Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Top of the Island, The Edge of Imagination

This weekend I'll be taking people up to the literal "top of the island," Guam's tallest "peak" Sabanan Lamlam, or Mount Lamlam. It is part of We Are Guahan's "Heritage Hikes." We went to is Pagat two weeks ago, Cetti and Sella Bay last week, and now our third and final hike up to Mount Lamlam.

Even though will be the third time to travel up there in the past month, but I'm still excited about it. Here is one of the reasons why.

My cognitive map of Guam, the network of images, symbols, ideas, sights, smells, and so on which I use to imagine what Guam is on a daily basis is dominated by my classrooms where I teach in, the apartment complex where I live in, and the things I pass by the side of the roads as I travel. I spend most of my time in the central part of the island bouncing between Chalan Pago, Hagatna, Tamuning, Barrigada and Mangilao. As such, Guam is a pleasant concrete jungle, dotted every once in a while with random clusters of green life and views of the ocean. It is full of people, devoid of birds and wired together by roads and power poles.

I have an image of Guam which I am used to and although I know there are exceptions to that image, I know that don't stray too far from it. I think most people live in the same assumptions, it makes life easier to live. There is a medium that you inhabit and once there you can go about your day not fearing that something radically different it out there, lurking somewhere, waiting to surprise you, shock you and make you re-evaluate your identity or your life. Places with regular power and water service, go into shock when that service was interrupted. It is not a mere matter of being inconvenienced or not being able to do the things you normally do with such ease, but it is because of the way that image of the world gets torn in half. Or to change the metaphor, that usual image of the world radically changes in meaning. Things which you accepted that funneled life and meaning into you, become lifeless and blights. Power poles, computers, cars, buildings, when stripped of electricity become scars, sores, on the land, prisons of pointlessness. They mock you because of the way you once relied so much on them, believed in their invulnerability and attributed to them an eternal quality, as if you need not every worry that they might not be there, or might not function the way they used to.

In most ways, having your cognitive map challenged literally sucks, it is something which people work throughout their lives to never experience. But one of the reasons why I love hiking to Mount Lamlam is precisely because it challenges my map of Guam, it gives me a completely different side of Guam. It allows me to see Guam in a whole new way. The closest roads or buildings are miles away in the distance. From the peak you can see bays around the Southern part of Guam, and see a ridge line which extends miles south. When you look northeast you can see parts of Fena Lake. As you hike the hill through oceans of sword grass, you eventually come to the top, and within the crater of the volcano that Mount Lamlam used to be, you find limestone rock, where you find deer and pig tracks everywhere.

There is one particular part of this hike which always stays with me. When you reach the edge of the Mount Lamlam crater before you start your way in to hike up to one of its peaks, you will pass on your right a huge field of foxtails. When I looked around me, my map of Guam was gone, there was not a building around me, no roads, no internet, no cell phone service, no electricity. Just jungle on my left and a field of foxtails on my right.

Some of the value of these hiking experiences and seeing other versions of Guam is that feeling of visiting a place which has yet to be destroyed and has not been paved over. That is part of the reason why so many people feel that Pagat should not be used as a buffer zone for a firing range and cut off from the public. This is a sort of primal pull, but it is not the real reason why those field of foxtails on the top of Mount Lamlam enchants me so much.

Speaking from the perspective of my own limited cognitive map, my own ways in which I imagine and constrain Guam into something I can know and speak of, it is refreshing to see my own limits challenged. It is beautiful to be reminded that what I know, what I want, what I think is far from the limits to the world around me. It goes far beyond, endlessly beyond what I can manage or handle. Man has destroyed and contained much in an effort to deny this, but even so, the world continues on.

When I stand at the edge of that field of foxtails I am standing at the edge of my own imagination. We place a map over the world in hopes of dominating it, of managing it and making it ours, but the universe always awaits at the edges of our fences and our walls, waiting to rush in and wash away all the semblance of control and order. But at that edge, where we end and the world begins, that is where human creativity, progress (in good or bad forms), imagination stem from. When I look out over that field, I am reminded of something so obvious yet so powerful. That the world is far beyond what I can imagine, and more importantly that it can be made completely different than what I imagine it now. But when one stands at the border between the human and the natural, the question becomes one of willingness to take that risk, to seek to harness that power to change the world, or simply leave it as it is.

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