Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Woods and the Waters

I just got back from one of the most grueling experiences of my life: I hiked the Great Range in the Adirondacks, making a trek across half a dozen of the tallest mountains in New York State. The feat has been added to my ledger of accomplishments, which will be read aloud on the Last Day when my soul is weighed on the Scales of Adventurousness.

On a chilly evening, my companion and I showed up at the trailhead about an hour before sunset. We began hiking into the woods, and it wasn’t long before we were walking in complete darkness. All we could see was the ground immediately ahead of us, lit up by a tiny headlamp. Around us were dark woods for miles. As we climbed higher, the towering pines grew withered and bent.

“I’m glad I’m an atheist,” my companion remarked eventually. “If I believed in demons and witches, this would be way too scary.” 

“Ha!” I answered. “A Medieval man would have never left town.” 

A little later, we camped on a mountaintop. We had a clear sky overhead, and looked out onto a sea of clouds. A few mountain peaks poked above the surface of the clouds, making little islands off in the distance. The stars were out, and a dark red moon was rising.

The next morning, we woke up to overcast skies and a damp mist. Packing up our tent, we continued along the ridge. The cloud surrounded us by noon, and the early-morning mist turned gradually into a steady rainshower as the day wore on. Soon, we found ourselves on a wind-whipped alpine tundra, surrounded by rocky cliffs. As if to mock us, the fierce wind and rain turned icy, pelting us with sharp hailstones. We took shelter behind a slab of rock and, soaked to the bone, decided that the safest plan was to climb down the cliff to get below the treeline.

All hardships defy.

And as I inched my way down, telling myself in my best counselor-voice to stay calm and keep moving, I had a song stuck in my head:

He’s got the woods and the waters in his hands;
He’s got the woods and the waters in his hands; 
He’s got the sun and the moon right in his hands;
He’s got the whole world in his hands.

But there was nothing in the world I believed less at that moment. I was a tiny ape crawling on a barren slope, shivering and exposed. I had enemies massed against me, but they were neither evil nor clever. They were the indifferent rain and the tuneless wind. And if there was anyone who could protect me from them, he certainly wasn’t with me on that peak.

And it struck me that the attitude I’d had the previous night was woefully misguided. We paid a price for renouncing spirits in the woods. The empty woods at night are safe, because they hide neither lurking witches nor real dangers. But the spiritless mountain peak is another thing entirely. There is no God up there to protect us from the vultures—the real, drab vultures—that plunge their beaks into our side.

And that’s something I feel acutely even when I’m not on a mountain. There is no such thing as cosmic malice. There is no Satan to renounce. But there is still death: a mute and unembodied shadow. We curse it, but it makes no conceptual sense that it could be listening. We might as well talk to the Krebs Cycle.

As I’ve said too often, it wasn’t always so in human souls. Just a couple centuries ago, evil was a tempter to be scoffed at, and ultimately to be defeated. And if you could escape the hungry wolf, you could take shelter in the shepherd’s arms. So after killing our ancient foes—the spawn of superstition—we’re left with a last enemy far gloomier, and with no comforter to help us.

So it’s not just that modernity is boring. It’s also much more frightening than any children’s book. And the fear that accompanies it isn’t the picturesque, imaginative evil that the Medievals were so thrilled to be surrounded by. It’s a barren, gray nothingness that eats away at us. One can’t write poetry about it. Maybe it can give birth to a fine work of philosophy or a rollicking Swedish movie.



I want to close with a literary point. When I was little, there were two books that kept me awake in terror.

The first was Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins, a book about a man who spends all eight nights of Hanukkah in a haunted hilltop synagogue. He’s visited nightly by increasingly hideous demons, and he outwits all of them with a dollop of homespun Yiddish wisdom. On the eighth night, the King of the Goblins shows up. The following picture is burned into the soul of any Jewish kid born in the 1990s:

IT IS I, THE KING OF THE GOBLINS!
At this point, my five year old self would shrivel in fear. But Herschel, after making the right prayers to the Almighty, proceeds to trick the Goblin King into lighting the menorah for him. Hanukkah is saved, and rejoicing ensues in the shtetl at the bottom of the hill.

The second book was far scarier. It preoccupied me much more. And though by now I’ve grown quite fond of Herschel and his goblins (who, on a second reading, are pretty friendly after all), I’m just as terrified now as I was as a toddler by Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Harold has nothing in his world. Literally nothing: he stands against a blank background. Imaginative and full of energy, he creates scenery with his trusty crayon, sketching out a universe for himself to inhabit. The sea is just a swish of his crayon, and so is the sun. He proceeds to have a thrilling adventure. But at the end of the book, as Harold crawls into a bed of his own drawing, an awful truth dawns on the careful reader: Harold doesn’t have a friend in the world. There are no objective dangers facing him, but there is no great comfort either. He lives in a landscape of his own imaginings; there is no one beyond his world to reach out a hand and keep him company. So his imagination is enough to conquer boredom, and he certainly gives no place to ancient customs that would oppress his creativity. What his imagination can’t do is bring him home from the lonely and dark modern sea. All is vanity; a meaningless tapestry of purple wax.

When I was five, this translated to “where is his mom? doesn’t he want to see his mom?“ And come to think of it, that’s a far more cogent statement of what’s wrong with the book—and with modernity—than anything else I’ve been able to say in this post.

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