Almost Auric.

February 22, 2023

Cards are starting to trickle in ahead of my 50th birthday (March 21st is the big day). The photo on this one, from my pal Jared Rogers (with whom I’ve shared countless adventures since we first met in a Portland, Oregon climbing gym, a week before our respective pre-divorce nuptials in the summer of 2009), is from the last day I was forty.

In 2014, Jared and I flew to the island of Roatán, thirty-five miles north of the Honduran coast, to meet up with a guy named Karl Stanley. Karl is basically the Han Solo of the global submariner community, and we dove with him to a depth of 616 meters (2020 feet) in a yellow submarine he’d built from scratch – figuring his incentives for survival were more or less perfectly well aligned with our own.

Dropping off the island shelf, sandbags at our feet, we huddled together in the nose cone and watched the jump to hyperspace: rings of aqueous light (and aquatic life) rushing past the glass as we plunged two thousand feet straight down into the midnight zone of the Caribbean Sea.

We prowled the dark water listening to Portishead and DJ Shadow on a small battery-powered radio Karl had in his cockpit. Flashing our lights, a whole cavern of tiny creatures, thinking we were sexually signaling them, bioluminesced back. At some point, water started dripping from the roof of the cabin. I asked Karl if it was anything to be concerned about and he laughed, saying we were at sixty atmospheres, and that if we did spring a leak I wouldn’t have time to scream before the submarine was crushed like a beer can. Thus reassured, I wiped at the condensation with my sleeve, donned a red Jacques Cousteau hat, and started munching chocolate chip cookies.

We were below the basement of photosynthesis, but there were animals – some quite ancient – that appeared to conserve the morphology of plants. If you waited long enough, some of them would stand up and walk; others, leaden with coils of symbiotic worms, were preyed upon by rangy white horrors.

Oh, yeah. A gravid, 13-foot-long tiger shark tried to kill us, twice. Once with her teeth, and once by trickery. Jared managed to pack this and a number of other visual impressions into a short video afterward (that he soundtracked to “When the Music’s Over” by The Doors, which Karl had blasted on our descent).

After a few life-altering hours down there, Karl needed to get back for a softball game (a surprisingly competitive affair played on a campo de sueños hacked out of Roatán’s jungled interior). So he adjusted the buoyancy and we slowly wound our way topside, past the remains of a diver who had committed suicide a few years prior, landed on a deep shelf, and had his face eaten away by marine life (no photos, for obvious reasons, but it looked like something from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride).

Before taking our leave of Karl to go drink too many Salva Vidas while watching silent Bear Grylls re-runs on a cracked TV at Booty Bar (where an Englishwoman, who appeared to be down to her last nerve, sat wearily at the head of a long wooden table of squirming, squealing children just before the bass dropped and the nightly gangsta-rap karaoke competition began), I asked him about, well, Atlantis. SEALs at Guantanamo Bay have beer lore of a sunken city – complete with pyramids – somewhere in the vicinity of Cuba. Karl got his start underwater probing around the Cuban archipelago for stuff to sell to the Smithsonian (yes, he sells sea shells by the seashore – or did). So I asked if he had caught sight of it. He very pointedly refused to answer my question.

Anyhow, I could write a book (or two) about the decade that’s passed since we did this. And maybe I should. But I’d rather face forward and race headlong into whatever comes next.

So, here’s to my fifties making my forties look like a rough draft.


February 12, 2023

I visited Eva for a perambulation of Rome on Friday. After knocking around in the Vatican museums – giving me a chance to revisit marvels like the huge painted maps of Italy in the Galleria delle carte geografiche, Raphael’s The School of Athens, Michelangelo’s Laocoön and the Sistine Chapel (an unexpected coda to reading Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants last week) for the first time in sixteen years – we walked a ten-mile king rat of cobblestones that led us past the monument to (the desolation called) peace erected by Eva’s bae Caesar Augustus, multiple Egyptian obelisks, the site of the tennis court of the French ambassador to Rome (now a parking garage) where, in 1606, Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassoni in a duel over a welched bet and subsequently fled the city (into the arms of the Academy of Secrets in Naples), the three Caravaggios at S. Luigi dei Francesi, the two at S. Maria del Popolo (to whom I kept referring, aloud, as ‘Mary of the Poopalope’), the one at S. Agostino, and a copy of his Deposition at Santa Maria in Vallicella (for which Caravaggio painted the original, as the alter piece of a chapel to Our Lady of Sorrows; from which it was looted during the Napoleonic invasion; and to which it was not returned – going instead to the apostolic palace at the Vatican while the ‘Chiesa Nuova’ makes do with a mediocre knockoff by an obscure Dutch painter they don’t cop to on their shadow-enveloped signage), which Eva wanted to visit in order to make a direct appeal to the bones of the patron saint of her grandfather’s Campanian village for a bureaucratic easement. We got there by way of Raphael’s sibylline mural at Santa Maria della Pace and a stone Sphinx so lean its ribs were visible (needing to step up its riddle game, presumably, in a city of mama’s boys), a marble melee in Piazza Navona (started by Giacomo della Porta and finished by Bernini) so crazy that Poseidon teabags a giant octopus in the middle of it, making out in the Alley of Divine Love, and my purchasing Freya Stark’s personal copy of Alexandra David-Néel’s My Journey to Lhasa (an edition with Hopkirk’s introduction, natch) as a gift for Eva in an antiquarian bookshop where the customer ahead of us told the slightly perplexed proprietress he was the grandson of a king of Jordan and one of Saudi Arabia. And so on, unto falling asleep with the laptop on my lap, watching Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio for the umpteenth time.

A full-featured day in the Eternal City.

“The finest mountain in England”

January 1, 2023
Photo by Rob Petit

The man who passed us up the ridge told me, in a viscous northern accent, that I was standing upon “the finest mountain in England.”

I’m not so sure about that, but if I ever do get around to sorting memories from 2022, the climb of Helvellyn along Striding Edge last month with three friends – two of them, roped; two of us, not – will go into the same box as Pavey Ark up Jack’s Rake, Blencathra via Sharp Edge, and Scafell Pike by way of Wasdale Head in a blizzard: the one labelled REALLY FUCKING GOOD.

Photo by Rob Petit
Photo by Rob Petit

…and I feel fine.

December 21, 2022

One More Life*

December 6, 2022

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day   

When the last fires will wave to me

And the silence will set out

Tireless traveler

Like the beam of a lightless star

from W.S. Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death”

Nineteen years ago today, something exploded in my chest while I was doing push-ups. I finished the set, smoked two cigarettes by the pool, and decided I was having a heart attack. So I drove myself six miles, in increasing pain, by way of my office in Palo Alto to check work emails, finally crawling across a parking lot into the ER of the Stanford Medical Center. The triage nurse didn’t like the look of me, though, and decided I could wait. “We have a lot of sick kids here today, Mr. Chambliss.”

So I waited. For two hours, slumped in a wheelchair, unable to breathe properly, and convulsing in pain, I waited. I finally got sick of waiting, rolled myself outside, lit a cigarette I couldn’t smoke, and was on the verge of driving back home to take Advil when birthday-boy Ilya Druzhnikov and Shenly Glenn showed up. They persuaded me back inside and convinced the nurse to admit me. Shenly even helped the idiot attending physician interpret my chest X-ray. Doctor: “I don’t understand what I’m looking at.” Shenly: “That’s because there’s no right lung.” Doctor: “Ah.” A spontaneous tension pneumothorax.

Two chest tubes (my lung collapsed again, seconds after the first tube was inserted), MUCH bellowing, and a pachyderm-slaying quantity of morphine later, they got me re-inflated. At some point during the procedure, choking and flopping like an upstream salmon while the doctor extracted the first tube (with which he had hooked a rib nerve), I turned to the group of med students huddled around me who had been invited to observe, spat froth, grinned wide with pink teeth, and growled, “Are we having fun yet?!”, prompting one woman to flee behind the curtains.

The epilogue: a few months later, in New York City, it happened again. As it turns out, I (like my mother) am opiate insensitive. So morphine, and even Fentanyl, don’t have much analgesic effect. I explained this to the ER doctors at Beth Israel. Their response: Oh yeah? They dumped so much dope into me that I passed out cold. When I woke up, I was inside a CAT scan machine (I’d cried out during surgery, and they thought I might have had an aneurysm), my lung had collapsed again, and I was asphyxiating. Dying, and too far gone to communicate what was happening to the med tech wheeling my gurney, I was saved by a doctor in an elevator with a penknife and a properly flexible interpretation of his Hippocratic oath.

After lung surgery, the hospitalizations, everything, I continued to smoke. It was so physically painful to do so, however, that I finally sought out an alternate delivery mechanism. I wound up slapping on a patch every day for the next seven months (developing an allergic reaction to the adhesive, until I looked, shirtless, like the sex partner of a giant squid). And then, in November of 2004, I quit altogether. Far easier to withdraw from a longterm nicotine dependency once you’ve already gotten used to the idea of being a non-smoker, IMHO.

Now it’s all but 2023, and I will soon be fifty. I’ve run thousands of miles since this happened, won track races, survived ultramarathons, climbed hundreds of mountains. Which is all to say, if you find my broken body at the bottom of a sheer, thousand-foot drop somewhere, please make sure to stick a needle in my eye before you call the coroner. Because I may piss and moan about my aches and pains, but when it comes down to it, I am hard to kill.

*According to the poet Joseph Brodsky, “…to forget one life, a man needs at minimum / one more life. And I’ve done that portion.”

Notes from Sardṓ

August 28, 2022

I recently spent thirty hours in Sardinia with Dr. Thomas Dekeyser and Kieran Toms that began – after a short flight pondering the gesamtkunstwerk of the Earth, reading Matthew Barney (circa River of Fundament) discuss his translation of Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings into “more electro-chemical terms”, as well as the relationship between his own work and Robert Smithson’s, and sketching out some ideas for art interventions on the island to do with Daedalus (e.g., staging a radar spoof of a boy-sized object falling from the sky), who supposedly paused there between stops at Sicily and the Cumaean coast in his flight from Crete (which is how some classical Greek geographers accounted for the characteristic, alien architectural form of ancient Sardṓ, now referred to as nuraghe, but which they called daidaleia) – in an underpowered Fiat through a stretch of powder-keg Sassari landscape winding up toward an abandoned NATO communications facility atop Monte Limbara by way of a riposo-emptied hamlet called Calangianus, which I, more than once, slurred “e-coli-in-anus”, where we acquired, in order of their priority: cold beers (it was 40° C) in the piazza, pizzas, and (for our wild-camping) more beers.

After parking the car discretely off-piste behind a statue of the Madonna of the Snow (figurative representations of which should always be measured against Masolino’s bonkers Il miracolo della neve, in which Christ and his mom ride around in a UFO, causing a snowstorm in August that freaks out Roman potentates trying to play golf) that overlooked the whole gloaming province, we slung hammocks in a woods upslope of the base, and headlamped back down to it for a looksee.

I’m not sure if the head injury I acquired immediately prior to climbing a 25-meter tropospheric scatter antenna – a surprisingly deep impact crater near my crown chakra we discovered after I’d climbed back down and taken off my blood-wet No LiDAR hat – contributed to the weird visitation I had later that night. Insomniac, skull-bruised, luftwaffled by mosquitos, unexpectedly cold, and disturbed rather than lulled by a repetitive noise from above us on the mountain – neither animal nor mechanical, exactly – that got inexplicably louder and quieter, I had the sudden conviction that Thomas had stood up out of his hammock, lit a cigarette behind me, and said to Kieran, “Safe, but joyless.”

Needless to say, Thomas doesn’t smoke. Kieran was snoring. And I am continuing to process the remark.

Sometime after an ultraviolet pre-dawn hush, and before full light, we gave up on the possibility of sleep and decamped to explore the base more thoroughly.

There was a lot of this sort of thing:

There was also an intriguingly complicated contestation of ideologies playing out – sometimes in parallel; others, as palimpsest – over the surface area of the ruins: indigenous far-right slogans/screeds and antifascist ones, anti-Americanism, anti-NATO, anti-capitalism, anti-EU, anti-Italy, anti-immigrant, pro-labor, pro-Nazi, pro-Sardinian separatism, as well as traces of drug/music/dance-themed peacenik-ery.

We’re all in for pluralism, but swastikas have to go. So Thomas broke out a bucket of paint and got to work.

I climbed back up the biggest of the antennae for a better look.

An aside. The base was abandoned in 1991. So these things were almost certainly last used to relay atmospherically secured communications between the battlefields of the first Gulf War and NATO’s Allied Forces Southern Europe command in Naples (where my father worked) during my senior year of high school.

Once we had all had a chance to sneak off and do as bears do (one of us, not me, apparently left a proto-coprolite in a situation that would be a head scratcher for some deep-time archaeologist, and a potentially day-ruining horror for any explorer closer to the present day), we made our way down the mountain to Tempio Pausania to forage for caffeine. It was there, in sight of a brutalist pagoda atop a different mountain ridge, that Thomas – an inexperienced tea drinker, presumably – did something involving two sachets of English Breakfast, two lemons, and three bags of sugar in one saucer that seriously affected his equanimity.

We had a rough goal of making it to Monte d’Accoddi – a 6000-year-old Ozieri ziggurat on the northern coast – and then camping somewhere in the tree verge near the beach, but by the time we reached the archaeological site in the late afternoon it was closed due to a sky-blackening, helicopter-battled brush fire a couple of miles distant.

It had been a long day already. We’d stopped at a charming little archaeological museum full of what looked like headstones for extraterrestrials where Thomas – to the delight of my ears – pronounced the word “necro-polis” several times; let ourselves into the fenced-off site of an ancient well, in broad daylight, surrounded by apartment buildings full of potentially nosy villagers, after knocking repeatedly at the door of the supposedly open neighboring museum; circumambulated an elephantine freestanding roadside boulder domus inhabited by locals since the Neolithic; slithered up the helical tunnel that runs from root to crown of the Nuraghe Paddaggiu (one of seven thousand or so broken-off towers produced by the Bronze Age Nuragic civilization: stumps of a stone aspen stand that once covered the whole ancient island); crawled through prehistoric tomb holes in the guts of a rock elephant; rocked out to “Take the Skinheads Bowling” as we entered Castelsardo, and basked on black boulders there, like three salt-pans, after Mediterranean ablutions.

Most of what remains of the Nurag is hidden inside the hill.

Which is all to say: a fire wasn’t going to stop us. Some other site-seekers had gone on ahead and we followed them down a cobbled quarter-mile path to the gate of the actual site. We waited until they turned back then considered our options. Being good eggs, we decided not to risk damaging the archaeology by jumping the fence and instead crossed over the wall of the path into a fallow field, followed barbed-wire around the perimeter of the pyramid as helicopters raced back and forth directly overhead, snapped a few photographs of the mysterious structure, and retraced our steps. A uniformed park employee ran down a dirt road toward us as we sat on the curb outside of her visitor center deliberating our next move, and panickedly shouted something to the effect of “Can’t you read? Get the fuck out of here! There’s a fire!”

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, my middle-aged thermostat is on the fritz. I might be a good egg, but I was getting soft-poached. And so, although we had found a decent, discrete campsite in a conifer clump nearer the seaside, Kieran and Thomas – outstanding adventure partners, both – were kind enough to consent instead to hotel room beds before dropping me back off at Olbia airport the next morning. It’s thus we found ourselves, after a last few beers and “for old time’s sake,” rooftopping the tallest building in Tempio Pausania with uncanny ease.

The second door we happened onto was made of glass. Beyond it was an elevator – the door of which stood inexplicably, invitingly, open. I pointed at it, astonished, as Kieran walked up beside me and pushed on the outer door. It wasn’t locked.

“Always try the door,” he counseled. Words to live by.

Photo by Kieran Toms

Coda | Dirge

Having moved to London from a place where the fire season is now three hundred days a year, I thought at first that the park ranger at Monte d’Accoddi might have been overreacting, a bit, although I was certainly sympathetic as to why. In retrospect, though, I don’t think it was panic in her voice. I think it was PTSD.

Sardinia has been devastated by wildfires for the last three years – to an extent that paramilitarized European Union firefighting resources have been semi-permanently seconded to the island to help forestall what seem – to me, at least – inevitabilities of this new pyrocene (e.g., forced evacuations) that many, most, of us are contributing to. Each according to our means.

So, an unquenchable flame, surrounded by blue water. Driving past the first abandoned structure we had explored just a day before, the landscape was newly dead, gleaming like pitch: massive devastation – melted road signage, all the scrub gone, hectares of trees scorched black.


Pavey Ark – Blencathra – Scafell Pike

August 25, 2022
Sharp Edge – Blencathra

Supine on the floorboards – between convulsive, Mr. Bill face-making spasms hypocentered in my lumbar spine (that’ll teach me not to write prematurely about doing a 50K at 50!) – I’ve been giving some thought to the highlights of my year thus far – trying to keep my spirit buoyed beyond the clutches of Davy Jones. 

Whether I ever attempt to summarize 2022 the way I used to per annum on Facebook from 2013-2017, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention how much fun I had in the Lake District this late March with my friend Jared Rogers – the partner with whom I have climbed/hiked/run the most peaks (as well as made a 2,020-foot-deep dive in a homemade submarine) – to belatedly celebrate my 49th birthday among the most charismatic mountains in Blighty. 

Armed with a hire car (+ total coverage), a copy of William Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes gifted to me by Harriet Hawkins, a flask of Lagavulin 16 whisky (strictly for medicinal purposes – I was heading out with a damaged ankle and, as it turns out, a torn calf), and our duffel bags of soon-to-be-bog-dank equipment, we set off for the Lakes from central London listening to the audiobook of Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind (which includes a wonderful description of Samuel Johnson – “Six feet tall and some sixteen stone heavy, the formidable body of Dr. Johnson was itself almost a sublime presence.” – among a great many other attractions).

We arrived at the precipice of evening and hoofed straight uphill – directly into a headwind of jet lag for Jared – to scramble a line called Jack’s Rake to the summit of Pavey Ark with the last of the light. An instant classic.

The route:

En route:

And atop, before descending via the summit of Harrison Stickle and returning to the Britannia Inn in Elterwater (our logic = a base camp with hot showers + local ales on draft + full English breakfast > backpacking in rain):

Shearing season!

We spent the first full day in the Lakes as one does: aslosh, ambling the sinusoid of fell and dale in a cold pissing rain. We stood atop eight or nine bigger hills such as Lang How and Heron Pike, plus loads of cairned small fry. We also took the opportunity to visit the graves of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and, finally, down among the slate mouths (inside one of which, I shit you not, a curled dragon and a rock scratched, “Wayne Was Tasty” are being slowly masticated), Rydal Cave.

The next morning, we raced the rain up another all-timer: Sharp Edge – the dragon spine of Blencathra.

Honestly, on this occasion, Jared was a cooler cucumber about the exposure than yours truly.

After grabbing the summit, and two of the sub peaks chained to it (Foule Crag and Gategill Fell Top), we quick-stepped down as the rain resumed, duck-puttered back to Elterwater, and talked our way into Kurt Schwitters’ Merz Barn, despite the site being officially closed, by professing an abnormal – but well-received – appreciation for the rhododendrons. 

Leaving, we were tasked with shepherding a bunch of unruly sheep out of the compound and down a stretch of narrow country road against traffic. A fair trade.

We had one more day. Time enough for a last classic: up Scafell Pike (the tallest mountain in England) by way of Wasdale Head. In a goshdurn blizzard. 

Beard ice!

The third weirdest thing to happen that day: 

To an extent we’d never seen before, and can’t really explain, the trail down remained clearly visible even when everything else was swallowed by white. Like the Lord’s own runway. So, despite rapidly worsening conditions (being lashed in the eyes with horizontally blowing ice pellets, for instance), there were no navigation issues as we descended.

The second weirdest thing to happen:

Shortly after Jared and I had settled into our first pints before the fire of the Brittania Inn’s cozy bar, a middle-aged man blatantly, resoundingly, began hitting on me in front of his wife and kids. I’ve still got it, I guess!

The weirdest thing:

At 3 AM that night, I was robbed by a paranormal entity. It stole the indestructible plastic I ❤️ LIQUOR bag I had used to transport my smelly kit in since holing up on the wrong end of Miami Beach to wait out a flash flood with bad beer and an audiobook of Hemingway short stories after clearing out of the Versace mansion in the autumn of 2020*. The story of its invasion of my room seemed to scare the shit out of the inn’s proprietors, who claimed nothing like it had ever happened there before, but looked like they might have been lying. 

I realize this sounds weird. It was.

Anyhow, that was it. We decided to leave Striding Edge on Helvellyn for a hypothetical future return to the Lakes (one must always sacrifice something, some surplus, when venturing forth if one hopes to return), packed it back in, and set off for the M6 south by southeast again. 

*My room at the Versace mansion:

Just saying.

Contra Hemingway

August 22, 2022

For all my recent mental excitations, I’ve been feeling particularly – unprecedentedly – ill at ease in my aging flesh. My thermostat is on the fritz. My eyesight continues to deteriorate. More and more often, my insides either break off trade with the outside world entirely or else insist on an accelerationist laissez-faire. I have lingering injuries to my head, neck, shoulders, fingers, bicep, lower back, hamstrings, calf, achilles tendons, ankles and feet. I don’t even want to talk about the CTE symptoms. This is all heading in one direction, of course. And one needn’t be a gun enthusiast overfond of alcohol and the style of individual sentences to find it alarming.

And yet. And yet. Sometimes, all it takes is a fillip – merest clinamen – to knock me out of a still-shallow rut into a deeper, more soulful, groove.

My last 50-kilometer run was in 2014, shortly before I broke my left foot for the first of three times that year.* With my 50th birthday looming (March 21st, 2023 – DM for the postal address to send presniks), I have been thinking I should try to put myself back in a position, by the end of those twelve jubilee months, to run another 50K. Such thoughts have been depressing the hell out of me, however. It’s only been eight years, but it feels like somebody else ran those miles. Like they happened in another dimension, on a different planet. Somewhere I wasn’t limping around all the time – half-ill, half-shot – whinging.

The forehead flick that knocked my astral form out my backside, so that it had to hang on to my running shorts or be left behind, occurred somewhere in the (sic) transit (gloria mundi) between Saturn and Mars on the drought-puckered banks of the Cam. Before settling in among dark green thoughts in a deep green shade with my pal Rob, a spark of desire caught on the soaked rags in my head and began to smolder: not only am I going to run another 50K, I’m going to run it hard.

Much is taken, but much abides. Time may be stripping me for parts, but I am still mutant enough to get back to 26.2-mile Sunday runs. The question is whether I can also bring my 5K down to 19:59.

I know the answer.

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, “Wow! What a Ride!


*Dante might have written a whole fourth book of his Comedy about the one 50K ultramarathon Chris Lauer and I ran together, through an experimental forest in the Coast Range mountains near Corvallis, Oregon. Among its many trials – including the fact that I had just crossed the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim in under 36 hours with his brother Mark five days beforehand; that Chris can walk uphill nearly as fast as I jog; that the route included 7,000 feet of vertical gain; that, because of pouring rain, ~25% of the course was covered in thick, sucking mud – the sort of thing where you slip and don’t just fall, you fall downhill; and that I’d inexplicably tried scrambled eggs that morning for the first time in my life, and had needed to puke, shit, and piss twice in the first thirty minutes of the race – there were a few moments of grace.

Approaching the point of highest elevation, Chris decided to change socks and refuel. So I made a break for it, hoping to put enough distance between us that he wouldn’t be able to catch back up (which didn’t work). As I crested the peak, a woman latched on to me & refused to be shaken off. The woods vomited us onto a paved downhill section and we gathered speed. Before I knew it, we’d run a 6:28 mile. Then a 6:25. I glanced back. She yelled, “THANK YOU!” and fell off pace – receding into the black dot of a period.

I saw her again, many miles, and much misery, later. We tractor beamed each other for half an hour before I bonked on the last hill, for what I thought would be the last time. As I was reduced to shambling, she left me behind with a pat on the shoulder and a shout of encouragement. I caught her at the finish line. She was so psyched to have been passed at the end by someone hauling that much ass she pulled me into a bear hug and, for a glad moment, we each kept the other from collapse.

I fucking love running.

Places of the heart

August 12, 2022
In the crater of Europe’s newest mountain, hunting for zeolites.


I know it’s old-fashioned, but place-sensitivity is at the heart of my PhD research interests. I look at place – in Cresswellian shorthand – as a “meaningful location.” And I can see the need to re-think it to better account for how meaningfulness is bound up – metaphysically – in the physical – geophysical – complexities that constitute and condition location.

By “location”, despite coming out of the GIS industry, I’m obviously not just thinking about a pair of x and y coordinates. For starters, let’s add a z. Now, to the relief of Stuart Elden, we have a volume (of arbitrary dimensionality – to which a recovering astrogeologist might add: and agnostic of reference frame). And we have whatever it contains, however temporarily: animae, inanimae, and everything which might confuse such distinctions, all passing through their various material states: as solids, liquids, gasses, plasmas. These materialities, in turn, are subject to, and only really sensible at the intersection of, various processes, physical and abstract – political, economic, and spiritual ones, yes, as well as hydro-atmospheric, chemical, geophysical, and so forth. These processual materialities can be further decomposed into fluxes of more basic fields and forces that constitute and condition them: gravitational, electromagnetic, the strong and weak. These fluxes flux temporally; at least, as far we humans are concerned. So, location, to become place, also necessitates some concept, or conceptions, of time – be it thermodynamic, relativistic, holographic, teleological, apocalyptic, spiralic, stratigraphic, or something like my own, which tries to reconcile a box-universe (née pre-Socratic) sort of eternalism (i.e., all that was, is, or will be is) with my conviction that the knowability of a time system alters depending on the perspective of awareness relative to it.

Which is, of course, how you can tell the difference between an oracle and a god.

Geography isn’t reducible to geophysics, of course, but all of these material complexities are available to meaning (and therefore Geography) to make place with. In the last decade or so, there has been some fascinating scholarship, theorization, and creative practice trying to make sense of different aspects of this “Geo-” in “Geography”. I want to participate in that work. To help encourage a “geophysical turn”, even. Ideally, to help recuperate/enlarge the concept of place by pursuing, however quixotically, a post-disciplinary re-integration of Human and Physical Geographies with Geology and the experimental sciences: as a sort of Alexander Humboldt in reverse — in “a scanner darkly”. 

By so doing, I hope to get at, at least provisionally, some of the philosophical questions about place that interest me most – in ways I wouldn’t be able to otherwise. 

Knowability, for example. 

If, as Tim Cresswell has it, “place is also a way of seeing, knowing and understanding the world,” it will, because it is meaningful, necessitate an epistemology, a theory of knowing – one that accounts for knowability. That is, for its ground. 

Like all human knowledge, the expertise (the episteme) for manipulations of geophysical fields and forces gets recapitulated in new epistemological frames historically. Historically, but also atemporally; atemporally, but also dynamically. 

As new epistemologies accrete, previous ones persist – and not just as substrate, but in tangled hierarchies of knowing. What’s more, these accretions are continuously sinking, deforming, breaking up, melting, being made available for future ruptures — convectively. 

Epistemology is analogous to geology in this sense, insofar as both the earth of “ground” and the ground of, say, “earth” are inherently stratigraphic. In both cases – as viewed through a hole – a whole past is presented. 

So, something like Foucault’s Order of Things, but with the fundamental dynamism of the earth-process metaphors restored.

I am interested in such un-groundings. I’m particularly interested in geophysical and epistemological considerations that I believe are already in dialogue – or even fully integrated – in the context of place, but can’t easily be seen that way for lack of post-disciplinary scholarship, experiment, observation.

This is why I’ve chosen to do my PhD work on a volcano, for epistemological reasons. 

Well, that and the fact that I grew up inside it, on Lake Avernus, in sight of the cave mouth that, according to classical tradition, was the entrance to Hell.

My old house, perched above a ruined temple of Apollo and Lake Avernus.

The Campi Flegrei

Let me tell you about a place I love.

The Campi Flegrei (or else, Phlegraean – i.e., Burning – Fields) is a volcanic caldera complex situated to the west of the urban core of Naples, Italy. The original crater – produced 40,000 years ago by the so-called “Campanian Ignimbrite eruption” (that may have created the environmental conditions in which modern humans replaced Neanderthals) – is approximately 13 km in diameter. 

There are twenty-three younger craters circumscribed within it – half a dozen of them visible at the surface; the rest, drowned in the Gulf of Pozzuoli. 

Beneath of all of this lies a quiescently active super volcano: the revenant Archiflegreo. Arguably the most dangerous volcano in the world, insofar as three million people live right on top of it. 

We can’t observe what’s happening down there directly, of course, but according to decades of seismologic, gravimetric, and tomographic models, intruding magma pools in a flat, wide reservoir ~1 km thick by 200 kilometers square at a depth of 10 km. From there, it gets pushed upward through trunk-line plumbing until it reaches a partially permeable cap-rock at depths of 4 to 2.3 km. Magmatic fluids percolate through this “seismic layer” into a shallower, blobular, lung-like chamber, where they mix with hydrothermals just two hundred meters below the surface. 

These dynamics sometimes result in an earthquake; sometimes, as in the early 1980’s, in such significant uplift of the area, so quickly, that tens of thousands of people get evacuated. Rarely, but within historical memory, they trigger an eruption – as when Monte Nuovo, the newest mountain in Europe, took form over the course of eight days in the autumn of 1538. 

Corresponding to the otherwise occluded workings of the volcano below, the gravity field at the surface changes ceaselessly, measurably, as do its other geophysical characteristics. Its faultscape is progressively elaborated by seismic swarms. Hydrothermal slosh in the plumbing produces a characteristic long period, low frequency microseismic tremor. Strain at seismogenic depths produces intermittent electrical and thermal anomalies. The chemistry of the melts undergoes constant modification by addition and subtraction, like any proper stew: mush crystallization; fractional differentiation. Extrusions periodically overwrite whole sections of the crater. Bradyseism inundates coastal cities, thrusts up new land like Venus from the waves: terra nullius, if only momentarily. The topography heaves. The earth steams. The air reeks of sulfur.

It’s an uncertain ground, in both senses. If anything, human history there has been even more tumultuous than the geology. In time, I’ll probably regale you with all sort of stories about its endless cultural contestations, ingestations, regurgitations.* For now, I want to very briefly mention two related stories that I’m going to focus on in my work – the first to do with knowability; the second, with ground (or lack thereof).

Monte di Cuma

Classical oracularism attempted, in complicity with the unhuman, to push back the horizon of human knowability — and was thus, I’d contend, an ancestor of what we now think of as “science”. 

Focusing on Monte di Cuma, an igneous blister on the western perimeter of the volcanic complex, the first colony of Magna Graecia on the Italian peninsula, and the seat of one of two ancient oracles associated with the Campi Flegrei, the Cumaean Sibyl, I want to trace a set of local epistemological developments emerging in and around it over ~2000 years that not only contributed to, but, I would argue, directly catalyzed, the advent of modern Geology, Seismology, and Volcanology — en route to the contemporary (and, again, somewhat oracular) use of sensing technologies and predictive computing at the current threshold of scientific knowability at sites like the Vesuvius Observatory.

Lake Avernus – Tartarus

As the Sibyl of Cumae knew very well, there’s a hole in the ground of the Campi Flegrei. A big one, called Tartarus, located below modern-day Lake Avernus – and supposedly accessible through a cave mouth on its shore.

For Greeks of a certain vintage, Tartarus was both a god and an awesomely deep vertical shaft within the earth. It’s this latter conception that Virgil and, by way of him, Dante appropriated to build hell with — i.e., for their matryoshka variations on, and enlargements of, the νέκυια depicted in the Odyssey, Book XI. 

These textual recapitulations, with the intent of re-contextualizing the Homeric underworld – thereby asserting primacy over successive poetical forebears while claiming their accumulated inheritance – exemplify, in some sense, the logic of Tartarus itself. 

For it isn’t just a pit. It’s a prison. Agitated subterranean earth-bodies – ferocious children of Gaia – are enchained at the bottom of an enormous tube that reaches the shallow subsurface. Age after age, their matter, as materiel, is brought up through this plumbing to combat an order which, once defeated, gets cast down into the depths of the earth while a new order is established at the surface and atmospherically. 

Sound familiar? 

One of these conflicts, the Gigantomachy, supposedly fought in a place called Phlegra, is what gave the volcano its name.

This prison is also a principle. Of under-the-groundness – of absence-of-groundness, even – with all the obvious ontological, epistemological, and geological implications thus imbricated, and I want to look at it, and the place beneath which its imaginary extends, through that lens.

I’m producing what I call “earthworks” (after Robert Smithson) that will be sited at, and draw substance from, these Phlegraean sites and their penumbral imaginaries — realized at the convergence of place-sensitive fieldwork and “field work” (two words) – the former including human and physical geographic research and documentation – i.e., interviews, archival work, GIS, as well as historiographic, mythographic, aesthetic, ethical and, crucially, epistemological inquiries; the latter: scientific theorization, modeling, experimentation, and – as practicable – implementation, sensing and recording, measurement and analysis, and exhibition. 

The earthwork itself is the union of these efforts, and from this standpoint might be regarded as a parascientific instrument with which to unground, examine and analyze, reorganize, and ultimately re-integrate “place” through creative practice — taking into account both the actual workings of the earth and specific epistemologies of the “place” in ways that place-based artists too often fail to consider.

In addition to these earthworks, I mean to write a book-length essay — a geophysically sensitive example of place writing — about the Campi Flegrei, as well as my dissertation about the practice.

So, keeping busy. Idle hands and all.

How has the summer shaped up for you lot?

*The first six installments (in reverse chronological order) of an idiosyncratic travel guide to Naples I’ve been publishing fitfully at HiLoBrow since the plague broke out:

Are You a Chicken?

Always Somewhere Else

The Experimentalist

Love’s Labours Mislaid

Monmouth Strikes Again

Blood Simple

Rock of ages cleft for me

August 2, 2022

I want to cut a mountain in half. A small one. Like so.

Gordon Matta-Clark – Splitting (1974).

I’m not talking about the coal industry flatlining the EEG of West Virginia one decapitated summit at a time.

In the spirit of performing geological processes for art’s sake, I figure, if the Green River running through Dinosaur National Park could split a mountain down its middle, I should be able to slice my way through a molehill – with elbow grease and a big enough water knife.

It would be a neat trick. Neater still: putting the peak back together again.

The northwestern half of Split Mountain, Utah (+ Eva for scale).