Walking in the Tetons
Bill Long 7/15/11
An Imaginary Trip--To Tease Out Life Goals
During a bi-monthly coffee with my perceptive friend Dan, a distinguished professor of education (at least that is what his card says!), Dan described a trip he recently took with his wife. Part of the trip included a hike with arresting views through the Grand Tetons in WY. After showing me some pictures and describing how awestruck he was at the vistas, he asked me, as a way of teasing out the operation of my mind, "What would you 'see' or wonder about in such a hike?"
Thinking quickly, I realized this was not only a question that allowed me to engage him in what he had described but also was a challenge to me to see how well I knew myself. So, without a hitch and perhaps indebted both to my ministerial and legal training, I said that I would see or wonder about three things...
I said that the first thing I would do/see would have two parts. First, I would just stop and let the magnitude of the view soak into me. Perhaps it would overwhelm me, perhaps instill a sense of quiet peace, perhaps make me smile, laugh or wonder about the healing power of a place. In fact, Dan said that this is how he often sees life, letting it wash over him, trying to catch up with and identify his feelings at such a sight. I have much to learn from him on this score since the capacity to wonder is at the heart of all of life's discoveries.
My ability or inclination to wonder and enjoy the vista is something that must be cultivated because, I think, I am not often inclined just to stop and savor things with the senses. In my conversation with Dan I likened this first reaction to the way that people react to paintings in an art museum. Many, as I have observed, first look at the painting; many, also, first look at the description. Which are you? I think I am trying to evolve from a "description first" to a "seeing first" person.
While taking in the view, I would also try to compare it with other memorable views from my life. Would it be similar to the feelings I had 30 years ago when I was writing my dissertation in Germany and I had a memorable weekend in Oberjoch in the Alps? There it was the splendid sight of snow, lake, gentle valleys and abrupt escarpments that captivated me. Or, would it be like feelings I have had on Mount Hood in Oregon, with Timberline Lodge to my left and the massive mountain straight ahead?
The Second Thing
But this would just mark the begining of what would delight me about such a hike. As I looked at the scene, I would try to put my feelings into words, searching for appropriate phrases in multiple languages that would catch my wonder. The linguistic searching would have both theological and literary dimensions. When I use the word "theological," I don't mean that nature simply gives evidence of divine existence, such as the thought expressed in these words: "Wow, the view is beautiful! Doesn't it just prove that a grand Creator stands behind this?"
Rather, when I use "theological," I mean it to suggest insight into larger questions of meaning in life. I often see almost any situation in life as bequeathing lessons about who we are, how we live, and what we can learn from life. Thus, I would be wondering what the walk in the Tetons might teach me about this. But, rather than leaving it in an ethereal plane, I would want to search for words that capture my thoughts. Words must be carefully hunted because they hold the key to deeper levels of understanding. One seeks analogies through words, pictures of life.
But I am particuarly interested in doing this in multiple languages. When someone asked me what my life's goals were a few years ago, I said "to know all the words (in multiple languages) and where all the roads go..." So, it isn't just enough to find the words fitly spoken in English; why not see if the Chinese have a colorful four-character phrase for what is before me? That language has an amazingly pictorial quality to it. The Germans? French? Italian? The list goes on. Perhaps little slices of literature will come to mind, such as when Albert Camus described the towering vista from a mountain schoolhouse in "L'Hote."
The Third Thing
My third goal would move from the aesthetic to the more strictly intellectual. I would love to have a naturalist introduce me to 30 species of wildflowers or 20 of the familiar insects, bees, birds or animals in the area. I would love to learn about the trees, the soil and, most of all, the grand rock formations that surround me. What kinds of rock make up the mountains? How do scholars posit that the deposits landed just here and in the shape they assume? What periods of time are we talking about?
But I don't want to stop there, with the natural historical knowledge gleaned from memorizing/learning Latin phrases or geological eons. I would see my natural history learnings as giving me a window into how humans have thought about the natural world. That is, behind each name of a creature or each rock formation is a story, a story of why things are called what they are and, also, theories about how we have come to understand and articulate what we think we know about the natural world. So, I would seek knowledge not just about what the "consensus" is on when the mountains were formed, but on how that consensus developed, whether the same consensus existed a century ago, what were the dominant ideas and personalities that led to the current description of the theory and how that theory has been evolving in the last few decades. Along the way, one would learn about the leading figures in botany and geology, and long detours to study their lives, their learnings and their prejudices would be delightful.
In short, knowledge of the natural world opens up not simply why we call things what we do (and thus the history of botany), but why we find certain explanations convincing that describe the way things are in the world. I would possibly have to hire help in this area, just like I hire Nate to paint my pergola or Steve to relaminate my bathtub. The walk through the Tetons would open up all these worlds.
Just as any legal argument before an appellate court or sermon before a congregation ends with a flourish, so I keep one point back until the end. I don't seek this vari-colored knowledge for its own sake, whatever that might mean, but for the sake of the world. This sounds a bit dramatic, of course, but so does any attempt to frame knowledge in this broad way. My trip to the Tetons would not be complete before I have studied, organized, and then written this knowledge in several thousand words of choice prose, with the goal not simply of describing what I have seen but with the hope thereby of reconceptualizing knowledge and expressing it in a way that uniquely fits with our times and with the things before my eyes. Thus, the real goal of it all is to suggest a way of so capturing what is seen that the intensity and brilliance of the moment, combined with the most detailed and thoughtful exposition of how people have thought about nature, is placed right before our eyes....in a way that is lucid, accessible, beautiful and riveting.
The goal is to conceive and then write things that would have previously been beyond one's power even to imagine. Then, I can rest....