On the Trail: Personal challenges and personal agency.

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

Six wild turkeys emerged from the wooded shadows into a clearing,  single file, variously walking on and sinking in to the foot of snow on the ground. Than another six than another dozen emerged, walking, sinking, moving slowly and circumspectly, stopping to forage among twigs branches and fallen tree trunks.

I had just finished running and walking among the same trails as these wild, ungainly birds. I knew a bit about the challenges they faced moving over uncertain and unwelcoming terrain, having sunk through the snow myself. Moving overland in the winter woods was laborious.

Today’s temperature was 20F, much warmer than last week’s low teens. But there was still a sense of accomplishment in managing the environment, wearing three layers instead of 4, one pair of gloves instead of two.

‘Manage the environment, don’t let the environment manage you’, an intrepid outdoors friend commented.

Humans have been struggling, and mostly succeeding, to manage their environment for thousands of years. And there is a satisfaction that comes with surviving frigid temperatures, avoiding hypothermia and frostbite and yet enjoying the out of doors, with its rich palette of colours, shapes and textures. It is the pleasure of matching personal agency against the challenges of the environment.

And we have largely mastered our environment, be it climbing tectonic uplifts soaring five miles into the hypoxic frigid sky, like Everest, or submerging to study thermal vents miles below the surface of the ocean, like the Marianas Trench, or, of course, the ultimate mastery by man- space exploration.

Yet assuming our personal agency always results in ‘mastery’ is a fallacy. It is a fallacy in the outdoors as witnessed by the many fatalities- Rob Lowe, dying on the cold shoulder of Everest moments after calling his wife in New Zealand to say ‘I love you’, Chris McCandless whose death by starvation trapped in the Alaskan back country was famously chronicled in the book ‘Into the Wild’, to name only two of hundreds, if not more.

And personal agency as ‘mastery’ is a fallacy in our day to day lives, as it only takes us so far. This is truest especially when faced with overwhelming challenges against which no one can prevail, not the smartest, the prettiest, not the wealthiest or the most accomplished, not the most important. No one.

In the test of man against nature, the latter always prevails. As for our personal agency, we can manage, or try to manage, our responses especially in the face of impending loss.  We can take small comfort that we have, at the least, participated in the process. The winter trail will test your ability to survive the inhospitable, the uninviting, the unnatural for us warm blooded, furless mammals. And it is that mere survival that makes the successful days on the hard packed snow among the barren trees and frozen ponds so gratifying, even as it gives a fleeting, albeit false, sense of invincibility.

Howard E. Friedman

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On the Trail: Winter and the Big Bang

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

(Forestwander.com via Wikimedia Commons)

In a week riddled with more senseless and barbaric killings around the globe one small item of astrophysical import did not  garner much attention, even though it addressed the fundamental question of how the universe began.

The mercury began this morning in the teens when I awoke.  Dressed in layers I ran  to the nearby woods to see what I would see. In winter, all is hidden yet all is revealed. I saw no animals running about but only remnants of their activity from the day or night before. Squirrel tracks galore, raccoon and opossum prints, the occasional deer tracks and even the footprints of a family of mallards on the ice covered portion of the slow moving creek, webbed toes pointed toward open water. Two red tailed hawks and a great blue heron took off from their hidden perches, quickly, silently, vanishing like actors disappearing into the wings.

I ran a familiar route on snow and ice and came to the small pond, now frozen solid, a rare opportunity to walk out on the ice. The water is never deep here so the only risk would be wet and frigid feet if the ice cracked below. But it held.

The harsh frozen landscape seems ancient, as if it could exist for eternity, in contrast to Spring where flowers and their petals seem so fragile, even at the peak of their beauty. Winter conjures images of frozen planets in our solar system, or the frozen dark side of the moon, dry, seemingly lifeless. And thus winter makes me ponder the origins of our universe and the earth itself.

Professor Brian Koberrlein expanded on an article explaining how our universe did not necessarily begin with one defined singular moment, the ‘Big Bang’. Rather, the professor at Rochester Institute of Technology wrote in Physics Letters B, citing research from the University of Benha in Egypt and Letherbridge University in Alberta, Canada this month, the universe always existed and will always exist. A ‘big bang’ happened along the way, but that moment, referred to as “singularity” by astrophysicists, does not have to have been the first moment.

“Singularity”, one point from which all else emanates, is a comforting idea, and, we each can identify defining moments in our lives that marked a new beginning. But, outdoors in nature, peering down the snow covered trail that fades into a sun filled patina of white and ice, the infinite seems more real than the finite.

And I am glad to welcome “infinity” back into the model of how the universe began. The concept of timelessness helps frame our own travails and challenges. Whatever will be, the universe always was and always will be and we are a part of that timelessness. And while winter on the trail evinces a natural timeless quality, you can follow that same path in the Fall, or Summer, or Spring, and it will still take you to forever.

Howard E. Friedman

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On the Trail: Hiking alongside evolution

Tabun Cave, site of pre-historic human activity,  lies next to the Israel National Trail (phto: Albatross Aerial Photography)

Tabun Cave, site of pre-historic human activity, lies next to the Israel National Trail (phto: Albatross Aerial Photography)

Israel is in the news for the recently announced discovery of the Manot 1 pre-historic modern human partial skull, carefully dated to 55,000 years ago. The skull was found in a limestone cave in the Galilee region of northern Israel in 2008 and carefully researched for the past 6 years by Professor Israel Hershkovitz and a team of anthropologists from Tel Aviv University. The find was published in the respected journal Nature and reported widely across the world. The skull has features of modern humans but also some Neanderthal features, again focusing attention on the question: did ancient Homo sapiens interbreed with Neanderthals?

About one month ago I was fortunate to have an opportunity (thanks, Mom and Dad) to visit the Carmel region of Israel and hike a bit of the Israel National Trail, a hiking trail which extends the length of the country, 1000 km, from north to south.

Blue, white and orange triple color blaze of the Israel National Trail

Blue, white and orange triple color blaze of the Israel National Trail

The section of trail I visited is literally a stone’s throw from another important anthropology site, the location of Tabun, Skhul and El-Wad caves, also limestone massifs, with a commanding view of the Mediterranean Sea and Israeli coastline just 5-6 miles due west.

View of the Mediterranean from Nachal Meorot

View of the Mediterranean from Nachal Meorot

These caves were discovered and excavated beginning in the late 1920s by British paleontologist Dorothy Garrod,a pioneer and rare female in her field. The site continued to be excavated into the 1960s and was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This collection of caves demonstrates more than 200,000 years of human existence including Neanderthal and early Homo sapien remains, living in the same location, even if not at the same time.

Looking into Tabun cave. Neanderthal remains were found in the middle layers and ancient hominid remains above and below.

Looking into Tabun cave. Neandratal remains were found in the middle layers and ancient hominid remains above and below.

Moreover, one of the adjacent caves presents a clear example of Natufian culture, humans who began to settle in one location and live a more agrarian lifestyle, no longer living a nomadic ‘hunter-gatherer’ existence. Just outside this cave system were multiple buried human skeletal remains, more than 10,000 years old, decorated with various ornaments. These may represent one of the earliest burial sites in the world.

And now, just dozens of miles away, we now have evidence of human remains which indeed represent another example of ancient humans in transition. Just exactly what that transition was from and where it was going to remains to be proven more definitively.

Manot-1 partial skull with features of ancient hominid and Neandratal (photo: Prof. I. Hershkovitz, in Nature, on-line Jan. 2015)

Manot-1 partial skull with features of ancient hominid and Neanderthal (photo: Prof. I. Hershkovitz, in Nature, on-line Jan. 2015)

It is rare these days to see “Israel” in a newspaper headline without some human tragedy or geopolitical tragedy following close behind. For the story from Manot Cave, at least, the only controversy would be of a scientific nature. And on that point, remarkably, most scientists interviewed have praised the Tel Aviv University researchers for their careful, deliberate study, analysis and conclusions.

While most tourists who travel to Israel do so to visit and bask in the holy religious sites of the past couple of thousand years, be they Jewish or Christian or Muslim, very few people travel to Israel to see where ancient Neanderthals once lived. I myself have traveled to Israel on multiple occasions, and only recently even knew such a site existed in Israel (thank you Professor John Hawks and for your Coursera course on Human Evolution).

Perhaps after visiting all the holy sites, tourists and locals alike should visit these most ancient sites of human habitation, to underscore our common heritage and to know that what joins us all into the family of ‘Man’ is so much more ancient than what divides us.

Howard E. Friedman

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