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Tool Conversations

Posted on Tuesday, May 9, 2006 at 04:28PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in | Comments3 Comments

viking_moc_face_20m.gifRemember the face on the planet Mars? In 1976, when NASA photographed the planet in detail from its Viking 1 spacecraft, people studying the maps found one surface feature about two miles across that looked very much like a gigantic human face. (That’s the photo on the left above.) Twenty-five years later, a second spacecraft using a much better camera showed that it wasn’t really a face at all. (That’s the photo on the right.)

Physiologists say that the human brain has special circuitry that enables it to recognize an image of a human face on the basis of very few clues. This circuitry is of great use to babies, who need to be able to recognize and imprint on the humans around them directly after they are born. But it also explains why we find it so easy to see faces in clouds, in irregular mottling on ceilings and walls, and in photos from Mars.

We humans see the universe not only with our eyes, but also through our tools, as if those tools were supplemental eyes. I suppose that this is a consequence of the fact that we are tool-using creatures; we have to look through our tools as instinctively as we look for faces, simply to get by. But as a result, I think we fall into the habit of analyzing the whole universe in terms of what our tools can do with it, sometimes to the exclusion of other things that matter more. (And how many of our environmental difficulties, do you suppose, are related to that problem?)

So there’s the old saw about how, “To the man who has only a hammer, everything looks like a nail” — meaning, to me at least, that we see non-existent nails in the same way as non-existent faces. And along the same lines, I’ve noticed that if we have only a hammer, and are confronted with something that cannot possibly be interpreted as a nail, we have a remarkable tendency either to fear it as uncontrollable, or else to tune it out as irrelevant. (Of course, we don’t have to do either. We can look for new tools, instead. Or find a way to make peace with it.)

I’ve had some reason to think about all these things in connection with my walk.

When I first started talking about my walk, there were several very common responses. One of the most common was, “Well, if you simply want to promote low energy use and earth-friendly technology, why not use a bicycle? It’ll get you there much faster.” (My answer: “But I’m not doing this to promote low energy use and earth-friendly technology!”

I lay it before you, Friends, that this particular response came from folks who were fond of the tool known as a bicycle. They were “seeing” my walk with the tools they knew best. Nothing at all wrong with that, except that I needed to work a little harder to convey what it was that I was actually engaged in.

Some other, more subtle examples of the tool-controlled-vision phenomenon arose when I set out to equip myself for the walk.



The only backpack I owned, at the time I felt my leading, was an external-frame Kelty more than a quarter-century old. This pack was designed to reduce the strain of carrying a heavy load by shifting some of the weight to the hips — but it didn’t do a terribly efficient job of it, compared to packs today.

I knew I’d have to carry a great deal of weight on the journey to Harrisonburg, so I set out to find a better pack.

I visited one of the largest sporting goods stores in town. Its best backpacks were two lines of internal-frame packs. Both of these transferred weight to the hips more efficiently than my old external-frame, but each had palpable drawbacks.

I asked the salesperson about his own experience. “Oh,” he said, “I can tell you, based on my own experience, that this pack here will be the best for you.”

I looked at the pack in question doubtfully: it appeared much too small for what I’d have to carry. (For those of you who are curious, it was the Gregory Palisade.) “What kind of experience do you have?” I asked.

“I do car camping,” he said, “but I carry my stuff from the car to the campsite in my pack. It’s a distance of about two miles. That’s enough to be able to tell which pack works best.”

I bit my tongue.

By this time the store manager had joined us. I asked about a brand the store didn’t carry. “We used to carry it,” he said, “but we discontinued it. It’s not as good as the ones we do carry.”

I forebore to say that which pack is “not as good” as the other is an individual judgment call, and will inevitably vary from person to person depending on how the person’s individual body shape interacts with the shape and balance of the pack. But this must have been apparent on my face, because the store manager then said, “Take it from me, the pack we have here is the best one there is. If there were a better one, we’d carry it.”

Now, Friends, I’ve been in retail sales myself. I used to work on a used car lot. And I recognized that line from used car sales. It’s not a truthful response; it’s manipulative, designed to keep the customer from walking away. It points the shopper’s attention to the salesperson’s knowledge and presumed authority. But in this case, even if the salesperson and manager had such knowledge (and I was dubious about that), it ignored the obvious point that different individuals find different packs work best.

These salespeople, then, were looking at me through the tools of their sales techniques, instead of through their hearts. They weren’t seeing me as a living human being like themselves; they were seeing me as a Possible Sale. Had I fallen for their tricks, I’d have suffered for three long months on the road unnecessarily.

I walked out of the store.



On to another store. “I think the Gregory Palisade is too small,” I told the salesperson there.

The salesperson measured me for size, put me in the next larger Gregory (the Whitney), had me take it off, loaded it up with sixty pounds of stuffing, and let me walk around in it for half an hour.

“It’s good,” I said, “but the connection to my shoulders leaves something to be desired. It feels loose and sloppy up there.”

“Well,” said the salesperson, “I could put you in a better pack, but then you’d want to buy it. And it’s much more expensive.”

“Let me be the judge of that,” I said. So he loaded the same weight into an Arc’Teryx Bora 95, which is indeed a more expensive pack, and I shouldered it.

It fitted my body as if custom-molded. Virtually all the weight was on my hips. Nothing shifted around as I walked, or pulled me backwards unnecessarily. I could manage a thousand-mile walk in this pack. I’d found the tool I needed.

The salesperson said, “What else are you in need of?” And off we went on a tour of the store, with the salesperson blithely assuring me that I needed this, that, and the other thing in order to complete my walk.

I bought less than a quarter of the things he recommended. He was looking at the universe through his toolbox of Man-Against-the-Elements gear; and if I’d wanted to be as insulated from discomfort and suffering as a long-distance backpacker could possibly be, that was a great toolbox to use. But Man Against the Elements was not what God was leading me to practice in this journey.



Throughout history, there have been lovers of God’s Creation who went out into the wilderness, not to Test Themselves Against the Elements, but to have contact with the creatures and find joy in that contact. The Desert Fathers in Egypt were like that, and so were many of the early Irish saints, and Francis of Assisi. In the Orient, many of the classical Taoists and Ch’an and Zen masters were like that. In America we had Johnny Appleseed, Davy Crockett, John Muir, and many others.

Where someone like the salesperson at the second store might have dealt with a life-threatening storm by deploying a thousand dollars’ worth of survival gear, these people were the type to go naked into a storm. In fact, there’s a somewhat famous story of John Muir, when he was caught in a violent storm in the High Sierras: he shinnied a hundred feet (ten stories!) up a young Douglas fir, the better to experience what was happening. As he recorded the experience in his journal:

The slender tops [of the trees] fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobolink on a reed.

In its widest sweeps my tree-top described an arc of from twenty to thirty degrees, but I felt sure of its elastic temper, having seen others of the same species still more severely tried — bent almost to the ground, indeed, in heavy snows — without breaking a fiber. I was therefore safe, and free to take the wind into my pulses and enjoy the excited forest from my superb outlook. (John Muir, The Mountains of California).

The result of this adventurous openness was a sensitivity far beyond the civilized norm to the ways in which God can be found through His Creation. Typical was the moonlit night in the Yosemite valley, when Muir saw the moonlight shining off the bare rock domes:

The glacier-polish of rounded brows [is] brighter than any mirror, like windows of a house shining with light from the throne of God — to the very top a pure vision in terrestrial beauty…. It is as if the lake, mountain, trees had souls, formed one soul, which had died and gone before the throne of God, the great First Soul, and by direct creative act of God had all earthly purity deepened, refined, brightness brightened, spirituality spiritualized, countenance, gestures made wholly Godful! … I spring to my feet crying, “Heavens and earth! Rock is not light, not heavy, not transparent, not opaque, but every pore gushes, glows like a thought with immortal life.” (Muir, journal entry, 1871).

That is how our sight can be awakened when we are sufficiently open; and being open may, in some cases, mean being willing to set aside our toolboxes for a while. That has happened to me on three or four occasions — and perhaps, dear readers, it has happened to you as well.



It will be easy for me, on my walk, to get distracted into conversation about the tools: Isn’t this a neat backpack? How about this LED flashlight? And what do you think of my ultralight tent? I suffer from that weakness as much as anyone.

But ultimately what I’m doing in this walk is not about the tools.

To offer a somewhat inadequate metaphor: if I am a hand, then like most hands I am used to focusing my attentiveness forward, toward the tools I grasp and the materials I work with. This is object-oriented consciousness. It talks about the neat pack, boots, and vented rain gear.

I can also be aware of myself, as hand: subject-oriented consciousness. That is what I am into when I start talking or thinking about what I want, what I intend to do. My attentiveness is focused selfward, and it registers: I am going to walk to Harrisonburg! But no, no, that’s not what’s happening here at all. If I recognize what is really going on, I see that I am not the one who is doing this walk. I’m only following directions. I will only be along for the ride —

And then there is a third kind of consciousness, which involves looking rootward, toward the Mind that uses me as its hand. This is neither objectively- nor subjectively-oriented consciousness. It goes to a place apart from either object (tools) or subject (hand). It goes to the Life that Muir saw gushing from the rock. And that third kind of consciousness is the real focus of my walk. It’s what I need to be working on.

arc'teryx bora 95 cameo.jpgThere is no sporting goods or wilderness equipment store that can prepare a person to travel to that Source. To go there, we must be willing to go naked and uninformed. I have the tools for my journey ready, and in one sense, my next task is to gather them all together. But in another sense, I must leave them all behind.

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Reader Comments (3)

Your walk is as much an inward journey as an outward journey. But it does help a little to be minimally comfortable on the outside!

-- comment posted by Nancy A, Nancy's Apology
May 10th, 2006 at 7:21 a.m.

Sep 2, 2006 at 10:56AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

This is a beautiful post, Marshall.

I was struck by these two sentences from the Muir quote:

In its widest sweeps my tree-top described an arc of from twenty to thirty degrees, but I felt sure of its elastic temper, having seen others of the same species still more severely tried — bent almost to the ground, indeed, in heavy snows — without breaking a fiber. I was therefore safe, and free to take the wind into my pulses and enjoy the excited forest from my superb outlook.

(An aside: This quote sounds a lot like Psalm 46: The Lord is my refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. . . . . )

Muir had confidence — literally, with-faith — that the tree would hold him safe, not because of some theory or creed, but because he had seen with his own eyes that the trees could bear his weight. Astounding faith.

I am looking forward to hearing more of your journey.

-- comment posted by Paul L, Showers of Blessings
May 10th, 2006 at 1:48 p.m.

Sep 2, 2006 at 10:57AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
The art of Divine travel [if I ever could presume to even have a clue about it] may be to travel without traveling, to go forth while staying totally centered, in place. How much different is this from everyday life, really?

So the travel moves beyond the role of tool — it is merely the medium in which one moves closer to no movement at all, and in that centeredness of silence, when the extraneous is dampened down, when the disruptive static which is everyday life and its actions and reactions are modulated to the lowest levels [or lower], then the capacity [though not necessarily the certainty] to perceive divine Will is at least enhanced. How perfect: travel so as to not move at all. It feels right!!

-- comment posted by Steve Evans, http://sevansgsm-usa.com/
May 12th, 2006 at 9:23 p.m.
Sep 2, 2006 at 10:59AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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