Just four days ago — after having trudged over the Pyrenees mountains and into Spanish Basque country — I sat in a rear pew in the Catedral de Santa María la Real in Pamplona. A 15th century Gothic church that towers over the northern corner of town. It was early evening. Slanting western light cut through the clerestory stained glass. The tourists were gone. I was alone, looking up at the stonework and ribbed vaulting, admiring the pattern of constellations painted in the ceiling of the apse. When I brought my eyes back down a small man with no hair or eyebrows was standing in front of the church’s crossing, which had a floor of raised marble and was enclosed by a wrought iron gate. He held a votive lantern on a hook and seemed to appear from nowhere, all glabrous and twitching in his own candle’s light before the cathedral’s silver gilded baby Jesus (which was tremendously, glowingly, totally-over-the-topingly silver, shimmering like a JJ Abrams lens flare). A chord from an organ filled the room. A small chorus of grizzled Basque men began to sing with a salty off-key gruffness (But … Where did they come from?! When did they enter?!) — and one of the men had a thing that looked like a dinner bell and he rang it, or clanged it, really, and his crew responded with an affirmative grunt. The organist stopped and its final chord remained in the air, vibrating the stone walls at some — you know — holy frequency, and it was impossible not to be in awe of the power of the well-told story that had orchestrated the whole thing, seemingly spontaneously and without warning.
Hold that thought.
Recent and upcoming talks
Two weeks ago I was in Freiburg for Smashing Conference, delivering the opening talk. The talk was called Seeing at scale: The design of books, meditation, and walking.
If you’re in Tokyo on Thursday, November 29, I’ll be giving a version of the talk (with a stronger Japan focus) at the International House of Japan — a modernist architectural gem in Azabu Jyuban. Register here. Space is limited! I’d love to see you.
Smashing Conference was wonderful — a well-run event by folks with big hearts, smart, curious attendees, and a killer set of co-speakers. Seb Lee-Delisle played with lasers. How can you go wrong? (You can go blind, most definitely, but not wrong.)
My talk began with the story behind the Flipboard for iPhone book. It’s been seven years since I made that book. And for these last seven years I’ve been fascinated by how compressing ephemeral stuff into printed things affords one a certain quality or tenor or texture of understanding.
For example, consider: Robert Frank’s seminal monograph The Americans as a compression of “real” America at a specific moment (1955-1957), enabling a unique understanding of US class and race relations. Or astronaut Bill Anders’ “Earthrise” photo taken on the Apollo 8 mission that compressed the unseeability of our floating dot into a little (printed) photograph, showing us how delicate and lonely we truly were. A kind of first “mirror” held up to the planet. (Yes, other photos of earth from space had been taken, but “Earthrise” seemed to strike our hearts with framing, distance, context (the moon!), etcetera.) And from that image, a fuse to Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, (appearing on the second and third issue covers) and from the spirit of that, a catalyzing agent of the modern environmental movement.
These artifacts address scale and abstraction. The human mind does not readily glom onto the ineffable. So we tend to reach for just-beyond-human sized mythologies to give shape to unknowable things — life, the universe, afterlife, Twitter.
Unfortunately, as contemporary society has become more complex, existential mythologies aren’t super useful for understanding, say, why social media may enable a genocide in Myanmar.
The most pressing issues we humans face today (if not all of the big ones) are issues of:
… and bridging the gap between Intellectual Understanding
and Experiential Reality
As it says on the talk’s title, I’ve found books, meditation, and walking to be excellent tools to bridge the intellectual and experiential, see unseeable things at different scales, and make the abstract a little more tangible.
Camino de Santiago
And so I’m on yet another walk. I bake in about two months of walking each year. I’ve already walked the Kumano Kodo roughly twice in 2018. I was up on the 60-Ri Goe Kaido again in Yamagata. And now I’m on the Camino de Santiago — Kumano Kodo’s sister UNESCO World Heritage pilgrimage route.
The “full Camino” is nearly 780km. Taking, usually, over a month to finish. The truth is, there are many Camino routes — some longer and others shorter — and I’m knocking down approximately 260km of trail split between two different Caminos over two weeks.
The first 140km are on the “standard” Camino, the one you imagine when someone mentions “The Camino” — the French one. The walk “begins” (beginnings being somewhat arbitrary; there’s a lot of “fuzziness” to walks) at St. Jean and continues over the Pyrenees into Spain.
I’m walking the French portion with one friend who is, I think, the first person to walk the Camino de Santiago in jeans and Nike sneakers. We then join eight other friends (a motley, mostly unholy, cadre of novelists, photographers, musicians, artists, cancer researchers, entrepreneurs, and more) for the second week of walking, which will take place on the Portuguese Camino.
Past “Walk ’n Talkers” Kevin Kelly and Hugh Howey are joining us, as are a bunch of other kind hearted, talented humans. I walked the Kumano Kodo with Kevin and Hugh two years ago:
As I write this I am presently on a train, the first week of walking done. I’m somewhere between Madrid and Vigo, hurtling into the sunset. The landscape is awesome — very much wild west Americana in dry brushiness and towering rock plateaus and horizons that feel days away. The sun sets for about five hours in Spain in September. Daily temperatures peak around 4:00 p.m. and hold steady until 7:00 p.m.
This past week was unlike any other walk I’ve done. You are almost never alone. There are walkers everywhere. A train of walkers. In some parts, it feels like a Magic Kingdom of walks. It can be hard to stop to take a photo since the folks behind you are on your heels. Every few kilometers is another village, cafe, food truck, vending machine, another chance for coffee, beer, tortilla, water, chocolate … it’s a well stocked walk, an old walk. One that had died out (clocking only about 2,400 completions in 1986) and then saw a resurgence (300,000 in 2017!), as all of these kinds of activities have.
We stopped frequently. Why not? It’s such a novelty. More coffee! Another sandwich! There’s no rush and, anyway, the first few days were some of the most difficult and longest. Who would dare tell us we didn’t earn six sparkling waters and five shots of espresso every afternoon?
The landscape was different by the day, and we walked some biomes that looked like this:
And then others that looked like this:
And spent times in medieval towns with their crooked streets and giant churches:
Before starting this walk I re-read Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ account of his full Camino in A Sense of Direction. It’s very much a straight-shot breakdown of what it’s like to walk this thing, crowded pilgrim lodges and all: “Later on in the day a German couple would tell us they didn’t sleep at all. “It was like being in hell,” the German woman said. This is the first and pretty much the last religious comment we’ll hear on the Camino.”
This is true. The Camino is ostensibly a Christian walk, but in demographics and experience, it’s more a cheerful month long walk with 10,000 of your best retired friends. Religion is ever present, like a hum in the background, but it really only makes itself known at the many churches and cathedrals dotting the landscape.
Yuval Harari’s latest book has a great quote that I feel like sums up how we got these soaring cathedrals in micro-villages with populations in the hundreds: “Humans control the world because they can cooperate better than any other animal, and they can cooperate so well because they believe in fictions.” We are great storytellers. You don’t get three generations of stone masons to build a sky-bound palace of worship unless you’ve spun a damn fine yarn.
Fiction or not, believing or not believing doesn’t seem to rob those places of their power. At least not for me. In fact, the churches have been the great surprise of this walk. Dollops of enforced silence and stillness. Monuments to outsized human conviction. Take a break. Get a stamp in your Camino stamp book. Sit in awe of the gilded altars.
Because when I sit in them, that clichéd ineffable welling that begins to rise in me doesn’t have much to do with the stories they were founded on. But rather where those stories led.
I still hold that the most spiritual, most profound place I’ve ever been is CERN, in Geneva — the physics research laboratory. That Pamplonian (Basque) cathedral I began this letter with was, in my mind, a proto-CERN. A story — a theory — drove the folks who built parts of CERN to build it. A story about a particle (a God particle, naturally) that inspired investment, welding, programming, tunneling over decades. $13.2 billion USD to find that particle. A billion dollars a year to keep running experiments. The largest vacuum in the world.
Sitting in the cafeteria at CERN, the men and women don’t sing like those rumpled Basque men, but they spoke their own beautiful and complex language of truth finding.
I see your grand stone work and raise you one stadium of iron, a dozen magnets the size of a minivans, 250,000 hand-soldiered joints. I see your two thousand years of liturgy and raise you six hundred terabytes of raw data per second. I raise you a Super Kamiokande, a pure water filled neutron detector in Japan and gravity wave mirrors floating out amongst the cosmos in the Milky Way.
Walking the Camino is walking a very long, very old, very atavistic seduction. But when our seduction by story can be co-opted forward — boy, that’s when it gets exciting. When the cathedrals becomes village-sized nests of wires, and the frescos become code, is when we start to unearth the really tough questions.
I’ve found both meditation and walking to establish and — through continued practice; re-walking being so critical — reinforce physiological templates. What do I mean by “physiological template?” I mean, I can describe stillness until I’m blue in the face. I can go into great detail about what sitting for 100 hours feels like. But I can never give you that physical template — the literal pattern in your muscles and bones — of sitting and meditating for 100 hours unless you do it (and are paying attention while you do so). Once you do have that template though, it becomes a touchstone to which you can return. Standing in a slow line and feel impatience rising in the gut? See some hot take on Twitter that makes you feel like society is engulfed in a flaming ball of napalm? Go back to that still place — you body remembers, and in remembering so does your mind. See the situation objectively, and respond to the truth of things, not the emotion.
A walk changes the body. There is, of course, great advantage to doing a walk alone. But in choosing the right people, a walk becomes a way to observe at close range — over hours and days — the mechanisms that make tick the folks you find inspiring. The physiology and rhythm of the walk then becomes coupled with the archetypes of those with whom you walk. I keep doing these walks — the “Walk ’n Talk” — because I’ve found it to be one of the best ways to spend time.
Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create. The making of a fish-hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television programme, all depend on the same process of combustion. Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away.
I think of my heels, once again blistering from the friction of the weight of my pack and the steep climbs and the unseasonably warm weather. Of those scientists at CERN, smashing together tiny balls of energy, observing with machines powered by boiling water somewhere far away.
Harari writes: ”Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.” That feels about right. Question everything you can, but do so with good allies.
This current walk is only halfway done, but I don’t think I’ll forget that tiny, hairless man in the church anytime soon. Holding his fire which obviously meant such a great deal to him. There’s a connection between him and his flame and us on the dark side of the moon. Of me sending this electronic letter out to the great many of you around the world.
What stories are catalyzing your work? What walks have you been on and who have you walked with?
So much more to add to this. But I’ll stop here for now. More after Santiago.
p.s., And, really, if you’re in Tokyo on November 29, please do swing by the talk (I’m announcing on Roden first as space is limited; and if the fee is something you can’t pay, let me know and we’ll get you in).