philosopher's stone

"Waking Encounters"

philosopher's stone

Waking Encounters

During the advent of a fresh new day, we enter the Undercliff-Overcliff Carriageway loop and reverse its normally anticlockwise circumambulation from Undercliff, and head north on Overcliff  Carriageway to start the circuit.

Early in the morning, Overlook Carriageway projects a damp atmosphere simply by virtue of lying in The Trapps shadow— but the feeling is even more saturated this morning due to the previous night’s rain. Setting out upon a damp carriageway stifles the expected crunching sound of shale underfoot. Nonetheless, beneath the pebbled surface, a thin green-brown film of mud denies the ‘splat’ that human steps would squeeze forth from a thoroughly soaked trail. After an initially compliant rebound from boot and body, the ground sends back a compromised squooosh. Not far into the journey, boulders creep up next to the carriageway, glowing silently with green moss attached to cyan masses.

The carriageway quickly sets up a series of curves that are lined with moss before transitioning into a mixed forest of oaks, birch, maple and pine, supported by a pocket of more abundant soil. As the curve continues to sweep in slight decent, ferns take over the job of introducing other members such as hemlock, hickory and ash to the forest. With the misty shadows of dawn, the ferns appear appropriately Jurassic, while the smell of dampness enables the air to impart a light touch to the passing traveler. As the trail rises again slightly, the eastern side of The Trapps reinserts a scrub forest of smaller trees, which gives way to the skeleton forms of pitch pine and mountain laurel that have been stripped bare from a recent burn. In the oddness, sun rays begin to filter through the moist air, tracing their path with a hovering set of curtains. Jewel-like and delicately coated with shimmering dew, each silky curtain is lined by the same spirited aura that has inspired myth, art, and poetry from the moment that humankind emerged from similar shadows to that which the curtains now disperse. The feeling is that of reverence, but as elsewhere in the Gunks, the landscape never fully retreats into the hidden depths of mystery.

Spirituality often overlies this terrain like a blanket, but though never disclosed or representing the literal, it is also, ironically, never ambiguous. Even when the Gunks don their damp shroud of mystery, they present their form with a refined clarity. Nor does that clarity, later in the day, abandon itself to a mere background for action. It is precisely that clarity that is the Gunks’ magic— ever poking and prodding us to complete its unique perception. In time, the carriageway transitions into an open and dry air, revealing the blue-gray color of its pebbled surface. With this dry topping, our steps begin to crunch and vocalize loudly, so that now those very same steps abruptly disclose us in the arena of self-consciousness. We have emerged— or at least half-emerged— into overt existence once again. We have been abruptly relegated to a solo traveler; an independent being— for the echo of a self has displaced us from greater immersion in nature’s bosom. We now begin to walk at a full body’s length from both nature and ourselves. Before, while still saturated, there was not clearly an and for which to embody the two poles of separation between natural existence and ourselves. There was only nature. The self is the ultimate outsider, for it is not the measure of, but the means of separation.

Despite the subtle knock on self’s door bidding us ever outward, we remain half immersed as the carriageway begins to diminish its wiggles and settle into a long straight span. With the addition of distance, a gesture of movement can be seen ahead on the trail. Another body appears to inhabit the same misty morning at the other end of the straight span. The distance, though quite long, is both shortened and extended through an abrupt transformation. The seamless duration that included portions of the trail that had already been traversed was broken into discrete spaces of co-inhabitance through awareness of another human. Burning now from two ends, the space shortened at twice the speed of our traverse, but the other’s presence stretched the immediate distance through a lingering anticipation. Time became objectified into space, and the space asserted its own measure of time. Rapidly, the gesture of movement became more and more clearly articulated until its bearing revealed an identifiable subject, still many meters away. It was a middle-aged man engaged in morning exercise. His gait is deliberate and concentrated — as required of a solo traveler. Familiarity with his route is evident in his countenance, for the greeting of another this early in the morning elicits little surprise— only a courteous re-engagement of his exercising form. He is not running, but walking very fast. Though it is late spring and he utilizes no poles, he moves with the discipline of a cross-country skier. There is little reason to cast his head about as the form of his gait requires eyes fixed straight into the space ahead— principally because the carriageway has increased his discipline due to its persistent stretch. And when the time arrives, outside of a courteous acknowledgement during the passage, nothing is called for but the continuation of his uninterrupted pace. There is little doubt that this loop is a consistent routine in this man’s morning repertoire, but still there remains something immersed about him. Instead of inhabiting the environment, he appears to wear it like outdoor gear.

The carriageway continues its parallel line below the main axis of the ridge. Until recently, the trail has offered periodic west facing portals through the trees to the valley below, but as the carriageway courses straight and long, there suddenly appears on the left, a broad open field of white rock sloping downward, with scattered pitch pines reverently facing Clove Valley. In the depths of the valley a few lonely buildings exhale little puffs of smoke into the misty morning air. Above them, the ridgeline and forest reveal a horizontal patchwork from outcroppings that present their pixelated swatches intermittently against the backdrop of the trees— like digital artifacts disrupting the image of the forest. The white artifacts reveal the characteristic style of Shawangunk conglomerate, so they have long been raised from obscurity into the realm of identity. Dickie Barre, Lost City, Ronde Barre, and Rock Hill can all be spied from this broad window, although the former are better viewed from atop Near Trapps ridge. Closer at hand, the white rock that flows down to the Coxing Kill on the west side of the trail continues its slope upward toward The Trapps ridgeline on the opposite side of the trail. Upon the slope, the nearly white rock and strong morning light behind a cluster of hanging branches and pines silhouette their gestures as they line the carriageway. It is quite appropriate that jet-black ravens scratch their mocking caw harshly into the morning air at this moment— invoking anew the sense of a solo journey, along with the immersion that it brings.

The submersion does not last long, however. The carriageway abruptly transitions from its straight course when again, out of nowhere, the gesture of human movement intrudes. Two women approach almost immediately from the first winding turns and walk past in rapid transit, cutting the moist morning air with a coupled human gesture of mobility. Aerobic in pace and saccadic in gaze— together they exercise a single gait. ‘What’s-going-on’ is unfolding in their rapid strides— releasing, unfurling, giving voice to issues that are incomplete so that they may be cast off between eager strides. The snags and tangles of all that has piled up since their last morning session is combed and freed of their cross-membered moorings. Extending from mobile legs accustomed to the pace, their light footwear grasp and let go of the crunchy surface in unison, with impressively little sound. Their passage is more expressive than noisy— though they barely acknowledge the presence of another being. Amidst their dialogue, flittering eyes still display a two-tiered receptivity in their activity. Though their minds are engrossed in their shared narrative, their senses receive solicitations from diverse quarters. What has been received will be digested later because perceptions tend to pile up in this region. Even now, their senses continue to pressurize until the perceptual world squeezes through the urgency of their dialogue to enrich the storyline with a refreshing air. The silent presence of dim blue-gray rocks reintroduce the senses to textured trunks nearby. Branches with leaves and piney bundles extend the reach of nearby trees, drooping into the tunneled space now occupied by the women’s pace. The excitement of their aerobically-driven dialogue is shifted in contour so as to introduce additional feelings to thoughts that now thrust and terminate cleanly, in the manner of the little population of pine clusters that have been inserted into the dialogue. Healing, consummation, resolution and shared excitement are quickened, not merely through their exercised bodies and oxygen-freshened minds, but by the definitive outlines of the spiky pine-clusters before them. Yet even though their thoughts reflect a measure of the terrain’s overall gestalt, another human body occupies the same terrain of their pace. That requires at least a minor gesture of attending, beyond the strictly functional— for it is never a soulless object that passes in the form of a human body. Even for their disinterested and entirely engaged senses, it was, for them, an expressive body that was glimpsed well before its face could be queried for a rapid glimpse of the soul. The exchange was radically unbalanced, however, for the women passed with very little resources outside of their shared dialogue so as to query the other, even unconsciously.

After nearly one and three-quarters miles, the carriageway initiates a series of twists to round the northern end of The Trapps and enter the eastern facing junction with Undercliff Carriageway. As the broad trail descends in the twists through a gap in the conglomerate ridge, large outcroppings form isolated islands of illuminant block amongst the trees that have suddenly grown taller. On the eastern side of the ridge, full crowns intermingle from stately trunks to form a forest canopy of oaks, hickory and maple amidst the dark green feathers of hemlock. The change in the forest is not only due to the warmer air on the eastern front, it is primarily a consequence of the disruption of the conglomerate itself. With the loss of resistant conglomerate in this gap, the soft underlying Martinsburg shale has broken down to form a thicker, more nourishing soil. Although the eastern flank of The Trapps is far less damp then the western flank following the previous night’s rain, the descent into the shale-supported forest retains the hemlock dominated cool and refreshing air. Not long after the twisting descent, a junction of carriageway networks would otherwise bring the potential for confusion if it were not for the fact that Undercliff Carriageway is readily available for the return path along The Trapps. Before we engage our return loop upon Undercliff Carriageway, we will make a small excursion across Rhododendron Bridge and then to Oakwood Drive Carriageway to the right.

Oakwood Drive continues the transition into a more mature and mixed forest of organized trees. Near the drainage of a small stream, lichen and moss cover many of the trees, and, as advertised, the moss is more abundant on the north side of the trees. Initially it would appear that a lichen-covered tree is a sad sight because it signifies the terminal stage of a life, but the trees wear their abundant overlapping blue-green patches with the proudness and poise of a veteran. For them, there is not the slightest hint of shame in the end stage of life. Nearby, the streambed has exposed flint-like layers of shale on its banks. Composed of the compressed mud from an ancient seabed that is even older than the ancient conglomerate rock, the newly exposed and eroded shale is easily broken by hand. The air is refreshed and cool in this forest, with long sinuous vines falling from stately tall trees. Even the birds organize their luxuriant songs in a layered fashion. Discrete chirping is mixed with a series of hollowed out whistles that feel deeper, longer, and more coherent in structure than the sounds closer to Mohonk. Near Mohonk, there occurs a bustling city of chirping and honking, as advertising calls vie for attention amidst the bustling chaos.

Ahead on the trail, a woman approaches. She is moving with the same serious gait that the women-in-dialogue on Overcliff Carriageway had utilized in unison, but because we are both off the main carriageway loop she appears slightly startled at the encounter this early in the morning. She readies herself for the human exchange in advance. As she nears, with humor she offers a fauve concern for the possibility of a black bear ahead. She is not seriously worried; it is her means of demonstrating pleasantness in the awkwardness of the early encounter. Her route was more solitary than ours was this morning, so this was her first encounter. Indeed, there is at first a heightened tension in having one’s morning exercise intruded upon— like glimpsing another person showering in the same morning mist. Walt Whitman would have received such encounters as sexual in intensity— a kind of fringe that exists around sexual beings even when no desirous impulse has arisen. But during the vulnerable part of dawn, a mysterious openness to the full body-nature of another soul requires no launching of desire for exchanges to be more intense.

Dawn is the time when our internal world draws itself outward so as to be forgotten in the otherness of it all. Indeed, that was the half-witted state that made our previous encounters all the more receptive— though for the women-in-dialogue and for the exercising man, no such awkwardness was emitted because the day had been already fully birthed for them. It was not still emerging, as it was for us. Theirs was already conventionally clothed and organized into a brand new everyday. For us, it was merely the opening series of nudges prodding us out of a twilight existence and into the separate entity that daylight consciousness embodies in order to fulfill our notion of agency. Because we hit the snooze button twice prior, the passage of another was our third overt call into the new day. Out we go, fully awakened, into the light of concrete existence.

Re-entering our circuit of return, we climb up the first turns of Undercliff Carriageway, heading back, southwest, toward The Trapps cliffs. After a few turns and the transition into a smaller and drier scrub forest that dips down and away in the form of Sleepy Hollow glen, we make our way through its twists to re-establish ourselves amidst the massive presence of the cliffs that we had left hanging in Block Party. We have returned to this spot once again in the lucid form of daylight consciousness to consider the geologic origins of the magnificent rock that is the very backbone of this region.

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

The Philosopher's Stone

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