Drawing of a hilly landscape with some trees dotting itBy John He

Volume XXXVI, Issue 1, October 4, 2013

It was two weeks in. We were trekking through a forest that had been devastated by a wildfire. A layer of black dirt coated the forest floor, and with every step a plume of dark dust would burst forth, leaving behind a print of pristine dirt in the powdered remains of the fire. The charred pines leaned over us, blackened and branchless. Scabs of burnt bark lay scattered beneath. Some still clung onto the trees, twitching lightly with the wind.

With no easy alternative, we hiked through these somber remnants of the woods. Coming over the top of a hill, we suddenly saw a sliver of deep magenta on the horizon. Each stride up the hill expanded that view in front of us, until finally, stretching out as far as we could see and flowing down the hillside, color took over the blackness of the forest and enveloped our vision.

These, I was told, are the fireweeds— a nitrogen-fixing plant whose flowers bloom from green, tadpole-like buds, arranged in a spiral down a tall stem that itself is a gradient that fades from green to pink. The flowers were feral. In their unruly, uneven blossoms hid a wild beauty more powerful than even the most exotic bed of manicured flowers, where all of the brightest, most colorful flowers are arranged to shine. And in these weeds, the forest was being reborn. When they die, their corpses would be surrendered to the soil for a new generation of conifers.

In every range we passed through, limbless and leafless trees stood in our way—towering, still stubbornly standing, but dead with no less certainty. Those Rocky forests that we passed through were marred by death. This was not just the natural decay of any ecosystem, not a sort of death that blends in with everything else, but rather a grotesque, twisted blackness. Death by fire was their sentence, with hope of neither pardon nor reprieve in a fire-ruled ecosystem where dry climate and frequent lightning storms form the perfect conditions for raging infernos.

There was a certain vitality in their grotesqueness though. Nothing conveyed the life of the trees better than their death; nowhere else was their former life more evident. We came across trees in every stage of rot: Decomposingwood chips masquerading as a log, resembling its length and shape, but crumbling beneath our steps, cascading and morphing into the land; massive trees, hundreds of years old, whose deaths were mysteries, for they were only lightly charred, the core untouched; the disintegrating tree trunks that revealed the corkscrewing layers of the woody fibers, how they wrapped around each other and flowed organically into the knots in the wood…. Death and decay offered all this up for our scrutiny, and asserted in the process their own interpretation of what it means to be alive, and even more, what it means to live. They probably have it right.

In the wilderness, life met death halfway, in a compromise, an embrace. A strange notion, given that death in our daily lives seems to have developed a certain reputation. It’s quarantined. Cemeteries are surrounded by a forbidden aura:graves are gathered within, and left there. Memorials resurrect and maintain the spirit and ideal of the dead, but they erect a zone of ritualistic forbearance: We pay our respects and move on. We shudder to conceive of our own death until we are forced to confront it, and we still shudder anyway.

One night, a storm cell passed overhead. We were awoken by an urgent yell from across the camp. Huddled in the darkness of the tent, we moved into precautionary lightning positions. We could see only each other’s dark silhouettes and the flashes of faces with each stab of lightning. The crackle of each strike echoed and reverberated, louder than anything I had heard before. The light danced around us, even visible from inside the tent. We were front and center on the stage of wilderness’s theater.

The danger of being out there ceased to be hypothetical. The same thoughts sped through all of us, intruding on our consciousness. Whatever the likelihood of actually being struck, or being shocked by the ground current of a strike nearby, the awareness of my vulnerability and helplessness came in the same instant that the light flashed across the sky. The storm cell had passed right above our heads: The thunder followed the lightning almost immediately. If any of us were struck, emergency services were not hours, but days away.

That night, as I fought to keep my eyes open and stay in lightning position, waiting for the storm to pass, I felt something vague and ambiguously foreign. I would venture to say that, in that moment, I felt life’s urgency. It’s hardly a moment I can pinpoint though. But it makes some sense at least, for though we may not usually feel the urgency, it is surely there.

Yet how urgent can life be, if we can just play around indefinitely? College, jobs, families, wars abroad—it’s all a game, which, on the big scale of things, has tiny stakes. The stability that we’re so fortunate to have also happens to insulate us. We don’t have to deal with the idea of our death. Nothing touches us anymore; nothing really moves us. Every stage and station in life would just seem like an infinitesimal step in Zeno’s paradox, with no end in sight.

No thoughts along these lines actually occurred to me during the storm. Even now I can only grasp around, see if I can’t feel out its true contours and find some meaning in my experience. The mere knowledge of my vulnerability, after all, is neither surprising nor new and not in the least helpful. It only posed questions.

The midnight sky of the wilderness, on a clear night, is a deep, rich blue; the form of the land is a muted gray, and only a few scattered features and shadows in between the blue and gray are actually black. The sun’s not out, there are no street lamps, yet shadows abound, eerily distinct. Even on cloudy, overcast nights, the sky has a sourceless glow, a filtered, desaturated brightness—a glow that, night by night, as the moon wanes, fades in tandem.

The silence and dark of the night out there was the starkest reminder of its remoteness. Nothing stood between the mountains and us, except darkness—an unapologetic declaration of what wasn’t there: human civilization and community. And though there were many things that were missed—among them, running water, toilets, communication with the outside world, stable shelter, mirrors—the lack of community was certainly the source of that one itch persistently unsatisfied. One could soon get used to everything else about the itinerant lifestyle in the wild woods, but I never felt like I belonged. Sure, we bonded as a group, as inevitably would happen when you spend thirty days and nights with the same dozen people, but we fell short of a community. We were a team united by the necessity of the journey and nothing more. For the first time since starting college, I missed home. And I also missed Amherst.

But even after a month out there, Amherst was disappointing. It was strangely unsatisfying to see people again. I had longed so much to be back, only my vision of the Amherst community was greater than reality. I did not have in mind the Val meet and greet, the routine “how was your summer” questions, the dragged-out “hey” and the giant grins we make, face stretched from cheek to cheek, when we first see a friend back from summer. All of a sudden there’s a rekindling of every connection, however faded or tenuous, and we’re greeting all the faces we vaguely know, whose names we might possibly be able to tentatively recall: We were all friends again. It was all just a little tiring.

It seemed to me right then that I spent a month merely imagining the idea of a tightknit campus community, composing it of false memories. In a fit of discontent, I concluded that the idea of community really was just something we force upon ourselves for no real reason, to pretend to others and ourselves that we care. Why not just
stick with our close circle of friends, if this were the true state of our community? After all, most universities aren’t like this. Outside of the US, nobody wears hoodies with the name of their college loudly printed across the chest. There’s no pretense that everyone is friends with everyone else. And it’s quite clear who friends are, and who strangers are, even within the same community.

In German, Freund is a designation not so freely given; most others are just Bekannten, those whom you know. But here, it’s a murky line. Everyone on campus is a friend (we talk all the time in Val!), or a friend of a friend, yet at the same time not quite a friend (did we ever actually sustain a conversation beyond a minute?). And yet it’s this ambiguity that seems to form the foundation of our community. Maybe that’s why people persistently complain about the subtle, subterranean tensions on campus. We’ve got an idea of a community that seems incompatible with the fact that we’re not all best friends, that some of us are drastically different from others in values and interests. So when that incompatibility bubbles to the surface, and we realize that we aren’t actually terribly close with most of the campus, we become cynical about the community, complaining that it facilitates only superficial interactions.

But surely there’s something more to a community than just an affectation, the product of a coincidental union—there had to be something that made me look forward to it when I was out in the wild, something about it that’s actually worth pursuing. I doubt it is the fault of the community that little more than superficial connections can be sustained. In fact, the idea of an Amherst community is probably the onlything keeping those otherwise tenuous connections alive in the first place, keeping them from falling into the dominion of foreignness, which would be much less awkward because there’d be no connection at all. And by keeping alive the ambiguous and perhaps awkward friendships, we sustain the possibility that our idealized community could become a reality. After all, isn’t that what an ideal is? Not real, though potentially real.

The Absaroka Range is pristine like nothing else: Few hikers have even heard of it, and only local horse-packers roam the ranges. I went out there to, as Thoreau put it, “front only the essential facts of life.” I still have the maps of my journey this summer pinned to my wall. I look at them occasionally, recalling the shape and contours of the land, its rise and fall, over which we had stepped and clambered and fallen—where we had gotten lost and trapped—the barren rock faces and high alpine plateaus. And I remember the odd, uneasy feeling of seeing miles and miles of unpopulated land, feeling so free and lost at once.

I was disappointed because the image of the ideal community I had conceived out in the wilds didn’t match up with the real deal in Val. But the memories of my experience remind me, every time I fall into cynicism, what it would be like to be without a community.

We take civilization for granted. We can’t fathom what it’d be like to be truly isolated and without community. We can’t conceive what it’d be like to have to use the bathroom without a bathroom, to sleep under the stars night after night, to worry about erecting shelter every day, to not have instant communication, to have to wake up every morning and go to the river to get liters of water just for breakfast. We can’t imagine a death that isn’t morbid, death that determines the shape and structure of life, delimits it in an informative way.

But if we could, if we could imagine all that, then maybe we’d realize the value of what we have. To know the land, its life and its vibrancy, is a privilege we lost when we traded it for convenience, safety, and stability—for civilization. A worthy exchange, no doubt, if only we had kept in mind the worth of what we traded it for. These pockets of wilderness here and there might not be the only things that’ll serve as reminders, but that is certainly something we cannot afford to lose. Where else could we go and pretend that we’re not civilized, and in the process find out what it actually means to be civilized?