There is so much more to this issue than what wildlife organizers like to term ‘user conflict,‘ a simple and disingenuous term used to pit the various clashing tribes of outdoor enthusiasts against one another, thus deflecting focus from the big picture.“
On May 15th 2002, 54 people reached the Summit of Mt. Everest.
If you’re like me you can recall a time in the not-so-distant past when you sat riveted and absorbed by the written accounts of Sir Edmund Hillary’s epic adventure to “conquer” The Himalayan Giant. Or perhaps it wasn’t of interest to you. Maybe that’s for the best. For now the pursuit has evolved into a ridiculous Mountain Hardware™ sponsored Gore-Tex™circus, its tents erected annually on the flanks of the Tibetan peak infested by affluent “mountaineers” willing to pay top dollar for access to the highest pinnacle on the earth. I should have seen this abomination coming. Any exhilaration regarding the spectacle of the modern conquest of Everest was efficiently and permanently extinguished between the covers of Jon Krakauer’s 1997 Into Thin Air, an excellent and thoroughly depressing account of a specific kind of modern sporting arrogance juxtaposed against the icy detachment of nature’s most famous mountaineering foe. (If you don’t believe that a fat bank account and a personal trainer can get you to the summit sooner or later, you owe it to yourself to read Krakauer’s tome sometime.) At the risk of cementing a reputation as one heartless bastard, I must confess that the human tragedy which unfolded on the slopes of the mountain in his narrative left me less affected than the passages illuminating the physical effects of countless debris-strewing expeditions on the mountain’s once pristine eco-system.
But 54 people at the summit Mt. Everest in one day? Is this a good thing? An important achievement? What does it mean anymore when once hugely significant accomplishments can be purchased and tallied- up by a half-hundred grizzled, oxygen- deprived mountaineers in a single afternoon?
In his 1993 essay “On a Certain Attention to the World” noted naturalist and poet John Haines wrote:
“The way we see and experience the world is inescapably determined by our attitude toward it, by the use to which we put nature and the things of nature, whether this means diverting the flow of a river, removing a hillside to make room for a highway, or other wise converting land, bird and beast to our specialized purposes. With increased technological means, and the sense of power and mastery that these seem to instill in us, the world has become radically changed.”*
Perhaps I’ve had it wrong all these years. Perhaps the reason these things bother me is that I haven’t adopted the insular 21st Century attitude towards nature. Perhaps I tricked myself into believing that there was something more profound to be gleaned from a personal connection with the wild and untamed. Something more than just the endorphin rush that comes from scaling a pointy rock, capturing a steelhead, hurtling down an icy slope on a fancy plank, or navigating tricky whitewater chutes in a miniscule fiberglass dagger. There is nothing inherently evil about any of these pursuits. The raw energy of the experiences can not be duplicated in any manufactured environment. But that high of the endorphin rush appears to be the attitude shaping the outdoor experience in the 21st century, and in that shift is cause for great concern. The idea that nature can be “conquered,” or, in the case of the new breed of “extreme” outdoor enthusiasts, death can be “cheated,” while not at all surprising, are two of the most preposterous undercurrents driving contemporary philosophies regarding dominion over the natural world. It seems that so often the outdoor experience is quantified by stacking up inflated personal achievements against the indifferent forces of nature. Whether that conquest involves riding a knobby-tired bicycle over boulders, vegetation, stream-beds and small animals, tugging a frightened trout around by the lips, or shooting a moose with a bazooka mounted on an ATV, there is something both amusing and disturbing about the intensity of our engagement in these pursuits. Presumably the purpose of such endeavors is to learn something about the fabric of one’s character and the physical and mental skills bolstering it, but what is it exactly that we seem to be learning?
Permit me a quick digression to the bread-and-butter of the hardworking fishing guide: The Big City Fat Cat Heading for the Snake River (or The Madison or Jackson Hole or…). His hired help comes from an Idaho outfitter whose staff busts their tails from daybreak to lights out when the “bite” is on, sharing hard-earned fishing wisdom with this Lexus-driving corporate raider with a bad attitude, expensive bridgework, flashy gear and a Visa Gold Card. Point of excursion? To hook and land fish. That’s it. Catch fish. However, to manage such a feat, our adventurous city slicker needs a team of personal assistants to structure the experience for him – assistants who will row his boat, cook his food, set the tents and fires, provide moral and technical support, and manage a temporary latrine. All that’s required of the “client” (besides a formidable amount of expendable cash) is the ability roll himself from bed and pull on his underpants and expensive Orvis fishing fedora. After he’s fed and burped, and his knowledgeable assistant has jetted or rowed him to a prime spot, handed to him is a pole to cast. When a fish is caught after all of this carefully orchestrated tomfoolery, he goes home with a photo and a cooler of flesh, having paid for the right to boast of his rugged conquest. Such machismo. Such skill. Such an outdoorsman. The outfitters are merely paid servants in this slightly embellished tale, but is there any mystery about whom is more in sync with the pulse of the river environment?
It is a special kind of irony that, at a time when we so badly need to drop anchor in the soul-centering waters that our last remaining wild places can offer, we work against a persuasive cultural force that’s throwing considerable muscle into commercializing, codifying, segmenting and marketing the outdoor experience. In this alternate reality Majestic Sport Utility Vehicles effortlessly scale the shale fields resting at the base of famous mountaintop panaceas, heroes of demographically scripted advertising segments (another irony, considering the immediate reality of the unpleasant traffic snarls and bad attitudes to be experienced on actual roads in Glacier, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Banff.) Carbonated soft drinks offer sustenance to Xtreme gladiators who willfully (and joyfully) hurl themselves from basalt precipices into stone chasms with parachutes tied to their backs. A Special Kind of Truck stands proud sentry as the paddle-wielding inhabitant of a Tupperware canoe successfully beats senseless a dangerous, boulder-rimmed waterfall.
Sadly these are merely beacons illuminating the great outdoors as corporate cash cow. As is the case with all essentially pure and meaningful experiences that undergo dissection at the hands of the marketing minds shaping the attitudes of contemporary culture, irreparable damage has been inflicted upon the outdoor type’s perceptions on the true nature of the outdoor experience. The inevitable cracks grow larger as legions encased in fleece and polypro descend en masse to enforce their personal agendas on fragile waterways, mountain slopes and other highly use sensitive ecosystems.
Though admittedly the role is not alien, I do not write this as a disgruntled or displaced sport fisherman, for fishermen contribute much to the larger problem as well. There is so much more to this issue than what wildlife organizers like to term “user conflict,” a simple, disingenuous term used to pit the various clashing tribes of outdoor enthusiasts against one another, thus deflecting focus from the big picture. What little remains of our public wild lands and open spaces are getting pulverized by abuse and overuse. This is not news. The evidence is everywhere. It is because of this reality that the shift towards viewing the outdoor experience primarily as a commodity, worthy of little attention or respect, is so diabolical.
A few years ago I took my son for an early spring jaunt along the banks of the Deschutes River in Oregon. Figuring it to be young enough in the year to miss the oppressive masses that unleash a joyful fury upon the river from May through October. A reasonable opportunity to introduce to him the geography of the canyon, to look for raptors, redwing blackbirds and maybe if lucky spot a bobcat. Upon arrival we drove the rough gravel road below the deadly hydraulic musculature of Sherar’s Falls and noticed that both sides of the normally lightly traveled road were completely choked with cars and people wandering about with folding chairs, coolers, boom boxes and plastic boats. Block after block of them. Giant banners hung from the sides of large vans, shouting out manufacturers of performance clothing, eyewear, and sports nutrition companies — sponsors, it would seem, of some monstrous kayaking competition taking place on the lower river. The whole area was completely swarmed, an invasion of participants and spectators, this teeming mass of humanity extreme even for the heavily utilized watershed of Oregon’s famous river.
Feeling the blackest of moods descend, I unleashed a snarl of epithets. My poor son’s ears were burning from the spillover, but the source of outrage was by no means lost on him. Considering the time invested in our safari to the lower canyon wasted, we decided to do what any quick-thinking outdoor types would when facing such alien life forms in their favorite campsite, bird observing post or fishing hole: We Left. The car was turned around and 50 miles of tight-lipped navigation later we stopped to drown our sorrows, his chosen poison an enormous bottle of Mountain Dew, and myself finding a sliver of sedation in two bottles of Obsidian Stout. With the Gong Show below Sherar’s Falls miles behind us, we settled for lobbing small stones into the roiling spring flow of the Hood River as anger, confusion and sadness subsided.
Examples of places we hold dear that have become playgrounds for a new breed of outdoor egoist who adhere to a different aesthetic than our own are an unfortunate byproduct of contemporary life. While I’ve resigned myself to the admittedly black hearted notion that the environmental pressure occurring (both from leisure and corporate forces) in our open spaces and wilderness areas will continue unabated and is of a permanent nature, it is permanent only when measured by the increments of my own infinitesimal human timeline. Long after the arrogance of our species has resulted in our own destruction, rivers will flow, creatures will swim, crawl and fly, and life will continue as is it’s way.
Perhaps this sentiment is best expressed by Haines in his 1991 essay “Leaving Alaska”:
“Of one thing we may be certain: Nature will cure everything given sufficient time and neither the earth nor the cosmos requires our presence to fulfill itself…we can destroy ourselves, render obsolete and useless all our mechanisms, but that is all. Our inflated claims and expectations amount to very little in the face of that primary perception.”*
Strangely enough I find in that “primary perception” great comfort — the words are scratched as a reminder in journals and notebooks strewn about in my office. You or I only have eighty years give or take a handful to put our minute imprint on this world of which we are merely life forms. While we cling tightly to our awards, prizes, medals, records and achievements, it is in the end our relationships, with each other, with our world, and with some higher power, that ultimately brings meaning to our existence. Nature’s course evolves within the scope of a timeless narrative. Climbing to the top of a rock and beating your chest may make you feel important, but in the scheme of things you’re really just another collection of atomic particles and H2O. Edmund Hillary was an important figure at one time in history. Now he’s a footnote amongst thousands who have accomplished the same feat. It would do all of us outdoor types to keep that in mind.
“Understand me fully with reference to my affection for the land. I never said the land was mine to do with as I chose.
–Chief Joseph | Nez Perce
* Cited essays appear in John Haines’ collection of essays, Fables and Distances, ©1996 | Graywolf Press