At 15,500 feet there isn’t much oxygen in the air. About half of what there is at sea level. It’s also cold. Really cold. The temperature drops about 3 degrees for each thousand feet in elevation.
But there we were – our tents pitched in what used to be called the “Japanese Base Camp,” high in the Peruvian Andes, at the foot of Mount Salcantay, its peak towering over a mile above us. We were dead tired; we could barely move. That day we had climbed for seven hours from Soray Pampa, our “camp 2″ pitched at 13,500 feet, a few miles away.
Climbing in high altitudes is something you do slowly. Two steps. Rest. Three steps. Rest. Finally you make it. And when you ultimately lay your head in your tent, your chest heaving because of exertion and lack of oxygen, you realize how cold it its. You stuff the foot of your sleeping bag into your duffle bag for additional warmth. Somehow you settle down and start to recover.
Then you regain your feelings.
You look up at Mount Salcantay, with its snow-covered peak towering above you, accentuated by the deep blue of the high sky. The clouds swirl lyrically right through the Base Camp, the rays of the sun – God’s paint brush – dappling the swirls with a melody of ever-changing flecks of yellows and reds and oranges.
Then, the sun sets as you have never seen it before and you realize you are at the top of the world. There are not just a few stars in the sky; the sky is awash in stars. The Milky Way is so thick, so close, you can touch it.
Ultimately, we settle around the night camp fire and find enough strength to sip some broth and talk to our guide. We comment on the majesty, the beauty, of the mountain.
“It’s because of the Spirit of Salcantay,” our guide, a Compesino, tells us. Through his broken English we learn that one our Compesinos had been very ill. The doctors could not cure him. Then, the winds of Salcantay knocked him to the ground. When he regained consciousness, he was cured. The Spirit of Salcantay saved him.
Another Compesino, our cook, told of her husband, a expert climber, who climbed Salcantay alone, a dangerous feat. Before he climbed, he gave his Incan prayer to Salcantay. As he climbed, the winter storms covered all of the valleys and peaks around him. Only Salcantay remained clear. When he returned to the ground, Salcantay became engulfed. The storm lasted for days.
There was no doubt about it, for our Compesinos, Salcantay was a powerful Spirit. That night we gave homage, for tomorrow we were to traverse its high pass, over 16,000 feet. After we gave our respects, Salcantay answered with a deafening roar. Through the moonlight we saw a plunging avalanche of snow billowing a few meters from our tents. The next day we broke camp and made our way over Salcantay Pass. Salcantay’s Spirit was good to us. We were tired but unharmed.
We continued our journey. …
That is how, in 1983, I began a story about our journey over the rugged Inca trails, our trek to Machu Picchu. That journey, however, was more than a physically demanding trek; it was what philosopher Thomas Berry defines as a journey of “incidence” – an interior journey of the soul: a Communion, not with wafers and wine in the hallowed halls of a cathedral, but a Communion with the Cosmos in the Hallowed Halls of the Universe. A Communion that enlightened within me an Earth-Bound version of the “Cosmic Connection,” the intense realization experienced by astronauts in space that the Earth and all of its species, including humans, are but parts of a single, synergistic whole. Our Memberships in the Communion of the Cosmos are Gaian, recognition that our planet is, as James Lovelock defines it, but a single living organism and all of its part matter, though Gaia be but one of billions of planets among billions of galaxies across a universe that may be but one of billions of universes.
For me, the Journey began long ago on what are now dog-eared, oft-read, pages of scripture and philosophy. But the Journey did not mature as Cosmic Connection until I experienced Gaia with backpack and camera – until the literalism of the written word could be construed within the context of Awe Moments, the Mystery Moments of Gaian experience. A few years ago I wrote:
“How can one stand high on a mountain, or in a blind on the Serengeti, camera in hand, and not become reverent and excited about being a part of the mystery, yet obvious harmony of life?” (from Learning to See)
Cosmic Connection and Cosmic Communion became one.
Now I could begin to read Aquinas’s “Other Volume” – it was St. Thomas Aquinas who wrote in 1270 that revelation comes in two volumes, the Bible and nature. For Aquinas there could be no conflict between the two, and if there was, it was man’s interpretation of scripture that erred.
I could not help but reflect on the Spirit of Salcantay as I read Blascovich’s and Bailenson’s Infinite Reality – Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution. Bailenson is the senior faculty member of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab:
“The mission of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab is to understand the dynamics and implications of interactions among people in immersive virtual reality simulations (VR), and other forms of human digital representations in media, communication systems, and games. Researchers in the lab are most concerned with understanding the social interaction that occurs within the confines of VR, and the majority of our work is centered on using empirical, behavioral science methodologies to explore people as they interact in these digital worlds.”
There are many startling conclusions from Virtual Human Interaction Lab’s research, including that our brains most often fail to differentiate between virtual experiences and real ones. In fact, virtual experiences are favored over real experiences. Blascovich and Bailenson write:
“It’s not too hard to see why some of us prefer virtual life to physical reality. In virtual spaces aging is optional, and weight loss happens via Photoshop. In cyberspace, there is no such thing as a bad hair day. Avatars can even be more socially gifted than the humans who drive them.”
Perhaps that is why Avatar is the all-time leading money maker as a film, grossing over $2 billion. Perhaps that is why iPads and iPhones dominate communication, our time and attention. Perhaps that is why our children spend, on the average, almost 8 hours a day on the internet. Perhaps that is why, for many, ecophobia, fear of nature, dominates ecophilia, love of nature.
Perhaps that is why psychologists are concerned that our children are becoming strangers in our universe, suffering with a harmful “Nature-Deficit” Disorder, Richard Louv, writes about in his Last Child in the Woods.
The danger of life in the virtual world is that it has no Cosmic Connection, no cathedral for our Communion with the Cosmos. The Awe Moment that comes high on a mountain, on the shores of a stream, or on the trails in a forest does not exist. Achieving membership in the Thoreau Sauntering Society, where one learns “In Wilderness is the preservation of the World,” is impossible.
Blascovich and Bailenson conclude their article, Virtual Reality and Social Networks Will Be a Powerful Combination – Avatars will make social networks seductive:
“Pope Benedict XVI recently said: ‘New technologies and the progress they bring can make it impossible to distinguish truth from illusion and can lead to confusion between reality and virtual reality’ and might result in ‘indifference towards real life.’ But Mark Twain cautioned, ‘Don’t part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.’”
Sorry Mark Twain – our sacred moments are not delusions and illusions sketched on virtual reality’s electronic screens, but are anchored among our deepest experiences in reality itself. These Awe Moments become our Communion with the Cosmos.
In 2011, I spoke to the advisory council of Tampa Bay Watch, praising TBW for the success of its “dirty hands wet feet” education programs, which bring our children to nature and nature to our children. In a crowded world, a balance is provided. As Richard Louv writes in his latest work, the Nature Principle:
“The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”
New Year’s Resolution from Pacific Standard: Put Down the iPad, Lace Up the Hiking Boots!
The Virtual Reality of:
My 2011 talk at Tampa Bay Watch: