Monday, October 15, 2007

Changing Perceptions of the Environment

I recently was thinking about when I first thought there was a real problem with the changing perceptions our society has with our natural environment. Lots of academic materials have been written on this, but I remember a certain series of incidents that happened a few years back that first drove the issue home to me.

Bear with me as I set up the story:

A few years ago, Mark, Devon and I headed up to one of my favorite places in the world, Gray Knob, which I have written about in the past. It was Washington's Birthday weekend, a traditional time for all us old Knobbers to rendezvous.

As it was winter, we decided to hike Lowe's Path, which was always packed and easy going, even with deep snow. I've hiked up Lowe's probably more than 100 times over the years, and know every turn and rock, so much so that we have many landmarks named on the path. There were three of us on this trip, and we moved well across the lower flats and up the first hill, ending up at the Club House Turn after about 45 minutes. Clubhouse is the traditional first stop for water and a breather before starting up towards the Log Cabin. As we stood there, I should have know that something was up when this group of pilgrims appeared, shuffling up the path in snowshoes, and burdened with giant packs, snow flukes, the whole bit.

The leader of the group, a tall bald guy with brand new Koflach plastic boots a huge pack and a quiver of snow stakes with bright orange ribbon eyed us with some disgust and said:

"Bootin" it huh?"

I had never, in the nearly twenty years of hiking Lowe's in the winter, ever worn snowshoes, and here was this dummy challenging us. Rather than starting something, we moved over and let them pass, only to catch up with them on the final stairs below the Log Cabin as they struggled up the steep stairs, snowshoes scraping on the wooden treads.

I tell this part of the story to comment on the state of outdoor marketing. The outdoor business had been very successful in transforming snowshoeing from a utilitarian task--the snow is too deep to walk over so you use these cool tools called snowshoes, to a sport that people do, regardless of the need to do it.

The rest of the hike up above the Log Cabin, a sustained and steep walk up 1,100 feet, was uneventful. Our snowshoeing friends headed out the Randolph Path towards the Perch as we continued up.

On arrival at the Knob, the place was full, so we headed over to Crag Camp, which had a few folks, but was quiet enough. There was a good six feet of snow on the ground, and it was shaping up to be a clear bright night with a full moon. It was going to be the kind of night that would have us running around above tree line with no lights, the bright moonlight casting shadows on the fresh snow. And that's what we did. By six o'clock the moon was rising and we headed up the Spur Trail to check things out. It was a remarkable hike, and Devon, who had never been up there before, was spellbound. After a few hours of playing in the snow, Mark and I left Devon at Knight's Castle and headed back down and walked onto the porch at Crag. There were several folks on the porch standing and talking about some financial stuff. We nodded and stood there looking at the headwall of King Ravine shimmering in the moonlight.

Then a movement caught my eye, and a Pine Martin scampered out onto the snow in front of us. There must have been a mouse under the snow he was after, and his hunger must have pushed him to show himself. Despite having lived up here for many, many, months over the past couple decades; I had never seen a Pine Martin. It was a real thrill. Funny thing was, the two thirty-somethings next to us kept talking about the stock market. I said to them:

"You guys ever see a Pine Martin? If not, it's standing right there." I pointed. The Pine Martin continued to circle around and dig about in the snow.

They eyed me angrily for interrupting them and went back to their talk, Cisco was up and so and so's IPO could become reality. Who gives a damn about a Pine Martin was the attitude, I guess. It really was astonishing.

The next morning, there they were, dressed in the best technical clothing, and boots, throwing on their packs to hike up the ridge. There was boasting and macho talk. They were going to challenge the mountain. During a rare full moon winter night with minimal wind, they had stood around talking about money instead of hiking around and experiencing this rare environment under the rarest of conditions, and now they were heading up to fight the mountain.

That incident was something of an epiphany for me. Here were people who had hiked up three miles and three thousand feet for completely different motives than my friends and I. They had spent lots of money buying the best gear, but were completely unaware of the natural surroundings, and seemed more interested in the bragging rights that came with the hike than anything else. The sighting of a rare critter had zero impact except for an angry glare. I was discouraged to think that this was the face of the future, where athletic achievement was the motive for climbing and the environment was but a second thought. What would the future state of the environment be with guys like this?

Bob Pyle's term extinction of experience rang loud and clear to me as I walked down Mt. Adams the next day, worried for the future of this place, and wild places everywhere. The people we had encountered up at the Knob were there for completely different reasons than we were.

I guess it's not fair to pick on these guys too much, but between them and the snowshoe guys, but they became poster boys for the new outlook on nature, an outlook down a dead end street. At least they took the time to hike up, unlike the millions hiking the shopping malls every day. Could they not understand that we lived on that mountain because we loved the place and celebrated everyday we could exist in the wild?

Rich Louv's book, which I subsequently read a few years later, only reinforced the feelings I had on the hike down. A disconnect was growing, and by the age of those we had encountered, it had been cooking for some time.

My intent with this rather skeletal piece, is to tell you when I first became aware of the issue of our disconnect with nature. Where we're at now is a hopeful place, with a movement building and awareness of the issue rapidly spreading. I should go back up to the Knob this February with an eye to this issue, and see if anything yet has changed. We can have hope that on that next trip, when a Pine Martin jumps out in the snow, two new guys, decked out in their fancy gear will stop their conversation and try to get a better look into the eyes of the wild. And I still won't use snowshoes on Lowe's Path.

This is my Blog Action Day Environment Post.