I am Very Small – by Corey Guen ’17
The cliffs of the Doubtful Sound are awe-inspiringly immense. Their sheer size dominates the landscape, angry gray skies invaded by towering green peaks, plunging abruptly into black water. Turning the corner in our boat, those of us standing on the deck were nearly blown down by a biblical gust of wind. The rain drove so hard the impact of each drop stung any exposed skin, the wind so ferocious you could lean your full weight into it without falling. A giddy sensation rose in my stomach as we turned to face the roar of the gale. The sun shone through the clouds, piercing downward and illuminating the haze ahead. As I said to a friend, it truly felt like we were sailing off the edge of the Earth. I couldn’t imagine the mix of stupefaction and fear that must’ve befallen the first explorers to venture into New Zealand’s epic natural mazes, regions where the forces of Earth are palpable, visually arresting and extraordinarily powerful. For a moment standing on that deck, I felt very small, utterly helpless and lost in an unfamiliar world.
Fifteen minutes after we stopped to add another layer, attach crampons to our boots and unsheathe our ice axes on the French Ridge in the Matukituki Valley, the sun dropped behind the mountains and the temperature plummeted. Headlamps provided a paltry illumination of our path ahead, straight up a sheer, snow-covered face, a rough idea of our remaining distance to the shelter and increasingly numb fingers providing the motivation to trudge onward. Some time later, a friend ahead of me began to cry, asking exhaustedly if we could still go back. In my head I responded in frustration, “Of course not. We’re 15 kilometers from our car, on an exposed face at night and as far as we know, we’re the only people in the valley.” Instead, struggling with my own pangs of nervousness, I told her to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, that she could do it, that it couldn’t be much further. In reality, our shelter could be 50m in front of us or over the next ridge out of sight, and in any case we had no option but to reach it. The danger of frostbite, injury or any other complication was present, but blocking those thoughts out to keep pulling our feet out of increasingly deeper snow was more important. For another moment, fighting the wind, snow, cold and my own fear, I felt very small and potentially out of my depth.
These two moments stand out in my mind from months of incredible experiences while at the University of Otago on the South Island of New Zealand, the most spectacular place I’ve ever had the privilege to spend time. Though the perspective the raw natural power of the Doubtful Sound afforded may sound intimidating, I relish the feeling of relative size, of being far from civilization while dwarfed by the forces of nature. Though being caught out on the French Ridge was admittedly a nervous experience, it was also exhilarating and stunningly beautiful. Both of these trips, after turbulent nights, rewarded us with equally tranquil mornings, the howl of wind replaced with a quiet that can only be experienced outdoors, far from artificial light and from the comforts of home. These moments in particular highlighted a semester wholeheartedly devoted to exploring nature, where a web of stress inducing connectivity to a volatile world was shed for the simplicity of living out of a backpack whenever possible, standing atop impossibly picturesque mountains and gazing upward at totally clear night skies. Starry nights in particular produced a similar feeling to the two moments described above, a rare peek at the monumental scale of the world we live in and the awe-inspiring beauty of it all.
It often feels as though many Americans have completely lost touch with our planet, and New Zealand was a drastic way for me to reclaim that connection. I have tried to do so from the US with some success, but nothing I did could compare to the cathartic onslaught of amazing vistas and unadulterated landscapes found all over the country. In particular, New Zealand feels like a place where humans are merely temporary inhabitants of a much older world, and it original settlers, the Maori, demonstrated this understanding through their attitudes towards the land. The Maori did not own land, they only considered themselves the stewards of the resources the land offered them. I grew to appreciate this worldview, as it affords the planet the respect it deserves, and understands our own dependence on the Earth. Though I and everyone else cannot just cease our existence as consumers, or halt the forward march of technology, we can stop to consider our own relatively small place in the universe as individuals and as a whole. Maybe others don’t like the idea of feeling small, but for me it is the best place from which to experience the world, at its mercy and in awe of its beauty.
Corey is a rising senior economics and Chinese major and Shepherd minor from Exeter, NH. he has spent a significant portion of his time at Washington and Lee abroad, including two stints in San Pedro, Belize (a week with a spring term economics class and a summer under the Shepherd program), a term at the University of Otago in New Zealand and currently a summer at Donghua University in Shanghai, China. On campus, he is a member of the Venture Club and the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, an employee of the Outing Club and Traveller, a Johnson scholar and most proudly, a three year App Adventure trip leader. His favorite rapper ad-lib is Pusha T’s guttural “Eghck!”
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