Yesterday I finally made it to McConnells Mill state park, where I enjoyed a spectacular 12.4 mile hike on the most pleasant day of this September. The hike, which follows the Western side of the Slippery Rock Gorge, begins at Hell’s Hollow and terminates at Eckert Bridge (below). I took this picture while having lunch in the creek (safely atop a rock).
At one point during the hike, I was moving at a pretty swift pace. At a small stream crossing I planted my foot on a large rock situated at roughly a 45 degree angle. The rock was damp and I immediately felt unsure of my footing, so I froze. In an instant my body registered its uncertainty and took stock of its position, and as I stared intently at my foot I was made aware of three options. Now, as I stared–and I should say that all of this exhibits the kind of knowledge, or ‘practical competence’, discussed by Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception–my mind was pretty much empty. It was too fixated on my foot to think, but nevertheless my body knew the condition it faced. As I am a relatively experienced hiker, I kept my footing and avoided an immediate spill. Such is the nature of my habit body. The three possibilities my body faced were: 1) attempt to move ahead, apply too much pressure and risk slipping; 2) lean backward and disengage the rock; 3) maintain a balance that would enable my body to remain on the rock and eventually step forward. Sensing that the risk of slippage was too great in #1 and #3, I ‘chose’ #2. It was an act of corporeal wisdom.
In one respect, this picture represents the body as an ‘I can’, a competent and able body that is well-adjusted to its environment and capable of dealing with its demands. But on the other hand, one must also see the body in this situation as compelled by an imperative that is commanded by the environment. Lingis is getting at something like this in The Imperative (pp. 67-8), when he writes:
The imperative in our environment is received, not on our understanding in conflict with our sensuality, but on our postural schema which integrates our sensibility and mobilizes our motor forces. It is received on our sensory-motor bodies as bodies we have to center upon things that orient our movements, bodies we have to anchor on the levels down which our vision, our touch, our listening move, on which we station ourselves and move in the heart of reality. It orders our competence.
Yes, as I stood frozen on the rock I was ‘anchoring’ myself; I had to. In that moment, on the rock, it was the rock that dictated my body’s orientation. This is not to say that I was at the total mercy of the rock, for I did not succumb directly to its slick and unpredictable surface. But I must admit that my body was caught somewhere between and ‘I can’ and an ‘I can’t’, which played out as a negotiation between the imperative of the trail and the know-how of my postural schema.