Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Changing Nature of our Contact with Nature, Part II

I'd like to follow up on my previous post but from a slightly different perspective. In my previous entry I noted the proliferation of ATVs and RVs as a mode of "accessing" our public lands in the West.

Another trend that I have recently noticed operates to the same end, but from a different means altogether. In the past few years I have noticed a significant drop in the number of people who enjoy recreational backpacking as a means to access the backcountry. I've seen a diminished number of backpackers on trails, have less friends who backpack, and, when I've managed to get beyond the 3 mile marker on most trails (except on 14ers in Colorado), I've found them surprisingly untrammeled. Many trails in the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, and even in the Sawatch this summer in Colorado, have become overgrown and more "wild" than they were ten, twenty, or thirty years previous. Add to this the fact that most major outdoor chains have reduced or discontinued the selling of long range packs, and it signals a significant drop in the number of people that backpack for long periods and distances in the Western backcountry.

This phenomenon is coupled with an increased enthusiasm for "adrenaline"-filled adventures in the wilderness: mountain biking, rock climbing, rafting, tree-climbing (see High Country News for an interesting article on the new tree climbing craze), and peak bagging. Even Grand Teton National Park has gotten into the act, reviving an old mining ferrata ropes course used to access the Tetons and marketing it as an adventurous (if not highly profitable) means of accessing the peaks without the usual threat of death that accompanies sustained pitches of climbing at high altitude.

Like the previous post, I think this signals a significant shift in how we have decided to experience nature. Backpacking is undoubtedly an elitist adventure: it requires time off from work, an expanse of land set aside for aesthetic and philosophical reasons, and it normally employs a great deal of "gear" that can cost thousands of dollars. Yet, despite the gear, it still bears a minimum of discomfort not found in hiking or many of our other pursuits. Backpacking can be quite strenuous, minimalist, and, at its best, it plunges one into a bit of solitude, quiet, and wildness that can be psychologically uncomfortable. It admits of cold, heat, bugs, loneliness, and pain. And, when done for sustained periods or for sustained distances, it allows for an encounter with something wholly other than ourselves.

Many of the other pursuits on the rise, though they take place in nature, do not attempt to encounter it as something outside of our pursuit for entertainment or self-fulfillment. While backpacking is elitist, it at least allows for a contact with nature that does not circumscribe its appearance within the bounds of what we need, want, or expect. Even though it attempts to avoid it through the gear culture (which continues to proliferate), backpacking ultimately cannot sidestep that which makes nature "natural": stochastic events, numbing regularity, or a landscape bereft of human things and voices.

One part of me is rather happy with this trend. After all, it means that there is more backcountry available for myself and my friends. Yet it also means that the newer forms of accessing the backcountry (mountain bikes, etc.) allow for a greater degree of mechanized penetration into wilderness. It also may mean that the more commercially-driven adrenaline adventures and their constituents seek to move further and further into wilderness in the pursuit of the next ferrata ropes course, 5.14-rated wall, or killer bike trail.

What is potentially most pernicious, however, is the fact that a culture which has never had a healthy relationship with wilderness (which, at least in the mythology of the West, is one of the few bastions of otherness) seems increasingly bent on severing all ties with it. This is not, as my Heideggerian training would tell me, purely the result of an "objective" ontology which sees nature and things as objects to be manipulated. Rather, more in keeping with Nietzsche's last man, we've become obsessed with being obsessed, entertained by entertainment. The explosion and escalation of gadgets, gear, and new ways of entertaining ourselves under the guise of "being in nature" are only one among many ways that we attempt to entertain and fulfill ourselves while still maintaining the jargon of naturalness, being "outdoors," etc., but they lack the genuine trappings of being outdoors: insecurity, loneliness, austerity, and the openness to surprise. As Foucault would immediately note, such adventures are still productive -- they give us pleasure, create knowledge, even fabricate new relationships. But such adventures are administered (or produced by corporate interests) and often only masquerading under the shell of being in nature or something like wilderness. They may be productive, but what they "produce" only perpetuates our severed relationship with wilderness.

The issue, then, is not whether we backpack or hike or do rooster tail turns on a Sportsman 500 in the middle of a mountain stream. It is, rather, to what end we see nature, and therefore something outside ourselves that we cannot fully fathom, of which our choice of pursuits is only symptomatic. I fear that, like weddings, sport, and even intimate relationships, our often conflicted relationship with wilderness in America has been become even more conflicted through our desire to use that which is outside ourselves as the subject of our personal quests. To this end, backpacking, dwindling as it may be as a pursuit, may remain, like art, cooking, and humor, one of the last means within advanced industrial culture to combat the dominant ways of living and to regain -- or retain -- a contact with something wholly other than ourselves.