Skiing the Torne — Headwaters

There—

A beginning

A jagged line

Of earth pining for sky

Granite range

Rolling off the forest

Heavenbound and Earthheld

A cloudcradle

Ever so slowly

Tumbling down

In blue ice and sand

Carried by skyfall

That floods all

White

Skiing from Nikkaluokta, looking up at the black granite cliffs and the wind waves of snow and ice that cross the nearly vertical faces lining the valley, I was fixated. Something inside of me felt at once exhilarated and unrestrained, the kilometers melted into the snow beneath my skis, numbers and language felt to mean nothing, effervescent reminders of how I learned to understand the world only one of an infinity of ways. The mountains breathed fresh air into my lungs and set my mind afire.


The first day I made it early to Kebnekaise Fjëllstation, a beautiful mountain lodge built into a fold of mountain birch just below Kebnekaise Mountain, the tallest peak in Sweden, just breaching 2,000 meters. Looking at the lodge from a distance, I was surprised that it hadn’t been carried off by an avalanche, but the birch grove suggested that this might be a safe(er) place. Kebnekaise was the first STF establishment where I stayed. STF is the Swedish Tourism Federation, and they maintain the huts and stations along Kungsleden as it is a popular ski and trekking route. People flock from all over the world in March to ski the good conditions and spend some time in the immensity, letting their minds and bodies expand through the open air and the newly long days.
I considered leaving Kebnekaise to continue to the next hut when in walked Örjan Pekka, the editor of the Haparanda Bladet newspaper who I met the day I started. Örjan and his friend Berth Widmark, a mechanic and retired firefighter, had driven snowmobiles from Kalix (just west of Haparanda) north, and we happened to arrive here at the same time. Örjan introduced me to Nisse Andersson who was at the Fjëllstation working as electrician. Not a bad day on the job. We got to talking and hit it off, sharing a love for skiing and travel.


In the evening when Nisse, Berth, and Örjan went for dinner, I was sitting with a young guy named Matti Rapila Andersson, a photographer and skier who was also up for work. Matti got to stay 11 days in the mountains, the lucky dog. Both feeling high on life, we got to talking. He showed me his photographs and told me stories about from where they came. One of an island of forest in the Moroccan desert burst from the page, an ode to the force of life in hostile environments. It can be seen here in his collection (t)here is (ho)me: http://www.rapila.se/there-is-home/. Our conversation rambled through nature, work, and whatever emerged. After dinner the men returned and we talked and had beers until late at night. There I was in the afternoon expecting a quiet early night in, and instead I was welcomed by a party!
The generosity and kindred spirits of these people left me feeling so good. I am no loner in the way of thought, there are so many people on the life-train I’m riding, and I am always grateful to meet them, to invigorate the senses and the intellect with stories and debate, and then to carry on, new lessons breaching my consciousness.


In the morning, after a delicious breakfast thanks to Nisse, I was off. Skiing on, I thought if the himalaya, over four times the size of these scandinavian titans. No matter about size, here the peaks rise right off the atlantic coast and the grace of mountains swimming in snow from floor to summit is overwhelming to me, an earthbound amoeba on plastic planks towing my life in a sled.
The morning brought me up and over a small pass with beautiful blue ice that glinted when the mountain mist parted for the sun. This blue on the crest of the pass is the headwaters of Kalix River, meandering arm-in-arm with Torne to the sea, but at the moment in a winter stasis.
In the afternoon I took a shortcut over a low ridge that promised some fresh powder on the downslope. At Kebnekaise I was made aware that avalanche danger was high because of warm days in February and high winds making solid crusts that can break and slide. Staying low and on southwestern slopes was best, but I could see a few places where slides had happened. Nonetheless I made it over the ridge and descended into a wonderland of a valley, rimmed by the kebnekaise massif on one side and a long wall of mountains with rolls of cliff dropping to valley bottom.
The turns going down felt the height of living, as though I was enveloped in the immensity of granite and snow upon which the friction that had caused my legs such expenditure of effort no longer had the power to keep me in place. Skiing downhill is as close as I’ve ever been to flying on my own two legs, and too fleeting it is. As I came to a stop in the rolling flats, I laughed at myself for skiing a 500km approach to make these sweet turns. It was all worth it.


The next three days are a blur of white, rolling billows of mountain snow, saunas and evening conversations with tourists, meeting  the kind people who mind the mountain huts, and a sensory experience of walking on winter that submersed my mind in a peace of enormity.
The mid-section between Nikkaluokta and Abisko is a complete desert in winter. Between the pass from Kebnekaise through the awe inspiring expanse around Sälka hut and until Alesjaure, over 50km of skiing, I didn’t see any plants, nor animals, even birds. Yet life never felt so ripe with essence as in an environment such as this: the high peaks, ceaseless desert—just like the rolling ocean.


As I approached Abisko National Park from Alesjaure, I could sense closure on the horizon. The knowing that this ski trip was nearly over sat very well with me. A brief reflection helped me see that what Nan Shepherd referred to as a “geopoetic quest” had just unfolded before my ski tips, and the lessons were at once present and deepening, but inexplicable to my rational mind. There was not time for extraversion in those mountains, the peaks are not concerned with my journey, but realizing my privilege to be there, I understood that I could introvert myself into the belly of the peaks.
In a narrow valley between Gárddenvárri and Šiellanjunni, beautiful Sámi-named peaks, I dug into a snow ridge to build a home for myself for the night. The exercise was not as quick as I imagined, and after four hours of steady digging, and soaking myself to the bone to recreate the blueprint I had in mind, I had a wonky but functional snow cave where I could intern myself into the mountain for the night, but not before catching some turns.
To dry off, I skied up the nice powder blanket of the lee-slope and caught some telemark turns in the powder, looking down the valley towards Abisko and the gnarled birch forest. Up there it became apparent to me that I was was really truly standing on the headwaters, that the stream flowing below the heaps of snow in this little valley soon connects to Kamjåjakka, then becomes Ábeskojávri—Abisko Lake, then Abiskojåkka—the Abisko River, a principle headwater tributary of Torne that meets the river’s flow in the great depths of Torne Trask.


Returning to my cave, dry and happy after my ski, I cooked up some dinner. Moments after digging in, a helicopter nearly shaved my head, and flew out of sight over the windridge, but the deafening sound told me it was landing. Like a nervous rat I scurried up the wind ridge to ensure that my house didn’t cave in, and the heli was just a hundred feet away. Then I looked up and saw some dots flying down Šiellanjunni—heli skiers.


As the flew off waving to me eating my dinner, I was flabbergasted at this wild world. Feeling full I crawled into my cave and sealed the door and with it, sealed out the noise of the world. The quiet of that cave resounded and a fugue of mountain winter entered my consciousness, a symphony of a wilded mind—here I was, sleeping in the river, submerged.

This journey has no end. As rivers have no end, no beginning, but are a fluid fabric holding the world in a trance of movement and wild choreography.
“The river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and there is only the present time for it, not the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future…”
-Herman Hesse, Siddhartha

Take it Planetary

It was clear and striking
The day
It was light

Ready to break my iris

To give me clarity
That was the day
Then overcome

By the news

My hands began to shake
The skin of my forearms,

Darkened by the Indian sun,

Prickled like cactus
The news
It stopped the day

For a moment
And as we floated

The river and I

Were exposed to a new era

Suddenly

As inevitable as the sea
The news

It was disbelief

Trumpeted

By my ignorance

Like a sound cannon

Shrieking silently
The news

It was as though

The river turned

To flow uphill
The news

It was clear and striking

You probably know what news I am talking about. On my last day with GangesSUP, approaching Kanpur, an industrial and largely muslim city, Donald Trump became president elect of the United States.
The Ganges River, from Haridwar to Kanpur, is a seam that draws an ever wandering squiggle through North India’s agricultural plane. It is a river jaded with sugarcane fields greening the water by the banks, punctuated by hordes of water buffalo like smug spa-goers, soaking in the river’s coolness. It is a river that moves through the land as steadily as the farmers chopping and gathering food for their animals and for themselves. 
It is a river that meanders as it pleases with floodplains kilometers wide. Many villages are too accustomed to forced displacement by the floods. Along the banks, one will hear thuds and cracks then the following waves as considerable sections of earth plummet into the current, constant reminders that the river could arrive at one’s doorstep in the not-so-far future. 
My desire to remain focused on the river was momentarily obliterated last week. The country whose passport brought me halfway around the globe elected a man who I had opposed as a leader down to my last hangnail, who has certain values that are to me the antithesis of my dream for the USA: 
I dream of freedom and acceptance, of respect, sustainability, and equality. 

I dream of a place where people can be empowered together to live a good life. 

I dream of a place where culture is enriched by the magnificence of nature. 

I dream of a place where everyone is able to dream as I dream. 
Call me naive, ignorant, but the strands of patriotism and hope for the United States that I was indoctrinated with as a child still hold some sway. My nationalism, an association that has changed so much over my short life, my satisfaction to be American, more precisely USAn, is attached to that dream.
 As Donald Trump’s electoral votes accumulated, I began to wonder if the country is worthy of its very name: the United States. Perhaps the “States” are United, but what of the people?
I am afraid my dream has no flag right now. 

Color is as welcome

As maple sugar in the springtime
Colors are brilliant
Colors are soul
Colors are —


Just before leaving Delhi for the Ganga, I met Jonathan and Erika Du Ela, other travellers from the USA. Jonathan is from a Creole family rooted in New Orleans, but he was raised in South Central Los Angeles where his family has ties to the Black Panthers. Erika’s family is Mexican and living in the San Fernando Valley. Both are artists working to understand their ideas and philosophy about race and place, reaching for a planetary perspective in their journies. We shared a lengthy conversation about ourselves and our work.
The heart of the talk approached whiteness, whiteness as a construction, as a force of power and oppression, whiteness as a concept.
I have struggled to come to terms with what a white identity represents, in my case white and male. Here in India so often I have experienced the attitude that white is right. White is glorified to an extent that people wear fairness creams. People want to take pictures with me on the street and they stare at me when I go out. I’ve heard many men here express admiration of Trump–a rich white man, a man who could help relieve India’s struggles against Pakistan, India’s muslim neighbor, by ceasing to give them aid. 
In my current context here, I cannot forget that whiteness is also associated with the slave owning whites of the confederacy, treaty breaking exceptionalists disregarding Native land claims and environmental treaties in pursuit of wealth, a supremacist, oppressive ruling class. That is not all whiteness is of course, but it is essential that we acknowledge these views, all of us, that in the face of conflict and extremism we remember empathy.
Trump’s anti establishment rhetoric and his blunt courage as a speaker resonate with many Indians and evidently many Americans. India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi shows similar tendencies. Sometimes called a Hindu supremacist, other times praised highly as a visionary leader, Modi appealed to a Hindu society feeling disenchanted with the long standing norms of Indian politics and a status quo threatened by India’s growing muslim population.
Let’s not shy away from the fact that muslims are dispersing across the globe in vast numbers now from the Middle East and North Africa. They are facing fearful and even hostile environments as they migrate. The changing demography of countries is a very real concern; I saw it myself in Northern Sweden in a small community transformed by incoming Afghani families. As my grandmother Irene Hecht, Tita to me, writes: “Because we have not lived through this for over 1,000 years, we are stunned by its effects. But the globe saw it before – Europe with the Germanic invasions, is one example, which stretched on for about 500 years. Today we need to see the phenomenon of population movements in the planetary context. We cannot settle this problem on the national level.”

That quote is from Tita’s reflections on the election, which she sent to me a few days ago. In her writings, she expressed a thought that has a scope which is comforting in uncomfortable times, that humanity is experiencing a great revolution. Having passed the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, we are now in the “Planetary Revolution” and norms such as the Nation State are due for examination and transformation.
In order to avoid a pessimistic stupor, her perspective is one that I can hold onto as a guiding light. She writes:
“Briefly, how do I see the Trump election? I see it as a self-inflicted kick-in-the pants. I dare not predict how we will use the jolt. Our greatest hope is Trump’s pragmatism. His words are wild, but his actions can be level-headed, at least from his perspective. There is the danger he may push us backward rather than forward.” 

“Taking the optimistic approach my hope is that we will be thoroughly jarred and that by the next election we will find some serious answers that speak to the realities of our future. We first need to identify where we stand in the Planetary Revolution. Then we can look for leadership that is capable of moving beyond the Industrial Age into the new Planetary existence.”
I feel the weight of our inevitable and uncertain trajectory into that future. From Walter Benjamin: 
“ A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”                                           
May we can call upon lessons of history, and remind ourselves of the value of relationships we have with the Earth and one another. Let us consider the responsibility we have for that storm blowing in from paradise, let us try our best to keep the metaphor a metaphor. 
Planetary consciousness is not a new concept. We have plenty of cultures to look to for guidance — land based peoples through time have come up with many cosmologies based on the environment. Many of these cosmologies are with us today. One that is close to my heart is John Wesley Powell’s notions of using watershed boundaries, ecoLogical boundaries to govern ourselves and our spaces. Another one knocked right on my noggin this morning as I read an essay by Nick Jenei, a close friend and Planetary philosopher at heart. He wrote the piece nearly a decade ago when he was on his Watson Fellowship not far from where I am now: 
“I have been hiking alone for hours when my guide Jam Yang, a native Tibetan and former Buddhist monk, joins me on the trail. Since I don’t have the physical ability to simultaneously walk and talk at that altitude, I am eager to stop and chat while catching up on my oxygen. I am also interested in learning more about the significance of the Kora (the Tibetan word for a religious circumambulation) and ask Jam Yang if he can tell me more about why Tibetans walk around mountains. His answer is one of the most profound yet simple insights into the crisis facing humanity I have ever heard articulated: ‘The Kora is a way of honoring a relationship, honoring our relationship with the mountain.’”

“Honoring a relationship. These three words not only hold the key to understanding the tension between humans and the environment, they also illuminate a clear path toward a more harmonious relationship with our world. ‘The pilgrims on this mountain understand the infinitely complex relationships that sustain them,’ continues Jam Yang. ‘They understand their place in the greater system; they understand their relationship to Kailash.’ Because of their sensitivity to this symbiosis, these pilgrims are not trying to conquer the mountain, they are not trying to conquer the environment — they are trying to honor a relationship.”
With communications today, the planet is a web of connection. Just think about what you and I are doing: I wrote this at a table in Allahabad and posted it… you can read this in an instant nearly anywhere there is “connectivity.” If we can usher into ourselves, our homes, our families a practice of considering these relationships, we can get onto a positive track towards planetary life. If we can learn from the election that petty media is not so petty, that twitter isn’t light as a feather, then we can develop what tita calls an “etiquette” for using this powerful young tool, the internet, so that we don’t become entangled. 
The other day on the river, I asked my friend Devang, a Gujarati, if he believed in Hindu mythology. “No,” he said, “I believe in nature.” 
That’s beautiful, and practical I thought to myself. No drudgery through scripture about someone else’s mystical journey, just find it anywhere. We are all a part of nature, it’s 100% inclusive. That’s great. So we have some common ground still. I want to focus that. 

When I grow up
I will build a house 
And on one wall I will install a mirror
A mirror that captures all the light of the world
And reflects me in everything
And reflects everything in me
So everyday when I wake
I can look into the world

see just how we all fit in

Think like a planet

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