Essay Notes/Draft: "Harvesting The Moon"

Notes from the "Shawangunk Art: Philosopher's Stone" Set.

Harvesting The Moon

Charles Carver

In the waning glow of the setting sun, with photographic gear in tow, we take a journey to the top of Near Trapps via the Millbrook Ridge Trail to face east over the cliffs toward the rising Harvest Moon. The Millbrook Ridge Trail, only a few paces from the south end of Trapps Bridge, is immediately, but not unnecessarily aggressive in its incline. The relatively short Near Trapps ascent is interesting and challenging by virtue of conglomerate platforms sliding across the footpath with abrupt disjointed edges and tenacious pitch-pine roots. The path is not so much thereby revealed and demarcated by its surrounding contours as it is confronted— confronted by oblique blocks, fractures, and conglomerate platforms that converge to drop a rugged terrain underfoot. In contrast to the massive but blind power that our thighs and buttocks normally impart to address a steep incline, the trail calls for a response concentrated below the knees. Freedom at the ankles must be restricted or the trek is sure to end in injury. Angular rocks, clumsy steps, and misplaced roots rapidly give way to steeply inclined glacier-polished conglomerate, where tension continues to concentrate downward until it is entirely given over to the integrity of our footwear. Here, where "the rubber meets the road", you find out very quickly whether your footwear is up to the task. If so, your pace remains automatic. If not, you proceed in an overly conscious manner for quite a distance. Despite the challenge, motivation pulls you forward as the intervening terrain works as a kind of guidewire for deliberation.

As introduced in Philosopher’s Stone, the warped and tilted nature of the exposed conglomerate is the byproduct of a series of ancient mountain building episodes, but the abstract drama of geological events has left a residue for direct experience to still range upon. We may imagine a connection with abstract principles that speak of incredible geological time scales, but stronger still, we directly make contact with the sheer facticity of their solid duration. Even as we range upon the terrain, we know. We know that these geological events occurred in the nearly timeless past— and so geologic time, through the rock itself, transforms its state from a harbinger of past events to enduring time— hardened, harboring, re-enacting lived time as we engage its solidity. We no longer simply think duration as conceptual time— as a mere signpost of possible experiences at forced intervals— instead, we directly perceive the kind of seamless momentum of enduring, through which we occupy the leading edge.
The rock will endure, that is certain, but right now it pushes back against our tiny mass not just with supporting solidity, but with a capped and polished seal over that solidity. Yet it requires us, with secret knowledge, to align ourselves with its time. Just yesterday, mile-high glaciers polished and ‘chattered up’ its surface. We apprehend that even as we work to navigate a trail that often banks in the opposite pitch to our slow arcing ascent, making us overcompensate the banking to seek a more comfortable equilibrium. We unconsciously lean to counter its lean. Always there is a two-sided dialogue in the tension of friction.

The trail remains tucked between the open conglomerate and pitch pine thickets that drop off into mysterious shadows. The drop imparts a trajectory that increasingly seeks to pull us off the trail to the south, where broader platforms of exposed conglomerate advertise themselves as more welcoming. Out there, on the open rock, there is no boundary in the same manner that we now feel as we ascend adjacent to a nondescript pocket of shadows whose volume suggests depth. The trail’s blue blazing remains at the ready to keep us inline nonetheless. Without the markings, we are sure to migrate toward the open rock surfaces, where we are led, like Frodo and his companions, further and further off the main trail. It feels too right over there. The bright conglomerate glows an expansive grounding as the twisted forms of dwarfed pine reach their natural state of bonsai refinement upon it. Every form appears as if placed upon an independent surface in a sculptured radius around. Each provides room and respite for the senses, even while disclosing the next island of hardy refinement to migrate toward. This occurs in all phases of lighting, but it is particularly evident when the light is waning and the shadows are not yet deep enough to swallow the environment in a seemingly global night.

For the Gunks in general, twilight remains aglow from both air and rock because the broad conglomerate has its own means to re-radiate the luminance that it has absorbed throughout the day. No scientific apparatus can detect that subtle luminance to the same degree that we feel during those subtle hours.

Capture & Release

It takes only a few hundred paces to crest the back side of Near Trapps. A series of compelling but false summits provide intrigue before our first destination is reached. In many Gunks’ journeys, the goal may appear to be a decisive summit, but what is granted is often far more interesting to experience, though less interesting to attempt to photograph or capture visually. Even at the edge of many cliffs, the Shawangunk Ridge often retains its capacity to thrust into the vicinity a welcome locale to anchor the body as vision continues its journey and projects off the ledge into the horizon. No lens can match the attentive human perceptual apparatus and its capacity to apprehend the local and the distal environment at the very same time.

To be sure, there are many iconic vantages that are photographed or filmed from the Gunks. This series provides a significant volume of accompanying images. But images are a different thing altogether than a ‘capture’ or ‘copy’ of sensation. Even sensation itself is an active and constructive process— a selective transduction— and not merely the recovery or shunting of a distal reality through the open portals of the senses. Photography is not a second-order recording of that sensation, just as that sensation is not a second-order recording of that reality. It is a novel project: a new process of apprehension with its own defining characteristics. Usually it invokes a new experience; one that is independent of the original duration that sense perception takes part in enacting on our behalf. As modern perceptual neuroscience has disclosed, the organic visual apparatus does not simply record or detect distal wavelengths even though that is a quite popular and "techy" interpretation.

Instead, through infusion with the other sensory and motor processes, perception is the achievement of ongoing processes that assist in the selective stabilization of primary attributes— of objects and environments capable of being attended in a decidedly human experience of relevance. Objects are not merely detected complete, they are brought to fruition as embedded features of specific situations. Even as their non-conscious precursor elements guide the perceptual construction by means of distal patterning, all is relational, contextual and eventually affectively charged (feeling-based), even if only residually. These novel but yet naïve and buried roots of experience sometimes require and solicit the advent of a heightened sense of agency through which we assert ourselves when volition and choice are required and attention is deployed. But in the end, there is no secondary "capture" going on in sensation. We attend to a subset of what our bodies have already selectively and pre-consciously assisted in stabilizing as a perceptual situation: a pragmatic momentum. That situation is open-ended and as-yet-undefined.

The photographic image thereby shares one characteristic in common with the processes of perception: it is a renewed inflexion point for inquiry and attention; a new momentum-building starting-point for attentiveness and thought. It is not, however, the ‘original datum’ that was copied or captured for a tacit witness. Perceptual processes cycle onward into the rich unfolding of novel situations even when they are deployed in purely functional or pragmatic operation. But they are always new, novel and living situations, because they require a living perceptual apparatus.

Images from this video correspond to the spot on Near Trapps that the essay refers to

She Reveals

We began our journey just before the setting sun, with time enough to reach our perch in preparation for the rising Harvest Moon on the opposite side of the world. It is here that the magic begins afresh. Just as the trail turns away from the edge and rises slightly before plunging into the huckleberries, shrubs, and a tentatively mixed forest, we detour a few steps onto what appears to be a well-trodden side trail flaring out. The short path is open and with a few paces it leads to a stone outcrop with a pitch pine at the edge overlooking the broad Wallkill Valley. The pine has adjusted its orientation to face back toward the prominent eastern edge of The Trapps. The earth slopes to greet this outcrop adjacent to the tree, but before abruptly plunging hundreds of feet over the sheer cliff, it offers, tucked to the left of the stone outcrop, a terraced landing sloping gently to establish a welcome but still dangerous platform for tripod, knapsack and thirsty traveler. During the pre-dawn hours this sparsely grassed plot provides a great place to witness the rising sun, although it is decidedly dangerous for early morning clumsiness (note: the imagery from the opening animation was acquired from there). Earlier in the year, when the sun rises at a more northward locale on the horizon relative to our arrival, The Trapps touchdown at a point to welcome the sun’s emergence. At the time, one often discovers a slow dispersal of fog that creeps over the majestic cliffs in the dawning light. The broad Wallkill Valley is filled with a similar fog during many a morning, but when spied from the landing, the fog appears to have a life of its own. It starts out as a thick blanketing mass, almost a giant living mass that is animated by weather patterns of its own internal generation. The large gray mass moves at first as a single presence in transition. Rapidly, it gives way to a medium of atmospherics— displaying glowing hints of the soon-to-be rising sun as it blends warm tones into its underbelly. Then, with the rising sun itself, it becomes sheer translucence in places— a whispering curtain partaking of an immanent happening. But even then, with its variable lifespan, dense, opaque flows remain dispersed within it. After more time for clearing, t becomes evident to the viewer that the remaining dense flows correspond to the course of the Wallkill River in the near distance, and the Hudson River further beyond. Meanwhile, as the sun rises, the pitch pine hanging over the cliff at the edge remains in the perfect position to greet the warm glow of the sun on its face.

This all takes place during a different hour of magic than the one we now prepare for as we sit in the same plot at the end of the day waiting for the Harvest Moon to rise and follow the same arc. The sun has recently set behind us. And just before the salient moment, the deepening blue sky remains at a balancing point. It feels sustained in deep blue luminance— full of volume, anticipating, but not disclosing the point of emergence. Then, without advanced notice or the slightest fanfare, the yellow-orange moon begins to silently slip upward from beyond the distant Plattekill hills. The communication towers on Illinois Mountain blink responsibly but completely independent of the happening. Just to the left of the blinking towers the moon creeps upward almost secretly at first, for the sky has not had time enough to deepen into a night that is worthy of its reception. When it has emerged full and characteristically orange-yellow, it’s presence is certainly prominent next to the horizon, but still it appears initially to be just another handsome feature in a structurally handsome landscape. Shortly, however, very shortly after it establishes a slight gap from the horizon, it asserts its form as an independent glowing body. The sky deepens in response. It is only a matter of minutes, perhaps seconds, before it’s glowing and growing presence pulls the gravity of our consciousness toward it exclusively. What was just a wide arcing landscape filling almost half of the horizon only a few seconds prior, is rapidly repositioned on the side of the observer to extend our chest and shoulders, so to speak— as both the observer and the land now partake of the same attentiveness to the moon’s ever-building presence. It has transformed from a feature of the landscape to the most condensed and potent power of the landscape, as the landscape drops out into a voluminous darkness.

As suggested in the previous section of this essay, there is no recording of this presence that is possible. Even though we can generate a few photographs as visual reminders, images will not harbor that primary power of experience even when our instrumentation gathers more detail than our eyes can resolve. By comparison, the image will always remain flat, no matter how spatial we play the game of virtually projecting ourselves into it. Beneath the rising moon, route 44-55 is busy with a trail of glowing headlights passing over the ridge. Somewhere in the winding twists of the same road and deeper into the interior of the Gunks, vehicles will crest a hill to be greeted by this abrupt presence with power enough to pull an audible gasp from the occupants, and the mouthing of that simple word: “moon”.

Yes, the moon. Obvious— even prosaic to thought, but never to experience— at least not when the conditions are right. The rising moon is always poetic when truly received— not by virtue of additional romantic thoughts, but by virtue of its sheer and simple presence. It is the myth-maker par excellence. And sadly, there are billions of individuals who seldom experience it on its terms.

We often reference the moon as a ‘she’, for she is patient, though swift. She rises and inflates, not so much in splendor, but in that simple and effective potency of presence that we keep coming back to in these essays. Just below her, the train of vehicles flows over the ridge. A large gathering of climbers and hikers have made their way to the Mountain Brauhaus at the intersection of Routes 299 and 44-55. After all, the Harvest Moon has risen on a Friday night this year. From our little plot of sloping land snuggled on the cliff like a lumpy magic carpet, we travel the horizon to witness it all like a hidden dreamer dreaming the busy landscape in a vicarious act— a voyeurism without the sex appeal. We remain an integral feature of the voluminous darkness as it too partakes of witnessing, for it is now on our side of the dipole as a subject engaged in an object.

After lingering to soak in the rising moon, we gather our gear and head southwest on the trail, with the moon hanging low behind our left shoulder. Daylight journeys are self-evident for the senses, but twilight journeys require either full adaptation to the low lighting at foot level, or commitment to the cone of light provided by a flashlight. Traveling by flashlight provides a heightened adventure for the motor-infused senses, but movement should not be taken for granted in this terrain. The flashlight takes over the role of progenitor of our world the moment that we dip into the huckleberry, mountain laurel and lightly forested terrain. The moon is not yet high enough to provide more than a constant allure and a sublime and mysterious, if not cheery disposition to our mood. It has yet to penetrate the thickets. The trail ducks in and out, and then mostly into the forest with rock outcroppings that take over its meandering course. Even the slightest moment of unresolved lighting at the feet is wrought with danger as our gait believes the false relief and plods forward in full confidence despite the shadow play of rough terrain. If we’re lucky, this misplaced confidence will be only reprimanded by stabs and strains from off-planted feet and knees, thus pulling us back into deliberative attention should we begin to get lazy with the flashlight. The moon is a constant allure, even a distraction. It is wiser to simply stop and soak in the rising moon through the branches, as opposed to glimpsing it on the march. And so we do, multiple times. We adhere to the blue-marked trail, which is no small feat in the cone of the flashlight, even though it is much brighter on this night than on most other nights. Every blazed turn marked on the rock must be acknowledged, otherwise we discover ourselves standing amidst huckleberry thickets with no clear path in sight. Retracing our steps is a constant project for the first part of our journey away from the horizon and into the sparse forest, but the moon increasingly imparts its light in subtle ways. We move slow and stop often. Over time the path moves deeper into the woods and jags back after a modest saddle with views of Millbrook Mountain rising high as a massive dark feature with a sheer vertical rise of more than 500 feet above its base in the Wallkill Valley below. We continue to wind slowly inland and southwest with the trail as the luminance begins to gather. Eventually, over the long span of bumbling time, the path descends into a depression, with a moister, cooler feeling to the air, and hemlock and black gum trees dispersed in a mixed forest. In a few weeks, this area will be ablaze with the intense reds of blueberry bushes and gum trees in autumn, but for now it opens the trail into a highly welcomed transition. The open forest feeling that pulls the trail into its spreading oasis is welcome. The glade is fully illuminated by the moon. There is normally a homey feeling projected here, even on a harshly lit summer afternoon— but tonight the plot is simply sacred in its sublime beauty. The region’s huckleberry and wild blueberry understory combines with standing dead trees, fallen, debarked trunks, and lichen-covered bark to welcome a small party of erratic boulders— each of which takes on a shimmering, self-luminous quality, though lichen and moss attempt to disguise the glow. Every object is properly dispersed in a fortunate and open arrangement to receive the mysterious mother light. The only other time that one can feel such a strange, almost shimmering self-luminant quality from objects in the environment is during the attenuated light of an eclipse. It is easy to see, or rather, to feel directly how such transitory moments take on the status of significance, or sacred spaces, to a consciousness fully submerged in the environment.

Moonlight offers a tentative reality compared to the sun’s everyday world. Light and shadow are free to dance upon the earth without imperative to conform to its contours. By virtue of that freedom, it casts an unreal world. Sunlight does not possess such freedom. So bound to the texture and form of the objects that it discloses, the sun’s light is captured as an embedded feature of their reality at the very same time that it discloses them. Abandoning its freedom to that of the visible, sunlight gains concrete submersion into the physicality of all that it makes evident. Color and texture are loaned qualities from that borrowed existence. Moonlight is not reduced to the function of disclosing objects. It hovers in the renewed agency of a vibrating world— a world enacted and balanced between existence as sheer luminance and existence as illuminant thing. It is at once substance and freedom. It is at once function and object. The glowing body of the moon reminds us of that mysterious balance when we lift our eyes in this moonlit glade to greet the source of the shimmering beauty it casts before us.

Video imagery for Harvest Moon without sound. Best accompanied by Neil Young's
"Harvest Moon"

She Unveils

After the moon's magic is truly experienced, we are released from the desire to capture it in imagery. Even if we abandon ourselves to metaphor and poetry, it becomes easier to intuit the false dichotomy that is set up between science and myth. Each are appropriate movements of the human power of experiencing a world that calls one to the task of completing it, even perceptually. Myth is not a premature or primitive attempt at science, as is so often stated. In this very same depression, under a very similar moon, we can understand how a Native American hunting party might extend their own notion of spirituality to a multitude of significant objects, and particularly to those with the quality of objective ‘presence’ that we so often describe in these essays. In this very same depression, under a very similar moon, we can understand how a Paleo hunting party following caribou, mammoth or mastodon— though addressing themselves to a post-glacial tundra and boreal forest— might also experience that world of animated forces, signs, and significance, and even the environment itself, as a singular heightened vessel of experience through which the same magical moon would appear with regularity for an awareness that did not fully separate itself. In this very same region prior to the uplifting forces acting upon the newly congealed conglomerate bedrock — a time when the moon’s distance was closer than it is today as it slowly spirals away from the earth — the day itself was slightly shorter, and every circadian influence upon every organism was already set to be synchronized with a formative structuring for so many coupled exchanges with the environment. Collectively, these sediments of deep time have polished the forms and behaviors of those organisms into existence; in the same way that those rhythmic exchanges have polished many of our own qualities into manifestation by means of a different dance, a different coupling and transformation of distal physics.

The moon. It is she that prods us to ponder such profound things— for it is her fundamental way not to disclose, but to provide a secret glimpse of a realm that overflows the self-evident senses. She offers a transient gift, an unveiling— a direct affirmation of that “more” that we always sense as the precursor to all seeking. And that is why we really journeyed on this night— not to "capture", but to receive.

After lingering in the open glade for some time and having been granted new sight, we return the same way that we arrived. Normally, for our daylight trek, we’d make a different return loop after climbing up the rugged Millbrook Mountain, with its corridor-like passage offerings, and its many false summits— some north facing, some south facing, some all-facing, but each bold and exposed— sharing its pre-eminence with thermal-riding raptors amidst the sweeping contours of the land. We would descend back the Millbrook Mountain Trail only a short distance until it greeted the picturesque Coxing Trail to the right, with its views of Mohonk in the distance offered between park-like framing trees with boulders and a hardy lushness as the path descends amidst wild blueberries to dip from a region of stark beauty to parallel the Coxing Kill stream. Abundant hemlocks respiring a moisture-laden air would welcome an extensive forest of ferns slowly waving their fronds to also welcome us through their cozy footpath. The Coxing Trail would dump us, exhausted with accomplishment, onto the Trapps Road Carriageway from which we began our journey. Indeed, that loop is one of the main reasons to set off from the Millbrook Ridge Trail, as we have at the outset of this journey. But tonight we’ve experienced a different journey. We’ve undergone a transformation through a ritual bathing in moonlight— and the ritual requires return along the same path of our arrival, so that the transformation may be complete. The exposed Wallkill Valley attends to its Friday bounty under the moon. There is a strange quietness to the air and the land below. The exposed conglomerate cliffs that we range upon seem to have been coated with a waxy finish— a luminance that now retains the very same balance between inner-luminance and reflecting objects that we encountered in the moonlit glade. Without the harshness that the midday sun provides, the rock formations now reflect their sheen, but still we feel the inner luminance that attests to their status as ‘objective presence’. The difference is, presence has now been imparted to the entire landscape itself, and not merely to any particular features within it. And therein lies the great difference of our transformation. Through the touch of moonlight, all has been granted internal life, though we still know that to be a projection of our own internal life— or so at least we believe.

Perhaps in the end we do not truly believe that we have opened up to an inner portal of nature, but nor do we deny that we experience a tiny sliver of what we cannot access in full abundance— a sense of kinship with that abundance that remains inaccessible to the everyday schematic of rational thought. We are not entirely irrational in such moments; we are simply entirely perceptual.