The Cloud of Unknowing
I mentioned in an early blog that it is difficult to get a sense of direction here. North, south, east, and west could be any direction. The time of day is also impossible to judge without a watch because the sun plods a slow oval around the sky, never revealing a marker for any given hour. I found this out the hard way, because I lost my watch in one of the hidden pockets in my mountain tent. To complicate the loss of direction and time, the moon rose today on the opposite side of the sky from the sun. I could see the faint impression of half the moon trying to assert itself within the relentless sun and the deep blue sky. It must be difficult to be the moon in the all-day sky.
Blowing snow and fog arrived this afternoon. They took away the horizon. The line that defined the ice shelf simply vanished into the sky, thereby removing any sense of my place on a vertical scale. Combining this with no markers for north, south, east or west and no markers for the day and night, my sense of disorientation of place, time, and space was now complete.
An anonymous, medieval author describes the spiritual journey as seeking a “Cloud of Unknowing.” He states that if we can forget the trappings of “self” we can enter a mystical cloud the connects us and God. His world assumed Christianity as a given, but mystics of many religions (i.e. Zen Buddhism) still seek to strip away the distractions of civilization to enter more deeply into communion with nature and with eternal things. While this community is devoted to science not religion, we share some things with this medieval author. The icy continent presses us to consider the big questions of our existence in our own ways.
Here at Yesterday Camp, we have left behind most of the things that fill up our busy brains back home in exchange for the more austere rituals of survival and physical labor. This reminds me of the author’s notion of “forgetting self.” By “forgetting” I do not mean the loss of our skills and knowledge but rather the loss of the clutter of an overbooked, overworried, egocentric American lifestyle.
Now that the snow and fog have removed any sense of 3 dimensional orientation, I seem to be looking into a physical manifestation of his “Cloud of Unknowing.” I watched one of our teams drive their snowmobiles into that cloud until they disappeared from sight. They have only their GPS to guide them to the next seismic station.
In the midst of this “forgetting” and “unknowing,” what do we find in the cloud? It is not simply an absence of the stuff that comforts us. It’s the presence of something greater. While matters of the soul are difficult to articulate for religious and nonreligious folks alike, I would like to suggest that Yesterday Camp offers a couple of indicators of what lies hidden within that cloud. First of all, this top-shelf team of scientists, graduate students, and support staff are discovering new insights into the mysteries of the planet. They have only their training and knowledge to guide them through the unknown. Secondly, I have forged quick friendships with my team members. The next time I see any of them back in the US, we will share a bond with the ice that no one else in the room will understand. Thirdly, back home I would normally associate feelings of disorientation with fear and uncertainty. Here at Yesterday Camp, the cloud is a place of quiet clarity. While this clarity is made possible by all the safeguards built into our life here, it is worth saying that without the noise of cell phones, 24-hour news, phone interruptions, flooding email messages, and the myriad of worries waiting back home, I can listen more closely to the ice. I can also be more attentive to the people around me.
So far, I have found in this cloud people searching for new knowledge and forging new friendships. I have also found a desire to be quiet enough to listen more deeply. If I find nothing more in this “cloud of unknowing,” it will have been well worth the trip.