On the last day of the 58th year of my life I left the house in Villaz to go find a good place to meditate. I had in mind a wide moraine landscape up at 2600 meters at the foot of the Haut Glacier D’Arolla, and specifically a spot I had been to a few weeks previously where some startling vegetation, bright purples and yellows, sprouted psychedelically out of the scree. I left the house at 6:50 to walk down to Les Haudères, from where I would take the postbus to Arolla, a tiny, year-round village at 2000 meters’ altitude. I had thrown my crampons and warm clothing into my bag, not planning to use them, but just in case.
Halfway down to Les Haudères I saw something on the path about 50 meters in front of me, something that I couldn’t place. It wasn’t a stump, though it sat very still; it was indeed, I realized, an animal. It was clearly not a chamois, though, or a deer; it was somehow like a fox, but there was something very un-fox-like about it. It was far too large. And it was sitting in a very un-fox-like way.
I took three photos, then quietly moved forward. For some time the animal didn’t see me—then, suddenly, it became aware of me and darted off, in the manner of a wild animal and certainly not a domestic dog.
I had been hoping to see a wolf ever since I came to live in Val d’Hérens. There is a pack of wolves settled between here and the neighboring Val d’Anniviers; my nearest neighbor lost a number of sheep in 2015. I sent the photo, which was too pixellated to see the animal clearly, to a friend who is a wildlife biologist. Though the animal’s outlines weren’t clear, its size and sitting position were easily discernible. Guido told me that, as I had suspected, I had finally seen a Swiss wolf.
There are about forty wild wolves in Switzerland, with four packs established—one in Ticino, one in Graubünden, and two in Valais. They face off against some 8 million people, and are thus outnumbered 200,000:1. Many farmers hate them, and occasionally one is found illegally shot. Shoot, shovel, and shut up, wrote one reader to the magazine Schweizer Bauer.
I, on the other hand, felt very happy to have been given this glimpse.
I took the bus to Arolla and, on a whim, decided not to go to the moraine with the flowers, but to explore something new. I was still merely looking for a place to meditate. I headed up from the village toward the Glacier de Pièce. About an hour into my brisk walk I ran into a group of hunters, who were out looking for ibex to cull according to state plan. The rifle strapped onto one of the backpacks had a black shiny barrel, and the men wore flannel shirts rather than the shiny wicking ones worn by hikers. A few minutes later I came across a group of the shiny-shirted variety: five Koreans led by a Swiss mountain guide, on their way down from the mountain that overlooks Arolla: the Pigne.
I reached the tongue of the glacier, and it was largely bare of snow, so the crevasses were easily visible. I decided to head on up toward a Swiss Alpine Club hut that was perched on the rocks at the top of this glacier—perhaps I would find a place to meditate on the way. An hour later, I reached the hut, at 3160 meters beneath the Pointe des Vignettes. A woman was making something in a large rectangular pan in the kitchen, and a couple of men were drilling and hammering in the bathroom. I relieved myself on the composting toilet, and quickly headed out again.
It had crossed my mind that the day was yet young, I was already quite high, and the Pigne d’Arolla, the peak that dominates the valley and that I see daily from Villaz, might be, exceptionally, in good condition to be tackled solo. Ten minutes from the hut I crossed a pass, meeting two groups of Brits returning from the summit, dressed in full mountain gear, roped, and stepping gingerly with their crampons on the steep track. I stepped aside to let them by. Then, through the pass and across the upper reaches of an unnamed glacier, I reached a shoulder of scree and large blocks of rock that led up toward the Pigne. A guide with a client about my age was heading down this shoulder; we greeted one another, and he looked at me suspiciously.
I removed my crampons and headed up the shoulder. Ten minutes later, I was putting the crampons on again and heading up the final 500 vertical meters toward the summit. There was a discernable track from the earlier climbers, the day was lovely, and, most exceptionally, the glacier was largely free of snow, even at this altitude, due to a warm summer and its southern exposure. Wherever the ice was covered by snow and looked suspicious, I gave vigorous pokes with my trekking poles before taking my next step. A first deep hole that someone’s foot had broken into gave warning; but there was little snow atop the ice, and it was clear that no very wide crevasse could be hiding. With a little reading of the terrain I felt comfortable that I was safe.
Over an ice flank, onto a snowy plateau, and up another flank, onto the ridge, and by 1:15 I was sitting alone on the summit. The view was superb, with the Matterhorn a sharp spike in the middle distance, the Dent Blanche white and powerful, and the astonishing Glacier d’Otemma curving between the Pigne and Italy, heading toward the Val des Bagnes and Verbier. Plums, almonds, buckwheat cakes and tahini gave the Pigne a probably rare glimpse of a vegan summit meal. The sun shone brightly, but up at 3790 meters even a small wind gives a chill, and I sat for half an hour, eating, in my fleece, my Polarloft jacket, and my warm hat. Then, getting cold, I decided to head down. The last bus left Arolla at 5:26. I thought I would make it, even at a careful pace. If not, I would hitchhike, which works well in these remote valleys. As it turned out, I reached Arolla at 5:00. I passed the hunters on the way—they had seen nine ibex, but all rather young and not ripe for culling.
That night I stood on the balcony of the house brushing my teeth. Mars was shining red over the Dent d’Hérens; the Goat and the Water Carrier were cavorting above the Glacier de Ferpècle; Andromeda was rising to the southeast. And then: whoosh! Straight down almost from the zenith a bright meteor fell, cleaving the sky and falling directly into the summit of the Dent Blanche. Zoosh. Shoom. Yes.
The next day, for an editing assignment I’m working on, I read some articles and listened to podcasts about different ways to organize your day, your week, your year, in order to do your most productive and creative work. I listened to an expert talk about how important it is to formulate your goals and set them down in writing, and how studies have shown that this ups both productivity and happiness. I also listened to a woman talking about managing your attention, and how guarding it from distraction and choosing what you are focusing on can lead you from an unproductive chaos to a fulfilled and successful life.
I reflected that I had felt fulfilled on the day before my birthday. I had seen a wolf. I had climbed, solo, a 3,800 meter peak. I had seen a shooting star in free fall toward the majestic nighttime gestalt of the Dent Blanche. But I had planned none of this. It had not been my goal to see a wolf, nor to climb the Pigne. In fact, my goal had been to meditate on a moraine. I also reflected that I had not controlled my attention, attempting to harness it to this or that; in fact, my attention had been grabbed—by the wolf, by the favorable conditions on the mountain, and by the meteor.
Rather than controlling my attention, or setting a goal, or planning my day, I had in fact moved with almost the opposite attitude. I had opened my attention wide; I had freed myself from goals and plans. I had made myself available for the world to speak to, and when it spoke, I listened. This echoes David Abram’s claim in The Spell of the Sensuous: that in fact we do not notice things as it were unilaterally, through our will to notice; instead, we engage in dialogue with the world, and the first move in that dialogue usually comes not from us but from the world. Things literally grab our attention, and we respond by giving it, and the things then respond themselves by grabbing us more deeply, with a detail that we hadn’t seen at first, and we reciprocate by giving that more honed attention now. Our typical view of the matter—of an active subject (us) faced with an inert and objective world (out there)—is thrown into question when we actually think about what happens as we perceive things. Yet in order to be aware of what happens in this act of perception, we first have to get rid of the deeply ingrained idea that the world is inert, dead, inactive. The more we attempt to control our attention—the more we plan, the more we let our goals determine what we see—not only are we less likely to notice wolves, or fantastic conditions on a mountain we never intended to climb. We are also far less likely to notice how we notice.
If I had been a good Swiss hiker/climber, I would have planned my day in advance by reading guidebooks, studying maps, calculating times, consulting the weather report—and I would not, on principle, have climbed the Pigne alone. This careful planning can lead to one kind of success—it surely leads to bagging more summits than I do. But I have become less and less interested in sitting on the tops of mountains. When I go hiking—preferably without a fixed goal in mind—what I love is not that particular place, the summit, but rather any place that speaks to me. Wherever I may find it. And it is certainly notable that, the less I have believed in the inertness of the outside world—the more I have felt that it is alive, and calls—the more places speak to me, and the more strongly. It happens that on the last day of my 58th year one of those places was the summit of the Pigne d’Arolla. The Pigne called out to me—I did not seek the Pigne.
Now you might argue that this is an entirely unsafe way to traipse around the high mountains. It is irresponsible to go alone; to summit so late in the day; not to carry an ice axe; and to set off ignorant of the route. I have been in the mountains a lot, however, and I have never felt safer than on that day. The four dicta just cited are generally perfectly sound advice for mountaineers; but on the last day of my 58th year they were irrelevant. The bare glaciers made it safe to go alone; the lack of snow that would turn into slush, as well as the entirely unthreatening weather, made it okay to summit late; the particular route never made me feel in danger of falling and needing to self-arrest with an axe; and the clear tracks to the summit, plus the two guides I had seen who must have led exactly on those tracks (as there were no others), gave me perfect assurance of being on route. In addition, I was careful never to go further than I knew I could get down. If I had come upon a difficult obstacle, I would have stopped and gone no further. Without the summit as a goal, it would have cost me nothing.
The day after the climb—my birthday—I needed to return to Arolla. I had left my trekking poles in the little shop I had stepped into for tomatoes and bananas while waiting for the 5:26 bus the day before. So I headed down the same trail to Les Haudères on which I had seen the wolf. As I approached that spot, I bristled with anticipation. Something in me believed that I would see the wolf there once again. Of course, I didn’t. But a few hundred meters further on—ZOOP!! Once again, my attention was grabbed. At that moment mushrooms were the furthest thing from my mind—but two of the most beautiful parasols I have ever seen called out to me from the scrub at the side of the trail. And I had a delicious dinner that night.
I no longer believe in looking for mushrooms. I don’t think that’s how it works. What I believe in is going into the woods, with an openness to being called. The mushrooms call out to me, and I respond. And I find more mushrooms like this than I ever used to.
I do not mean this as a metaphor. I do not think of this as a trick, whereby, by pretending to attribute life and agency to what is in fact the objectively inert world, I put myself in a state of mind in which I notice more of it. It doesn’t work like that—I have tried it! Instead, I now live in a radically different way than I have for most of the 59 years of my life. I believe that the world around me is, in a sense, alive, and speaks to me. (This view of things is commonly dubbed animism.) And in this way I find myself almost constantly being called by things I used to think of as inert.
Being a scientifically-minded person, I like to put things to empirical tests. Empirical, remember, means derived from experience. The results of my experience are clear. The way I live now is more successful than the way I lived before. I find more mushrooms, wolves, and suddenly perfect conditions on particular mountains than I ever have.
In 1753, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter complaining about an embarassment for the British colonists in North America. White people—both children and adults—who had been captured by Native American tribes and subsequently allowed to participate in Native American life for an extended period of time, were sometimes “freed” by the colonists. The embarassment was that they did not want to return to the colonial world. Children refused to go back to their parents, and adults refused to rejoin European society. NO WAY! Having experienced both European and animistic ways of life, these former colonists almost universally fought to stick with animism.
One could argue, as above, that animism provides a nice delusion that might make life happier, but that the standard view—of a world of active subjects surrounded by dumb beasts and inert matter (commonly called the Cartesian view)—is all the same the correct one. Again, one could test this empirically. One could look at the results of the Cartesian world-view: the environmental degradation, the ugliness of the strip-mall, the nuclear menace, the vanishing biodiversity, the change in climate, the plastic in the oceans, the poor health of human beings, the exhausted soil, the decimated forests, and the poverty and meaninglessness of so many lives. One could compare these empirical results with the empirical results found in past and surviving animistic societies—in which animals and trees and grasses and rocks and rivers and mountains and human beings are, as Yuval Harari puts it, “equal members of a spiritual round table.” One will not find, there, the horrific results of the Cartesian world-view that I have just listed. Animistic hunter-gatherers whose societies have not been disrupted by “civilization” are in general happier, healthier, work less and see much more. Their children are freer, smile more, and suffer far less anxiety. The colonialist children and adults who grew up Native American also provide empirical results. As a control, we can compare them with their opposite: the Native American children who were captured by the colonists—and who, when offered the option, consistently chose to return to their tribe and family.
On many levels, the evidence is in. The Cartesian world-view “works” only if you apply a very tortured definition of “works.” A definition, by the way, that is derived from…the Cartesian world-view.
More on that in a later post.