The Things We Carried: Odes to the Simple Necessities
When my mom took me backpacking for the first time, I didn’t quite get it. I was thirteen and it was 4 grueling miles. Uphill both ways. With an elephant-sized sack on my back. I didn’t clean the cooking pot out well enough so our Tang the next day tasted like chili. Two bears grazed our tent in the middle of the night on their way to eat another camper’s leftovers in the lake. Terrified, I never fell asleep. I missed the security of my bed. Of walls. I wanted pizza. And then, on the last day, I had what we as educators like to refer to as an “ah-ha” moment.
I was walking around the lake in the morning before packing up, batting furiously at the tiny spiderwebs that seemed to drop out of the sky into my path. After shrieking, my mom asked what I was so freaked out about. I explained. About the parachuting spiders. Then she told me the story of “gossamer:”
“It comes from Shakespeare’s time, when they referred to fall as ‘goose summer’ – when geese fly south for the winter. This is also the time of year when some spiders drop their silky threads and hold on, traveling and migrating with the winds. The word ‘gossamer’ – describing silky delicate material – comes from those spiders’ threads.”
Naturally, I pretended to be bored, secretly thrilled by the idea of thousands of tiny spiders rendered charming with this image of them excreting silk and then flying around like tiny bold pilots on the wind. In my mind they wore goggles and leather Earhart hats, of course.
In addition to a nugget of obscure, partially-true linguistic history, what I gained in that moment was a perspective shift; I came to appreciate the small things, the things that previously had plagued me. Thus, my love affair with wilderness began.
Over the following years, I continued to make silly backcountry mistakes. The first trip I led with my girlfriends in high school was a thousand close disasters. Instead of a ground tarp we brought a poncho. Gia brought cans of peaches – and no opener. Abbie sat in stinging nettle. The crown jewel being a 3 mile hike out turned 13 after some navigational squabbling. I have the picture framed on my window-sill as an homage to simpler times: Four teenage girls, clad in sneakers, jeans, and cotton shirts, covered in mud and grinning around a smashed-open can of peaches.
After hundreds of days spent in wilderness, honing my skills of self-sufficiency, I return to the same lessons.
I believe there is something deeply gratifying about learning to carry your home on your back and arrive into pristine wilderness with all that you need. There is something satisfyingly human about rising and setting with the sun. There is no beauty more raw than a jagged granite summit. A turquoise alpine lake. The sound of wind through pine. The color of a moonbow drowning out a sky overcrowded with stars.
I’ve learned to love the ache in my hips, back, shoulders, legs – knowing that they are signs of my strength and capability, rather than weakness. I’ve come to know dips in pristine rivers and lakes as more refreshing than any shower could be. I’ve sharpened my ability to identify minute wildflowers in the brush.
I’ve learned to pair down my cargo…but not by much. I’m still well-known to drag a 7lb guitar, a sparkly dress, and a 3lb fauxfur coat into the wilderness behind me. Essentials. It’s this love of absurdity, determination, and appreciation for the little things that my mother taught me half a life ago, that I’ve continued to carry with me — that I wish to share with my students.
Spending a week trekking in remote Patagonian rainforest will quickly teach you about what is truly essential. Rain pants and jackets. Bowl and spoon. Matches. Tents. Hiking boots and camp shoes. Apples. Salami. Headlamps. Sleeping bags. For one week students learned to strip away the clutter in their lives – the iPhones and iPods, the mirrors and makeup – and revel in necessity. And of course, as my mother would tell you, what better way to celebrate gratitude for the simple essentials, than with an Ode.
During English class in Cochamo valley, Alzar School students explored the genre of Odes through Chile’s most famous poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda himself meditates on the beauty of simple necessities in his “Ode to My Socks” which he concludes:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.
After understanding his technique, students scatter to rummage through their belongings and identify their one greatest essential. See below for the beauty and humor students found in the things they carried: