Walking the World: The Devil Stands of the other Side

Intellect builds good roads,
but only intelligence
knows when not
to build them.

I can already hear the intense, steady roar of the stream,
swollen with all the rain of the past three days.

For hours now, I've been climbing up through dense spruce forest. The
trail is faint and little used, and there's a lot of windthrow about. It's re-
markable how these difficulties transform the story-like movements of a
well-made path into something more like an abstruse argument, full of
many hard to follow twists and turns.

As the rain begins to mix with mist and wet snow, I make a short descent
to a large, open meadow which must have been cleared hundreds of years
ago for pasture. Towards the back with its rear wall built against a sheer
granite rockface, there's an abandoned shepherd's hut. Made of stone,
facing south, the hut's surrounded on either side by ancient larch trees. 
The delicate yellow of their needles reminds me that the nights will be
getting colder now. And that it won't be long before I can expect heavy
snow above timberline.

To me, places like this, especially when I'm alone and have been out
walking days on end, seem filled with an almost surreal resonance of the
past. It's as if all that once happened here continues invisibly to echo like
sounds lost in space, yet still reaching out in a subtle way to touch and
shape the present moment.

Why is there no one here? Not that long ago, they probably would have
used the hut for five or six weeks during the summer months. They would
have made cheese and kept perhaps about twenty or thirty milk cows. One can
almost hear the voices of children playing, of the men rounding up the animals,
smell and see the smoke of avalanche alder rising up out of the chimney.

I lean up against one of the old larches and walk my backpack slowly
down to where I can ease it off and onto the ground."That's better", I say
out loud to myself. Just to be free of all that weight for a moment. I take
out an old pocket knife I've had for years and go straight for some bread
and cheese I have stashed in the top of my pack. Even though I can't see
much past the crowns of the trees, the weather doesn't feel like it's going
to get worse. Not much wind, and the barometer's slowly rising.

The meadow is here and there overgrown with weeds. There are patches
of spiniest thistle, with its tough central stalk standing a good head or
two above all the other plants, and leaves so well-equipped with thorns
and sharp edges that even a goat would leave it alone. Closer to the hut,
there's an area about the size of two or three small suburban backyards
that's grown into a whole sea of alpine rhubarb, always a sure sign of
overgrazing and of too much manure concentrated in too small a space.
Maybe that's why they left.

The hut is clearly marked on the map. "Not a good place to spend the
night," I think to myself. There's also a bridge indicated about hundred
and fifty meters southwest of here. That's the water I could hear before
I came down to the meadow. I still have three or four hours before I have
to set up a camp, but it doesn't look like I'll make it over the pass I had
hoped for today.

Arriving at the stream, I suddenly realize why the trail has fallen into
disfavor. The bridge is washed out. Not during the storm of the past
few days, but probably a couple of years ago. Raging full and wild,
the stream is now a torrent. I ponder the situation for a while, filled
with the intense, almost oppressive sound of the rushing water. If
you're alone, it sometimes takes quite a bit longer for a fairly obvious
situation to sink in. I decide reluctantly that, with my heavy pack, it
would be too risky to attempt a crossing, so there's nothing left to do
but to turn around and go back the way I came.

Walking down, a bit wet and weary, it occurs to me how we have
come to take our ease of movement so for granted. Like most people,
I grew up in a world where roads and bridges were already largely in
place and as much a part of the landscape as streams, fields and forests.
But if this is all one has experienced, it can be extremely difficult to go
back in time to get a sense of the land as it once was, and, in some cases,
how it might naturally wish to become again. In this sense, perhaps one
could say that the wildness of a place, even a strip along side of a busy
highway, never goes away. More than anything else, I feel that it is the
movement of walking itself which brings us back into resonance with
the natural character and wildness of a place. As we walk, we also
become increasingly more sensitive to the sometimes stridently dis-
harmonious structures which have over the years been built upon the
land. This includes, of course, roads. From the walkers point of view,
every road has two sides; it makes it easier to get to places, which,
because of the road and what it brings, are frequently less worth
going to.  

n a long trek through spectacularly rugged mountains like these, easily
gaining or losing 1500 meters of altitude in a single day, crossing over
peaks, high passes and complex glacier fields, I still need to drop down
into villages, traffic and the noisy chaos of tourist towns every three of
four days. So I'll have much occasion to meditate upon this theme.

How different things must have been in the not-that-distant past. In the
European Alps, which before they were developed in many ways must
have resembled the Northern Cascades of the Pacific Northwest, there
were places where the Earth would have said resoundingly no, where
a track would have naturally been brought to a halt by some insurmoun-
table difficulty; a wall of solid granite which could not be by-passed, or
a gorge too wide to bridge. One can imagine that some cultures would
have perhaps been at peace with such natural limitations, but with this
great outward bound movement which is so characteristic of Western
culture, with its emphasis on mechanical measure and technology,
thought projected the possibility of boring a tunnel straight through
the mountain, or bridging the gap. And generally, as soon as the
means became available, this is precisely what was done, regardless
of long-term consequences or possible negative side-effects.

As I come back down to the bottom of the narrow valley where I camped
the night before, the path leads out onto a concrete dam and across to the
other side and another trail. This time with a bridge, I hope. The glacier
run-off backed up in the small reservoir has that characteristically eerie,
opaque, milky green color. This is but a small, secondary or tertiary dam.
The water here is tapped off and led directly through the mountain on to
a much larger dam via tunnels more than two and half meters high. What
strikes me most about a dam like this, one of the many I've seen on this
and other trips, is the utter lack of restraint which it represents. The dam
is evidently built simply because it can be built. One need look no further
than the dry riverbed opposite the dam to see for oneself the remarkably
callous and destructive character of this metaphysics of no limits.

Remarkably, this problem of natural limits is not as recent as we might
think. There's an ancient myth which is common both to the German
and Italian speaking areas of these mountains which tells of a possible
passageway across a steep and treacherous gorge. One must remember
that this was long ago when the lives of the people of mountain cultures
were intimately intertwined with the movements of Nature generally, and
that they were still very much in awe, not only of the Earth's beauty and
abundance, but also of its at times utterly indifferent fierceness. This
is how I've heard the story told:
Now, just at the point where a road would reach more friendly
terrain and make for easy commerce between up- and lowland
villages, there is a fearsome chasm. Here, the river roars so
wildly that it dampens the sun with a thick cloud of icy mist
on even the brightest of days. And here, one day at the beginning
of spring, the Devil appears. He offers to help the villagers build
a bridge to the other side. But there is one condition which must
be met. The first soul to cross the bridge must be his.The bridge
is built and the villagers try to trick the devil by driving a she-goat
across first. But the Devil will not be so easily fooled. He insists
that the contract be met in full...

It must be said, that there is something truly marvelous about the
knowledge, the technical ability and, I suppose,the audacity and deter-
mination which enables a large-scale bridge or dam to be built. But may
the gods save us from the culture that has this capability without any
sense of right measure or real necessity, and, especially, without any
love of Earth in its heart. For evidently, change always has a potential
devil on the other side. It seems to me, that, vastly more important than
the power of the intellect which builds the bridge or dam, is the clarity
of intelligence which sees that it would be inappropriate to do so.

These are the thoughts which cross my mind, as, high and dry and
full of gratitude for those who built this simple bridge of but a single log, 
I pause and look down at the rushing water below me. This sound--
somehow it enfolds a secret. Perhaps it is the timeless movement
of water flowing down from the glaciers above all the way to distant
seas, while saying no to the rocks without a trace of hesitation,
without a trace of resistance.

| go to Picture/Poems: Central Display | PicturePage: Week IV | see also another Walking the World essay, Backpack Pilgrim |
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IV.7.1999; Last update: III.4.2002)
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