Free To Be
Paul D. Humphrey
A friend recently told me of an amazing rock climb he had completed. “Perfect rock” he exclaimed, his arms and hands drawing maps in the air. Just where he needed them, ideal hand-holds had appeared, edges and pockets, coaxing him on until the final climactic crux just below the anchors. Sounded fantastic. A perfect route for sure. But perfect rock? I don’t think so.
Climbers are often a dedicated bunch. Many spend their whole careers seeking out “perfect stone”. They rate their routes on solidity as well as difficulty, and seem ill at ease on less than solid stone, or “choss”. Others lurk at the other extreme where the worse the rock and the more meager the protection opportunities the better. These folks focus on the barely attainable, coaxing both aid and free routes out of the most improbable stone. Neither of these groups, though, have ever climbed Perfect Rock...
Not if you think like a Taoist.
I was first introduced to Taoist philosophy in college. At first I read it to act intellectual. But I was too busy thinking about being brainy to understand much of it. Now I read through those books and simply enjoy them. Every once in a while I learn something too.
Chang-Tzu, a semi-mythical Chinese philosopher, wrote down many stories with Taoist themes. One of my favorites is the story of a giant gnarled tree. I will paraphrase:
There once was a huge tree who’s limbs were so twisted and gnarled that it could not be used for lumber. Its bark emitted a pungent sap that would not dry enough to use the tree for firewood. A woodcutter spoke with Chang-Tzu about it. “This is the ugliest tree I have ever seen! It is worthless for any purpose.”
Chang-Tzu agreed. “The virtue of this tree is in is worthlessness. By being unusable for any human purpose it is free to be a tree.”
Climbers can only exist on the rock because of its imperfections. We climb its fissures and holes. Our rock may be beautiful, but it is not perfect. Perfect stone is beyond our use. Our skill can not overcome it. It can be so rotten it cannot be hooked or pitoned, or so monolithic our hands find no purchase. It excepts no welcoming protection. It is what it is, perfectly worthless.
Two of my favorite cliffs have sections of perfect rock. One is a sea cliff with a hundred foot headwall so loose it crumbles if you sneeze on it. It revels in its ragged decay. A single hole in its center is the only weakness, and it is occupied by a nesting Cormorant. She could not have chose a safer home.
The other wall is small, perhaps fifty feet by forty, and is flanked on both sides by climbable stone. Perched high on a forested ridge, it looks west towards the sea. Its limestone is smooth as cream, and it flows in a hold-free curtain of blue and yellow stripes. You could frame it and sell it as art. But you couldn’t cling to it, I bet. It’s Free To Be.
I was at this second wall, climbing exceptional rock around the corner from Perfection, when all these meandering thoughts fused together in me. It was a nice moment. The heat came on strong that afternoon. The raptors spiraled high on the thermals. Sluggish and fatigued, I scrambled up a gully to a small cave. It was nearly cylindrical, a twisting tube four feet across. I lay down just inside its mouth and let its cool breath lull me to sleep as I remembered something I had written years before...
Follow me up
through bent and folded layers,
up into the Sunshine
of a hundred-thousand years ago.
I have been sitting here since then,
thinking crystallized thoughts,
Pondering 36 million sunsets.
Here under the sky again.
Trace my folds
and bands of crystals,
formed by a heat
greater than passion,
forged together and
set far below.
I was once like you,
walking in the Sunlight
for a few score
of fog-lit mornings,
before the borders failed,
and I disintegrated.
You will soon enough be like me,
solid and stoic,
warming and cooling
with the summer Sun
and the winter snows;
thinking crystal thoughts,