charles h carver

"Selfie-Sticks & Leashes"

charles carver

Selfie Sticks & Leashes

philosopher's stone
Up ahead on the white, crunchy foot trail, a small gathering of heads extends partially above the treetops to bob, each with their own cadence, over a forest of pine trees. The visual impression suggests that the heads are attached to a race of giants moving delicately amidst the pine forest. It takes but a single turn of the trail to dismantle the impression and re-scale the inhabitants through proximity. The senses reboot to disclose once again that it is the trees that are dwarf in scale relative to normalcy, as opposed to a race of tall humans walking towards us. In this particular case, the party’s forward advance is led by a jaunty tug of the leash from a Black Labrador, and ahead of him, the wonderful richness of exotic smells that the pines, huckleberry and mountain laurel liven up for his cheerful nose.The dog was not noticeable amidst the dwarf trees until the trail opened up in a sweeping arc that positioned it directly ahead. Once fully exposed, the group of five individuals appears to take on the excited countenance of the Lab— which is not unusual for any situation when a Labrador is allowed to display its natural exuberance. The joy lasts for their entire passage and lingers even as the party moves on. Not long afterwards upon the same foot trail, but in stark contrast to the Black Lab, a squat Dachshund reveals an anxious disposition as its owner unconsciously compensates for its lack of social graces. The Dachshund is not nearly as interested in human contact as its owner, but neither seems particularly aware of the other’s impact on their relations. For his part, the man remains eager to greet others. He utilizes his dog to garnish a degree of spontaneous interest in his passage, but the dog undermines his openness with a snobby, if not aggressive temperament that is born of anxiety. This creates an air of uncertainty that hovers less than a foot above the trail in the vicinity where the hound plants its firm, but truncated stance. As we exchange pleasantries, the man does not glance even once at his dog, missing, no doubt, its increasingly rigid discomfort. Even while one’s instinct could readily pick up the potential for a snappy retort from below, the dog’s owner remains completely oblivious to his dog’s growing suspicion. Thankfully, however, the bipolar exchange does not last long enough for trouble to manifest. Hands and eyes are kept above board to calm the turbulent waters below, and though orientated in opposite directions on the trail, both of us lean forward in the direction of our advance even before the exchange is terminated. The trail is relatively busy on this beautiful summer day, so knowledge of other day-trippers provides an invisible pressure to keep moving.

Rising moderately over a series of hills before dipping through an undulating terrain that generally orients northeastward on the way to the Verkeerder Kill Falls, the foot trail continues to blaze through a knotty mass of dwarf pitch pine, wild blueberry and mountain laurel. Like unruly patches of bed head in an otherwise tight cluster of curls, strands of scrub oak and thin birch intermittently spike upward from the consistent mass. Upon the raised plateau, the extensive forest of dwarf pitch pines amass a population as far as the eye can see, but wild blueberry works in tandem with the dominant species to present a global grounding to the region.
Just below the horizon, pockets of mature trees rise tall from intimate valleys that tuck their fertile secrets into hollows that interrupt the pitch pine and blueberry consistency to form middle-distant features for sight. Their outlines betray the location of a mature forest and inject interest into an otherwise consistent ecosystem, along with a welcome promise of things to come. Further still, beyond the diversity that settles into depressions in the undulating terrain, the landscape caps itself with an increasingly focused appearance of Lake Awosting, Castle Point, Hamilton Point, Gertrude’s Nose and Millbrook Mountain across a horizontal band, with occasional glimpses of Sky Top representing Lake Mohonk as the symbolic terminus of the land.

The inclusion of these well-known destinations compressed into a narrow swath of the visual field has the effect of radically inflating their presence relative to the insignificant real estate that they actually occupy on the human retina. Immediately to the right and well below their convergence, the flat Wallkill Valley broadens outward until the Plattekill Hills roll underneath the horizon to disrupt the valley’s plain-like spread. By this act of turbulence, the hills and the more impressive Hudson Highlands beyond them secure their anchoring within the Wallkill Valley’s wide and impressive reach.Intermittent pulses of hikers and strolling day-trippers traverse the trail, many with a four-legged companion. On this day the percentage of travelers accompanied by dogs seems to be unusually high. Some destinations in the Gunks do not permit dogs for various reasons. Usually restrictions have less to do with the undisciplined nature of the dogs than that of their owners. In terms of their capacity for disruption of the trail’s integrity and people’s comfort upon it, even a small percentage of inconsiderate dog owners can impact the outdoor experience. Despite the minor challenges, there is no question, however, that the periodic sight of a dog joyfully trotting along the trail adds intrigue and infectious fun to a trek. Moreover, the leash— like the selfie-stick— mediates two-aspects of a binary being for the moment: the individual and an external representation of his or her personality.

Dogs are often a satellite personality of their owners, albeit a co-opted one. What has been co-opted, to be sure, is their capacity to summon spontaneity even in a limited workspace. We might say, as we have, that like the selfie-stick, the leash presents a personality linked to its satellite presentation, but the leash often reverses the poles of the medium. The dog is the natural pole— the authentic personality— whereas the owner is displayed as an exhibition of personality: an animated Selfie of sorts. Indeed, regardless of the poles, the question arises: will that binary presentation of dog-and-owner merge into a shared being primarily through the excited richness that one of the poles experiences— as in the case of the Black Lab; or will it bifurcate into an inherent tension that cannot be overcome— like the Dachshund and its owner? Is that not, in a strange way, the very same question that we might pose for the two ends of the selfie-stick?

After a bit more time on the trail, the anticipated transformation of the environment takes place. The conglomerate base that had been scraped bare from passing glaciers so as to welcome only the hardiest species of dwarf pines, wild huckleberry, and waxy mountain laurel, became interrupted by a forest transition. Like veiny skin transforming once again into the supple skin of youth, woven roots began to dive below a matting of loamy soil. The mixed forest was first introduced by gray birch and scrub oak rising out of the soil before other species of oak and maple made their presence felt. Within the deeper shade of the mature forest, beneath the canopy that is intermittently lit in the vicinity of large fallen trees, a broad carpeting of ferns emits lushness. The refreshment underfoot is evident for all of the senses to sample even before one’s eyes can adjust to the low lighting. In the span of a few short paces, the trail is transformed from a semi-arid environment with white conglomerate debris providing a consistent crunch underfoot, to a spongy forest path approaching the enchantment of a mature woodland hollow. Prior to the mature forest, the trail was already handsome due to the presentation of a bold and simple contrast without need for the embellished language of diversity. It is not until the more nourishing forest oasis is reached before one realizes just how much the diverse forest can actually refresh. The depression that led to the oasis offered a deep channel for water to collect, thus fostering, by the transient disruption of conglomerate bedrock, a thick bedding of soil to support larger trees. During the spring, the ground in this region often becomes saturated enough to require raised planks above the muddy trail for walking, but even when the ground is bone-dry during the height of summer, a deliberate thumping of one’s boot reports a hollow sensation back that appears indicative of subterranean pockets that carry water percolating through the soil, downstream of its outflow from Lake Maratanza, to the west.

Despite the transition, the isolated forest does little to belittle the reigning aridness and relative simplicity of the surrounding region. The forest works in tandem with its surroundings to make both more interesting. In general, that is another basic pattern of the Gunks. Many trails are offered in the neighboring Catskill Mountains that envelope one in woodland diversity for the entire hike. To be sure, the Catskills offer a rugged and radically different experience than the Gunks. But although it may at first appear that the diverse nature of a mixed woodland environment is the preferred environment relative to a semi-arid and seemingly mundane ecosystem— that is not the case when one is speaking about the Gunks. It takes little time to recognize the simple formula of the Shawangunks’ style: the presence of a largely unvarying bedrock and vegetation with little diversity. Despite the formulaic pattern, this environment is unceasingly interesting precisely by means of its unique presentation. The more we learn about the Gunks ecosystem, the more the already intrigued senses are incited. Our collective Shawangunk experiences reveal another important factor, however, and that is the way that the various regional differences work together in the Gunks. In the end, the refreshing parts of a Shawangunk Ridge hike are not refreshing simply because the arid summer ecosystem is ‘endured’ until refreshment is finally granted— like hydration after a hard workout— instead, the environment is compelling all the while. A hike in the Gunks retains the capacity to pull us ever onward, often beyond our recognition that fatigue and thirst have already arisen.

After this large depression in the terrain, the trail returns to its signature pattern of wild blueberry, huckleberry, dwarf pitch pine and occasional glacial erratics peppering the landscape in the form of large boulders. The broad Wallkill Valley continues to introduce the deeply incised Verkeerder Valley cutting through the mountain. The trail skirts the edge of the steep drop to the east for some time, but the feeling remains that of the dwarf pine ridge until it drops sharply to reintroduce substantial soil and the same diversity of mixed trees that the previous depression had supported, with the addition of even more hemlocks. All of a sudden, and with little fanfare and flourish, the Verkeerder Kill stream is viewed as it quietly drops off the northeastern edge of the steeply incised valley that bears its name. For most of the year, Verkeerder Kill Falls appears unimpressive and shy from the trail, but the chasm that radiates outward from the incision is a significant slice into the ridge. If one were to continue a bit further on the trail that eventually greets Long Path to turn northwest toward High Point upon the High Point Trail, a short distance beyond the falls discloses better views of the deep valley that the falls situates in. Those who are up for the long-distance hike may head toward the landmark of High Point before returning via the High Point Carriageway. High Point Trail courses between the aptly named Badlands region to the north and the expansive high plateau of the Dwarf Pine Ridge Community that remained our ever-present companion as we traveled northeast on Long Path toward the falls. This long loop requires stamina and hydration.For our part, we remain, however, within the mixed forest of the first large depression that supported the first mature forest. Amidst a thick cover of ferns, I plant my tripod a bit off trail and set out to observe the potential for photography in the diminished light. Due to the rate of afternoon stragglers making their way back from the falls, it turns out that I observe the faces and countenance of a near constant stream of visitors more than I do the silent landscape, or the secret spaces that it may solicit for photography. Initially I thought this to be only a series of annoying interruptions, but soon it became evident that there was richness and diversity in the experiences that were hinted-to in those passing expressions, and certainly in the attitude of their body language. Some folks were returning on the trail just as they departed— as hikers. Others sauntered past with feet moving only in protest, as a perturbed expression on their face made it clear who gave the marching orders. All manner and grades of response in between were exhibited on the trail. Experienced hikers knew well what was required of the terrain, and if, per chance, they had over-reached in their effort (perhaps engaging the full 9 mile High Point to Verkeerder Kill Falls loop in the reverse direction of that described above), the rising exhaustion in their body was not betrayed by a defeated countenance. Regardless of their state of fitness, previous experiences informed their body how to finish the trek without need to artificially marshal that state of spiritual separation that we overemphasize with the term ‘willpower’.

At the other extreme, however, those who dragged their body only by means of an angry will readily disclosed that their experience did not match their expectations for the journey. Unfortunately, the mismatch does not always educate those who occupy this extreme. Anger and annoyance fill the gap between expectation and reality. Someone else must be at fault for the unpleasant physical experience that they now endure. Perhaps it was the friend who had suggested that they take on the additional two-and-a-quarter mile hike to the falls, over and above the nearly three-quarter mile climb to Sam’s Point. Perhaps it was the guidebook or blog post that described a beautiful trail to a cascading waterfall. For some, Verkeerder Kill Falls is a disappointment during the summer months relative to their idealistic expectation of a plunging mountain cascade. During the driest months, water barely trickles over the edge as it clings to the braided streambed in a narrow ribbon. I seemed to witness all of this tension on the face of a man whose outbursts I could hear previous to his passage through the mixed forest. Although I could not at first make out the details, or even the target of his displeasure, it became clear that he was not happy with the decision to hike to the falls. He did not notice me or my gear amongst the fallen trees and the ferns on the side of the trail, so his annoyed outbursts and frustrated body language were the honest presentation of a man who thought himself only amongst family. As he passed, I did not know that he was soon to be trailed by a woman carrying a toddler while also managing a scruffy little dog on a leash. The woman and the child both appeared tired, but neither looked defeated. By contrast, the dog sniffed the trail to its master, head hanging low in meekness. Well ahead of the little mutt, the man had betrayed his desire to exhibit comfort in the outing, wearing an imperturbable air of relaxation and a carefree attitude in his attire, even while it was undermined by his real state of frustration at the moment. He donned an oversized undershirt draped over a wellfed body— but it was his untied sneakers scoffing at the ground below his overstretched shorts that communicated his ongoing displeasure more than the commanding resolve that he tried to marshal to express his annoyance. His body language betrayed the carefree presence he actually wanted to present. A number of paces behind, the woman’s appearance was also unpretentious, but she was grounded, and far more believable than he. She addressed her attention almost exclusively to the two in her care, independent of the tension that the scruffy little dog recognized as the residue that led to its owner. The woman appeared strong but not heavy. Indeed, she must have been robust to manage her child and the dog for some distance. The effort was evident in the glistening sweat upon her forehead and legs. But in addition to her load, she had also to contend with the agitation of her spouse, yet somehow this did not penetrate her character to deliver the slightest injury to her spirit in the same way that the man’s outburst appeared to impact the fatigued little dog.
One man’s distaste for the effort does not a trend make, however. Most of the individuals returning upon the trail did not display the slightest annoyance. To the contrary, the glow of fresh experience was incorporated into the fatigue that only built a new resolve into their bodies. For most, the fatigue was welcome, even liberating. There is no question, however, that summer weekends are also peppered with a handful of individuals— whether local or city sourced— that arrive with very little openness to the style that this unique land harbors, along with an unrealistic expectation of what is required to physically traverse it. At Sam’s Point Preserve parking lot, one may witness a diverse and expectant stream of day trippers heading up the old road that leads to the clifftops and the trails that spur off to destinations such as Ice Caves and Verkeerder Kill Falls. Amongst the clustering, one can identify an array of dogs, smartphones and selfie-sticks. Unfortunately, however, provisions such as water and an energy source are not consistently spied with the same frequency.

To be sure, a great deal of the northern Shawangunk Ridge inflates with visitors on weekends, but like ever-branching buds snipped by the wind for the health of the trunk’s vegetative scaffolding, much of this growth in the form of newcomers becomes self-pruned during the week. Thus, an existing base of returning hikers can still discover nourishment in the Gunks without undue competition during the week; and particularly upon the less-traveled and more remote trails. Despite these differences, it is a mistake to suppose that weekends at Sam’s Point (or the Gunks at large) are devoid of character relative to midweek or solitary adventures outside the popular destinations. A random, almost organic mass of individuals winds up the old road for much of the day on summer and fall weekends, turning the short ascent from the parking lot into a social gathering. Unlike the traditional carriageways that extensively weave through much of the Gunks, the deteriorating looped road that climbs up to Sam’s Point and around Lake Maratanza was once paved to allow passage of motor vehicles instead of horse carriages. The tourist road has since decayed considerably, granting it re-admission into that baseline charm that all Shawangunk arteries now possess. But Sam’s Point Preserve in general, through its proximity to the historic little community of Cragsmoor, is tethered to a fiercely independent, if not creative approach to life that has long been evident, and is still evident, in the very soil of the land.


To access the main views that the region offers upon the massive gray-white conglomerate, the old road first ascends from a diverse forest of northern red oak, chestnut oak, black birch and red maple, with abundant witch-hazel and sassafras amongst the expedition gathering. Once departed from the parking lot, switchbacks immediately transition the vegetation near the road, as birches and ferns take over amidst a thinning of the forest. Carried forward upon the broken surface, all human attention is directed forward and upward so that the rapid change of the forest supports a general feeling of ascendency more than it does a set of species to observe in transition. Because the road is not overly steep, its rise time unfolds in the form of a preamble— an expectant antechamber leading to the main experience still to come— particularly for those that have previously experienced the region. When the preamble is endured on a weekend, there is strong temptation to simply weave through scattered pockets of slow moving, lingering groups. Sometimes, however, these pockets display themselves as worthy features of the journey itself, equal to the language of the silent landscape that all comers seek to experience.

Prior to reaching the top of Sam’s Point, massive blocks abruptly stall small gatherings of inquisitors at their base. In select locations, the blocks rise out of the earth with a broad, cubical trunk only inches from the roadway. Often referred to as caprock because of its harder, more resistant nature relative to the softer shale that lies beneath to undermine its footing and increase the likelihood of fracturing— close proximity to the mass dispels any notion that the term ‘cap’ implies a mere coating. The scale of the landscape is immediately altered for perception. Along with the rising masses of rock, large boulders line both sides of the roadway. The body begins to acquire its secret knowledge of the expressed geology literally by touch in these locales, as opposed to the distance of sight, or the even more remote facts of thought. Here, geological features are structurally present to the body in an intimate exchange even when knowledge is not present. This, in turn, sets up a perpetual underestimation of the Gunks power over the surprised senses, in comparison to mountainous destinations of much greater scale. The northern Shawangunk Ridge retains little power to elicit awe in a typical drive-by experience; but the same Gunks harbor surprising power to impart awe during a simple hike.

Many of the individuals that migrate up the old road toward the large blocks discover themselves to seek an unconscious, and then fully conscious touch of the hard rock at this juncture. Prodded by the proximity of the mass to feel its surface, the pull toward the base is magnetic. Quartz pebbles that form the matrix of the rock may have been constituted through chemical and environmental forces with violent drama, but facts do little to enhance their subtle tactile sense. Compared to the first movement of one’s fingertips upon the hard surface of the rock, scientific facts are irrelevant. When it comes to Shawangunk conglomerate, hardness is not a relative term. Shawangunk conglomerate exhibits hardness in a directly perceived sensation in the same way that suppleness and softness can be sensed as more than a term of description at times. Nonetheless, should one take the time to learn the principle features and schematic geology of the Gunks, the direct experience gains another whole dimension. Amidst that deep formative backdrop, even historic details begin to stand apart to provide intrigue for many of the select places that we visit in the Gunks.
It is obvious, of course, that Lake Mohonk and Lake Minnewaska exist even for the senses as received layers of history. But although Sam’s Point does not seem as historically saturated, that is by no means the case. A great deal of its history was concentrated around the artisan community of Cragsmoor. Other aspects have been described by local historian and naturalist Marc B Fried, (for instance, the role and exploits of the regions Huckleberry Pickers). Still, however, facts sometimes appear to detach and float freely here, as if untethered. Many of the individuals moving up the old road do not know, for example, that directly above their first explorations of the rock’s surface, a hotel once fastened directly to the face of the same rock. The hotel stood near an impressive stone stairway that wound its way to the top of the cliffs during the later half of the nineteenth century. Extremely short-lived due to a fire, the hotel offered dwellings with the bold rock forming its back wall, while fissures in the rock functioned as chimney flumes. Ferns and lichen grew on shelves in the rock, with spring water sliding its way through the structure. These facts now appear to be trivia— but at one time they too were tethered to the conglomerate with the life-sustaining substantiality of physical bolts.

If historical, geological or experiential context does not provide the scaffolds and guides for spontaneous sense perception to precipitate its richness upon, our already ingrained interpretations will. Often, our ready-made interpretations are meek and malnourished— like the inertness of the conventional word rock, with all of its boring connotation and baggage. If we remain open, however, the pre ‘givens’ of reflexive thought may be expanded and enriched to provide new directions for subsequent perceptual movements. And that is precisely how mere rock is transformed into Shawangunk conglomerate here— not through facts representative of eons of time and boring, inanimate surfaces, but through openness to novel perceptual experiences that may structure new experiences through context.

Perhaps, not unlike a dog sniffing its sensual world into existence even while the leash that binds it to its owner’s prerogative does not restrict that richness— so too, we give ourselves over to the lead of our ingrained, pre-established narratives even while a substratum of our body performs the real work of presenting a world to migrate in an entirely open and uncommitted manner. The whole process and momentum of perception has not, of course, created that world, but it has finished the unique manner and novel way that we receive it, with all of its latent potentiality. It was nudged and provided the task from a pool of physics and potential that we cannot properly know. Nothing is actually received “ready-made” for the senses. It is these natural processes that open to the raw material of a physical and social world so that both may be made more explicit and ‘complete’ in preparation for our creative undertakings. That subtle, silent, and sometimes secret activity provides the basis for the first self-gathering of our freedom: the perceptual achievement of a situation to embody from the single perspective of an autonomous being that acts within a world of choice. This rich undercurrent is at work even when we consider function and labor to be the only ‘real’ driving forces of our actions. No doubt, life’s mandate for pragmatic function ensures that there will be entirely too much richness that we must miss in favor of necessity, too much that we must simply presuppose and neglect. That is the way that we must operate. It is a natural imperative. But that is also, perhaps, another reason why we tether ourselves to our dogs: i.e., for their spontaneous richness.
As one turns through the final steep curve to reach the top of Sam’s Point, the connection with the organic mass at the cliff base that is threaded all the way to the parking area through strands of clustering individuals, is broken. A junction exists on the cliff to bifurcate the diminished flow even more. Loop Road continues straight to eventually circle around Lake Maratanza and then cycle back through the remnants of old berry picker shacks before making a beeline to the parking lot on the far side of the switchbacks that lead to Sam’s Point. One of the more popular routes in the preserve is to continue straight on Loop Road toward Lake Maratanza until a spur road to the right appears about halfway to the lake. The spur leads to Ice Caves— a short self-guided tour directly through impressive crevices and cave-like chambers amongst the large debris and talus boulders of fractured Shawangunk conglomerate. The Ice Caves loop is not terribly long, so many day trippers attempt a trifecta: a visit to the caves, and then a longer hike to Verkeerder Kill Falls, after their short excursion to Sam’s Point lookout. Prior to the Ice Caves entrance and just off the main spur that branched to the right from Loop Road, a trail to the left disengages to embark all the way to Verkeerder Kill Falls in the form of the Long Path Trail. That is the trail that had situated us within mixed forest above Verkeerder Valley as we observed passing hikers returning from the falls. 


Just before the final sweeping turns that lead to the top of Sam’s Point during the first part of the hike from the parking lot, New Jersey’s High Point can be spied to the south. To the west, the Delaware Valley lay beyond Ellenville and the rapidly narrowing Shawangunk spine. The Hudson Highlands frame the Hudson River to the southeast. All of this is abruptly available from the base of the large white cliffs. At this point of the initial ascent, and almost in sequence, people migrate to mill about on the broad flat surfaces of rock on the far side of the road because the horizon has suddently opened up. Striding abreast  a group of young travelers when my opportunity arose, I accompanied the young group onto one of those natural platforms. In turn, we all stepped onto the rock as if it were a paid attraction. After a few moments of quiet observation, it took but an economical word or two, and the swift unpacking of a selfie-stick for the young Koreans that I had stepped up with to noiselessly gather into a single organic being for their own group capture, with the impressive horizon behind them. I had not time to set down my pack and take out my own camera, though I wished that I had anticipated the sight of such a rapid assembly of nonchalant, matter-of-fact cohesion. It was, in fact beautiful. As quickly as the collective being assembled, it disassembled; and still I had not time to adequately take in the soft freshness of their individual faces, or the bright glow of excitement that transmitted the onset of their shared social excursion. Immediately following the group shot, when the young men and women were still in the act of tearing their individually from the tucked assembly, I caught an undercurrent of sexual tension that was designed to reinstate a comfortable distance between the paired couples— for it became evident only at that moment that the group had arrived for the hike in pairs. The awkward moment occurred for some when the social comfort of gently touching heads in preparation for the group photo required pulling back to individuality immediately afterward. The re-emergence of a more authentic mix of feelings began to play across their faces as picture-ready smiles began to lose their temporary hold. To most people, this transition does not solicit even a whisper of self-awareness, but for this group, it seemed to bring a rather heightened transition. Playful jostling masked nervous excitement as they sought to recreate both the hidden bond and the comfortable spaces that they had established as a traveling crew prior to the group shot. This push and pull held sway even later when I ran into the same group on top of the cliffs at Sam’s Point. It was there that, again as paired couples, they took turns moving onto the edge of the cliff as their companions captured their gestures of tentative intrigue before the all-embracing horizon, and knowledge of their dangerous proximity to the edge. As I sat on an adjacent cliff, I asked permission to photograph their own sessions positioned so very near the cliff edge, with the old road poised below in warning. They heartily accepted. 

Hours later, during the final leg of my hike, and upon the same viewing rock where the group-selfie had been taken at the outset, I participated in, or perhaps simply witnessed, another group experience. This time, however, it was a gathering of young men— from the Bronx I overhead them say— that milled about on the platform. The group had seized their viewing position just before the sun began to set. There was significantly more individuality in the young men’s slow pacing movements relative to the Korean couples that had assembled prior, but when the sun entered its magic moment before silently slipping under the horizon with a soft, lingering glow, stillness was immediately imparted as if a capture were again in progress— though no smartphones had been raised, and no selfie-sticks were present. It was, however, an economical use of language that came to define that particular stillness once again, even while the sunset had been the source of the transfixed group. For these young men, the sheer contrast of a day in the mountains was radically different then the chaos of their native streets.
Nonetheless, the individuals never lost their capacity to project a unique personality even in the posture and poise of their collective movements. As their slow, nearly cyclical revolutions and the punctuated form of their chatter began to ebb, one of the young men commandeered the silence for an effective and perfectly timed address, stating succinctly: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sunset”. This, of course, was not a literal or humble admission of lack that had been snuck out at an unguarded moment, it was a strong affirmation of the present— and everyone understood.Both of these groups appeared to receive the Gunks as part of a day completely out of the ordinary. The setting contrasted strongly with their normal environment, thereby heightening the shared nature of their experience. But in general, the first group seemed to demonstrate individuality through that social experience. The unfamiliar but intriguing landscape brought cohesion and pushed them together as collective subjects attending to a new arrangement of perceptual objects. The group dynamic, even if transiently formed for the day’s outing, granted each member a measure of their individuality within the social context of collective witnessing. Sometimes the group itself was a more compelling set of objects to witness than the environment, which acted as background for social interactions. For the second group, as opposed to extracting fuel for their individuality from the cohesive group, members addressed their individuality to the group— as they did in their everyday environment. The novel environment affected each differently, but that impact was transmuted into the potent and individual way that they communicated to each other almost by means of gesture. Gesture accompanied the few economical words that they expressed in the form of their individuality, whereas, in the first group, words and gestures were pitched to the group with the expectation of a rebound. They had sought, and received, affirmation from secure social belonging.In different variations throughout this essay we’ve utilized the leash and the selfie-stick as symbols for the diverse types of relationships that exist between our spontaneous perceptual powers on one side, and our socially projected selves on the other. It is clear, moreover, that our social group forms the first target of our affective perceptions, as well as another primary lens through which we see the world sensually. In a few short years, selfie-sticks— one of our symbols for that intervening medium that separates our subjectivity in the form of direct experience from our subjectivity as a presentation of personality to others— will be regarded as a clumsy, but charming instrument from a bygone era, as we prepare to apprehend our world through the medium of wearable devices and other appendages. We might now begin to ask: how much will these new technologies not simply be emblematic of, but actually impart a greater degree of separation between our spontaneous sensations and the rich world beneath the means that we use to display it? Will we increasingly attend exclusively to our virtual presentations as mediums of ‘augmentation’, or will we retain vital access to the physical world that our senses range over in a formative but forgotten dance? For how long will we retain the capacity for this rich and spontaneous dialogue? Does not language, culture, and even our social group already perform a virtual separation relative to the sensed world of some of our furry friends? Is not technology but a natural extension of the same movement that we have been engaging for millennia— away, that is, from the self-enclosed richness of perception? Like language and culture, does not technology offer the continued creative development of novel worlds by means of our representations of that concretely perceived world? If that is so, should we not still retain an escape hatch toward our natural roots, primarily because we must understate the flexible power of those active perceptual processes in order to act within a concrete world? At what point must we turn back from the higher plane of our constructs and believe again in the dense trees and branches below us, so as to leap for safety after our adventures, like Sam Gonzalus? Will we still be able to make the leap if the trees that link us to our sensual roots are increasingly cut off by sediments of sanctioned virtual representations? Will it remain within the simple power of the simple man to go unleashed— with full faith in the knowledge that our natural explorations and contact with the sensual world does not need guidance or interpretive features in order to remain functional? Or will we choose, instead, to remain tethered in order to funnel all spontaneity and creativity toward a sanctioned version of functionality, because it provides a greater measure of identity through the social and cultural bond?


A dog barks in the distance. It is a controlled, communicative bark, not a reactionary bark of urgent compulsion. In response, a rapid, but piercing whistle shrieks between the index finger and thumb of its owner as a single, meaningful burst. The same fern-carpeted oasis that we had stopped at earlier entertains a tall brown dog with a white chest bounding through the trail, like an athlete in its prime. The trail transitions from forest path to parallel planks, but this raises no difficulty for the dog as it deftly picks a side and crosses without the slightest loss in cadence or grace. The dog had been investigating the trail a consistent distance ahead of its owner when it was diverted for some time on a small game trail that meandered off to the east, just at the edge of the forest. During its adventure, the dog’s owner passed its position on the main trail. In short order, dog and owner were reunited, and the dog moved on to take its normal position in the lead.  
The links below access the online adapted version of the book and do not correspond to the order published in the physical booklet. Only a few master copies of the book remain (published 2018), so this set constitutes the original impetus of the work in a different order. In the physical book, the essay "Intimate Otherness" (below) introduced the Gunks through Mohonk Mountain House, the historical introductory anchor to the region. Don't forget to check out related Gunks landscapes (on istockphoto by Getty Images).


a phenomenological essay series

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