“Proof Against the Absurd” 

“We have become connoisseurs of sunrises.” –Former CIA employee, Robert Sinclair. Photo courtesy of Sycamore Island Canoe Club and Tryon and Barbara Wells

Aside from the obvious benefits the chance to see wildflowers and pileated woodpeckers, the exercise, the insights into the workings of nature – what do I get out of all this? Part of the answer is that regular contact with the earth is as important for me as it was for Antaeus.* Another part (and it may be saying the same thing in a less metaphorical way) is that for a moment I get to evade modern man’s almost complete dependence on secondhand information. People now are very largely containerized, physically and even mentally, and without really noticing it we have come to rely on what others tell us about the world beyond our narrow boxes. I suppose this has always been true, but the ratio between the great mass of secondhand data and the small amount we pick up on our own can never have been greater than it is now. It is all too easy to ignore the distinction–to forget that nearly everything has been through a process of selection, organization, and interpretation before we get it. This is a particularly serious danger for professional information-processors like me, but I think the proposition holds for most people. At any rate, the canoe commute does give me a firsthand glimpse of what is going on beyond the various manmade containers I inhabit; I benefit from regular access to information that clearly is unmediated. 

Beyond that, I find it simultaneously humbling and encouraging to be reminded that it is an endless process out there, always and yet never changing. At a less cosmic level it is satisfying to understand from my own experience (to take just one example) why the Eskimos have a vital need for many terms to distinguish among different kinds of ice. And not least, when things seem to be settling into a pattern of sustained wackiness either at home or in the office, a fixed point of reference like the canoe crossing is useful even if it is brief.

There was only one time when the reference point itself seemed to be working loose. One summer morning, when the mist was still heavy on both the Potomac and my brain, I suddenly noticed that the river was full of dozens of squirming beings ten or twelve inches long, each of them with a huge mouth that stuck above the surface. For a long moment I felt as if I had wandered into a Brueghel painting; then I realized that the surface was covered with insect corpses, the result of some sort of mass death upstream, and the squirming beings were catfish that had come up from the bottom to scoop them in. Relieved that the river was still proof against the absurd, I resumed paddling toward a world I knew was not.


Comment: This is the tail end of an article written by a CIA employee named Robert Sinclair and appearing in the CIA’s classified “Studies in Intelligence” in 1984. It was released in 2014 as the result of a FOIA request and appeared in a “Slate” article that year. Earlier today my younger son told me of the story from a short “Men’s Journal” article. He’s an avid biker and kayaker. He once thought of commuting to work by kayak in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom on the James River. He normally biked to work but thought kayaking would be a nice change. I told him of a plan I and a friend devised to build and use a small hovercraft to commute up the Potomac if we ever had to work at Fort Belvoir or, God forbid, in some DC or Pentagon office. We had the plans from a “Popular Mechanics” article.

But back to the CIA canoeists. I can’t think of a better way to start, and end, a day at the office. It would make it all worthwhile as Robert Sinclair relates in the passage quoted above. I can relate. For a seven month stretch, I was temporarily tasked to run the Afghan Task Force in DIA headquarters. It was a plum assignment for a headquarters job, but I hated it. Often the highpoint of the day was the train commute from Quantico to DC along the Potomac River. Watching the sunrise over the river was magical. Even after my happy return to my unique and always exciting collection detachment, those morning views of the river retained their magic. That’s why now that I’m retired I spend as much time as I can on the river, in the lakes or wandering the small patch of woods behind my house. It’s my cathedral now under the care of a pair of beavers… the monks in the cathedral.



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7 Responses to “Proof Against the Absurd” 

  1. Stefan says:

    Nice article. Back in the days I used to go to the office I would drive and park about a mile and a half from work. I would walk the rest of the way to the office. I noticed the difference physically and mentally when I did this. I have worked at home for three years plus and it is one of the few things I miss about not going into the office.

    I spend as much time as I can these days outdoors. I love to hike, starting before the sunrises or going out right before the sun goes down. I love the change in the forest as you are hiking and the sun is going down or rising and the different types of wildlife you encounter. It is also the times of day when you are less likely to encounter people. I dont go out to spend time around people. Hiking a well known trail in the half light of dusk, then in the dark, is a wonderful time to be out.

    This is the same reason I chose to do most of my camping in the autumn or winter, less people, less insects and less chance of encountering the average black bear where I usually go in Virginia, West Virginia and PA.

  2. Fourth and Long says:

    I loved canoeing in my youth. I would drop in on relatives or friends who never believed me when my answer to “how the h did you get here?” was “canoe.” Few were aware of the old canal systems which passed nearby their housing tracts. Those were the days.

  3. jim ticehurst.. says:

    TTG remember your past Post About Your Back yard and the New Beaver Pond..
    and Col Lang Joined in about the Brotherhood of Animals..and Nature…That was
    a Fun Break…and I Like Your Return..to The Woods..and Streams…It bRefreshes
    my Earliest Menys of a Boy..A Brook..and a Fishing Pole…My First Schwinn Bike
    With Playing Cards on The Spokes…
    I Even remember Fourth and Long…as a Kid Jumping His Fence…Finding a Canoe
    and Paddling his Own Canoe..As The Indians Say..
    Memorys …

  4. different clue says:

    Why would CIA have kept an article like that Classified? Out of fear that we of the Great Uncleared might discover the difference between mediated information input and unmediated direct sensory perception input from the immediate real world around us? And that upon discovering that difference, we might become resistant to the ongoing program of Social Mass Brain Control being waged against us all by every facet of the elite dominators? And might even discover our own means of periodic escape and individual brain de-magnetization?

    The Controller loses Control over the Controlled when the Controlled discover the existence of Control and then discover the existence of The Controller even if the Controlled do not know The Controller’s name or face. William S. Burroughs would have said that shorter and sweeter and neater.

    • TTG says:

      different clue,

      I have no idea why this was classified other than the author was a CIA employee who was under some degree of cover. It looks like his name was the only thing redacted in the released PDF. It’s clearly not intelligence related.

  5. jim ticehurst.. says:

    I Think what the Agency Fellow Wrote in the Beginning..about His own experiences in the Agency..”being compartmentalized…Getting Second hand Information.
    .TheCyber Process of .”Selection…Orgination..and Interpretation” being done for
    ..Cyber..TV…Press…Intel…World Governments…Is Over whelming..For The Agency Guy..And Others Like Him…And Civilians…And He Find His “Coping Process” in
    Nature…Which Brought Him to His Point..”There is Natural..Substance Free..
    “Proof Against The Absurd”…Gods Stimulation of Our Senses..For Pleasure and

    I Had a Relative Who was an Agency Man…Set up the First Intel Shop in Saigon..Often Flew With Air America to Out Posts..Upset That The Agency Kept so much paper work..A Cryptologist Nightmare..
    Was Once of the Last Out on The Roof Tops Saving As Many Assets as He Could..

    Later has His Cover Blown By Church investigations..Went Back to Langley.. I
    Think The Message in The Article TTG Posted is Worthy of Study..A Piece of
    “CLEAN TRUTH” ..There Has to Be An Over Whelming Feeling..Walking into
    The Agency.Lobby .To Many Fallen Stars..The Slow :Truth” Process ..For Good Public Servants..Loyal Americans..Veterans..

    TRUTH..Lies..Betrayal…ALL the Untold Storys..By People Who KNOW..
    And Live With It…Set Free..Only By Nature..Canoe Trips..Like Minded Friends..
    And Gods Grace..and a Strong Spirit..That Refuses To Break.. Like Pats..Inspiring

  6. al says:

    TTG, As I soon hit 80 yrs, my many backpacking trips into the NW Casades with my son are in the past. Still do many winter day hikes in SW desert, tho.

    Plan to restart canoe tripping this summer. Back in 1975 met up with former military buddy and spent a week padding, portaging, lakes to lakes in Canada’s Quetico. Then in ’80s and ’90s several canoe trips into lakes north of Sudbury, Ontario. A 55lb,16′ Sawyer canoe was an excellent “vehicle”.

    Getting “out and about” truly rejuvenating!

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