Thinking while Walking:
Reflections on the Pacific Crest Trail
1: Campo – What is litter?
2: Mt. Laguna – The invention of the natural.
3: The Mohave Desert – On the illusion of living the simple life (unless you are rich).
4: Tuolumne Meadows – Preventing change in nature.
5: The Sonora Pass – What is wrong with genetically modified food?
6: Castella – May we damage a species for the greater good?
7: Mile 1744 – Do we have duties to future generations?
8: Stevens Pass – Which animals (if any) have rights?
9: Rainy Pass – On respect for nature (without reliance on belief in a god).
10: Manning Park – Concluding remarks.
The idea for this volume of essays came to me as I strolled along a section of the Pacific Coast Trail, near my home in La Jolla, California. I say “stroll” not hike deliberately. When I was a child, my family used to spend part of the summer in the Swiss Engadine valley. Staying in a plush 19th century hotel in Pontresina, at the southern end of the valley, we would wake up looking at the Alps. Each day the hotel would provide us with a packed lunch (boiled egg, fresh baked rolls, a banana and a slice of cake) and we would set out walking. If this was in the tradition of wanderung (hiking), it was a very genteel form. Our expeditions we more like a spatziergang (a leisurely walk). We did not walk up the mountains per se. Rather we stuck to well graded pathways in the foothills. And when that proved too taxing we could always stop for refreshments at the alpine cafes strung along the pathways at regular intervals. These excursions were notable less for the exertion they demanded (which was minimal as we were back at the hotel by teatime) as they were for the conversation they engendered.
Hiking consumes the self. It demands focus and its rhythmic repetition begets focus, if only because it blots out everything else. Strolling is the exact opposite. It demands nothing – you can meander, and as you meander the mind does the same. For a philosopher this is an ideal set up. You can consider a proposition and turn it over in your mind. The distraction of the mild physicality of the stroll sustains that process, not perhaps when you need to generate a rigorous proof, or even search for counter-examples, but when you are looking for connections you had not thought about. It is a circumstance ideal for a kind of creativity which is hard to order up when you are sitting at a desk, staring at a blank piece of paper.
To stroll along the Pacific Crest Trail is not to stroll in the Engadine. For one there are no cafes along the way. And you have to watch your step so you don’t trip or, in Southern California, step on a rattle snake. Moreover as you stroll, it is only deferential to stop and step aside as fast-paced hikers barrel through on their relentless quest. Their quest is not mine. To hike the whole trail is to choose to embrace its challenges and deprivations. The logic of that eludes me – life throws enough challenges if not deprivations without seeking out more. Instead for me, the Trail is stimulus for thinking about nature.
In these essays, I have tried to hold up some features and distinctions about nature and the environment that we take as too self- evident to be worth examination. In questioning these features and distinctions, my goal is not necessarily to refute them. Instead, I follow Bertrand Russell in An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth:
…in philosophy, the first difficulty is to see that the problem is difficult. If you say to a person untrained in philosophy, “How do you know I have two eyes?” he or she will reply, “What a silly question! I can see you have.” It is not to be supposed that, when our inquiry is finished, we shall have arrived at anything radically different from this un-philosophical position. What will have happened will be that we shall have come to see a complicated structure where we thought everything was simple, that we shall have become aware of the penumbra of uncertainty surrounding the situations which inspire no doubt, that we shall find doubt more frequently justified than we supposed, and that even the most plausible premises will have shown themselves capable of yielding implausible conclusions. The net result is to substitute articulate hesitation for inarticulate certainty.
In this enterprise, many of my targets fall in the domain of the moral – what (if anything) do we owe others, be they animals, or future generations of our own kind? Others are categorical – what is the difference between the natural and the unnatural, between the native and invasive? Still others are ontological – how are we to understand our relationship to nature? If there is an intellectual thread that connects what follows it is that they are all about our relationship to the world we live in. The other thread is that each essay is located on a particular place on the Pacific Crest Trail where I thought about them. Not that I got to those places without breaks and the convenience of Southwest Airlines, along with rental cars that let me reach them from the closest trail head.