Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Changing Nature of our Contact with Nature, Part I

I recently returned from a trip to where I grew up -- New Mexico and Colorado. I spent a week with family and roughly a week hiking and camping in Colorado. In the short time that I was (back) in Colorado, I saw a number of noticeable changes in how we are relating to and encountering "nature."

The most obvious trend is the move towards more and more numerous forms of mechanization and comfort. RVs and RV parks are now more commonplace than I've seen them (despite the price of gas). Campground after campground was filled with RVs parked in tent spots, RVs on gravel bars (a particularly nasty example being South Mineral Creek campground near Silverton), and RVs in large industrial-size lots (one near Blue Mesa Reservoir had to have at least 200 RVs). And, most of the time, the RVs were towing ATVs and other off-road vehicles, of which I saw more of than at any other time in my life. Each Forest Service road I was on featured a bevy of ATVs and outlaw RVs housing large families or simply a couple looking to "get away."

On one level, this anecdotal evidence simply means that Americans have changed the way that they camp and find their way into the backcountry. On another level (and I would hope deeper), though, it means that we increasingly encounter "nature" (if there is such a concept) through a host of technological prostheses which allow us to go there without actually experiencing the intimacy, discomfort, and strain that nature has generally required of our species. As a biologist who often rode an ATV, I found the experience exciting and fun, but certainly not a way of coming into contact with something greater than myself (unless, of course, one includes things you swallow while riding).

But maybe that's the point: our aims with respect to nature have changed from those of, say, our parents. Nature, like video games, business partners, or random sexual encounters, is something to be enjoyed, surveyed, and used as a landscape for a personal quest. This is opposed to my more bourgeois love of backpacking (more on that in another post), which, gear-oriented though it may be, still runs the risk of strain, cold, heat, bug bites, and the general discomforts of being outdoors.

All of this implies that our reliance on technological prostheses signals a shift from "encountering" nature to seeing it as something tantamount to other personal quests one might have while in a city, at home, etc. Or, to put it another way: our somewhat elitist orientation towards nature which kept it separate and the subject of occasionally difficult quests or adventures has faded and given way to an even more elitist orientation which sees nature as a playground or place to stash one's RV for a few days.

This is likely overstating the case, but the shift from camping/hiking to RVing/ATVing is clear, if the explosion of such dealerships, my experience in Colorado, and the changing face of stores such as REI is any indication. If anything, it implies that our experience of wilderness, or simply "what's out there," is becoming increasingly more impoverished and mediated by gadgets, roll-out beds, and generators that fuel portable DVD players.