I love moss. I really do. I love moss so much that I can’t help but write about it. Moss is indeed one of the Great Things. Moss is like a sedative and its porous structure imparts such a stillness to its surroundings that the sound it absorbs seems to manifest as a physical presence. It’s as if moss must consume sound in order to survive. Moss loves dampness and decay and the forests of Citico Creek provide an ideal substrate for huge bryophytic colonies. A porous absorber, moss converts a minuscule portion of the acoustic energy it consumes into heat. Dispersing that heat as waste is perhaps what make moss seem so cool.
This week, I left the hot sticky stoney enclave of urban/campus life at Georgia Tech in Atlanta and entered the cool dappled forest of Tennessee. I brought my own home with me: a hammock tent. Instead of carrying a support system, I used the structures in the forest, namely the trunks of rhododendron bushes. At the second site, taking the experience of the first hammock pitch, I pitched by tent close to rushing creek separated by dense bushes where the fireflies flitted in the night. The suspension system of the hammock fit in between and above a nice depression in the ground to give me clearance to stand below the tarp that protected me. My head faced the shrubs with the creek just beyond. Wrapped like a larva in a silk cocoon, the hammock rocked me to sleep like a sailing boat moored in the sea. This is my forest home, comfortably providing a swinging seat and a supported sleeping platform that was sheltered from the rain and wind, excluding unwanted biting insects but allowing views of nature while in the distance, laughter reached me from my Hiking hack comrades around the campfire.
Once my nest was built, I went to a habitat familiar to me: the aquatic community. When I was little, my family home was bordered by 2 brooks. I spent hours looking under rocks for salamanders and crayfish, moving pebbles to make pools to watch them play with each other and their surroundings. I watched snails and slugs crawl, and recently I’ve spent hours watching pteropods flap and spin, so it was easy for me to mimic one that was hallucinating as one of my character roles in our evening performances.
To my delight, after picking up only a few large stones in a still pond off the main rapids, I found some caddisfly pupal homes: tiny tubes made of sand grains.
Stuck to the underside of a larger stone, these cocoons faced into the flow in the still pool of the side of the stream. A laser light passed right through them so no one was inside these homes. Aligning the purple laser with the axis of the tube home, thin shafts of light escaped through the stained-glass-like windowpanes of clear sand grains
When I searched upstream closer to stronger flows as the creek ran down steeper terrain,
the cocoons were constructed of bigger stones. The neatest discovery was that the cocoons looked like little flies: were the caddisfly larvae selecting sand grains that matched in size and color [red] to place them where eyes might be located?
There are specific tools used in back country living and digital making. When we combined these tool boxes into heavy backpacks to bring on our expedition, we brought the infrastructure to support the most critical tool, our minds.
One team member’s pack on day 1, complete with camp stove, sleeping mat, tarp, and box o’ microcontrollers and misc. electronics.
My daily life as a hiking hacker began with coffee at the creek side. A warm drink with at least a little bit of caffeine is critical to both my making methodology and my backcountry lifestyle. With the constant rushing of Citico Creek and the caffeine through our veins, we would open each morning writing in our field journals, often responding to a prompt or design challenge. We would finish each night with a reflection on the day’s work and experiences and document each activity as it happened. Our journals became a way for us to communicate with ourselves and the other hiking hackers.
Sharing sketches from my journal after drawing the life I saw around me near camp.
One of the most valuable parts of this expedition was the opportunity to live in the milieu we were drawing inspiration from. On the first morning in base camp, we searched for scents. Not only did we wander the woods sticking our noses unusually close to any and all forest inhabitants, we needed to find a scent we could collect and return to the camp to share.
Paul takes some time to smell the slime mold.
Forced to engage with my surroundings in a novel way, I found myself asking fundamental questions about my perception. The first descriptor I thought of for the scent of a mushroom was ‘woodsy’ but what does that mean when everything is in a forest and inherently ‘woodsy’? Descriptors like meaty, rotten, warm, rich crawled through my mind, but all of these descriptors crossed senses. What does this indicate about the way I understand the woods? Am I constantly creating a coherent representation of my surroundings with little differentiation between modes of perception? Should I be striving to separate my experience of the senses? When I ideate and build a digital device for interacting with nature, should I attempt to create a unified representation of nature or break it down into different aspects of our surroundings? What are the consequences of each of these design choices? Is translating one sense to another enhancing or detracting from our experience of the nature? Or are we simply changing the experience and broadening our understanding of the world around us, without positive or negative connotations of that change? My conclusion from this smelly meditation was that there is no wrong way to explore nature, given that my exploration does not harm or change the world around me.
The point of sniffing things wasn’t only to experience the woods in new ways, but to reflect on the experience, our perceptions and senses, what we want to build, how we want to build it, and why we want to build it. Reflection like this is the key to hiking hacks and any joint making/exploring project.
One of my favorite things about working in the field are the natural routines you fall into without even realizing.
A typical day in basecamp commenced sometime between 7:30 and 8:30am. The ample tree cover and eponymous Smoky Mountain haze kept the sun’s heat and brightness from our site and let us wake slowly. Early risers would lower the bear bag, and the rest of us would waddle over to the fire pit to spark the JetBoils into that oddly comforting and satisfying “WHSSSSH”. After the first two days, I quickly realized that having filtered water from the night before was hugely preferred to having to stumble down to the ice cold creek without the benefit of coffee. Breakfast decisions were pleasantly simple – definitely coffee and a choice of a few dehydrated sweet meals including the ubiquitous oatmeal, a strange “smoothie” dust, and a couple of tortured English muffins. We’d quietly eat together and watch Paul work his magic on the drip coffee he had brought and generously shared.
About 10am, the sun was just high enough to peek over the mountain to our east and the first rays of sun began to cast scattered puddles of light around the camp. Throughout the day, we all staged a strange ballet of moving wet boots, socks, and solar panels into these small and fast moving sun spots. The first few days of basecamp, our mornings were spent on various missions set by Andy, such as finding interesting smells or sketching forest inhabitants.
My favorite morning project was building a leaf speaker. Having just 30 minutes to complete it, we all ran off to collect materials that might be suitable to use in the project. I wasn’t so confident that I was going to be successful in making a speaker that worked, so I went for a more aesthetic appeal. I used a rhododendron leaf as the firm base to support the magnets and wrapped it with beech, False Solomon’s Seal, and evergreen wood fern. Surprisingly, the speaker worked fantastically when I plugged it in! The frills and added accroutements made it a little difficult to use as a speaker (in fact, it was a bit of a hazard), but it made for a rather pretty centerpiece.
As the week went on, we worked on our own independent projects like completing the EthoSmock and seeing if the ubiquitous blue butterflies preferred salt or sugar (result: neither).
Despite the variety of things people were working on and how we could become scattered throughout the day, we somehow always ate every meal together. The sound of the JetBoil at noon drew everyone back to the fire pit and we shared our growing knowledge of how best to rehydrate certain meals (e.g., critical that you re-hydrate the broccoli BEFORE the mashed potatoes). After lunch, we’d wander back to our projects and my favorite afternoon activity was sitting on a large rock in the middle of the creek just south of our camp looking for birds. Though the roar of the creek made it difficult to hear bird song, it was clear that the trees were full of Red-Breasted Grosbeaks, Carolina Chickadees, Field Sparrows, Song Sparrows, House Finches, Golden-Crowned Kinglets, and Louisiana Waterthrush.
About 5pm, the light in our camp would start to dwindle and brought the campmates back to the fire pit to relax and prepare for the night ahead. People began filing down to the water collecting spot to filter water for cooking dinner and keeping overnight. The first JetBoils fired up at 6pm and information was traded on which Mountain House meals were the best, which needed more time to sit and re-hydrate, and which were destined to just be perpetually crunchy. After dinner, we all rushed to brush teeth and pile our fragrant items into the bear bags, which were promptly hung at 7:30pm each evening. Afterwards, we’d return to the fire pit and watch our expert fire tender, Shiva, create a stable and beautiful fire.
As the sun set, we’d talk, journal, and watch the daylight fade from the camp until we had lost all light at about 9:15pm. Early-to-bed campmates would trundle back to their tents, while the rest of us played word games around the fire and watched the fireflies invade our camp. The same few people would always still be up until midnight, and we’d sometimes foray out into the pitch black of the trail to call for owls, blink at fireflies with LEDs, and generally get spooked by the darkness of the woods surrounding our campsite. Finally, and usually after midnight, the last of us would stumble to tents and hammocks to restlessly sleep until the next day.
The first day of hiking was easy, until it wasn’t. I had planned it to take two days of walking to get to the NFCCDL (Owl Camp), but the early part of the day had been so easy that we’d gotten optimistic that we could make it in one day of walking. That turned out to not be the case. It started getting bad when we realized that my map was out of date and that the terrain would be somewhat different than we’d expected. At the end of the day, we had hiked 7 miles and still just ended up completely exhausted and camped on the side of a waterfall. It really was for the best that we stopped though. If we’d kept going, we wouldn’t have made it to basecamp before nightfall, and there’s no way Andy and I would have recognized it in the dark.
The second day of walking started out only moderately difficult, at least compared to the end of the first day, and it just got easier. Andy had scouted ahead and found the place we had eaten lunch on our scouting hike a few weeks before and had reported that the trail went downhill a lot and that it flattened out as it got closer to the creek bed. But when the group got down towards the creek, we never passed any landmarks that we recognized.
As I walked along the creek, I got more and more concerned that we had either missed our target or that it was much farther away than we thought it was. I didn’t see our lunch spot, and I didn’t even recognize the trail. We weren’t passing terrain that seemed familiar at all, and I didn’t remember walking on a raised spot in between two branches of the creek.
I’m getting more and more skeptical when Andy runs back up the trail and says that he thinks he’s found the campsite but that he needs me to come take a look, because he’s been having the same problem. He didn’t remember passing our lunch site today, and the campsite looks quite a bit different.
I followed him down the trail and took a look at the site. It looked similar, but I didn’t think it was the same place. Something seemed off, and I still didn’t think we were on a part of the trail that we’d seen before. But there was a nice fire ring, and a little knoll next to the creek with a couple trees that were just right for a hammock. Whether it was the right site or not, it would make a good site, and people were getting a bit restless (and maybe doubting my navigation and planning abilities). Each hiker who trickled in to this perfectly acceptable, yet possibly unknown place, asked a version of the question, “Is this it?” I had to answer that it seemed like maybe but that I wasn’t sure (not a very good answer).
We decided to eat lunch there regardless and to take a little break. While others ate, Andy and I walked down the trail a bit looking for anything we recognized, but all I saw were obvious landmarks that I definitely did not recognize. I was certain we’d never hiked this section of trail before and couldn’t reconcile the fact that that campsite looked so familiar even though nothing else did. There was a tree nearby that had been struck by lightning, which I knew could have happened since we’d last been there, and I was willing to accept that things may have changed, but I needed at least one more landmark to be certain.
Andy finally spotted it: the beaver dam. It’s probably not a real beaver dam, and it didn’t look the same anyway, but sure enough, there was a bunch of sticks blocking a branch of the creek where the trail crossed it, and you could either cross in the deep end or the shallow end over a kind of weird drop in some rocks. Andy wasn’t convinced it was the same, but I was.
We walked back to the quizzical looks from the crew eating lunch at the basecamp. Andy said he was like 75% sure it was the site. I said 90%. We hemmed and hawed until I saw the stick Andy had stuck in a hole in a tree, exactly where’d he’d left it on our scouting trip. This tipped the scales for me. There was no way we weren’t there, although Andy played the skeptic for a few more minutes. The thing that convinced Andy was me getting a GPS reading on my phone that showed us pretty much exactly where we thought we should be (that’s a discussion for another post though).
This experience had a pretty profound effect on me. It had only been three weeks, but so much had changed. Different plants were blooming, some severe weather had knocked down some trees, and we eventually figured out that there had been some really significant trail maintenance that changed things. Even a place established to minimize the impact of people can change with the blink of an eye, and when you aren’t accustomed to the landmarks and signs that do stay relatively constant, you can stand in the exact same place and think you’ve never been there. It’s very disorienting, and it made me want to learn or develop techniques for avoiding it. How can you observe and annotate the important landmarks in the wilderness? What even are the important landmarks in the wilderness? And if they change, how do they change and how can you learn to see what was there before? Creeks rise and fall; flowers bloom and wilt; trees fall and crush other trees, and people clear the brush from the trail. Maybe environmental consistency is a human construction and requires concrete and alphabets to establish and maintain. Change may be the only constant, and when you’re confronted with it, how do you relate it to the things that you are actually certain of?
I don’t know, but we camped in a wonderful location for several nights. It began to feel very familiar, and each day I began to notice little things that had changed from the day before. Even though I felt comfortable, the forest seemed new and different every time I woke up. By normally living in an environment that is so severely controlled, maybe we forget that one of the things that makes the wilderness wild is the fact that we aren’t the thing that has control over the environment. And maybe, for me, that’s the thing that bothers me (in a very mild, non-confrontational way) about the core concept of the hiking hack. Are we going to the wilderness to tame it, or are we going there to observe it, and where is the line between the two?
After the last day of the prelim workshops, there was still SOO much for me to do.
I had to finish charging all of our batteries, finish up several projects, organize the last bits of electronics we needed to take, and prep the hacking laptop (hacktop). Just getting this laptop ready was a major time suck. I had recently switched to an old macbook air (2010, 11 inch version) because it was super lightweight, cheap, and rather power efficient. But i didn’t have lots of the software and drivers and libraries we needed on it t work with lots of different projects. We were leaving at 6am, which mean i just didn’t sleep.
Luckily Laura drove my car for me, and I passed out immediately (while trying to charge an extra battery). I apparently put a penguin mask on my head to block out the light. I have no recollection of this:
Hitting the Trail
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Everyone was already loaded to the gills with STUFF. The lightest packs were over 35 pounds (16kg), and most ranged around 18-23kg (40-50lbs) . Paul was pretty worried about us being overloaded, but I was feeling bizarrely terrific. So i tried to hide the fact that I was carrying a superfluous 50 foot fire hose and generator in my backpack. I had so little room I had to carry Hannah’s portable day pack on my front. My total load ended up being 36.8 kg (81 lbs).
Studio Packed Up
breaking in a glen
I was a bit worried. I had little sleep, and just 6 weeks before I had broken my left foot. But the weird thing was, i felt fantastic. My whole body just felt comfortable and strong tromping through the forest with all this gear. I think all the injuries and illnesses from the previous hiking hacks had torn my body down to rebuild it into a fantastic machine for carrying ridiculous amounts of potentially useless stuff.
Animals are sexy! We’re fascinated by them, fear them, watch viral videos of them, and feel a special rapport with them. Then there are plants, which help us breathe, feed us, shelter us, and provide satisfaction or awe when that prized orchid finally blooms. However, the biomass – all living things – in any given ecosystem is only a fraction of that with which we can interact. That’s why my mind has been turning to the nonliving foundation for most life – dirt! Being a generally pragmatic person, I want to create something that’s also utilitarian. What if soil testing could be done with the soles of your shoes? Step on a patch of soil with the perfect composition, and you get all tingly (from the wearable)! Or your toes light up. You could be the coolest geologist/archaeologist/environmental chemist/paleontologist! I’m not a gadgety whiz so I’m hoping my more tech inclined teammates can help me figure out a way to make this possible. Of course, there are questions about durability and the type of soil testing. Can soil soles be a possibility? Answer will becoming in the next few days.
I’ve been thinking about navigation in the wilderness and how digital media can support it. There are a couple of things that are particular to the type of navigation in the wilderness we’ll be doing (foot travel in a place where routes aren’t necessarily defined and never square) and some related work that might give some insight in to that topic, which might be the subject of a later post (GPS, FeelSpace Belt, compass).
Having given it some thought, I’m still not sure where I fall with respect to a persistent sixth sense sort of set up because it fundamentally changes the experience of the world, which isn’t what a naturalist is after. It also adds a layer of complexity that’s not necessary for prototyping and testing tools. So I’m thinking of making a tool that can be used when needed or wanted, but not relied upon constantly (like GPS often seems to be for some reason).
This tool is basically a compass, but it always points to a user defined location. The simplest version I can think of would have a sensor (magnetometer or GPS depending on software) and a microprocessor in it, and a button and an LED with an arrow drawn next to it on the outside. The user pushes the button to set a location. From then on, if the arrow points at that location, the light turns on. I guess a vibration or anything could happen. Output shouldn’t be arbitrary, but I haven’t given it much thought yet.
There are lots of good uses for this, but primarily for me, it becomes a tool for developing a sense of direction that aligns with the type of movements, terrains, environments, and durations that are part of exploring the forest.