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There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy.
I am not a winter person. For me, every moment of winter—every experience, every sight, every sound, every thought, every flavor, every scent—is colored and shaped by a constant yearning: for winter to be over. This in no way means I am blind to the lovely things of winter in this desert. At times, the profoundest emotions, the deepest feelings of awe, of gratitude, of love, of defiant living, may be sharpened and amplified by sadness, by tears, by quiet contemplation, by lamentation, even by fatalism, in ways not possible, sometimes even transcending the intensity of experiences ensuing from joy, elation, or contentment.
It is no coincidence that some thinkers described the experience of the sublime–the rarest and most powerful of emotions—as the merging of amazement and fear, or beauty and terror. But these are objective, rather than subjective characterizations: they may seem to outsiders as the things one is likely to feel when in the throes of the sublime: things they may believe they would feel themselves in the same circumstances. But they are wrong.
Under the spell of the sublime, amazement elevates one’s mind to great heights but does not overwhelm; fearful things may threaten but do not frighten. The sublime, for all its power, is to those fortunate to experience it the serenest of all serenities. One surrenders to powerlessness without succumbing to panic, and to beauty without succumbing to vulgarity. Without assurance of a future, one recognizes the importance of making the most of every noble and worthy aspect of one’s experience and ceases to worry about things beyond one’s control, recognizing their futility. In such moments, the experience is all there is: an all-consuming mindfulness not only of things happening in the present moment, but also of one’s own transience and insignificance.
I recognize the origin of these thoughts. After recently quoting to a workshop group Francis Bacon’s words, “I feel ever so strongly that an artist must be nourished by his passions and his despairs,” one person responded jokingly, “What’s wrong with just having fun?” Of course, there is nothing wrong with having fun. Alas, it is a privilege reserved for those fortunate to be capable of it. In a former life, an old boss once referred to me as “fun challenged.”
I don’t doubt that most people in fact have much more fun, in photography and in life, than I do. On the other hand, owing to my contemplative and solitary nature and my penchant for spending much of my time in vast and beautiful places, I likely experience more moments of awe and reverence, more intense emotions, more epiphanies and revelations, more times of flow, than most do. I don’t feel slighted.
The thoughts meander in my mind as I awaken, as I slowly muster the willpower to face the inevitable moment when I’ll have to contend with the freezing darkness outside my sleeping bag.
Having extracted myself from my warm bed, I shiver in several layers of still-cold clothing, biding my time until I build up a protective layer of insulating warmth and a semblance of comfort begins to set in. I distract myself from my discomfort with the well-practiced morning ritual. Soon, I am overcome with the familiar mix of bliss and nostalgia brought on by the comforting smells of fresh-brewed coffee and toasted bread, mingled with the natural scents of the desert. There is no feeling quite like (and for my money, no better way to start a day than) savoring a rich breakfast in solitude, in a wilderness camp, in perfect silence, awaiting the dawn, watching the darkness fading and colors returning to the landscape.
The train of thought, now fueled by food and caffeine, continues, and accelerates.
If at the end of my days all I have to measure the worth of my life by is just the count of days in which I fell asleep in and woke up to a wild desert, filled with deep thoughts and immersed in quiet beauty, that number alone would suffice for me to consider my lifetime well spent.
But I am fortunate to not have to settle for just that. It’s a new day in the desert, filled with the promise of peace and silence, the companionship of rocks, birds, water, dormant trees, the prospect of unknown treasures to be discovered, and the slowly unfolding drama of an approaching winter storm. The words of Everett Ruess flash in my mind as I slip on my hiking shoes and zip up my thick jacket: “While I am alive, I intend to live.”
Here, I feel at home. It’s easy to understand why most people want to remain connected with the places that have been most meaningful in their lives: where they experienced their most cherished memories, where their loved ones are, where they feel they belong and never as outsiders. For most people, these are the places they were born or grew up in, but not for all.
Some people never find a true experience of home until they are far away from the place they were born in, the story they were born into. For some, home is the place where they never have to be reminded of that story, where they feel free to write their own. For some, being perennial outsiders wherever they go seems a better fate than belonging where they were born. If they are the social sort, they may come to feel unmoored and suffer from loneliness all their days, even when not alone. Or, they may find a welcoming home in solitude, even when in company.
What one gains from finding a home in solitude, is freedom: freedom from forced allegiances, myths, traditions, expectations, rituals, judgments, and opinions; freedom from the tyranny of calendars and schedules; freedom to retreat inward to the welcoming comfort of the familiar any time one wishes for it; freedom to seek and to explore, to experiment and to fail, to be silent or vocal, serious or silly; freedom to feel at home in any geography one may wish to feel at home in. In short: in solitude one finds the greatest freedom that a human being may gain: freedom from other human beings.
The freedom of solitude is neither easy nor benign. It is the freedom described by the existentialists: a burdening freedom. In solitude, one can no longer delegate certain choices—what to do with one’s day—to others. In solitude, one is responsible for making something worthwhile of one’s time, or be held to account—by one’s harshest judge—for wasted living. This freedom to choose one’s path is also, paradoxically, a fetter: once truly embraced, one can never again be free from it. The more difficult and consequential the options that one is free to choose among, the steeper the opportunity cost, and the more tortuous the guilt and recriminations that may inevitably follow, no matter how one chooses. At times, in solitude, one can’t escape the irony of James Baldwin’s words: “Nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.”
There is only one remedy for the burden of such freedom: the acknowledgment that when all is said and done, one’s insignificance within the vastness of existence levels the importance of all things, the consequences of all choices. This is not saying that nothing matters. It is saying that nothing, matters.
“All human activities are equivalent,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in his conclusion to Being and Nothingness, “all are on principle doomed to failure.” It seems therefore that Samuel Beckett’s advice for living is a sound one: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Sorry, success coaches.
Not too far from my camp I gingerly approach a large flock of black rosy-finches busily picking out seeds from the dry tumbleweeds lining the base of the canyon wall. If I move slowly and carefully, they may allow me to approach within twenty or thirty feet of them. It is quiet enough that when I hold still among them, I can hear their little beaks pecking and munching all around me. Sooner or later, though, I will cross a threshold and come too close, and the entire flock will take flight, form hypnotic murmurations in the air among the canyon walls for a few moments, then land again not too far away, where I may attempt to approach them again. Before I know it, an hour has passed.
Walking further, I stop and lose myself for a time standing by a small creek listening to the hushed gurgling of water trickling its way downcanyon below a thin layer of patterned ice, among rocks and fallen cottonwood branches. I watch as elongated bubbles form and build up beneath the ice, then lose their purchase, squeeze out from among the rocks and ooze their way downstream, breaking up, reforming, sometimes popping into the air.
A fossilized shell in a limestone rock reminds me that life persisted on this planet long before my species, and that the earth may yet support life for hundreds of millions more years. If we assume conservatively only a half billion of years of evolution remaining on this planet, it’s worthwhile to consider that half a billion years ago, no life existed on land. Aquatic beings of that time, now long extinct, had barely just evolved the sense of sight. It may be that whatever life form dominates this planet half a billion years from now will be to us human apes as we are to trilobites. Or perhaps there may prove to be an upper limit to the degree of intelligence that any creature shaped by the competitive ruthlessness of natural selection may possess without self-destructing, or perhaps bringing about the destruction of all life on a small planet. Curious as I am, I am also happy I will not be around long enough to find out. The possibility that humans may still be the dominant species then, considering the trends I see in the world, is no less terrifying to me, and in many ways utterly depressing.
Fresh tracks along the creek remind me that I am sharing the place with coyotes and bobcats. Their shift will begin in a few hours, when mine comes to an end. Perhaps we will cross paths in the twilight. I hope so. I suspect they don’t.
Dusk finally calls me back to camp to conclude what by all accounts has been a beautiful and wonderfully unproductive day despite the pervasive sense that, for all the beauty and pleasures around me, I still eagerly wish for the arrival of spring. Just a few more weeks. I know from experience it would be futile for me to try to put the thought out of my mind. I conclude that I should not try.
The platitude tells me I should strive to “live in the moment,” but my yearning for winter to be over is as much a part of “the moment” as the silence and the cold, enriching its flavor with just the right amount of aged and ripened melancholy as to not be distasteful or to obscure the aromas of other fine ingredients.
Storm clouds drift in. The gaps between them are filled with dots of light emitted long before I was born from stars trillions of miles away, dozens or even hundreds of years in flight. Recognizable constellations affirm in my mind the sense of being home: familiar, predictable, and welcoming. Finally, the cold and the pangs of hunger turn my attention to dinner-making.
I realize on this cold and silent winter night, gazing into the vast celestial tapestry above, that the most profound and memorable moments of living for me have not been moments of happiness. They have been moments of deep contemplation tinged with fatalism, melancholy, and nostalgia, in wild, solitary places. What makes these moments so full of life for me is not hope for or expectation of some rosy future or whatever changes it may bring, but gratitude for being alive right here and now, surrounded by beauty and mystery.
To be sure, there are many things in the world I may be concerned about if I gave them too much thought: things in other places and other times, things already past or yet to occur. But right now, none of it matters. Unless I choose for it to matter.
It seems to me that life is too short to try to fit too many things into it: to slice the pie so thinly that no part of it can be fully savored and appreciated, slowly and mindfully.
I’m in the desert. A storm is coming. I am warm and fed. Time to pour the tequila and light an after-dinner cigar, perhaps listen to some music before retiring into the warm softness of a heavy sleeping bag. I may fall asleep, or I may not. The world of dreams offers little over this reality to tempt me.
Right now, there is nowhere else I’d rather be and nothing else I’d rather do. Right now, is about right now.
I can’t wait for spring to come.