Migration and a new year

The ultimate trek continues for thousands and thousands of men, women, children and families. Not an adventure trek, like an American family took last year hiking the entire 2,100 mile Appalachian trail. Rather, an escape from unlivable countries, a trek for survival.

Human migration has dominated the national news of late, with daily stories of despair and desperation as families flee either their war- ravished homes or their economically disheveled countries and attempt to relocate in a stable European city. And images of migrants’ failures to reach their destination have made even more of an impact. The troubling and terribly sad picture of a toddler face down, dressed in a shirt, shorts and little sneakers, washed ashore like a dead fish, lying still on a Turkish beach, dominated this past week’s pictures. The dead boy, Aylan Kurdi, was one of two brothers who drowned, along with their mother, fleeing from Syria.

Migration is neither new nor novel. In fact, here in America, question many people about their families’ background and it often includes a story of immigration. Humans have been migrating from close to the beginning of human history. Anthropologists have traced human migration from Africa to the Levant, specifically the coastal plains of Israel, into Europe, Asia and the Americas. And human fossils dating back 42,000 years have been found in Australia, most likely from migrants who boated from other Pacific islands when the sailing distance was shorter than it is today. That distance was estimated to be less than 100 miles then, but has grown to more than 300 miles since sea level rose after the melting of the ice at the end of the last ice age.

Migration is well-known in the animal kingdom. Birds migrate regularly; even the common American robin has the term “migratorius” as part of its scientific name.  Many mammals such as wildebeests and gazelles stage visually stunning massive annual migrations. And in the insect world, the fragile monarch will travel thousands of miles to its breeding grounds.

Yet nation after nation seems to become apoplectic with a large influx of unexpected human migrants. Of course, such a response is understandable, as countries need to be able to provide resources for migrants, including shelter, food, medical care and if the migrants stay, ultimately jobs and education and permanent housing. But the intensity of discomfiture with the arrival of migrants who, by the time they arrive are in a desperate state, is surprising, as if people’s desire for safety and security is unnatural.

Migration is natural and in no way an aberration. It is, in fact, ancient. American Indians often shifted between highlands and lowlands depending on the seasons and the availability of food supplies; thousands of years earlier, their own ancestors crossed from Asia via the Bering Strait. What has changed in the global picture however, is not migration, but the presence of countries’ borders and the imposition of the rule of law around those borders. We have all grown up with distinct countries and therefore accept that this construct is as it should be. In fact, against the backdrop of human and modern-human existence spanning several hundred thousand years, nationality and borders are a recent phenomenon on planet earth.

So how do we, as a world with countries and borders and immigration laws, deal with the natural desire of tens of thousands of people, perhaps more, who want to migrate to a safer or more prosperous land? First, I would suggest that we remember our own humble roots as descendants of immigrants, especially those who were ‘strangers in a strange land’.  In fact, Prime Minister of Israel Netanyahu recently addressed the migrant crisis, since the Jewish people are no strangers to their own history of forced migration, either due to expulsion, from Spain in 1492, or due to fleeing the progroms and crematoria of the second world war. Israel has already absorbed thousands upon thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, even flying to retrieve immigrants from Ethiopia. Israel, he explained, is unable to absorb a new wave of immigrants. But at least he has spoken out and acknowledged the problem.

Second, we should recognize that the need or desire to migrate is not sinister but natural. Third, we should work toward a path to immigration that should be universally provided by all countries, acknowledging that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not virtues bestowed upon one by merit of place of birth but are universal ideals.”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” as Emma Lazarus wrote, should not only be a slogan on the Statue of Liberty.  Fourth, more countries should model the exemplary behavior of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is taking the world lead in the Syrian migrant crisis. Fifth, with respect to the Syrian crisis, we should question why more Arab countries are not opening their doors to accept Syrian refugees and why more world pressure is not being brought to bear to resolve the ongoing crisis in Syria that is at the root of the current crisis.

We are now a global community, albeit with myriad national histories and unique identities. Our economies are interdependent. Many developed nations are now an amalgam of multiple nationalities. And while I do not advocate for the total homogenization of the global population and a borderless world, we do need to allow for occasional population shifts. They should not be a burden to any one country and all stable countries should participate in opening their doors. For if we do not work out the mechanics of this challenge now, with a world of nearly 7 billion inhabitants, the distribution of people across the globe will certainly be one of the preeminent issues facing the world in the very near future, as we grow toward the estimated 9 billion people this planet is projected to host in the not-so-distant future.

In one week, the Jewish people mark the end on one year and the beginning of another, declaring that “hayom harat olam”  (today marks the birth of the world). We acknowledge the ‘world’ as one global entity while at the same time praying for our destiny as a people as well as for our individual health and prosperity. The individual is intertwined with the national and both are citizens of the world. And while the message of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, is decidedly about our personal welfare, our place as individual cogs in the cosmic big wheel is implicit. A subtle but present subtext of the holy new year’s day echos the oft quoted maxim of Hillel the Elder from about 2,000 years ago that appears in Ethics of the Fathers and so brilliantly condenses the challenge of balancing the personal with the communal. Hillel wrote, “If I am not for myself, than who will be for me, but, if I am only for myself than what am I, and, if not now, than when?”

“When” of course, must be now.

Whatever calendar you keep, whatever holidays you celebrate, here is a wish for all to have a healthy and happy year, wherever you are around the globe.

Howard E. Friedman

-30-

Advertisements

The Evolution of Walking: From Laetoli to the Exodus to the Appalachian Trail

hiking in Chamonix

Ambulating on two legs dates back  3.6 million years ago according to anthropologists who have studied human like foot prints preserved in the volcanic ash in Laetoli, Tanzania. Those foot prints were discovered by anthropologist Mary Leakey in 1978.

http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/newsletters/10_1/laetoli.html

The Laetoli footprints, from http://www.getty.edu, photo-Martha Demas, 1995.

The human like Austrolapithicenes who left those foot prints were quite possibly walking for a utilitarian purpose, like searching for food or shelter, or returning to their shelter. As our human society has evolved, however, walking has evolved right along with it. In fact, one could suggest that as a species, we have evolved to no longer need walking for distance travel.

We walk now to thrive, not survive. Evening strolls, weekend hikes, backpacking trips, laps around the high school track. Humans continue to find new but non-essential ways to exploit the simple, elegant act of placing one foot in front the other. And that act, in fact, is one of the hallmarks of what it means to be human.

Today, walking for long distance travel,  on the other hand, has become rare. And this might explain why last month, when the Tougas family of New Richmond, Canada, announced their plans to walk more than two thousand miles, together, on the Appalachian Trail,  they saw it as a viable marketing opportunity to raise money for their project.

The Tougas family announced their planned family through-hike of the AT on Kickstarter.com.  They  received pledges of $19,109 (Canadian), surpassing their goal of $16,000. The family spokesperson and father, Damien Tougas, explains on his KickStarter site that the monies raised will go to fund production of a video series that sponsors will receive in installments, once a month. The money raised, he said, will not be used to pay for the hike itself. The family has already put aside funds for their 6 month sojourn, he explains.

Walking has always been a sure mode of human transportation. Early humans of course had no alternative. Hunting and gathering required walking and beasts of burden had presumably not yet become part of daily life.  Even Americans, thousands of years following hunter-gatherers, still walked alongside their covered wagons,  for upwards of six months.  400,000 or so people migrated, on foot, westward to  Oregon, Utah, New Mexico and California, between 1840 to almost 1870. Their wagons were so full of family belongings and food there was precious little room left for riders. But these hearty pioneers were perhaps among the last of the long-distance migratory walkers, at least in North America.

Human beings have slowly, but persistently, sought out alternatives to walking. Even several thousand years ago, Egyptian soldiers used horses to pull their chariots. Some Greek warriors rode into battle on the backs of elephants and trade routes in the Middle East have domesticated the camel.  In more recent times horses have either carried riders or pulled wagons and carriages.  The horseless carriage morphed into the car, and now motorized transportation has become ubiquitous.  Walking as a daily means of transportation has become a rarity, at least in western civilization.

Tougas family (fimby.tougas.net)

Tougas family (fimby.tougas.net)

And while the Tougas’ get great credit for their planned family adventure, we are left with the question, why is watching another family walk intrinsically interesting? Certainly there are challenges and risks with a long distance hike and even more so for the younger Tougas children.  The AT however,  is well marked, well traveled and fairly close to civilization along most of the route. Although  a 2,100 mile trek is big undertaking, and the trail is quite strenuous at times and weather is always a variable.

Nonetheless, I suggest that our societal de-evolution of long distance walking is the key to family Tougas’ ability to raise close to twenty thousand dollars from 267 people who are willing to pay to see that family walk. Almost like paying to watch an IMAX movie about rock climbers, or cliff divers or base jumpers. In 2014, traveling a long distance on foot is a novelty and considered an adventure, only for the intrepid among us. And I suspect that even if family Tougas said they were going to walk strictly along back-country roads from Georgia to Maine and stay in bed and breakfasts along the way, and not pitch their tent in the woods, they still would have been able to raise money for their trip.

From Biblia Das Ist, Martin Luther (1486-1583), a depiction of the Exodus. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

From Biblia Das Ist, Martin Luther (1486-1583), a depiction of the Exodus. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

In one week the Jewish people mark the exodus of the Children of Israel out of Egypt, when they began their forty year sojourn toward the Promised Land. After hundreds of years of bitter enslavement the Israelites walked out of Egypt, away from their life of servitude, to follow Moses, a leader appointed by God. During four decades the Hebrew tribe walked from encampment to encampment in the Sinai peninsula, until they finally crossed the Jordan River to enter the city of Jericho in the land of Israel.

Next week, when Jewish families gather to commemorate that night about four thousand years ago when the Israelite  begin their long walk toward freedom, let us also remember that one of the most basic human functions, walking, is so simple and elegant. The long walk should not be considered a novelty,  since  the process of walking can transport us, physically and figuratively, toward a new beginning.

Howard E. Friedman

 

 

 

 

On the trail: Retreat and the edge effect

Tenafly Nature Center at Rt. 9 (H. Friedman)

Tenafly Nature Center at Rt. 9 (H. Friedman)

I finally turned back.

Perhaps my plan was ill advised from the start. To run and hike in two feet of snow without the aid of snow shoes or skis. Or even boots. Just La Sportive Wildcat trail shoes and a plastic bag I had slipped over each of my feet before I put my shoes on. But I really thought the snow would have been tamped down already by other hikers with their snow shoes or cross country skis or boots.

Apparently very few people had been out and the trail was covered with thick pillowy snow, softening in the warming temperatures. But on I ran, counting on my Kahtoola Microspikes to grab the ice and hard packed snow and prevent slipping. They were no match for today’s conditions. In some cases I crashed through the top layer of hard packed snow. But in other spots I post holed, my foot slipping into a cauldron of cold. After thirty minutes I finally accepted that I was neither trail running nor hiking, but rather slowly and inefficiently slogging my way uncomfortably through a forest blanketed in snow.

It was time to retreat, that moment when hope collides with reality.

Mountaineers must deal with the quandary of retreat. If a mountaineer advances to a summit when the odds are against her, she risks her life. Yet if she retreats she will have spent thousand of dollars and weeks or months on an unsuccessful expedition. Successful climbers, however, succeed in part because they know when to advance and when to retreat.

photo by Jake Norton/adventure.nationalgeographic.com

photo by Jake Norton/adventure.nationalgeographic.com

American mountaineer Ed Visteurs, the first U.S. climber to ascend all of the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 meters (and without the use of supplemental oxygen), offered realistic advice about success in mountain climbing. “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory”, he said. Each person who sets out on an adventure, be it large or small, must respect his own limits, his own edge of ability.

During my retreat I noticed that snow that had settled around the edge of the base of the trees was now melting away from those same trunks, leaving a ring of snow. And that ring forms a thin edge. The snow was disappearing gradually from around the trunks. The edge where the two had coexisted was the first spot to melt away.

Tenafly Nature Center 2014 (H. Friedman)

Tenafly Nature Center 2014 (H. Friedman)

Snow always begins its retreat at the edges, where it abuts a fencepost, or sidewalk or stone wall. The edge is a fragile place. Retreat for humans also occurs at the edge, the edge of ability or mental discipline. And when retreat comes, it starts with just one foot step, one step back. But that one step may be the difference between adventure and misadventure.  When you are standing on the edge, knowing whether to walk forward or back is one of life’s great challenges. But do not mistake turning back for defeat. Retreat is simply an opportunity to try another day.

Howard E. Friedman

To Walk the World…

For walkers, trail runners, travelers and even armchair explorers, read about one man’s slow seven year walk retracing the route of human migration over millennia. Journalist Paul Slopek, partially funded by National Geographic, is making this journey and posting every several hundred miles with text, photos and even a short audio track of the sounds that surround him, wherever he may be, desert, town, market, or no where particular. In this article Slopek writes his first extended length article about this journey he began earlier this year, starting in Ethiopia. Now he has crossed the Red Sea and is walking north along the coast in Saudi Arabia.

Here are some of his opening thoughts in his National Geographic essay. (He can also be followed at outofedenwalk.com ):

“Each step we take is an arrested plunge, a collapse averted, a disaster braked. In this way, to walk becomes an act of faith. We perform it daily: a two-beat miracle—an iambic teetering, a holding on and letting go. For the next seven years I will plummet across the world.

I am on a journey. I am in pursuit of an idea, a story, a chimera, perhaps a folly. I am chasing ghosts. Starting in humanity’s birthplace in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, I am retracing, on foot, the pathways of the ancestors who first discovered the Earth at least 60,000 years ago. This remains by far our greatest voyage. Not because it delivered us the planet. No. But because the early Homo sapiens who first roamed beyond the mother continent—these pioneer nomads numbered, in total, as few as a couple of hundred people—also bequeathed us the subtlest qualities we now associate with being fully human: complex language, abstract thinking, a compulsion to make art, a genius for technological innovation, and the continuum of today’s many races.”

Here is a link to the NG article:

via To Walk the World.

Walking in a fog…

Fog obscures.

The “fog of war” explains how otherwise  civil men can be driven to act so uncivil. Fog is the rationale. Not only soldiers but poets too have turned their eyes toward the “fog”. For them it is a comfortable literary trope. “Fear death – to feel the fog in my throat and the mist in my face” wrote Sir Robert Browning (1812-1889). And when people look out their window and see the fog, they sigh as if only sunlight can bring happiness.

Last Sunday I hiked a route with which I am quite familiar, a 4 mile trail through boulder fields, along and over brooks, past a cascading waterfall and around fallen trees in an east coast maple-beech-birch forest in northern New Jersey. The trail includes over 1000 feet in elevation change and half of that is a 500 foot ascent up a section with several vistas along the way. From each viewpoint the panorama gets better and better until at the top one can see 30 miles and easily make out the skyline of New York City.

On a clear day.

Fog on Carris Hill Oct. 2013

Fog on Carris Hill Oct. 2013

On a clear day people make their way up the strenuous section which is almost two miles from the trail head. On a clear day a hiker will see others along the way and at the top,  in small groups or large or alone with their dog.

On a foggy, damp day you see no one at the top and just one or two souls  who have turned around complaining about the absent views.

But I for one saw value that day in not seeing. I took comfort in my obstructed view of that which I knew was there yet could not see. And for the first time in my life I made no effort to look past the slate gray cloud which enveloped the summit, which colored the nearby lime green leaves into a drab olive hue and totally hid the canopy only a few dozen feet beyond. No skyline was to be seen no how.

I surrendered any attempt to see beyond my veiled misty curtain for I began to understand that the nature of nature is that it is always beautiful if not always comfortable. We are guests in a vast abode about which we have no say. Yes, I could have waited for a sunny day. But Sunday last the fog at my fingertips was my panorama, and it was good.

Walking with the wisdom of the crowd…

My son and I set out to explore a rock climbing crag nearby, recently approved by the municipal land owners and sanctioned for climbing. The area is an otherwise unused strip of land, long with several undulations of granite cliffs no more than 100 feet tall with several smaller rock formations at its base. The most prominent feature of this wooded land however is a series of towering power lines. The land is actually a power company right of way for high capacity electrical lines. Indeed, if you listen carefully it is possible to hear a faint crackling of electricity traveling through the lines at the top of the steel super structures which stand guard on otherwise undeveloped woodlands.  images

No formal trails lead to the rocks but faint foot paths have stomped down tall grasses. In some areas a dirt path has emerged but no blazes mark the trail. Leave the parking lot, look for a faint trail and walk. Look for a stream and cross by a  fallen log the instructions explain. Pick up a trail on the other side, faint as it is. Finally crossing a dirt road one sees an official sign at the informal entrance to this newly opened rock climbing area.

514744213_1c0dcc8046

Neither my son nor I are real climbers. We have climbed in indoor climbing gyms which simulate some of the athletic moves needed for outdoor climbing on real rock slabs. And we have climbed once in the famous Shawungunk climbing area in New Paltz, NY under the supervision of a watchful and well trained guide. So we were just scoping out this new venue to see if we and the rocks made a good match.

By the time we started hiking into the woods we did not have too much time to explore but did have enough time enough to spot a flock of goldfinches dressed in their bright summery ellow and black plumage flying in and around some low brush.

imgresOn the way back we lost the trail, with no supplies, lights or even water. We were never more than half mile or so from the car but with dusk approaching the thought of stumbling around in the dark in an unfamiliar woods was unappealing. While we lost the main trail, faint as it was, we picked up several other ‘herd’ paths – that is, trails going this way and that left by the footfalls of previous hikers. On some summits a herd path usually leads to a great view, or short cut to the trail’s continuation. The herd path deviates from the main blazed path, placed purposefully by the trail maintainer. White rectangles 2 inches wide and 3 inches long mark the entire 2,160 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

Herd wisdom, or the wisdom of the crowd, has been around for eons. Thompson’s Gazelle‘s use the wisdom of the crowd to turn tail and bolt in the opposite directions from a prowling lion. Schools of fish do the same. And now a days humans ‘crowd source’ using the collective information gathering skills of hundreds to pull resources together to yield new information hitherto not easily knowable.

But walking in the woods in the waning light, pushing away boughs of thorn bushes obstructing the faint herd paths we had little choice but to follow the foot steps of walkers before us, and hope that their intentions in walking this ground were our intentions, that they were going, or coming, from the direction we sought. It felt comforting to embrace the wisdom of the footsteps of the crowd which indeed led us back to where we started.

Austrolapithicus on Breakneck Ridge

My son and I hiked what is commonly referred to as one of the more strenuous day hikes in the greater metropolitan New York region, noted for its steep ascent requiring both hands to navigate several steep rock scrambles. The route begins on the eastern shore of the Hudson River, separated by the Metro-North Hudson line train tracks. The route ascends promptly and continues to do so for seven tenths of a mile, climbing 1,260 feet to the summit.

Ascending Breakneck Ridge

Ascending Breakneck Ridge (photo credit Daniel Chazin, NY/NJ Trail Conference)

While clinging to the precambrian granite gneiss and searching by feel for a toe hold to provide a slender ledge from which to push myself higher I thought for a moment of the footsteps upon which I stood 48 hours earlier. Two days prior I had visited the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan and spent a few moments in the Hall of Human Origins. Near the beginning of the exhibit stand two short hairy human-like people, holding hands, one male and one female. Their gaze is straight ahead and has an air of contented surprise.

Austrolapithicus

Austrolapithicus

The curators have placed in front of this couple a casting of Austrolapithicus footprints, discovered by anthropologists Mary Leakey and Paul Abell in 1978 and taken from a dig in Laetoli, Tanzania, not far from the Olduvai Gorge. About 3.5 million years ago dozens of footprints were fossilized in volcanic ash. The footprints appear human. The great toe is not simian –not angling wildly away from the foot. Rather it is parallel to the other toes and the footprints also reflect an arch, another human characteristic.

These prints are significant because they are among the earliest signs of bipedalism in human ancestors and scientists believe they are proof of when our ancestors mastered walking on two feet, which they also conclude was long before our ancestral brain increased in size.

Visitors of the exhibit are invited to place their feet on the fossilized prints. That I do. My size 10.5 foot dwarfs these uber-ancient footprints. I stand there face to face. This moment of staring in their eyes while also standing in their footsteps came back to me while on Breakneck Ridge, as I searched for a toehold on metamorphosed granite, hardened deep in the earth’s crust eons before man took his first step.

Austrolapiths’ footprints are recorded for all time, a record of a straight-ahead walk across a muddy flat. My toehold on the granite gneiss will leave no mark, no impression on the earth. Yet at that very moment for the first time I contemplated a  connection between myself and the most early walkers: a relationship between those early humans we know by their footprints for whom walking upright was a seminal event in human history and me and my fellow humans for whom a good toehold on the rock is just another day well spent.

Why We Watch Walkers

June is a month of gathering to watch people walk, in graduations, weddings and parades.    parade march

This coming Sunday is the Puerto Rican Day Parade, one of the largest in New York City. Last week was the Israel Day Parade, also traveling up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. On Memorial Day small towns across America had parades and this will be repeated on the Fourth of July.

Why we do we gather in large numbers to watch other people walk with flags and banners? Would we gather in the same numbers to watch people stand with flags and banners? People do not gather in large numbers to watch other people standing in protest. Yet we gather to watch a parade.

Arguably, a parade has music and festive ‘floats’ which is enjoyable to see. But we also gather to watch our children march down the graduation aisle. And no doubt we would go to their graduation even if they did not march in to Pomp and Circumstance. And the same for weddings. We would definitely attend even if there was no ‘marching’, really walking, down the aisle. Yet intrinsic to the graduation and weddings is the walk down the aisle.

graduationWe gather to watch people walk, to move, to transition from one stage of life to another. We gather to watch people walk en masse, in an organized manner that is a culmination, that required dedication and planning, that marks an accomplishment or a declaration of allegiance to a cause or an identity. We stand and observe  while the people we care about move forward. Walking is after all the choreographed  movement of temporarily losing than regaining one’s balance. We the observers stand and bear witness that people we care about or identify with  have imposed balance and order in their lives in what at times is a world fast paced and often off-kilter.