Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it. If change is of the essence of existence one would have thought it only sensible to make it the premise of our philosophy. ~W. Somerset Maugham
I walked out of the canyon in the golden warmth of the late afternoon sun. It felt good to be out again, to have walked for a full day in a remote, lonesome and beautiful place. I arrived at the trailhead, such as it was—a random spot where I could leave my car by the side of a two-track road—shortly before sunset. After many hours of seeing nothing to indicate the existence of other humans, I emerged in a place that was still quite remote and where seeing others was very improbable; but I was by a road, by a vehicle, again within reach of that other world—a world that most people find comforting and sheltering but that to me has always been a mixed bag.
I felt elated to be reminded that such places as I had just visited are still out there, and grateful to savor what’s left of them and what’s left of me. On my way in, it was hard to ignore the “development” and the plethora of visitors encountered in once-lonesome places: places I have lost over the years. They are still there, on the map, on the ground, but their character and the experience of being there is no longer what I remember it to be; and they are no longer the wild, inviting, exciting, anonymous and peaceful friends they once were to me. As for me, I have been sick for well over a year, unable to write or photograph much. The places I knew are not coming back, at least not in my lifetime. But my health has improved and I am inspired again.
I am a loner, and always have been. I do not know, nor want, to be anything else. I revel in aloneness. I have little need for social interaction and I avoid it to the degree that I can. I am a philosopher in the classic sense of the word: a lover of knowledge, a seeker of answers and meanings, a logician. However, I will not pass for a philosopher in the academic sense. Philosophy was once synonymous with science, later adopted by theologians, and ultimately ended up like so many dissected lab specimens in the academy, and like such specimens it has also become sterile, lifeless and dull. On occasion, however, philosophy had the good fortune to be hijacked by freethinkers—scientists, politicians, artists and laypeople—obsessed with unraveling the great truths of existence, with finding another piece in an unsolvable puzzle. I wish to count myself among these.
I looked back at the canyon where I had spent the better part of the day. I walked among glowing sandstone walls and through crystalline pools, rested by twisted and tormented old trees, visited with delicate spring flowers soon to vanish, listened to the calls of wrens and sparrows and ravens, stalked lizards and butterflies and tadpoles. So many, so varied, so full of wonder are the experiences to be had in this landscape. I have read the accounts of others who explored this desert, but I did not come here seeking to feel like Powell or Abbey or Stegner or Ruess or anyone else. I came here wondering what this land would feel like to me, as me, and with the great hope that it would not feel to me as it did to others. And my wish was granted.
I am a visual artist, painfully aware of the crippling limitations of using just the sense of vision in expressing the many dimensions and sensations of my deepest thoughts and most satisfying experiences. Art to me is not just the pursuit of some idea of aesthetic perfection, but a means to a more meaningful and satisfying life. I strive to make beautiful images, but I am also taken aback when beauty is all that one feels when seeing my work. It is like complimenting a chocolatier for just the sweetness of his confections, or praising a vintner for the pleasantly tipsy feeling brought on by her libations. I wish for my work to embody some of what I felt, not just what I saw, and certainly not what you—the viewer, with your own sensibilities, knowledge and feelings that are different from mine—would have seen, or felt. I wish more people saw their way to the great joys of self-expression, and to those found in savoring the expressions of others; to the inner rewards of mindfulness, of discovery, of nuance and of complexity.
I fear those who fear complexity. I fear those who speak knowingly about things unknowable. I fear those who claim subjective perceptions as objective truths. I fear those unable to defend their actions and opinions by means of logic and reason. I fear those who advocate for some better future without ever taking the time to appreciate the present, to be present, to allow and to encourage others to be present. Most of all, I fear those whose morality is not founded, above all else, in compassion.
How temptingly convenient it is to remain in the shallows, to float the river of life on a raft of ignorance and cynicism and conformity, to wait out the clock. I realize what profound sensations and experiences, inspiration and discoveries that I was fortunate to feel—in person, with all senses, enhanced by knowledge and philosophy—and that I would never have felt if I did not pursue them, if I did not work for them, if I did not endure risk and effort and pain to attain them. There’s a degree of depth, I learned, that can only be earned by stepping outside the shelter of human conventions, conveniences and rituals. And once you are out and have mustered a degree of objectivity, you realize that the distinction between shelter and prison is not as clear as you might like to believe.
On a recent workshop, a fellow photographer asked me if I use my knowledge of visual expression to manufacture experiences for my viewers that are not founded in reality. I do not. In my work I wish to convey some of my own experiences, as real as they are in my own, subjective, mind. But I do not fabricate or fictionalize. Not because I dislike fiction, but because my real experiences are more moving to me, and more worthy of expressing, than anything I could make up. The philosopher, like the artist, and unlike the journalist, has no obligation to be objective. But, if his philosophy is to be of use to anyone—or even just to himself—he must frame his arguments so his readers know how his subjective conclusions were derived out of objective observation. A true philosopher also does not shy from having his conclusions challenged. On the contrary: if he is unable to defend them, and finds himself in error, he is a step closer to the truth.
In the heat of the day I sat in the shaded recess of a sandstone alcove at the foot of a steep wall. A pool of water rippled by the breeze caught the sun and reflected a dazzling display of dancing light onto the walls. I made a conscious effort to be mindful of little details: colorful pebbles in the water, small iridescent eddies appearing and vanishing, water skeeters and beetles, the hushed whisper of the wind, the quaking of leaves, the motion of grasses. I then closed my eyes and meditated for a bit. It seems odd that the experience of meditation—when one deliberately disconnects from the external world—feels so similar to the experience of mindfulness—when one deliberately focuses all attention on the external world. The defining characteristics of a meditative experience, I found, have less to do with the things you pay attention to, and more to do with the things you do not pay attention to: the self, others, the past and the future.
I made few images, attempting to apply skills not exercised in a while. It was hard, and satisfying. Indeed, there were many easier and just as aesthetically pleasing images to be made, but there comes a point when you have to get past the easy ones to remain inspired and challenged, to proceed down the path to whatever is there that is worth finding and that you know you will never find. But you are better the closer you get.
I recall other lives in other places. I recall escaping jobs and crowds and cities and traffic and politics to find solace among wild lands and wild lives. I recall in particular walking out of a business conference into a busy street, dressed in my “business casual” costume, and feeling frustratingly ordinary and acutely aware of the moments of my life slipping away. I recall wondering why I was trying so hard to make it work, to fit in. Why would I want to fit into this? I don’t even like it. Why am I trying so hard to convince myself that there isn’t something better to be had; and how would I know if I didn’t try? And now, even as I struggle to pick up where I left off, in what seems like waking up from a prolonged nightmare, I know the answer. There is.
Thank you for letting me ramble. Thank you for letting me announce to the world that I am writing again, and working again, and inspired again.