‘Walking to Listen’: a well written cross country quest for meaning.

9781632867001Walking to Listen: 4,000 miles across America one story at a time, by Andrew Forsthoefel (Bloomsbury Press 2017)

Who is Otho Rogers and why should we care? Rogers, a  73 year old cowboy and preacher in Melrose, New Mexico has plenty of advice for living to whomever may listen. Author Andrew Forsthoefel met Rogers during his walk across America.

“And time goes by like, like cross ties on a railroad track just chh, chh, chh, chh. These days are gone. So while you got it, use it. Your mind. Your strength. Your agility. Use it.”

But you and I would never ever cross paths with Otho if it were not for first time author Andrew Forsthoefel who met and recorded dozens and dozens of conversations like this one with Mr. Rogers during a 4,000 mile cross country ‘Walking to Listen‘ journey in 2011. Forsthoefel began his odyssey about 6 months after graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont with a degree in environmental studies and just after getting fired as a deck hand on a lobster boat.

“A week after I got fired I hatched a desperate plan. I started wondering what it would be like to walk out my back door and just keep going.”

Though unemployed and basically directionless, Forsthoefel’s plan to walk across America does not come across as a desperate plan by a desperate man. Rather, it seems like the inspired idea of a new college graduate who lives life seriously and thoughtfully with enough empathy to imbue his trek with a noble theme boldly written and hanging from a sign on his backpack: Walking to Listen.

Andrew Forsthoefel started honing his listening skills as a college senior interviewing people about what it means to “come of age”. His walk was just an extension-an 11 month extension of that deeply seated need to listen and learn from whomever he could.

Forsthoefel’s empathy for others, his ongoing struggle to find meaning in his own life together with his fluid, light and insightful prose are the three ingredients which make this debut work of non fiction so much more than just another cross country adventurer’s travelogue.

Indeed, Forsthoefel does not hover on the details of his backpacking gear (except for a jogging stroller he eventually used to transport his pack-he named the stroller Bob). He carried the essentials, mostly, a tent, clothes, food plus a mandolin. He camped wherever he could, often in people’s backyards with their permission and he bought food often in gas station mini marts. Frequently however, Forsthoefel found himself the guest of people he met on the way, people who opened their homes to put up and feed a complete stranger.

And it is the writing about the people he meets and how that experience shakes his consciousness where Forsthoefel’s prose shines the brightest. Many folks he met briefly and recorded them on his Olympus LS-10 audio recorder, like college seniors at Sweet Briar College in Virginia or a grandmother working at a gas station who also belongs to a nudist colony or an artist in Cerillos Hills, New Mexico recorded in her kitchen. But the author often spent several days with some of the people he met, people who took him in, fed him, showed him around their communities and shared their stories-of joy, of sadness, of dreams realized or broken and always, the simple day to day stories that begin to give some definition to what it means to be human.

Walking to Listen is poignantly written. In addition to short one page vignettes that separate chapters, Forsthoefel treats the reader to full course servings of some of his more memorable and life changing experiences. He spends pages sharing his experience as a white man walking through Montgomery, Alabama where he met and listened to the descendants of slaves. He recounts over several pages his walk into and out of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, his memorable walk across Texas including a brief meeting with a former president and perhaps the longest section devoted to his time trekking through the Navajo nation reservations in Arizona.

Forsthoefel refers frequently, perhaps too often, to his two muses, Walt Whitman and Rainer Maria Rilke, quoting lines from Leaves of Grass and excerpting long paragraphs from Letters to a Young Poet, two books he carried on his walk. But even his frequent citations only underscore the young author’s fervent searching for a universal truth he hoped to find on his walk, an inner North Star he could use to navigate his life.

So who is Otho Rogers and why should we care? Not the most memorable character Forsthoefel brings to light, Rogers’ sagacious advice none the less is just one reminder that everyone has something to offer if we only take the time to stop and listen.

Howard E. Friedman

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‘The Road Not Taken’ Revisited

If activities had an official poem like states and countries have national birds and flags and songs, than Robert Frost’s 1915 poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ could be the patron poem of the ouDQMbBQAAQBAJtdoorsman. Deep in the woods, the narrater contemplates the two paths before him, “and sorry I could not travel both” he says. But choose he must. “And I-I took the one less traveled, and that has made all the difference” concludes this poem with its two most famous lines. And to the tens of thousands of people who have read this poem 20 lines,the credo of taking the road less traveled has become an anthem of sorts, a clarion call for rugged individualism, a recipe to how we can be certain our decsions make all the difference’.

In The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the poem everyone loves and almost everyone gets wrong (Penguin Press 2015), author David Orr, poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review, a teacher at Cornell University and a graduate of Yale Law School,  challenges the common interpretations of this poem. He argues in the 172 page book that Frost was not actually exhorting the reader to take the harder or hillier or more difficult path. Rather Frost was exploring what it means for people to have free will to choose.

 

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Mr. Orr calls on his own considerable talents of literary analysis to plum the nuanced depths of this poem but he also cites a number of Frost experts and other scholars to help explain the man and his writing as it bears on “The Road Not Taken”. Orr cites the Frost biographer Lawrance Thompson to explain the roots of this work. According to the biographer, Frost and his friend English poet Edward Thomas would often take walks together in the woods. Thomas however was indecisive and, regardless of which path they took would invariably regret that path not taken. Frost penned this poem and sent it to Thomas who according to Thomas’ biographer Matthew Hollis was “troubled and confused by the poem and might even have read it as a goad”. Whether Frost’s poem had anything to do with it or not is beyond knowing but shortly thereafter Thomas decided to enlist in the British army and was killed two years later. Frost meanwhile returned to the United States. “So the confusion embedded in “The Road Not Taken”is mirrored in the love and misunderstanding between its American author and his English friend”, Orr writes, “an ironic parallel for a thoroughly American poem.”

Robert Frost struggled as a writer and a poet from high school until well in his thirties after he was married and had a family. Indeed, “At thirty five he was nobody even to the people to whom he might have been a somebody”. He was publishing short stories in a chicken farmer’s publication called The Eastern Poultryman. But he had commercial success in 1912 with the publication of “A Boy’s Will”. “The Road Not Taken” followed a few years later  and his success continued. He read his poem, ‘The Gift Outright’ at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Frost died in 1963. And according to the author David Orr,  “The Road Not Taken”  has appeared in more than 2000 news stories and as a subtitle in more than 400 books not written by Frost. The poem was even featured in a Super Bowl commercial.

So, what is ‘The Road Not Taken’ really about?

In an almost talmudic analysis Orr writes about the title of the poem, or, that is the title that is popularly, and incorrectly typed into search engines, ‘The Road Less Traveled’. The true title however,focuses on the road not taken, and is decidedly not about what the narrator did, Orr states emphatically, but about what he didn’t do. Every phrase and sentence of the poem is up for close reading by Orr as he tries to decipher this oft cited yet not clearly understood most popular of American poems.

Fo example, the choice of the word “roads” instead of paths  or trails.  Although Frost’s traveler is alone in a forest, “which ever way he goes, he follows a course built by other people” as opposed to following some game trail or haphazard path that cuts it way through the forest.. Frost’s wayfarer defines his choices, “one path grassier than the other”, with no mention of his destination. Is he in a rush? Is he interested in scenery or is he looking for a challenge. Does his choice really make a difference? And, does he even have a choice?

Orr titles the next section of the book, ‘The Choice’, wherein he probes the whole notion of free choice and what it means to choose:

‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both’ – within two lines, it feels as if we’ve arrived at the center of the dilemma intrinsic to all dilemmas: the necessity of choice itself. If we were to dream about what it means to choose, that dream would look something like “The Road Not Taken”.

Nonetheless, this poem does not address critical elements of choice, Orr explains with several examples. Frost does not address the affect of this choice on others. The decision does not have anything to do with the culture of the place, a forest. It does not reflect on any moral consequences or even present the traveler with so many options, just two. The narrator can chooses in peace without the distraction of the details of daily life yet, there seems to be no chance the walker will fail to choose and simply turn around and go back. “So if all these potential dimensions of choice are missing from the poem, what are we left with? A kind of idealized or “pure” choice,” Mr. Orr proposes.

And so the author concludes his thoughtful discussion of “The Road Not Taken” by focusing neither on the poet nor the poem but on the nature of the chooser.

“One of the less remarked features of “The Road Not Taken” is that it offers a portrait not just of decisions but of deciders-or,to pick a more helpful word, of selves.” Orr brings several examples of how this notion of choice has been embraced by a community of self help authors and valedictory orators, urging us to choose the difficult path and challenge ourselves as a means to discover our true selves. Orr suggests that we can not precisely define ourselves wholly by our choices and their consequences:

“But most of all, we see the centrality of the junction itself. “The Road Not Taken” never mentions what the speaker finds on the path he eventually takes; instead, the poem concludes by echoing its own opening lines, “Two roads diverged in a wood,” as if to return us to the forest in which we started. What matters  most, the poem suggests  is the dilemma of the crossroads.”

We all make choices in our lives and no one can really ever know what would have happened had we veered onto the road not taken. Do we do ourselves any justice by trying to peer back into a past that never became reality? Frost’s traveler does indeed look back at his moment of decision, with a sigh. But in a remarkable poetic irony, his thoughts turn not to the road not taken but to the ultimate choice he did indeed select, the road less traveled.

Robert Frost has created a most challenging duality where one can be both “sorry I could not travel both” but assured that his choice “has made all the difference.” Something to thing about at life’s next crossroads.

Howard E. Friedman

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(http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173536)

The Road Not Taken

BY ROBERT FROST

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

 

 

 

The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance

Book Review

Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall (Alfred A. Knopf 2015)

51fN0mD37nL._AA160_ Anyone on the trail either hiking or running invariably wonders at some point, “How far could I go if I had the time?”. With a subtitle of “How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance”, Christopher McDougall attempts to answer the question of just how much we can endure, both physically and psychologically, when put to the challenge. And in answering those questions he aims to understand “the art of the hero”, and to explore the “foundation of both Greek theology and Western democracy: the notion that ordinary citizens should always be ready for extraordinary action.”

The book, which follows his 2011 best-seller ‘Born to Run’ about endurance running, retells a war story that occurred in April 1944 during World War II on Nazi occupied Crete, an island known for its isolationism, spirit of rugged individualism and adherence to what resembles a “paleo” diet since they eat mostly home raised meat plus vegetables which were either grown or foraged in the surrounding mountainous forests.

McDougall opens his book with a retelling of how a band of British Special Operations soldiers together with Cretan resistance fighters kidnapped the Nazi General Heinrich Kriepe. The kidnapping occurred near the general’s Nazi headquarters with a daring display of “chutzpah” on the part of the kidnappers. Once the general and his car had been commandeered, the British-led team than spent more than two weeks navigating the very rugged Cretan backcountry on little sleep or food while they transported  the general to a point where he could be conveyed off the island as a prisoner of war.

The journey was arduous and required truly superhuman physical skill and nerves and resolve of steel. And the mission proved fatal for some of the resistance fighters as well as Cretan citizens of the town of Anogia who were massacred by the Nazis as they struggled to re-capture their general. But it is the endurance of the soldiers that McDougall explores in the book and the topic of endurance in general often in a zig zagging manner darting between the main narrative and long diversions into ostensibly related topics.

Weaved between the narrative, McDougall details a history of military survival training and takes a questionable detour to look at the world of Parkour, and finishes with several chapters devoted to a history of nutrition especially as it has been practiced by endurance athletes. McDougall contends that the gods of Greek mythology learned to survive adversity while dealing with human scale challenges even as they inhabited a godly abode. Some of those gods such as Zeus originated on Crete and they created a Grecian zeitgeist of heroism that was embodied in Crete during the war where men, women and children of the Crete countryside embodied paideia, arete and xenia (skill, strength and desire) but understood that “heroes are protectors” but, “your’e only strongest when you have a weakness for other people”, McDougall writes.

And he discusses the ancient Greek military technique of pankration, a type of free form wrestling, which has its roots in Greek mythology and dates to the Olympic games of 648 B.C.  He touches on ancient martial arts and “The Natural Method of Training” published by Edwin Chekly in 1890, among other techniques, after introducing us to suburban English women who have mastered the art of Parkour. Named for the French parcours,  Parkour acolytes learn to turn an urban landscape into a playground in which they have taught themselves to scale brick walls by running up them, balance and jump off of railings, landing in a somersault, only to spring back up and over the next obstacle. Parkour, McDougall posits, proves that humans have an innate ability to overcome physical obstacles tapping the ‘elastic coil’ stored up in our tendons, ligaments and even our fascia. (see a video of these Parkour moms here).

McDougall strains at times to make the case that the British special ops and Cretan resistance fighters were successful because they harnessed the skills and spirit embodied in these ancient techniques that have some Grecian roots. But one of the main focuses of the author’s thesis rests in his theory about the benefit of the Cretan diet, essentially a paleolithic meat and vegetables diet. McDougall interviews and visits with world renowned  South African exercise physiologist  Timothy Noakes Ph.d as well as tracking down the enigmatic chiropractor turned nutritional  consultant both to the stars and to star athletes, Phil Maffetone D.C.

Both Noakes and Maffetone eschew our mainstream carbohydrate laden diet as unnatural, unhealthy and down right dangerous. They both explain that from an evolutionary point of view humans have evolved to eat meat and plants and if those plants contain carbohydrates, then they are at least complex carbs, not the simple sugars that appear in almost all of our processed food, from Ketchup to soda to breakfast cereals and even packaged bread. Our consumption of large amounts of sugar, they explain, stimulates our body to release insulin, which stores the sugars in our bodies as fat and than drives us to consume even more sugar laden food to repeat the cycle.

When you retrain your body to burn fat as fuel, and not carbohydrates, you can increase your endurance and remain more satiated for longer periods of time, the experts explain. When Dr. Noakes adopted the eating lifestyle he professed, he lost weight and cut his time in the famous South African Comrades 56 mile ultra-marathon by two hours and reduced his time to run a 5K race by more than 20%, all that at the age of 56. Even the entire Los Angeles Lakers basketball team finally cut sugar out of their diet, began eating grass-fed beef, nuts and  kale chips. The exercise and nutritional guru Phil Maffetone went a step further and maintained that not only was the no carb or very low carb diet healthier but combined with some training tips, the eating lifestyle changes would reboot the subject’s metabolism to start burning fat as its primary fuel source instead of glycogen and sugars.  And since the body stores much more fat than sugars, endurance will naturally improve. He is even beta testing an app to help make the switch.

Overall, Chris McDougall presents a compelling argument that anyone could probably push themselves much harder, set higher standards and tap in to inner resources. You hiked 10 miles today? You could definitely push on. You ran a marathon?  Start training for an ultra. The key to ‘mastering the lost secrets of strength and endurance’ then, would be to understand human evolutionary history and make a course correction in one’s nutrition. Assiduous training and having resolute confidence in your abilities like the Parkour moms would also help. And having a tantalizing goal like kidnapping a Nazi general right from under the noses of his hapless soldiers would help as well.

Howard E. Friedman

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H is for Hawk – rediscovering humanity

jpegI have only another 20-30 minutes or so until I turn the final page of “H is for Hawk”, the acclaimed prize-winning memoir by Helen Macdonald. And that thought makes me feel the way I do in the waning hours of a most rare soul-nourishing, mind-cleansing vacation. And it is not because Macdonald writes in detail about her interesting and unusual avocation of falconry and in particular, takes us on a journey as she acquires, trains and bonds with a goshawk, a fierce hunter of the forest floor. And it is not because she has such facility with words, making her prose so pleasurable to read it almost hurts.

Rather, “H is for Hawk” is so gripping and difficult to let go because in it the author shares the painful journey of healing from the depths of despair and loss after the unexpected death of her father.

“My vision blurs. We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of the lives we have lost.”

Macdonald is certainly not the first to counterpose her personal grief and loss against the backdrop of raw nature. Cheryl Strayed wrote her memoir “Wild” about her attempt to heal her battered soul while she through-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and that story was memorialized last year in a Hollywood movie. But while Strayed’s story was 2-dimensional, her angst and the trail, Macdonald’s writing takes the reader into four dimensions: the very painful loss of her father, the story of her experiences with her goshawk, the odd, sad and compelling story of author T.H. White (known for the children’s classics “The Sword In the Stone” and “The Once and Future King”) as detailed in his work “The Goshawk”, and the fourth dimension, time, as she takes the reader into the rich history of falconry through the ages.

Ms. Macdonald, a historian by education as well as a writer and poet, chronicles her experiences rearing and training a goshawk to hunt rabbits and pheasants, spending day after day with the bird, feeding it, weighing it, bonding with it and almost becoming it. The goshawk, affectionately dubbed Mabel, is not the first raptor that the author has trained. Fascinated by birds of prey since childhood, and with extensive experience working with and flying them, the author now decides in the wake of her father’s death to train one of the most challenging birds flown by falconers.  Goshawks have a reputation for being difficult to work with and their hunting style is different from other hawks as well; they fly low to the ground, preferring to hunt in the forest as opposed to the open field. That challenge is what she needs while she is in mourning.

But it is the loss of her father that Macdonald comes back to as she shares her feelings and her observations about losing and aloneness and temporality. And she contrasts those feelings against the inner life of the emotionally scarred T.H. White, an outsider and loner, and the life of her goshawk and its “conversation of death”, the unspoken communication between the hunter and the hunted:

“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.”

Though her writing is often lyrical and a pleasure to read, Macdonald is so much more than a mere lyricist. She is a realist who can stomach talons in a rabbit’s head and she can snap its neck if needed to end the animal’s misery. And it is her acceptance of the brutality that exists in life in the wild that makes her more the clear-sighted naturalist than Emerson or Thoreau or John Muir. She is unapologetic about nature, which, while sublime, is, as Tennyson wrote,”red in tooth and claw.” The fog on the meadow in the early morning sun-rise and the blood and feathers among the grass and nettles after the kill. And it is all natural. Through her hawks, Macdonald eventually saw through the romanticized view of nature that casts all woods and streams and ferns and dales as a  balm for our suffering souls:

“Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. I was furious with myself and my own unconscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”

Macdonald’s truths are difficult to hear for romantics like myself who have indeed looked to the woods as an escape. But ironically I have of late come to the same conclusion. It would be nice if the deep forest truly cared about us and could offer a consoling embrace, but a towering oak tree casting a cool shade under its leafy canopy on a steaming hot day would just as soon fall upon and crush me than shade me. Nature is implacable, reflecting back only what we bring into it, if that.

“H is for Hawk” tells a story we each are likely to confront at some point in our lives if we have not already. Without the hawk, though, leaving us to find comfort and solace and healing among our own species. A discovery and a story that Madonald tells so so well.

Howard E. Friedman