Years ago, residing in the gritty, noisy, and hectic heart of San Francisco, I bumped into a guy from my rural Vermont childhood, Jimmy, and we made plans to go for a walk, catch up. Three evenings later, aimlessly strolling through parks and neighborhoods and industrial hinterlands, I explained that my main urban hobby consisted of, well, aimlessly strolling through parks and neighborhoods and industrial hinterlands. Pausing often. Paying attention to plants and animals and weather. Basically just rambling and staring at stuff.
Oddly enough, this came as news even to me. My favorite Frisco pastime was—like breathing and swallowing—involuntary, largely unconscious. I simply did what I did, and that meant bumble about until a redwood’s corrugated bark or a raccoon’s clever paw or a sky’s morphing fogbank stopped me in my tracks, enthralled.
A friend balances intimacy with discovery, familiarity with surprise. A friend keeps you company without needing to speak.
Jimmy was shocked that I avoided bars and restaurants, concerts and sporting events, and I was shocked that he was shocked. After seven miles of chitchat (and a Cooper’s hawk chasing a warbler), we shook hands and said goodbye, mutually baffled.
I’ve since relocated to a village in the Colorado Rockies, a human speck amid sprawling wilderness, and I am pleased to report that staring at stuff is now a deliberate hobby, almost a meditative practice. Stuff is cool, intricate, and interesting. Stuff deserves our regard. Eyes evolved in response to stuff. Brains evolved to notice, to get intrigued. Honestly, it’s difficult for me to picture our ancestors on the savannas doing much besides staring: Is that a critter I can kill and eat? Is that a critter who, given its druthers, will kill and eat me?
Like the australopithecines before us, poets also excel at staring—and not merely into the cosmic lint of their own fathomless navels. Consider Mary Oliver, who was famous in her community of Provincetown, Massachusetts, for striking and holding incredible poses upon encountering, for instance, a fox skulking around a pond. (Oh, there’s our Mary, frozen in another perceptual reverie, bless her quirky soul.)
Or consider Donald Hall, who obsessively watched a crooked barn out back of his New Hampshire farmhouse change with the changing seasons, the changing decades. “And everyone looked and still looks,” Hall wrote. “Even people who have lived their whole lives here never become bored with this looking….” That quote surely wasn’t intended as a manifesto, but I’ve adopted it as mine.
Increasingly, due to my elevated environs, I’m inclined to stare at stuff that is bulky, lofty, alternately snow- and wildflower-covered. Most folks refer to this stuff as “mountains,” and while I’m fine with using that term, some piece of me deems it too small a noun, too constraining. The more I stare at jagged upthrust geologic stuff, the more I lose what’s before me, what’s filling and overfilling my unblinking gaze. It’s similar to repeating a single word again, again, again, again, again—until the usual, taken-for-granted meaning melts into a mush of pure sound.
Dawn and dusk and all hours between: I stare. On the trails and from the porch and through the open window: I stare. At ridges, cirques, summits: I stare. The scenery approaches me—a slow-motion rush of texture, color, shape, and mood. Squirrels climb my shoulders, birds nest in my hair. Civilizations crumble, stars explode, the planet spins. Finally, a mosquito or chilly gust breaks the slack-jawed trance.
Do you know what I see then, what I feel? Friends.
The Western intellectual tradition insists that capital-N Nature is utterly indifferent to humans: You are a puny, warm-blooded agent capable of care, whereas a mountain is a huge, bloodless non-agent that erodes. Because I’m a product of this tradition, expressing my friendship with the local topography is uncomfortable, borderline embarrassing. I can hear the critics snicker. This so-called amity is a one-way street, a pathetic projection. That mountain doesn’t acknowledge your existence, let alone any kind of unique rapport.
Okay, but I’m not a product of only the Western intellectual tradition. I’m likewise a product of the places I’ve goggled and gawked—the Green Mountains of my youth, the California Coast Range of my twenties, the Rockies of my present. Relationships have been born in these places—vista by vista, glimpse by glimpse—and their emotional claims on me aren’t easily denied.
What constitutes a friend, a friendship? Lots of things, obviously. A friend excites you, entertains you, invites you out for adventures and fun. A friend offers solace in periods of turbulence and anxiety, sticks with you when adventures are scarce, fun a distant memory. A friend persists, refuses to quit, but also allows for growth, for transformation, for you to become a new you. A friend requests that you return the favor and accept its dynamism, its development. A friend balances intimacy with discovery, familiarity with surprise. A friend keeps you company without needing to speak.
In an interview, the novelist Marilynne Robinson, answering a question about loneliness, says to her interlocutor, “The way that every model of happiness that’s posed to us now has everything to do with interaction and connection and all the rest of it—I think that that’s very much a narrowing down of more beautiful aspects of human possibility.” Robinson doesn’t mean we can eschew interaction and connection (Aristotle’s definition of Homo sapiens as a social animal remains true as ever), just that we can broaden our understanding of society, stretch our sense of sociability.
She’s essentially asking: With what stuff might we establish a bond, a nourishing alliance? With a certain mountain, the light it sponges and shadows it throws, or exclusively with human faces, human languages, human intelligences?
During this strange surreal coronavirus isolation, these months that challenge us to both contract our lives and expand them, I find myself recalling that Frisco stroll with Jimmy—but I edit the story slightly, amend it with my imagination.
In this fictitious past, two Vermont boys who have walked seven miles through parks and neighborhoods and industrial hinterlands, through an alien metropolis—gritty and noisy and hectic—end up at the aptly named Ocean Beach. Waves nip at the toes of their sneakers. The pink sun sinks. Mount Tamalpais, the Bay Area’s iconic peak, rises above the Golden Gate Strait to the north, a humongous rumpled quilt of chaparral slopes, serpentine outcrops, and scrappy clouds.
Without talking, our boys drift apart, and for five minutes, or perhaps for a millennium, an infinity, they stand transfixed, together and separate, staring. And as they stand there, passionately and unabashedly staring, wandering within the amazement of a visible world, a tune slips into their ears, faint music from an apartment building or a parked car. “I get by with a little help from my friends,” the voice sings. “I get high with a little help from my friends.”
The Beatles? Ringo?
Our boys suspect it’s Ringo, but they can’t be positive Mount Tam isn’t the one singing that old reassuring song—song of stuff, song of staring, song that plays and plays, forever.
Top photo: David Marcu/Unsplash