Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Curiosity’ Category

Philosophy and a cast-iron skillet

In Curiosity, Family, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writing on August 1, 2012 at 6:00 am
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Breakfast

We have been toting around Carole’s grandmother’s cast-iron skillet, unused, for over thirty years. A few weeks ago, inexplicably, I took it on a camping trip to New Brunswick. I liked cooking on it over the fire. Once home, I cleaned it up and put it on the stove. Then I did a little research.

It is stamped a Wagner Ware skillet. Amazingly, the Wagner company, started in 1865, is still in business. My wife’s people come from Oklahoma. They were homesteaders. We don’t know the history of this skillet, but I picture it strapped to the side of a canvas-covered wagon toiling its way across the sunsetting American plains. And now it rests on my cook-top range. The history of my imagination.

I’ve done a bit of research and the argument for cooking with cast-iron is convincing. The heat radiates evenly, there are no non-stick chemicals that fleck off, the food tastes better, and one gets a wee bit of iron added to one’s diet. You don’t even need soap to clean it. But that’s not what interests me, really.

As readers here, you know of my mission to build meaning into existence, brick by brick, atom by atom. As I’ve confessed, I subscribe to Camus’s observation that life is absurd and meaning is not something inherent in our existence. We are left to create it. Hence the skillet.

When I cook with this skillet I am linked to a fragile thread that stretches over my shoulder and disappears into a murky history. What hands that have worked this utensil? What foods have simmered here? Mystery is satisfying in its emptiness–an emptiness you can heave yourself into.

There is significance in tradition, and meaning might well reside there. Modern existence is so very bereft of tradition. There is no tradition to a silicon chip, to an e-book, to a digital image. Apprenticeship is dead. Are we not daily, purposefully, yet unwittingly, severing ourselves from that which has delivered us to this very place, rendering us orphans in the process? Is that not a method of madness, severing the tenuous link tethering us to the fog from which we arose, where the heart beats?

I grow dramatic. Sorry. We are, after-all, talking about a skillet.

Yet, you must understand me, yes?

I resist the pull forward and peer back at that which is disappearing…that which fades into the void…and attempt to find a handhold.

The eagle and the hawk.

In Curiosity, Nature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers on July 2, 2012 at 6:00 am

A battle worthy of the Red Baron.

I observed a battle overhead yesterday. It was worthy of the Red Baron. A red-tail hawk was attempting to shoo a bald eagle from a patch of sky it deemed proprietary. The eagle wasn’t terribly phased, even as it was being attacked by the largest of the hawks.

From above the hawk watched the eagle. The eagle watched the ground. This would go on a minute or two, then the hawk would draw its wings slightly and drop on the eagle, who, waiting until the last moment, would flip sideways and defend itself with its talons. I watched through my field glasses for five minutes or more. Finally, the two drifted over the tree horizon, still tangling. I can only assume they continued the aerial ballet beyond my view. Who was established as top of the food chain for that specific parcel of blue sky is unknown–but I would put my money on the eagle.

The battle was entertaining and interesting and underscored something I have been thinking about recently. Specifically, I’ve been considering how a thinking person views the world. In my absurdly reductionist scheme of things, one looks at the world predominately in one of four ways:

  • As an artist, who interprets
  • As a journalist, who explains
  • As a scientist, who understands
  • As a philosopher, who questions

I am assuming one is a thinking person. There are throngs who never give consideration to this stuff, who simply exist. (I envy those lucky simple souls.) Too, I recognize the overlapping nature inherent in this scheme. The universe drops us a gift when it delivers a genius lifting heavy weight in multiple categories. (DaVinci comes to mind.)

Of the eagle and the hawk? How did this link come to be? I have lived in the world of interpretation (the artist), and participated as one of those wishing to explain (the journalist), and I have questioned (the philosopher)–but I have understood very little. Above me, on the wing, simple biology played out, but I understood very little of it.

A like-minded friend recently began reading E.O. Wilson‘s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth. He sent me this quote:

“Moreover, we look in vain to philosophy for the answer to the great riddle. Despite its noble purpose and history, pure philosophy long ago abandoned the foundational questions about human existence. The question itself is a reputation killer. It has become a Gorgon for philosophers, upon whose visage even the best thinkers fear to gaze. They have good reason for their aversion. Most of the history of philosophy consists of failed models of the mind.”
My needs grow simpler as I grow older. I require less interpretation, less explanation, tolerate fewer questions. Understanding is what I seek.
Thanks for reading.

Satisfaction? Can’t get no…

In Creativity, Curiosity, Life, The Examined Life on April 26, 2012 at 6:00 am

The American journalist and critic, Paul Rosenfeld, wrote of Alfred Stieglitz that he “had a curious intuitive faith that the black box, and chemical bath and the printing paper could be made to record to his satisfaction what he felt about the world.”

Satisfaction extinguishes restlessness. Stieglitz was restless and, contrary to Rosenfeld’s observation, I doubt that photography or any other endeavor Stieglitz pursued, and there were many, brought him satisfaction.

Satisfaction, like faith, is the end of things. That is, once embraced, satisfaction is a balm to the restless. It silences the question, quells the itch, extinguishes curiosity. The search ends. A hush envelops the victim and the river rages undiscovered. The canvas is draped. Form ceases its pursuit of function and all of mystery comes to rest resolved. The world appears set right and the chair exceedingly and surprisingly comfortable.

Fade to black.

I do not recommend satisfaction as a strict way of life.

Please excuse me. I climbed atop a very high horse this morning.

Mountains

In Adventure, Curiosity, Happiness, Life, Memoir, Travel, Wisdom on April 20, 2012 at 6:00 am

Flyby, Mt. Everest ©Doug Bruns

I took this photograph in April of 2009. The peak in the center of the frame is Everest, or Chomolungma. We were flying Buddha Air and the small plane was specially engineered for the high altitude. I likely will never get closer to that mountain. Tragically, two years later this flight crashed and all nineteen aboard were killed.

I have a friend, Chris Warner, who has been atop Everest, K2, and many other 8000 meter peaks. Chris is one of America’s premier alpinists. I climbed with him once in South America. It was during a period in my life when notions of climbing mountains appealed to me. Now, I prefer a canoe on Moosehead Lake.

With Chris I summited Mt. Cotopaxi in Ecuador. That took me to 19 thousand feet and change, the highest I’ve climbed. I don’t anticipate I’ll break that personal record for altitude. And that is just fine. Chris told me that his success in the mountains can be attributed to surrounding himself with highly accomplished climbers; that he learns from them constantly. What I learned from Chris was, in a manner of speaking, a hands-on tradition. It is a highly efficient way to learn anything and I recommend it. If you’re going into the mountains it is especially to be recommended.

As a young man I watched Robert Redford in the 1972 movie Jeremiah Johnson. The real-life Johnson (1824-1900) left the Civil War and went into the mountains, bereft and broken. His life turned on one adventure after the other. Watching the movie in a dark theater in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, I was spellbound. Upon graduating from high school I went to the Uinta Mountains of northeastern Utah, where the movie was filmed. There I experienced mountains for the first time. And so began a life methodology: turning curiosity into obsession.

One night in the Uintas I encountered a grizzled mountain man. He was a member of a team heading up to rescue an injured climber. They rested at our fire before advancing. The man motioned to the silhouette of mountains against the horizon. “I know what I need,” he said. “I need to see mountains.” I was seventeen and deeply impressed by a man who knew what he needed. Years later I came to understand the confusion that is wanting and needing. His wisdom remains among the profound lessons of my life.

The last best place.

In Books, Curiosity, Reading, Travel on March 27, 2012 at 7:00 am

I mentioned in a previous post, Leaning into Wisdom, the three major influences in my life: books, nature, and travel. I read a lot books and write about many of them here. I write less about my forays in nature; and least about travel. Today, I wish to focus on travel.

I recently discovered a travel blog, Fabulous 50’s, by Sherry Lachelle. Sherry is clear-eyed and writes with verve. Her posts reminded me of the adventures I’ve enjoyed (well, most were enjoyed). She got me thinking.

I embrace phases, wild crazy enthusiasms and reckless occasional diversions of direction. One of the longest lasting of these phases–for lack of a better term–has been travel. During my travel years I nurtured an insatiable urge to see the world, whereby I was planning one adventure while on another. I traveled to fish. I traveled to climb mountains. I traveled to take photographs, to find writing subjects. I traveled as an excuse to travel. I was restless and thought of myself as a proto-Bruce Chatwin nomad. I saw a lot of the world, including some of the most beautiful and exciting places you can imagine. Patagonia, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, the Seychelles and so on. Then I moved to Maine in the spring of 2009 and put away my passport.

The travel phase, after thirty years, came to a self-defined stop. It was, as a friend observed, as if I’d reached my destination. Indeed, over my travel years I was often asked where in the world I would drop my “favorite place” pin. Always, and without hesitation, I responded, Maine. Now I reside in my favorite place and I do not take that for granted.

There are places that resonate. And there are places that don’t, places that seem dead of vibration. Maine resonates with me. It is a profound lesson: place matters. I am a baby-boomer raised in post-war America. The notion was that one can pick up and go, put down roots, then simply pick up again without repercussion. But I’ve discovered, contrariwise, that place matters. And when you find your place, take note. You’ve made an important discovery.

Now the restlessness is gone, but curiosity remains. The value of travel, whether to far-off locations or weekend getaways, is a thing I understand first hand. It’s hard knowledge realized of action. The best travel effects me as a journey of a hyper-aware self in accelerated space and time, an experience where the senses are fed and the energy is loaded. It is a profound way of building experience and sparking curiosity. At times there is even wisdom to be realized.

Among travel writers, Paul Theroux, is, to my taste, our best. He is a master of the genre. Writing of his youthful travels, he says, “I wanted to find a new self in a distant place, and new things to care about. The importance of elsewhere was something I took on faith.” We are remiss when we ignore the importance of elsewhere.(Theroux’s last travel book, from which this quote is taken, is  The Tao of Travel. I reviewed it for MostlyFiction last year.)

Three years after retiring the passport, I am gearing up to set out again. I’m planning a big trip, an adventure into the world’s biggest mountains and the juices are starting to flow. Place is settled, but remnants of wanderlust fortunately remain. Stay tuned.

Got a favorite place? I’d like to hear about it.

Thanks for reading.

Time traps and a touch of enlightenment.

In Curiosity, Life, The Examined Life on March 14, 2012 at 6:07 am

I recently noted this sentence in my journal: “A prison is a trap for catching time.” I lifted it from a New Yorker article, The Caging of America, by Adam Gopnik. It prompted me to think of other possible “time traps.” Here’s what I came up with, in no specific order:

  • Crossing time zones (cheating, obviously)
  • sleep
  • drugs / alcohol
  • sex
  • unconsciousness
  • day dreaming
  • death (well, duh–again obvious, presumably)
  • ignorance
  • denial
  • worry
  • boredom (can also, like prison, be turned inside out)
  • misery
  • being lost
  • grief
  • insane happiness
  • being in “the zone” *

* I found my zone only once, while rock climbing, a sport about which I used to be obsessive (no surprise there). There was a particular route I was working on but repeatedly failed. It was a sport climb, at the edge of my abilities. A sport climb has carabiners in place along the route, hanging from quick-draws. It’s not as safe as top-roping, but more so, and less technical, than trad climbing, where you place the protective gear, such as cams and wedges, as you go along. In sport climbing the climber gets to a ‘biner, clips in his (or her) rope, then proceeds to the next and so forth. Hanging on the rope is bad form. Falling is worse form, but happens frequently. In sport climbing you “work on” a route. I spent a lot of time on this route and then one Sunday morning I climbed out of the cave, where the route began, and pulled the overhang, made repeated clips and topped out. The completion of the climb found me sweating profusely, my heart pounding, but having no memory of the climb. I simply knew that I had climbed it, “sent it” in climbing parlance, without falling. I had realized an “in the zone” moment. Time had stopped and though action and movement continued, I had no recollection of the experience.

I was at the time studying zen and told my teacher, a Korean zen master, of the experience. He told me I’d had a touch of enlightenment. I remember him pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose and smiling.

____________

I also have a list in my journal of things I know nothing (or very little) about:

  • gambling
  • golf
  • wine
  • horses
  • calculus
  • sailing
  • venn diagrams
  • and a great deal more…

I seem to recall making this list while on an airplane, airplanes being where I do a lot of successful thinking–though I would not consider this an example. Nor, for that matter, was I crossing a time zone and thereby trapping time. I was likely staring out the window, vexed over something and feeling inadequate. That is most often the case.

There are a lot of things about which I know nothing, a lot of knowledge gaps I jump over regularly. Occasionally I fall into one and twist my ankle. Why I composed this list is unknown to me–thereby completing the circle of things I find dumbfounding.