Roommates on wheels
Exploring the Soundscapes of America by Bicycle
Zhengxiang Toh || Angus Mossman
The concept of ‘wilderness’ has fascinated people for thousands of years—in biblical times it was the devil’s playground; the transcendentalists of the 1800’s called it heaven; and today, it conjures up the image of an idealized, untouched landscape. Yet the wilderness as an untouched landscape has drawn increasingly more skepticism. Philosopher William Cronon came to the conclusion that whether or not true wilderness exists today, it “gets [people] into trouble only if [they] imagine that this experience of wonder and otherness is limited to… pristine landscapes [they themselves] do not inhabit.” American poet Gary Snyder put it in these words: “A person with a clear heart and open mind can experience the wilderness anywhere on Earth.”
Toh and Angus, partners in crime since Freshman year, set out on a 2000 mile bicycle journey to investigate these questions. Their route took them through a variety of landscapes inhabited (or not) by an enormous variety of people--from the industrial shores of Hamilton, ON to the forested peaks of the Catskills, and from Syrian refugees to Evangelical car mechanics. Through sound recordings, Toh and Angus explored aspects of wilderness that exist in the heart of large cities and vice versa. Then, to see how people fit into the wilderness question, Toh and Angus talked with locals along the way and recorded snippets of their daily lives in their surroundings.
Click on each point to read our blog post at that place! The blue points will be discussed below.
This exhibit is a product of many hours of thought and criticism, several gallons of ice cream, a few flat tires, and the generosity and stories of folks met on the road. It presents five perspectives on wilderness. Please take time to wander through the exhibit and listen to the sounds provided. You’ll find a variety of stories, natural phenomena, and ideas that may call into question your own definition of wilderness, as well as increase your awareness of the unnoticed sounds in your life. If you have any questions or want to discuss these ideas, please feel free to get in touch: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Toh and Angus wish to extend a huge thank you to family and friends as well as those who supported them financially, including the Chase Coggins Memorial Fellowship and the Alexander P. Hixon fellowship.
Our most sincere thanks go also to the Jonathan Edwards College administration their time and energy in this project.
Turn on your volume
And let the ride begin
Through a series of coincidences, we find ourselves at the community feast organized by the Saugeen River First Nation in celebration of National Aboriginal Day. It’s a 300-person affair in a big town hall, with tables of food set up and long lines snaking down each side. As we enter the building, the emcee brings us onto stage and introduces us to the community. "This is Angus and Toh, and they are cycling across the country. They celebrated their thousand mile mark yesterday!" The crowd hesitantly applauds.
Not wanting to draw more attention to ourselves, we head outside and sit by an elderly man with long, straight black hair tending a fire. It is the spirit fire, used to communicate with the ancestors. The keeper of the fire is the village storyteller.
Amid the crackling of the flames, he tells us tales of the harmony of man and nature in the past, of how creeks used to contain the freshest water, and of how trees and plants protect the village from the fiercest storms. He tells us about the destruction of nature by man in recent years, and how we are being poisoned by the food we eat and the air we breathe. He describes how man came to be; of how the Saugeen River tribe moved to where it lives today; and of the current wasting away of the community due to substance abuse and alcoholism. “They are being forced to adopt a way of life that is not their own.” These lessons are from a man who has lived a long time and has thought deeply about change…
The weather forecasts (from either the internet or locals) are not as reliable up here as we had hoped. As a result, we spend the short part of the day during which no rain is falling in the library, and the rest of the day about in the 50 degree weather with headwinds gusting to 20 mph and a faint drizzle that won't go away. In an effort to escape the elements as well as thaw frozen fingers so we can actually shift gears, we pull into the small general store in the unincorporated town of Paulding, MI. The store sells everything from ice cream to live minnows and potatoes to hatchets. None of these are quite what our appetites call for so we settle for smoked Gouda cheese and a Snickers bar. We linger the 10 minutes til closing time to give our fingers more time to thaw. Just as we are about to depart a thin 55 year-old man clad in a red wool hunting jacket, wool pants, and a baseball cap steps inside. Clearly a friend of the store owner, he waits for us to buy our goods. As we wait for the receipt to be printed he eyes our helmets and asks how far we've gone today. Are we wet? We talk about our journey and about his life here in Paulding for five minutes before the lights are flashed and we are hurried out the door back into the cold and wet. The short conversation is a great reminder that while bad weather can affect our schedule and our moods, it doesn't have to ruin the trip or even the day.
THE MENNONITE HOMESTEADER
As the sun hovers above the horizon, our shadows stretch in front of us on the gravel road. The farm fields on either side run ahead for as far as we can see. They are broken only by an abandoned grassland which has been taken over by purple lupines and yellow buttercups. A Mennonite man, dressed in the usual blue shirt with black suspenders, is sitting at the edge of the road, looking out over the flowers, and chatting with an older man in jeans and a t-shirt. We ride up to them.
After a brief conversation we learn that Simeon, the Mennonite man, lives on a homestead here where he runs a woodworking shop. He gives us permission to pitch our tent in the overgrown field so long as we don’t disturb the local family of bears. Despite the fact that his shop “won’t pass inspection” he agrees to show us around the next morning.
And so, after a peaceful night, we find ourselves surrounded by wood of all shapes and sizes and several young kids staring at us. The shop occupies a large building, dimly lit, with stacks of lumber piled neatly on one side. The centerpiece of the workshop is a big planer used to smooth out the boards and create tongue-and-groove patterns in them. It used to operate on electricity, but has been converted to run on a belt-driven diesel engine instead. Everything is moved by hand or by brilliant inventions that lend a mechanical advantage. Work hours parallel daylight. This is the Mennonite way.
Simeon, gives us a quick tour and we help him out with his work. Over the buzz of the planer, he explains how he must be in from 9 to 5 each day ("we have no phone"), and about the Mennonite tradition ("we do all of this to preserve our heritage")...
After talking and meeting his family--wife, four children, and younger brother--his wife sends us off with two donuts freshly fried on top of their wood cook-stove and a jar of homemade sour cherry jam. In accordance with the German they speak as a first language we say "großes danke" and "tschüss" and pedal off.
[Out of respect for Mennonite tradition, we did not record Simeon, but we recorded his buggy instead.]
After riding 30 miles on damp gravel, our legs are sore and our spirits are low. The sun beats relentlessly on our backs. Before turning onto the highway, we stop at an old farm to ask for water. A rat terrier rushes up to us and barks menacingly as we approach the old farmhouse at the edge of a corn field. Neat stacks of split wood line the porch. After some knocking and a few “Hello’s?”, an old man, with wispy white hair dressed in denim overalls without a shirt opens the door. He looks at us quizzically and asks groggily, "Can I help you?" We tell him about our trip and ask him for water. He quickly snaps back, "How big are the bottles?" Surprised, we trace out bottle-shaped figures in the air. He blinks, realizing that we probably won’t empty his well with our four water bottles, and invites us into his house. As the water starts to flow, he tells us his story.
THE PLASTICS PLANT WORKER
We decide to take a side trip to visit Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, the largest nuclear power plant in the world. As we approach the plant, the landscape around gradually changes: tidy little cottages give way to forested parks and conservation areas which have bright orange signs. They read: "Ecologically sensitive area. Keep out." It seems we are riding deeper into the wilderness until we suddenly find ourselves beneath transmission towers. These skeletons of steel stand a hundred feet tall and, in rows of 5 or 6, appear to march on as far as the eye can see, joined only by the sagging cables that run between them.
We arrive at the nuclear plant slightly after 4pm, and follow the signs to the security booth. A man and woman in uniforms step out. They have sunglasses on their faces, earpieces on one side, and holstered handguns. "Sorry, but the visitor's center is over there, and it's closed now." We reply with: "Oh, that's okay, can you guys tell us more about this place though?"
“There are eight reactors in this place..." the lady says, then pauses. She does not seem to know too much about the place either. "What do you know about nuclear power?" We look at each other and shrug. The topic of the conversation shifts to more important matters and we learn that this nuclear plant has the number 1 SWAT team in the world ("Come try it, see how far you can get beyond these gates. I dare you")
We say farewell and decide to try our luck at the visitor’s center anyway. After taking a wrong turn, we find ourselves in an industrial park. In front of us are rows of empty greenhouses that extend several hundred feet behind a menacing barbed wire fence (later learned to be the new Walmart of medical marijuana). Behind us is a nondescript white factory with four large steel storage towers outside.
We approach a stocky man in a button-down-shirt walking towards his truck. "Hi! What is this place??”
Thank you for listening
1. COOL STATS
140,000 feet up and down
1 flat tire
1 million pedals
1.7 million rotations of the wheel
15 jars of peanut butter
1500 dollars spent on food
minimum temperature of 34 F
maximum temperature of 95 F
6 showers each
1 run-in with a police officer at 1am
33 nights in a tent
longest distance without pedaling: 4 miles
maximum speed attained: 40 mph
some very drastic tan lines
2. COOL SOUNDS
3. COOL projects
In early July the top of Mount Tremper resounds with the liquid cascading song of the Hermit thrush. People’s voices, too, float by on the breeze. The surrounding forest and mountains are green and vast, interrupted only by a lake here, a church steeple there. Fields and barns are rare. At the top of the mountain a fire tower stands just above the tree canopy. It is here that I sit, contemplating wilderness.
The fire tower is a tall metal frame with a narrow staircase leading to the top. You can reach the viewing platform from beneath by a trapdoor. It is locked. And so I sit uncomfortably on a metal step, my head pressed against the trapdoor. On the ground, a group of four adults from Queens drink beer and bemoan the lack of view. A wasted trip in their opinion.
How funny to have come in search of wilderness, only to be on top of it and look down on it. This area of the Catskill Mountains is known as Indian Head Wilderness and is a popular destination for those wanting to experience true wilderness—a place untouched by human hands. From above, this tract of land appears to be a piece of nature that has escaped destruction and looks today as it always has. But looks can be deceiving. A little history and a closer look beneath the canopy reveal obvious human impact.
While hiking up the mountain, I was constantly distracted by the graffiti engraved on rocks and trees along the path: the characteristic scars of a heart surrounding initials carved on smooth gray Beech trees; Johnny wuz here. The fire tower is also covered with names, dates, pictures, scratched or written in pen. One directly in front of me stands out: POOP.
Even the lakes are a product of man. In the early 1900’s the damming of rivers in the Catskills created several lakes which submerged towns, cemeteries, roads, and schools. These lakes are slowly draining into manmade tunnels which carry water hundreds of miles to New York City. On the surface, they’re as much a part of the wilderness as the mountains or the sturdy red oak trees beneath me. One human invention obscuring another has created the illusion of wilderness.
Would a historical timeline of these mountains show that they haven’t always looked so pristine and human-free? When this region was logged, did people think of it as wilderness then? Or was the wilderness farther West where people hadn’t yet settled? What influences did the Native Americans who lived here have on the environment? Many of today’s ‘wildernesses’ were inhabited for centuries before white man arrived and began to visibly alter the landscape.
As I sit here surrounded by profanity, names, and dates I find it hard to see this place as true wilderness. I wonder if the folks from Queens see this place as true wilderness. Perhaps the degree to which one experiences wilderness depends on knowledge of a place as well as perception in a place. Should wilderness be an individualized concept? Next time, I think I’ll try the desert. Or maybe the sea floor.