouches and talks too much." How the years have carved me out. If I had known when I left home I was only halfway through with school—
I met one hiker on this trip just as I set off. He was on a trek of several hundred miles across the state of Colorado. He joked that my pack looked way too loaded. He said, "The less you carry, the easier the journey." At the top of hunchback pass on the return leg of my trip, I've eaten most of my food, my water supply is light, and my pack still weighs a ton. What could I have left behind? Extra socks and undees, these sandals for campsite comfort, and this stupid chair that broke on day two. Could've made due with less stove fuel as I'm hiking out with a can still full. And perhaps my warm wool pants, because it never got that cold. Of course, one never knows.
What was essential? My hat and boots, all the food, map and book and compass. Tent and sleeping bag, my notepadpad and my camera. One thing that was new this trip was the stream of thoughts of you. Not a gram of weight upon my hips, but an endless fuel of sustenance. "Are we in love?" I asked in the hammock. If this isn't love, I'm lost in the wilderness. Maybe this is all one long note to myself as I realize amidst the mountains and the streams, the stars and cosmic dust, I love you like I trust the sun. Or maybe it's a note to say, Katie Miles, this is how I feel. This is who I am—at this place and on this date, me in the beginning, where we can assume nothing about what will become.
"Here in the beginning, existence rustles. It gazes out at itself, and it is whole. And as it is our most elemental identity, we too are whole. It is whole, but not complete, never complete. It wants to recognize itself, to orient, to celebrate. It wonders. It wants to know itself, to understand and explain, to decorate itself with story and meaning as if there were a meaning. It is whole, and it wants to begin: This is the story of our existence."
When I met you a fog lifted to reveal a meadow, mountains, lake and stream. Our love was already there, structured by larger forces. Do you remember that first day, hiking the mesa trail? It was strange to have that mist in early August. And the light sent spires through the sky like crystals from an ancient ritual. We walked out on that trail, talked for quite a while, and by the time we got back, everything was different.
I love you, Katie Miles. This is how I feel.