Friday, November 5, 2021

The Seventh Generation

Decisions mankind makes today are going to have long term effects.  Carbon pollution in the atmosphere takes an average of 120 years to dissipate (the scientific term is 'half life' meaning that half of it will be gone and half still remaining).  That works out to about five or six generations.  What we do today matters to descendants in a world that we can hardly imagine, and yet the Great Law of the Iroquois (The Haudenosaunee Confederacy) states that our plans should consider the seventh generation of our descendants.

How will these distant future heirs to our planet view our actions today?  What can we do to assure that their world is as safe and comfortable as it can be?  I explore some ideas on that in this video, taken as I stroll a favorite part of the Appalachian Trail.

Right now, as this is posted, Government leaders and politicians are gathered in Glasgow Scotland to discuss policies regarding reducing Carbon pollution that will have enormous consequences to our descendants.

Will we do what is right and good for them?  Or will our selfish greed prevail?  Sadly, even if all the governments agree on strong measures to reduce Carbon emission, that underlying greed cannot be fully suppressed.  Experience shows that corporations and individuals can find ways to get around even the strictest regulation.  Ultimately there could be a black market in carbon, and control of its distribution could begin to be monopolized by organized crime.  What do we do about that?  This is an issue that is barely being discussed, and yet 'when push comes to shove', it is probably the most important issue in achieving a successful reduction in global carbon emissions.

Otherwise, there's another way.  One day all the fossil carbon will be used up.  I wrote a sort of 'doomsday' poem about that possibility once, so maybe it's time to share it again:

I can only hope that our great Mother, good old Earth, chooses to be kind to us, and that we, in turn, can find our connection with Her and with the safe and sustainable great streaming current that four billion years of life has established for us.  If only we pay attention to it.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

The first book God Wrote and its message of Salvation

The video starts out "God wrote a book long before man knew how to write."  In fact it has been in publication for billions of years and only the newer editions mention human beings.

Since man came along, a lot of books about the 'meaning of life,' written in man-made languages, have come along.  This one is a popular one.  This copy was given to me in 1957 by the church my family regularly attended in Wilmington, DE.  I've read it cover to cover once and am working on a second reading.

But it's a pale reflection of the better, much more complete book.  Watch and listen (not necessarily to this video, but when you're taking a walk out in the forest,) to see what I mean.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Hiking and talking: Intentions, Paths to Salvation

Jesus, as he likely appeared, based on a 2001 reconstruction by forensic anthropologist Richard Neave, for a 2001 BBC documentary.  Jesus offered men salvation through his sacrifice on the cross.  The key to the path to salvation that he taught, however has nothing to do with that act of sacrifice.  Salvation is gained only through yielding oneself and one's selfish desires (i.e. to trust entirely in Jesus and his 'father', The Lord God Yahweh).  This path is a universal one, spoken of by many diverse faith traditions, because the key that opens the gateway is the yielding to selflessness.  It is not the Master who teaches the path, or any attribute of the path.  It is an act of parting such physical concepts - sort of the way Moses parted the Red Sea - moving them all to the side, and going beyond.  Let the journey begin.

I explore some of these thoughts here.  

A peaceful path deep in the woods is the setting.  What does Salvation and Eternal Life mean and how do we achieve it?

One great way to come closer to the ideal of spiritual cleansing and connection with God/The Universe/That higher power is through the Pilgrimage. A trail in the woods, any trail, can be a pilgrimage path if you come to it with that intention in your mind and heart. It does not have to be a massive undertaking such as the Islamic Hajj or a trans-continental trek across Europe on the Way of St. James. You can find the joy and peace of that transcendent connection even on a day hike.

So here is some low-key exploring of paths.  The words ramble as my feet ramble down the trail.  Where do they lead?  Well, maybe, just maybe, by leaving aside the physical conceptions of things, you come upon, miraculously, your deeper connection to them all.

Monday, November 1, 2021

On returning from Switzerland - New plans and Inspirations

SwissMobile map of hiking trails in the area that I visited.  Look at that network!  The whole country is like this.  Red trails are the mountain trails, yellow are the 'Wanderwegs', the walking paths, considered less strenuous, and blue marks the most challenging trails, the Alpine/mountaineering routes.  Highlighted in green are the national and regional routes.  The one marked with the number '1' is the Via Alpina National hiking trail, one of seven that cross the country.  Shown below is an overview of the seven Swiss national trails, with the Swiss routes of the 'Way of St. James' highlighted in red (route number 4).  This network of trails is uniformly marked at every intersection with yellow signs, and blazed where needed along the routes.  The marking is consistent and reliable throughout the entire nation.  As I've said, this is truly a Hiker's 'Nirvana'.

Here is a video I recorded at the Cloister at Three Creeks immediately upon returning from Switzerland:

Having come out of the woods for a 'Sabbatical' from the idyllic life in the woods at the Cloister at Three Creeks, having experienced two weeks of hiking in the Majestic Swiss Alps, and then having returned to the Cloister, I was brimming with new thoughts and forming new plans.

The stationary life at the Monastic Retreat at the Cloister has brought great rewards, but these roving feet have hiked long distance trails for a decade - 20,000 miles worth, and Europe exposed me to its astounding network of connected trails, many of which have been Pilgrimage routes for over a thousand years.

It begins to feel as if the Pilgrimage will become an integral part of my ongoing quest to reveal my personal path to 'Salvation', that is Peace of Mind, and Eternal Life, which a number of faith traditions insist can be experienced during one's physical mortal lifetime. I am of that belief, and realize that I have often come close to this perfect state of being, most often when my feet are on the move, hiking through the glory of some natural setting.

Yes, a day hike can be a pilgrimage. There will be more emphasis on that. But at the same time I've gained a great deal of clarity of thought through connecting the teachings of the Judeo-Christian traditions with several more ancient ones, particularly the teachings of Lao-tzu.

Lao-tzu is said to have lived in China around 600 B.C., during the 'Axial Age' or the 'Age of Transformation'—a time when civilizations world-wide were coming to a new awareness. It was the period when most of our great organized faiths were founded.

In the introduction to his 1988 translation of the Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell writes of Lao-tzu:

"People usually think of Lao-tzu as a hermit, a dropout from society dwelling serenely in some mountain hut, unvisited except perhaps by the occasional pilgrim. But it’s clear that he deeply cared about society, if society means the welfare of one’s fellow human beings.

"Lao-tzu teaches that ‘The Master’ is one who masters Nature, not in the sense of conquering it, but of becoming one with it. We find deep in or own experience the central truths of the art of living, which are paradoxical only on the surface: that the more truly solitary we are, the more compassionate we can be."

Well said. I believe these words reflect my experience over the past year and a half, since walking away from society and into the woods.

I now care more deeply about the society from which I sprang, about the direction it is going, and about how we can build a better future for our descendants. "I need a house" a voice once said to me; and one interpretation of that is to make our planet a safer 'Haven' and shelter for the coming generations. Many more thoughts on this to come. Stay tuned.

So ... what comes next?

One of the options I am considering for my return to Europe, as mentioned in the video is a pilgrimage from my ancestral points of Origin, via the Way of St. James, to the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela and then on another 70km to the 'End of the Land' at the Atlantic Coast of NW Spain.

I'm very unusual for an American in that every one of the ancestral roots of my family tree is found in one small area of what was once Prussia, now divided between Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in northeast Germany and adjacent northern Poland.  One ancestor was born in what is now the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad Oblast on the Baltic Sea coast of Russia, just across the border from northern Poland.  All these areas were part of greater Germany at the time my ancestors lived there, and they were all ethnic Germans.  My family didn't get the memo about America being a 'melting pot' of diverse cultures, though the next generation definitely trends in that direction, including Norwegians and Scots in the mix.

Here is a map of that small region of former Germany/Prussia/Pommerania where all my ancestors lived before emigrating to the US.  The map includes the local Way of St. James pilgrimage routes.

And here is one idea for a future long distance hike across Europe--following one of the many 'Way of St. James' pilgrimage routes across Europe.

Just look at that network of trails!  Each of them is marked, usually with the scallop shell symbol that indicates that it is a Way of Saint James pilgrimage route (the example below is in Poland) ...

... and each of them provides accommodation, churches of refuge, and hostels for the pilgrim along the way.  Many of these routes have been in continuous use by pilgrims for more than 1000 years.  Here is a particularly good example of a bit of well-worn trail near Fribourg in Switzerland:

The infrastructure along all these routes is astounding, and there is nothing comparable in the US.  If only ...

Well, for me a Pilgrimage is more about connecting with the living things of the wild world than about connecting with fellow humans who are rooted in the Judeo-Christian faith tradition.  We'll see how my thinking evolves, but going back to Europe to hike seems an inevitable future prospect.  

Thoughts never stand still, except when they're written down.  (That's why the written word and the recorded video, etc., are such inadequate and flawed media.)  I will be reporting how things evolve as new directions emerge.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

The Hermit in the Swiss Alps - An avid hiker's dream come true


This is the Hermit - speaking for myself here, after a long silence.

A year and a half ago I walked away from society and went into the woods in order to find my soul.

What I found was our soul -- the collective, eternal, greater being, which is embodied in each living thing's individual genome--our DNA and the complex chemistry that surrounds it.

It took eighteen months of solitude at the Cloister at Three Creeks, but ultimately, it also took a Sabbatical from the Hermit life -- a hiking trip (a pilgrimage) to what has to be Hiker's Mecca - The Bernese Oberland region of the Swiss Alps.

On my return from fourteen glorious days of hiking a small portion of that country's uniformly well-marked, entirely interconnected network of 40,000 miles (65,000 km) of hiking trails, I found a new clarity of mind.  I was finally able to allow the verbal and non-verbal elements of 'truth' to merge, to gel, and to mature.

I'll have much more to say on that in upcoming posts.  This one is just about hiking, featuring Seven videos and eleven photos from the September 2021 pilgrimage.  Enjoy:

On my arrival in the small no-vehicles-allowed town of Mürren, I was greeted by a brass band, and utterly gob-smacked by the astounding view from my motel room balcony.

Then I set out on a series of hikes, good weather or bad, hiking a new trail every day:

In the process of exploring new and relatively remote territory, I rode gondolas and cog railway trains.

This last shot above is the 'classic' one, taken from the outskirts of the town of Wengen, looking down on the Lauterbrunnen valley--the place that has inspired famous visitors for centuries, and which inspired J.R.R. Tolkien's vision of the Elven safe-haven of Rivendell.

And moving on ...

Needless to say, I want to go back.  Switzerland was never on my bucket list.  Why?  I thought it was too deep in the grip of civilization to be worthwhile.  It is true that humans have left their mark on nearly every corner of the land below the permanent glaciers, and in some places well above, but the beauty is so enduring, the vegetation so lush and resilient, that often the human footprint can be overlooked.

The Swiss national constitution (Article 88 of Section 5 on Public Construction Works and Transport) specifically identifies the government's role in overseeing the network of footpaths and hiking trails.  The country has seven national trails, continuous across the country.  I hiked portions of the most famous of them, the Via Alpina.  There is also one that is part of Europe's most famous trail network, the Camino Santiago, which in Switzerland is called the Via Jacobi.  This is less of a mountain experience and more of a cultural and religious one - truly a pilgrimage in the original sense of the word.  People have traveled these routes for a thousand years, headed most often to Santiago de Compostela in the NW corner of Spain.  

I don't know what to choose.  So many stunning trails in what may be the most spectacular landscape the world has to offer.  But the mountains are calling ...

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Video 21, The hard part, Shaping the Handle

The 'Chestnut Liberation' hiking stick's unruly root system begins its transformation into the unique handle.

PJ's workshop this time is a rock among the rambling rapids of Stoney Creek, biggest and noisiest of the Three Creeks at the Cloister.

He begins the process with a compass saw. The shaping of the handle starts by removing the obviously unwanted roots. Then the artistic process begins, with each new cut being chosen as the handle evolves.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC


Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Video 20, Sho' 'nuff - we got a peeler

PJ begins to prepare his 'Chestnut Liberation' hiking stick. The setting (his 'workshop') is his favorite place at the Cloister - the cool, shady glen beside the St. Francis statue, with the endless sound of Flat Rock Creek providing soothing background.

He begins by removing the bark. As he explains, there are two ways this can be done: the easy way and the hard way. Which will it be?

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness VLC


Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Video 19, Harvesting the Hiking Stick

The 'Chestnut Liberation' Hiking stick starts its journey from obscure forest understory red maple (Acer rubrum) sapling, with dominant trees above it giving it few long-term prospects, to a cherished walking stick for the old Hermit.

PJ shows the simple process of freeing the small tree from the soil, keeping its major root system intact. It is the bent and twisted root of the tree that provides the hiking stick with its unique handle and with its ultimate distinctive 'look'.

In future videos PJ will describe the process of shaping the raw material into a special walking aid for an old man as he rambles about the grounds of the Cloister at Three Creeks and beyond.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC

Monday, July 19, 2021

Video 18, Chestnut Liberation

The Chestnut blight fungus, introduced from Europe early in the 20th century, has completely removed the American Chestnut as a primary forest species in the eastern US. The loss has had a devastating effect on eastern wild landscapes. But there's an amazing story of hope for natural Chestnut recovery. The fungus that attacks the trees kills only the growth above ground, and does not kill the roots. The American Chestnut is able to re-sprout new growth from the roots, and many such sprouts continue to thrive in the understory of the eastern woods. Some of these trees' root systems have lived more than a century in this diminished state and show no signs of giving up. When they are exposed to sunlight, they can even grow large enough to flower and produce viable seed (the delicious chestnut) before the Chestnut blight fungus attacks and kills it back.

The grounds of the Cloister at Three Creeks has at least half a dozen of such sprouting chestnut trees in the forest understory, and here PJ discusses plans to give them a little human assistance in growing to the size where they can produce seed. Every seed produced is one more chance that American Chestnut will evolve natural blight resistance. It may take centuries, but nature does not work on human time scales. This is the story of hope and recovery that PJ presents.

Video Uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC


Thursday, July 15, 2021

Video 17, Little Things, Big Mysteries

One of the most bizarre discoveries at the Cloister at Three Creeks was this statue of St. Francis of Assisi lying face-down in Flat Rock Creek deep in the wilds of a natural woodland. How did he get there? How long had he been lying there? From the weathering of the concrete on his hooded head (which was pointed upstream), and the growth of moss on his back, the answer to the second question is unquestionably many, many years. If only he could talk, and tell us the tale of how he came to be abandoned and forgotten deep in the woods so long, long ago ...

The video contains a few other stories, ones that nature tells, the kind that PJ is always seeking out.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC


Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Video 16, Rain

A little practical joke.

Pretty much self explanatory, no?

A sudden shower hits the Cloister at Three Creeks. Very sudden.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness VLC

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Video 15 A short walk on Stoney Creek

Stoney Creek is the largest of the 'Three Creeks' that surround the Cloister. Here PJ takes a little walk next to some of the noisy white water. The video is chopped short because his camera battery ran out. But the intended experience was complete, so here it is.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC



Monday, July 12, 2021

Video 14, PJ's American Chestnut rescue plan

Here begins the 'Chestnut Liberation'. The Cloister at Three Creeks has only a handful of surviving root-shoots of the American Chestnut, a tree that used to be one of the dominant forest species in the area before a blight imported from Europe in 1904 killed off virtually every tree in the eastern US.

PJ proposes to give one of his charges a hand in its effort to produce seed before the Chestnut Blight fungus kills it back to the ground. There is hope for this effort. PJ has helped wild American Chestnuts produce seed in the past. Given a decent amount of light, natural wild American Chestnut trees do still produce seeds, and so, given time, even without human intervention, it is possible for the American Chestnut to evolve blight resistance and resume its stature as one of the great forest trees of the American East.

But, of course, humans love to meddle.  And we love underdogs, love to offer help and support to the sick and weak, and PJ is no exception; so a little human intervention seems like a fine idea, particularly with the unexpected secondary purpose PJ has in mind.

See what he proposes, as he undertakes to liberate his little friend the deep-woods Chestnut sprout.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness VLC

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Video 13, Tragedy in the woods

In honor of the traditionally unlucky number, PJ chose a theme of tragedy for the 13th video. But this tragic story told by nature is hardly all doom and gloom. In the eternal life-and-death struggle that is nature's wild way, every tragedy leads to opportunity.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC



Saturday, July 10, 2021

Video 12, The story told by old White Oak

One of the Noblest trees in the forest, the White Oak's survival advantage is simply to out-live its competitors. To do so, it has superior ability to heal wounds such as those left by dead branches. This leads to a surprising and unexpected behavior, which PJ explains ... in person.

He's getting comfortable with these daily interfaces with the outside world, so we'll be seeing more of 'The Hermit' in future videos.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC

Friday, July 9, 2021

Video 11 Evening with the birds

 Sit and listen. The cool of the evening brings out the birds as no other time of day does. Featured is the melodic medley of selections provided by the Wood Thrush. How such a tiny bird can make such big sound is one of nature's true miracles.

Coming next: In tomorrow's video PJ makes an appearance on camera!

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Video 10, A stroll along the Ridge


PJ built and maintains a mile and a quarter of trail on the grounds of the Cloister at Three Creeks. They range from rock hopping on the 'low water route' up Stoney Creek to this 'ridge walk' on a spine of land in the woods. There's a surprise at the end. Giving no spoilers.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Video 9, Gravelly Creek

The third and least of the Three Creeks at the Cloister retreat, this one had become barely a trickle, because it had been drier than normal through early summer. We're nearing the completion of the general survey of the grounds of the Cloister. Soon PJ will be making an actual appearance on camera. Stay tuned.

Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Video 8, South Corner, confluence of two of the Three Creeks

The Cloister at Three Creeks is a magical place. Two of the creeks, which PJ calls Flat Rock Creek and Stoney Creek, come together at a corner of the property where there is a nice rock perch/seat to take it all in. Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC

Monday, July 5, 2021

Video 7, Bee Bonnet Falls

Curious name, but definitely appropriate for a place where PJ literally got 'bees in his bonnet' when he ran into a hornet's nest. By whatever name, this is the best, noisiest, prettiest individual cascade at the Cloister at Three Creeks. Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Video 6, A Surprise at the West Corner

On the west corner of the landholding at the Cloister at Three Creeks, PJ (aka 'The Hermit') discovers a surprise left there more than 30 years ago by the original owner. Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC

This was the moment of discovery:  about 7:30AM on a morning exploration, the sun was beaming through a tiny opening in the forest canopy right on the statue, making it impossible to miss.  

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Video 5, The Swimmin' hole

A cool spot on a hot day. Flat Rock Creek: from the Cloister at Three Creeks. Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness VLC.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Video 4, Bathtub Rock

From the Cloister at Three Creeks: One of the fun features of the 'playground' at Flat Rock Creek. Posted for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness VLC

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Video 3, Flat Rock Creek and St. Francis of Assisi

The Cloister at Three Creeks consists of a ridge of land surrounded on three sides by creeks, a big one, a little one, and an in-between one. I visit the latter one, at a spot overlooked by a bench high on the bluff. I call this creek Flat Rock Creek. It's my spiritual center and also my playground, as you'll see in future videos.

The concrete statues on the property (there are five that I know of so far) were apparently placed here by the original owner.  This one I rescued from the creek where it was lying face down in the gravel for who knows how many years.  He accumulated an amazing mossy back and a truly worn 'patina'.

Posted for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Video 2, Making Hiking Sticks - a Hermit's pass-time

I'm a hiker at heart, and swore off the expensive manufactured sticks after I wore out the second pair of tips. I started using and making hiking sticks from the free natural materials in the woods. It's an art, and it seems each new stick has a better hand feel than the last one. Hand feel, for me, is the most important characteristic. Sturdiness, of course, is mandatory, which is why I don't use dead wood. The preferred light-weight woods that make the best sticks--red maple, white ash, tulip poplar, lose strength if the dead wood sits out in the weather for any length of time. Culling living trees from the forest to make an old man's walking stick is, for me, a natural act--as natural as digging cattails or plucking water cress. Hand tools only. I use a stone as my finishing sander. Video uploaded for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness VLC.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The 20,000 mile hike


It took close to eleven years.  Yesterday I walked a little under five miles and my official total mile count passed the 20,000 mark.

So I've done the 20,000 double.   After summiting my bucket list 20,000 foot mountain peak in South America, I started hiking to keep the top-shape I had worked so hard to achieve.  I did a lot of hiking without counting miles, but the official count began in June 2010 when I bought a Garmin hiker's GPS.  I've been recording the miles ever since, and it is that GPS-recorded number that has just surpassed 20,000.

So for my hike venue, I chose a portion of the Appalachian Trail that has been abandoned by the AT Conservancy because of development that started in the 1970's.  There were actually two reroutes.  The original AT, routed since, I believe 1935 when the trail opened, has become a road on a ridge in a big development.  The AT was rerouted down the hill to the side in the mid 1970's, but then rerouted again in the early or mid 1980's because too many houses were being built within view of the 'new' route.

What I hiked was part of that original 1935 AT that only sees a few hunters or wacky locals like me, a portion of the short-term reroute - the trail as it was routed only between the mid '70's and the early/mid '80's - which had been completely abandoned and lost (more on that in a minute), and a portion of that short-term reroute that has become a local community trail called, imaginatively, the Old Appalachian Trail.  One of the signs along that is pictured in the selfie above.

But the real fun I've had lately was finding those other abandoned sections of original AT and that short-term reroute.

The 1935 AT came up a ridge on what was formerly a woods road, which was probably still in use by vehicles back in 1935.  Finding that was not terribly hard.  I found it on the first try.  It's about a mile of trail, and I've found three surviving white blazes, faded but clearly good old vintage AT white blazes:

Finding the 0.6 miles of short-term reroute that was only used for a decade in the '70's and '80's and has not become part of the community trail was a lot tougher.  The only evidence of it is the old blazes.  Nobody ever used the trail until I started resurrecting it for my own use.  It took five different scouting trips to the area before I got my breakthrough and found the first faint blaze:

Then, over two more scouting visits I found half a dozen more old blazes and was able to fully piece together the route.  Here are three more examples of the blazes.  The coolest is the double blaze on the wall of a massive overhanging rock face.  Natural shade and shelter from all but the windiest rainstorm.

The rest of yesterday's hike, about another mile and a half, was on maintained trails, now blazed red.  Spring has sprung here in the Blue Ridge, and I got some fun flower shots.

And the Scenery was first class.  They keep this part of the trail maintained for a reason.  I love these warm days before the summer haze sets in and before the emerging leaves turn the trail into a green tunnel.

Great to be out, great to have warm weather, and so inestimably amazing to have a chunk of genuine Appalachian Trail that I can hike with near-virtual certainty that I won't meet anyone.

If I listen carefully, though, on a day as calm as yesterday was, I can almost hear the echoes of the footsteps of the Giants.  Myron Avery scouting the route in the '30's.  Grandma Gatewood thumping along in her Keds in the '50's.  Earl Shaffer, 'Peace Pilgrim' Mildred Ryder, Gene Espy, Dorothy Laker ... the list goes on and on.

Kind of sad, really, that developers took this remote historic piece of trail and paved it over.  Good that a piece of it has been left undisturbed, to be rediscovered by a foot traveler from a new generation - one on a mission to preserve wild places and to build a network of trails to connect them.

-- Posted for PJ Wetzel by F.I.T. Wilderness, VLC

Friday, February 26, 2021

A walk through the world of Brandon Sanderson


This quote, from Brandon Sanderson's epic fantasy "The Way of Kings" nearly perfectly connects my real world situation, as a solitary pilgrim on foot, with Sanderson's imagined epic Fantasy universe.

King Nohadon records that he walked more than a thousand miles from his presumed capital of Abamabar to the sacred city of Urithiru without companions and not revealing his identity.  He could have made the trip in an hour by 'Oathgate,' but his quest was about the journey, about getting to know the nature of his world, its people, and the land—to experience the grit and suffering of ordinary lives so that he could more wisely rule.

Nohadon was not just a great monarch; he was a sage and a pathfinder.  His published collection of forty parables, bearing the title that Sanderson chose for his novel, had survived 4,500 years through a period of recovery and reconstruction following an Armageddon-like war on the planet Roshar.  Most knowledge from the time before that apocalypse had been lost.  So Nohandon's book contained much of the surviving wisdom.

Nohadon ruled during the Age of Heralds, when Ishar, greatest among them, a human made immortal by the 'Almighty', organized the Knights Radiant to face the enemy species called Voidbringers, who call themselves the Singers.

Thing is ... the Singers are Roshar's native species.  Humans invaded here after destroying their home planet of Ashyn several thousand years before the time of Nohadon.  And of course, they then set about conquering the planet and enslaving the native population.

In the present day setting for the novel, all Singers had become subservient and nearly mute.  All except for a small band of free peoples called the Listeners, who live deep in a bleak region called the Shattered Plains.

The Listeners did not remember that humans existed.  The humans thought that all Singers had been fully subdued.  But now, after 4500 years of 'silence', the evil power of the god 'Odium' stirs again.  The Listeners are taking 'warform' and discussing re-conquering their world; and among humans, rumors are being whispered that the Knights Radiant may be returning ...

On the Shattered Plains, with a 'Highstorm' approaching, the human aristocrat warrior Dalinar Kholin faces off against Eshonai, leader of the tribe of Listeners. Work copyright by and Michael Whalen.

"Way of Kings," published in 2010, is Brandon Sanderson's signature work, and the one for which he should be remembered.  The key to Sanderson's writing style is character point-of-view.  There is no absolute good or evil, and each character sees the world differently.  The reader is not made privy to the big picture, only what the characters know; and nobody seems to remember much or care much about the underlying mythopoeia, its magic powers, its gods, its hidden realms.  This is, for me, both a blessing and a curse.  But more about that later.

The cover art for the United States release, shown above, is a master-work in itself, from the artist Michael Whelan.  It features the geography of the Shattered Plains, and the epic meteorology—a phenomenon called the 'Highstorm' that is far beyond a simple thunderstorm.  It contains a spirit, called the Stormfather.  It both ravages the planet as it rakes across the land every few days, and restores the planet's pseudo-physical energy source, called Stormlight. 

"Way of Kings" was Sanderson's first novel in the Stormlight Archive series.  His plan is for ten books in this series and as many as 35 (possibly revised to 31 recently) set in his mythical universe called the Cosmere.  So far, he's written four Stormlight Archive books, the latest of which was just released in November 2020.

The books were recommended to me by my daughter and future son-in-law.  I just spent the last couple months reading all four.

So here's the thing.  These books average 400,000+ words apiece (close to 1300 pages).  No author can give 30+ books of that size the craftsmanship that they need.  I strongly recommend "Way of Kings" because it is Sanderson's Magnum Opus—the book he always wanted to write and the one that he spent more than a decade perfecting.  He originally finished it in 2002 before he had any books published. In that original version, his hero, Katahdin [who he misspells as 'Kaladin'], was an aspiring knight.  After he finished writing the first of Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" books, twelfth in the overall series, which he was asked to complete posthumously, he then returned to "Way of Kings" with a new understanding of Jordan's strength in presenting a world from various character points of view, and rewrote it from scratch, giving Katahdin a far more interesting character arc [though he continues to misspell the name].

Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series is the epitome of an author filling pages to sell books.  Read his first couple of books in that series, and maybe Sanderson's last three, but run, don't walk, away from the ones in the middle.

But I digress.  Sanderson's second book in the Stormlight Archive series, "Words of Radiance," came out in 2014.  I found it also to be great fun.  It was the one that sold best, vaulting to a NYT bestseller almost immediately based on the reception of "Way of Kings".  But "Words of Radiance" begins to show signs of hasty writing and worse, of writing character studies using what I call 'Board Meeting' scenes to fill pages rather than advance the plot.  In the third novel, "Oathbringer" the stuff I consider filler and fluff overwhelmed the story, seriously bogging it down, and I would not recommend it.  "Rhythm of War", the fourth book, is a little better, with some action and interesting plot twists mixed in with the board meetings, and it has a decent climax; but it suffers most from the curse of 'hasty' plotting and writing.  (In the interest of keeping this post reasonably tidy, I'm not offering any supporting detail here.)  Sanderson is no longer just an author sitting at a keyboard.  He has become a novel manufacturing industry.

My recommendation, and this is advice I am now going to begin taking myself, is to seek out the one or two books that made an author famous and read only those.  They are the best because they are the stories that the author really slaved over, agonized over, took pains to perfect.  It is writing that managed to overcome the overwhelming odds against an unknown author getting published, and then to break out of the crowd even among those titles that publishers took a chance on.

Sanderson has accumulated a huge fan base who will now consume everything he writes; and to his credit, he is producing good stories with interesting characters.  And he is keeping publisher deadlines.  He's a hard worker and has that grand vision to produce perhaps the largest unified collection of works ever set in a single imagined universe.

Good on him.  But for me, as a choosy consumer, there are other brilliant talents whose stories and writing style are just as worthy if not more so; and my reading time is limited.  I've chosen not to read any more of Sanderson's works, and I've now moved on to Patrick Rothfuss's "The Name of the Wind" also on the recommendation of my daughter and her fiancée.  From there, I'll move on to seek out breakthrough Sci-Fi and Fantasy works from other new shining stars.

Rothfuss, by the way, is apparently the polar opposite of Sanderson in terms of productivity.  Published in 2007, "Name of the Wind" was envisioned as a trilogy, and the second installment was released in 2011; but his editor/publisher Betsy Wolheim is pissed.  She doesn't think he's written anything since 2014, and has not seen a word of the third book ten years on.  It seems to me that Rothfuss has been distracted by his fame, much as, I believe, George R.R. Martin is.

Okay, so now, lastly, I want to spend a little time examining the value of Sanderson's writing technique, using limited character points of view (POV), which, crucially, he uses to justify withholding big picture information that other characters (non-POV characters) know.  Even when he writes from the POV of his most knowledgeable characters (notably the 'worldhopper' Hoid, known as Wit on Roshar), he conveniently makes them 'insane' or deliberately enigmatic.  The reader gets manipulated like a puppet on a string.  And I deeply dislike being manipulated.  It's a control thing.  The reader discovers the world only as the author chooses to reveal it.  That's a 'DUH' kind of statement, but when I, as reader, keep getting bludgeoned by the author's obvious evasiveness, rather than feeling like the plot is flowing naturally, then I rebel.  At its best, this writing strategy as applied in the first book, "Way of Kings", feels fresh, like we are discovering the ways of the world as the characters discover them.  At its worst, in the many manifestations of politics-oriented and/or power-juggling board meetings, I feel disrespected as a reader.  I'm left hanging, with unspoken and unfathomable character relationships and motivations.  I'm confused and bewildered by an endless parade of new powers, new rules of magic, and newly revealed beings/spirits, all of which seem ad hoc, only partially explained, deliberately obfuscated, or just hinted at, until I'm left wondering whether it's worth muddling on.

I'll give one basic example - the origin story.  Sanderson's world-building is meticulous, unrivaled in its variety and detail; but the depth of his universe is far weaker than its breadth.  The underlying creation story is vague and vaguer.  The world supposedly began with a thing called Adonalsium, which could be a person, a force, or something else.  Nobody knows.  Strangely, none of the religious thinkers and scholars that Sanderson depicts have anything useful to say about it ( ... really?).  Adonalsium apparently interacts with the universe through a set of four primal commands, called Dawnshards, which must be invoked by a command ('abra-cadabra') and with intent - i.e. to accomplish a task ... like, say, the Creation.  What are these four commands?  Well, only one has even been identified.  The one called 'Change'.  There is no information in the Sanderson officially maintained encyclopedia, regarding the other three ... or rather, the information declares that they are unknown.

That world, as its inhabitants experience it, was the result of Adonalsium being attacked by a mob of mortals and shattered, using those Dawnshards, into sixteen 'Shards,' each with a portion of the original power.  Sixteen people from the mob adopted/absorbed those powers and became the first immortal 'Vessels' of the powers; and all the conflict and intrigue that Sanderson writes about can be traced back to the various plots and schemes of these Vessels and their inherent Shard powers, each of which is different.  Four of the original sixteen Shards have been killed (splintered), two have combined into a hybrid within one person, and only three (including one of the dead ones) have any relevance at all (so far) in the realm of the Stormlight Archive series.  Two others have some sway on other worlds, four others are named but without supplying anything other than the name, and two have not even been named, only hinted at in vague terms such as 'one that is hiding and just wants to survive' or one that may be related to Wisdom or Prudence.

Sanderson's stories are all about the power mongering and politics of interaction between the Shards, and the complex set of rules governing what powers their Vessels give to lesser creatures that the Shards create and manipulate, almost always for their own benefit.  The complexity is bewildering, to say the least.  It's great for the Sanderson devotee, not so much fun for a more casual reader.

Sanderson apparently does 'know' a lot more than he's revealing.  Okay, fine.  He's trying to sell books.  A three- (formerly seven-) book series called Dragonsteel, planned for far in the future, will be about the Shattering of Adonalsium, but that is not going to be released until he is finished with all ten of the Stormlight Archive books.  The next one, the fifth, is planned for a 2023 release.  By the time he gets around to writing Dragonsteel I'll be long dead.  What are the chances that he'll actually ever accomplish such a grand plan?  Honestly, I think it's a long shot.