letter from the ptarmigan traverse

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Dear Mike,

I remember the letter that came by horseback in the North Cascades, the letter that made me whoop with joy and run across the meadow and shriek with joy. I remember the letter I wrote to my father from the Appalachian trail, thanking him for the music he brought to our lives--I cried as I wrote it. I remember the letter I picked up Post Restante in Lyon when I was 17 and traveling for the first time; it was from my best friend Jacob, and for the first time in months I didn't feel alone.

Like many people, I have used the internet, email, and Facebook as an excuse to stop writing letters. Writing letters is roughly akin to exercise for me--I love it when I do it and when it's done, but beforehand the task seems overwhelming and somehow distracting from the really important stuff I am doing (like hanging curtains or sharpening crampons). So when I had the chance to simplify the process of keeping in touch, I went for it. I resisted email for a year or two, and Facebook for several, but I eventually got on board. What surprises me is that Facebook hasn't really taken with me; I haven't internalized it as a tool the way I have a cell phone or email. It turns out that I've been pre-occupied by what I have lost, which is to say the experience of writing and receiving letters. As a result, I've generally been disappointed with my experience on Facebook; this disappointment is proportional to the hope I felt that Facebook would help me feel connected to my many scattered friends (Geographically scattered, I mean. I love my mentally sharp friends just as much as my scattered ones). While guiding the Ptarmigan Traverse this week, I had a chance to think a lot about why that is, about what I have lost, and about how to find it again.

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This summer you shared with me your principle of ruthless authenticity by which you steer your social, artistic and professional choices. I take this to mean striving to be true to your self even at the cost of lower social prestige and less economic success. It is perhaps a rephrasing of other social pop-wisdoms from recent generations: follow your heart; do what you love and the money will come; live intentionally, and so forth. But this principle emphasizes the notion of authenticity which somehow seems so threatened in our culture of mass production, instant gratification, and constant electronic communication. It is arguably a spiritual idea, in the sense that it prioritizes our essence--our innermost person--over material considerations. It implies that it's fundamentally bad for us to betray ourselves, to align ourselves with ideas and movements that don't represent our values. Nobody really feels good about being false, and everyone enjoys being his or her self.

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So here is what I have realized with the help of your principle: I don't have to figure out what is wrong with Facebook, only what is wrong with me. Writing a long critique of Facebook and how it has changed social life is beyond my realm of expertise, but I do know what I like. I like holding a letter in my hands that you held in your hands a week or two weeks ago. I like waiting to hear from you, and then sitting down to read your thoughts scrawled out at length over cups of coffee or glasses of wine. I like seeing which words you chose and then abandoned and struck through with hard lines. I like getting a letter so good that I re-read it a second time, and maybe I even get on the phone and call you because it's so overwhelming, and I feel you reaching out to me--not to your audience of dozens or hundreds, but to me. And most of all, I miss sitting down to write a letter myself, trying to craft something that is wonderful and grand and funny and puts across my life in a way that my good friend will appreciate.

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Of course I don't have to choose between letters and Facebook. But is that true? So long as I mistake Facebooking for the art and craft of staying in touch, then I will neglect the letters and lose that excellent part of the past. I know now that, even as an occasional visitor to Facebook, I spend almost enough time there each day to write a letter. I know that I won't do both, because I can only sit still in my chair for so long.

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On the Ptarmigan, watching the terrain slowly unfold over long hours of walking, I thought a great deal about tools. We had backpacks filled with carefully chosen tools, things to keep us warm and happy and well-fed and safe in the mountain wilderness. My work as a guide routinely requires that I help people select tools: which ice axe, which boots, which backpack, which skis, and so on. When I am gear counseling I am reminded of the requirements proposed by American author, poet, and philosopher Wendell Berry in his essay Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer:

1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.

2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.

3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.

4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.

5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.

6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.

7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.

8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.

9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

Surely a letter and the postal service, when taken together as a tool, do not meet all of these requirements. But when I apply them to Facebook (as a replacement for letters and telephone, or even just as a replacement for email), and when I consider the work of staying connected to friends, it's clear to me that the time has come to start writing letters again. So at the risk of falling even further off the radar, as they say, I am committing once again to the written word, to growing that middle-finger callous that I have had since second grade, and to the fading US Postal Service.

Yours truly,

Forest

PS: Can you send me your address?

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