Abstracting Nature, Reifying Time

A beautiful fall day and I have time for a walk this afternoon. Like so often before—I’ve been walking this route for fifteen years—I pick up a smooth stone on the way down the hill, what Germans call a Handschmeichler—a hand flatterer—something to please and work my hand and forearm muscles while I walk, aging academic that I am with plenty of Sitzfleisch but atrophy elsewhere.

Walking across the ancient Bonneville shoreline my mind flashes from the pandemic (our county’s numbers exploding this week, driven in part by anti-maskers encouraged by the Pandemic in Chief) to unchecked climate change and related wildfires (smoke from California fires haze the valley today) and inevitably to the impending election (neighbors’ TRUMP flags, like this one today, fly on belligerent poles below American ones).

Partway up the Santaquin Peak foothill, I step off the road onto a deer trail that drops steeply down to a wider trail. Halfway down I realize I’m taking quick light steps with my feet spread apart and my knees slightly bent to reduce the risk of slipping and falling on my butt. How do I know to do this? My body knows—my mind is coming late to this. Homo erectus and friends preceded Homo sapiens.

It’s autumn and I can almost see the chlorophyl leaching from leaves, a process visible at advancing lines on each leaf. I take out my phone and photograph this maple, its leaves displaying early evidence of senescence or prolonged cell death.

I sympathize.

The STRAVA app on phone shows a walking speed of 6 kilometers/hour. That’s pretty fast for me, especially walking up this steep hill. I can see the altitude gain as well as the speed and start wondering about whether the GPS system is measuring my speed only along a horizontal axis. I think that I will add the altitude gained to the horizontal distance. No, I can hear my Farmington, New Mexico geometry teacher (Mrs. McLaughlin, or was it Mrs. Lyons?)—it’s the hypotenuse you want, remember Pythagorus.

I thank my math teachers and Pythagorus for the insight but think I’ll still just simply add the altitude gain for a little extra distance. There’s a steep meadow in front of me and I’ll climb some switchbacks later so the meters will add up.

I take a photo of the rising meadow and slip my phone back into my pocket. Looking up the meadow again, I notice the maples and scrub oaks that border and intrude into the patches of native grasses, scan the mountain ridge that forms the far horizon, and think: Why the hell am I worrying about altitude gain! Look at that mottled hill, that sharp high range behind it. The colors. The textures. The lines.

STRAVA, my app says, is the Swedish word for to strive. I’m not striving, I tell myself, I’m walking. This is a hill, not equipment for altitude gain. This is nature, not a set of numbers. The time STRAVA measures as speed has other dimensions.

I’ve been reading a book by Leopold Federmair called Schönheit und Schmerz (Beauty and Pain) that suggest that Time . . . is simply there, you don’t have to do anything with it, can let it be, can rearrange, order. . . . Time is a great, constantly transforming being. Essentially formless—like water, air—it desires form.

I’ll flee the abstraction, I tell myself, I’ll find a way to reify time.

I begin with a song: “Slow down, you move too fast, you’ve got to make the morning last.” Thank you Paul Simon. I’m going to make this morning last, “I’ve come to watch your flowers growing.”

I stride through knee-high grasses that have set seed, yellow now, prickly against my bare legs. I strip off my T-shirt and my chest and shoulders wonder why I’ve been keeping them from the sun’s caress. A light breeze kisses my wet skin.

Working in conjunction, my eyes and mind suggest that a deer bedded down here. Forget the mind/body split. Deus sive Natura. Thank you Spinoza.

Climbing quickly, I suck air deep into my lungs, press the spent air back out with my diaphragm, suck again, keenly aware of the thoracic muscles I normally ignore.

Motion to my left raises my gaze from where I have been scanning the ground—a wild turkey taking flight, a big, heavy bird flapping long wings to lift off. On second sight and thought, I decide it’s a turkey vulture, its wings longer and narrower than its nominal cousin. The overlapping names suggest that I’m not the only one to see the one in the other. Curious, I climb to where the big bird lifted off, guided now by the putrid gasses from decomposing flesh my instinct tells me to avoid, the same gasses that invited the vulture to dinner. It’s a three-point buck, not that long dead, although the abdomen previously swollen with gasses has been torn open (vulturus = tearer). No sign from where I stand (the carcass stinks to high heaven and I’m breathing as shallowly as I can) of what brought the big mule deer down.

I’m hardly past the carcass when a couple of tuxedoed magpies drop out of a maple tree to take advantage of the vulture’s absence. Turning for a better angle at the buck’s split abdomen, one bird’s lower back catches the sunlight and flares bright blue, an unexpected cummerbund.

Eyes’ mind and mind’s eye recognize a spider’s lair.

Climbing on a well-traveled deer trail, I duck under low-hanging maple branches and traverse the steepest part of this stretch, diaphragm working strongly again. A step up with my right leg elicits a sharp pain in my hip joint, a familiar twinge I attribute to a touch of arthritis. The discomfort eases as I walk more carefully and I add pain to the other sensations stimulated by my walk in this landscape.

At the hilltop I stop to gather my breath (“gather breath!) and look down into Loafer Canyon.

Standing here, I reach down and pluck a few leaves of sage to crush between my fingers and thumb, raising the familiar, beloved fragrance to my nose. (You can see silver-green Artemisia tridentata at the bottom left of the photo.)

Walking along a relatively flat stretch I become aware of how tense my body is, how constricted my movement, how short my steps—a carryover, I think, of the steep ascent. I relax my buttocks, loosen my hips and shoulders and let them swing, lengthen and slow my stride. I’ll make the morning last.

The slower pace cools me and I pull on my shirt. Just before turning up the switchbacks that will take me up the mountainside (a track cut years ago by miners), I stop to pluck an elderberry cluster. The sharp sweetness tastes like joy.

Douglas firs overshadow me on the mountain. The flat needles, crushed in my hand, remind me that joy has many flavors.

Back and forth I climb, catching occasional glimpses of the valley below, of the mountains above. The switchbacks end. Standing there, my eyes catch the line of light threading up through the treetops along the nearest ridge. I turn to head back down and a whirr of small wings turns my head to a half-dozen small sparrows unsettled by my movement.

Sound. Sight. Smell. Taste. Touch. Movement.

Home again, I pick up Peter Handke’s new book, Das Zweite Schwert / The Second Sword.

But what has stayed with me to this very day is the aftertaste of the cigarette smoke that I also swallowed from the bottle’s neck. Nothing to compare with the madeleine from the lost and regained time of Monsieur Marcel Proust, and yet a thing, yes, thing of duration that made me happy and still does.

Things of duration (an odd and apt formulation) have made me happy today as well.

Watching a couple of tiny butterflies flutter around each other, the narrator of the book says that

. . . finally, a scant hand’s-breadth before my eyes, with such speed that the bright circles on the wings flared and flashed and, simultaneously, as if in a jump cut, for one ultimate wingspeed instant, the circle pattern seemed to come to a standstill, motionless, or beyond motion. And a nameless joy seized me, now, doing nothing, just letting be, doing nothing and letting be, and so on and so forth.

STRAVA intrudes again later (I’m a sucker for this) and I see that my joyful “and so forth” stretched the late morning well into the early afternoon.

From Basho, a last thought for the moment: “The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. . . . I have always been drawn by wind-blown clouds into dreams of a lifetime of wandering.” Narrow Road to the Interior (Sam Hamill translator)

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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1 Response to Abstracting Nature, Reifying Time

  1. Charles Hamaker says:

    thanks for sharing your walk about.

    Like

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