Burrowing bodies

Falling asleep in a snow cave is the perfect time to contemplate humanity

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Abstract ice cave background. 3D Rendering
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With a click, all color vanishes. Darkness rushes in, swallowing everything whole, my eyelids and surroundings no longer different but blended with the inky-black cold. Outside the air had dropped somewhere below freezing, but inside the cave we’d hollowed out of snow, our drinking water stays liquid, our body heat trapped by trillions of snowflakes domed around us. 

For a long second, the night stretches and fills the cave, and somehow keeps going further, beyond what our headlamps and firelight could reach, settling somewhere deep, prompting the body and brain to suddenly inquire within night’s depth: Where does me stop and other begin? 

I reach my hand out into space and find the glassy, compressed snow suspended above my face; my fingers run across its ripples, reading the icy alphabet. “Goodnight” I whisper to my two friends, snuggled with me like sardines; there is no echo, only frozen water to absorb our sounds. Their breathing evens as I lay awake, staring into the nothingness, or is it the back of my eyelids? I can no longer tell.  

“Words are not real. I think we have forgotten this,” writer Paul Kingsnorth notes in his essay “The Language of the Master,” which spotlights language as complicit in ecocide for its role in driving humans away from nature, toward symbols and proxies. “In a culture that increasingly deals with abstracts, it is a dangerous form of forgetting.”

But there is nothing abstract about a body burrowed in snow. I feel into my feet, pull my knees closer to my chest, smelling the sweat I’d shed while digging out the cave. Now wrapped in layers of dry wool and down feathers, inside this slope below Beacon Peak, a few miles west of Nederland, I’m warm enough. Using probes meant for body-finding in avalanches, we’d poked air holes through the cave’s ceiling so we don’t suffocate ourselves inhaling solely what we exhale. It amazes me, the structural physics of snow, how it—the amalgamation of two slippery substances, frozen water and air—can hold shape when you need it to. I take a deep breath, my heart rises and falls, again and again. 

It’s clear that something separates us humans from everything else that inhabits the planet—something that’s created a culture of “us” versus “them,” or “an orthodoxy of subject and object,” Kingsnorth writes. Over time, Homo sapiens have wedged a distance both abstract and physical between themselves and other species, and that distance makes environmental destruction possible.

“What is the source of this separation?” Kingsnorth chews this question, for it’s equally clear that Homo sapiens were not always abstracted or removed from their ecologies; trace back our habits in North America, and like bears and rabbits, we too once lived in caves of snow. Only in returning to one, having the darkness collapse the otherness into sameness around me, did I face our separateness from nature in new light: an illusion as bright as money, national borders, and language itself. 

“Why do we think we are different anyway?” Kingsnorth challenges. “Is it because we are the only species that writes essays?” 

Philosophers generally agree that what differentiates humans from other beings is twofold: our use of language, as Kingsnorth harps, and also our ability to perceive time outside the present—we ruminate on the past and contemplate the future. But, if we understand language as more than linguistic, then we honor how fungi communicate with trees, how fingers read icy ridges of snow, how symbiosis occurs between species. And, I think, who can argue against the phenomena of generational migration, or the calculated growth and hibernation patterns of animals, insects and plants, as not merely mysterious but definite forms of time perception? 

I’m reminded of climate-change reporter Elizabeth Rush in her essay “Atlas with Shifting Edges,” as she leaves for a backpacking trip with her father to “discover again what we already know: that nothing separated us from the environment in the first place.”

For this, too, is why I adventure: to close the gap between my cultured and my primal selves—to remember that connections between humans and ecology exist, to help rewrite or at least revisit parts of the Homo sapiens’ narrative now 300,000 years in the making. 

Inside the cave, as the night wears on, my ears begin picking up outside sounds; my mind spins with the wind through evergreen branches, joining soft animal coos, passing through the silver hue of moon. 

“Life is not a problem to be solved. It is a state to be dwelt in,” Kingsnorth writes; it’s his way of coming closer to his primitive self, of shedding language, “learning to stop and be silent,” learning to breathe with his heart and not just his lungs. 

With such spirit, Kingsnorth refutes the question “What is to be done?” about the faults of human development and language, about our propensities for hierarchy, for violence. There’s nothing to “do,” nothing to fix, he writes, because the whole system is fundamentally broken: “Language no longer serves the part of the brain which … ‘believes but does not know.’ It serves the part which ‘knows but does not believe.’ Our words no longer serve wholeness. They serve fragmentation, and we have used them to justify the building of a fragmented world.” 

How do we become whole again? Kingsnorth pushes us to think again beyond human tendencies: “That means myth, religion, practical expertise founded upon physical work, rooted imagery, holistic conceptions of life, communication with nonhuman beings, poetry, complexity, questions that do not have answers, questions which are not questions at all.”

Struggling to employ language while communicating about climate change, Rush, writing from a riverbank, recounts watching “the water’s edge wobble. We wonder what to call the feeling of losing the places that shaped us, a word for the way our very lives drive them further and further into the past.”

I wonder, too: How am I, a Homo sapien living by way of language, supposed to exist on this planet? Such circular queries—questions that do not have answers, questions which are not questions at all—Kingsnorth writes, “Like Earth and its seasons, they never stop turning.”  

And as such, it’s morning again. Into the cave light comes crawling. 

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