Saturday, August 25, 2012

How small one can feel from digging a shitter hole in the middle of nowhere

From time to time I will close my eyes long enough to forget what stuff looks like, and to forget how I look. I mean, not in a detailed way, but in a basic fundamental way having to do with scale. If you close your eyes for a while, it becomes easy to imagine yourself as gigantic. You can know there are walls surrounding you but imagine you take up pretty much the rest of the room. You can forget the walls and imagine yourself stretched around the earth. You can imagine that the universe is nothing but you, or but some spherical core at the center of you.

But another thing I imagine with my eyes closed is being tiny. Being a tiny speck in a larger and larger universe until I am nothing at all, just a place in the infinite space around me.

In my day to day life I don't have to think about this much, because I live in a city where all scale is tailored to the human. The tallest buildings aren't really much taller than the tallest cranes. Little specks of dust are framed nicely by sunlit windows. Streets are wide enough to fit two cars, and cars are wide enough to fit two humans. The smallest I think I can feel without introspective effort is when I am within sight of the Mississippi. I instantly imagine myself in the middle of it. Could I swim to either bank without becoming exhausted, being pulled under by the current, snagging on a fatal branch, or failing to get the attention of a barge pilot? I don't know. I don't know precisely because I can't really understand the scale of the river, because it makes me feel too unfamiliarly small. And this is a different kind of felt smallness from the closed-eye introspective kind. This one is an unavoidable consequence of a setting that presents a certain scale whether I'd have it or not. I think it accounts for the chill and the uncanniness I experience when visually presented with the river.

This outside-in feeling of smallness was something I felt more keenly than I ever have in and around Denali this summer. The everyday surroundings up there offer no escape from the huge scale of the geologic. Every window frames a mountain or an expanse of wilderness. Every mountain begs the question, what if I were up there? How many other humans have been there? Could I get there, and could I get down? Could I even cross the stretch of wilderness to get to the bottom of that mountain?

The eeriness of the scale is highlighted by the secrecy of "the big one" itself. Denali rarely shows itself, and even when it does it is for a brief moment in a crack in the clouds. This monument to hugeness dwarves the already-huge peaks around it, to the point that it would be impossible to be unsure if what you saw was the big one or not.

Moving north from Denali there are a few more snowy peaks, then a multitude of rocky peaks, gradually settling into a huge expanse of rolling, spruce-covered foothills. Of these thousands of foothills, I would daily walk from one with a development of cabins on it to one with no permanent structures. The seemingly short distance form one to the other was an arduous 25-minute hike with difficult inclines on either side and a mess of willow and bog for twenty yards or so on either side of the creek between the two hills. The path from one to the other was easy enough to lose, and crossed by game paths often enough that it was easy to take a wrong turn at any time. There was only one cabin site on the far hill, but it wasn't always easy to find. The first few times I went out there I missed it and had to criss-cross methodically on top of the hill until I happened upon it.

Within the cabin site itself were plenty of spaces between trees big enough for an 8x4 A-frame outhouse. But we had settled on one of those places, so I started tearing out the tundra and digging. Every step of the way I was assaulted by this eerie feeling of smallness. Of every potential spot on this hilltop, here was my little hole to dig. Of every hilltop around this creek, this is the one I was on. Of all the spruced foothills spreading out on all sides from the Alaska range, each with their own creeks running through their own hollows, here was the one I was on. Of all the mountains in Alaska, and all their foothills, I was here. Here in the world of mountains and valleys, and here in the universe of everything, which didn't seem to me much bigger than what I could take in with my eyes, here I was.

The mosquitoes that landed on me were probably born nearby, and would die nearby. The squirrels and the whiskey jacks would likely have lived without ever seeing a human if this site weren't here. The mooses surely seemed not to give a shit one way or the other about the few signs of human intervention—the cleared tundra, the framing and batter boards, the tarped caches of tools and lumber.

The deeper my hole got, the more isolated I felt. The sweat and muscle I put into pulling just this dirt out of just this hole in the entire world seemed ridiculous. Every big rock that pained my ass was just one rock in this entire wilderness in this entire world in this entire universe.

Like I said before, this wasn't introspective rambling. This was the stark reality of what I was doing and the purely physical context in which I was doing it. Digging that shitter hole in the middle of nowhere is the smallest I've ever felt in my life. I had a sort of epiphany about it after the fact, when I got home. That eerie feeling of being dwarfed seemed to extend beyond just the spatial. I started thinking about life, and how life itself is such an enormous interconnected lattice, and how small I am in that lattice as well. Now I started thinking about time, too. Ages have passed since that foothill was formed, and it would be there for ages to come. Perhaps dinosaurs lived there (they certainly lived in the area). Every mosquito and white-sock I killed was just another animal that had lived and died there. If I somehow fell in that shitter hole and died, my family and friends would be sad and all, but the foothill wouldn't care, and neither would the squirrels and whiskey jacks and mooses. Life would go on without a blip.

This feeling of smallness can be crushing, but I started thinking about this humungous life as something I am not. That life lives through me, not by me or for me. Life is something that happens whether I'm here or not. I'm kind of an irrelevant side effect. Life is gonna happen through me with or without my will. I don't make it. It doesn't happen to me. It lives through me.

And this can be inspirational instead of crushing. I feel like what it can mean is that I should be mindful of what kind of a conduit I am for life. If life is gonna live through me, how do I let it flow through? What kind of a channel can I be? Because as life lives through me I feel like I can have an effect. Sort of like a sieve or filter or something. Like I can decide what parts of life I just let flow on through, and what parts to slow down, and what little spins or temporary changes I can will upon the current in the brief time I'm here.

And then being a musician and vain of course I connect all revelations to my own personal strivings, and I think of music as a life, and think that music also is a thing that exists and persists beyond the individual, it is an expression of life, and I conceive of a music that isn't made by be, or for me, but rather plays through me. I think of bettering myself musically as not something I do, or change, in my own activities, but rather as what way I lean or what way I am oriented with respect to the flow of music that exists whether I'm here or not.

And then fifteen years after I read it, I start to really understand that book about the Zen archers, about getting yourself out of the way and letting the thing happen. I think too of softball, how much of successful pitching and hitting requires that same mindset. You imagine the pitch-- the pitch is an idea. It already exists. It always already existed, and it always will. All that's going on on the mound is that you are trying to let it happen through you this one time. Then all over again the next time. And hitting. You are the ball, and you are the bat, and you are the pitch on its arc to the plate, and you are the swing. The game isn't happening to you, and you aren't making the game. The game is happening through you. And then I generalize to everything I do. I feel like I operate under the day-to-day illusion that I am making things happen, or that things are happening to me. But instead I believe the "things" are life, and they happen though me. So this changes my idea of what striving should be. Now I think of this Bruce Springsteen lyric-- "Talk about a dream, try to make it real." What I strive for already exists. I just have to let it happen through me. And this process is as much about removing obstacles as it is about building up. Like how some famous sculptor said something about picturing the object, then removing whatever parts of the block weren't part of that picture. Letting the dream become real.

I think this might make me a Platonist? Like now I all the sudden believe in ideal forms? Also, doesn't it sound suspiciously like those people who talk about trying to be a vessel for Jesus to live through them? Or at least like some cheesy impulse-buy self-help book in the checkout aisle of Barnes & Noble? Shit. I don't even know if any of this makes sense. I do know it probably sounds trite. I'm not sure why I feel like putting it on here. But idunno, you go dig a shitter hole in the middle of damn nowhere and see if it doesn't change a thing in you.


jp said...

Smallness is always on the mind up there for me too. Mountains make me existentially/philosophically uneasy sometimes. Start to itch to retreat back to glorious cities, which are barely controlled piles of points of consciousness.

I tend to relate all life/energy to sine waves and polarity. Vibrations, brah. I'll tell you 'bout it sometime.

That was a wonderful read.

Unknown said...

It was a wonderful read, indeed. I'm glad I suddenly thought to check & see if you still tended this particular garden.

Also, I still have not taken a shit in that hole. Saving it for you next summer.

Kristin Pace said...

Come back, Matt! The shitter hole and hills and dales are calling you! But also, I really loved reading this. You truly absorbed the important aspects of this place, and it means a lot to us.