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Wildness and the preservation of the self

May 16, 2013

Eight and a half hours.  That’s how long I’ve spent in front of my computer screen over the last 24 hours.  That’s longer than I’ve spent socializing, sleeping, or doing any other one activity in the same period.  It’s certainly longer than the amount of time I’ve spent outside, which clocks in at around 55 minutes.

Sadly, my experience is hardly unique.  According to a 2009 New York Times article, my eight and a half hours is the average daily screen time for American adults.  In a world where interactions of all kinds—from socializing to grocery shopping—are increasingly facilitated by cables and keyboards, spending time outside is less and less a part of our daily lives.  As a society, we are suffering from what Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, calls “nature-deficit disorder.”

Despite my recent lack of sunlight and fresh air, I spent a lot of time outside growing up.  The experiences I had camping and hiking with my family, backpacking during college, and playing on the street as a kid played a large role in developing my sense of the world and of myself.  The lessons I learned in nature remain more vivid than anything I’ve gotten from TV or a book.

When outdoors, I am forced to exercise my patience in a way that multi-tasking on a bright screen does not require.  I remember as a child crouching on the sidewalk to watch the progress of the shiny black ants that moved deliberately over the asphalt.  I don’t know why people say ants “scurry”—in order to find out where a particular ant was dragging a crumb or beetle carcass, I would have to sit there for half an hour, watching the little guy struggle with his unwieldy load across the canyons and ridges of the cracked sidewalk.  I learned that curiosity cannot always be satisfied at the click of a button.

Zach Rowe, a manager of Brown Outdoor Leadership Training (BOLT), counts focus as one of the most important things he gets from being outdoors.  “As someone with ADHD, I do find that I can be much more focused and clear-minded when I’m in the wilderness,” he said.   When I asked him why that is, he pointed to the absence of distractions like cell phones and computers, and also to the fact that “things in nature that are worth noticing require attention.”

As I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself in more rugged outdoor settings, spending a month backpacking in the Wyoming Rockies with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) as well as participating in and leading five-day backpacking trips with BOLT.  Navigating the backcountry provides challenges from which humans in industrialized nations have become largely insulated.  Instead of mindlessly turning on a faucet, you have to strategize to ensure that you’ll have access to drinking water throughout the day.  If you want to enjoy material items, you have to carry them on your back for miles, uphill and downhill, across streams, and over mountains.  If you get injured or lost, you can’t just call an ambulance or ask for directions at the nearest gas station.  Lightning, animals, falls, drowning, cold, and heat threaten real bodily harm.

Outside, I’ve felt true terror.  During thunderstorms I’ve watched lightning strike the ridge across from me as I squatted in lightning position with no protection but a stand of pine trees, cold, drenched, and praying—despite my avowed atheism—to survive the storm.  I’ve maneuvered my way down shale-covered slopes so steep that when I took off my backpack to aid my balance, it went rocketing hundreds of feet downhill.  I’ve slept in camps where bears have passed within feet of my cloth shelter.

So why leave the world of seatbelts, warm showers, and cop-patrolled streets to enter such a difficult setting?  These experiences scared me, but they also forced me to draw on reserves of endurance and courage I didn’t know I had.  I was a shy teenager; in the outdoors, I discovered that I can stay cool under physical and mental pressure. I learned how to take care of myself and others in difficult situations.  I realized that in this setting, others looked to me as a leader.  The confidence and self-reliance I’ve gained has served me well even after returning to an urban setting.  If I can scale mountains, why can’t I take a public speaking class?  Travel alone for three weeks?  Run a half-marathon?

Yet the outdoors has taught me that even more important than self-reliance is group-reliance.  When backpacking, you have to depend on others for protection from wild animals and assistance in case of injury.  You are forced to have difficult conversations that you could let slide in the frontcountry—if someone eats the last bag of trail mix, it doesn’t mean a mere trip to the grocery store; you might not have the calories you need to get through the day.  Communication, compromise, and trust become literally vital.  Again, these skills transfer into other contexts, whether it’s resolving conflicts with family members or managing a team of co-workers.

Finally, nature has offered me a sense of awe and wonder unparalleled by anything I’ve experienced in the “civilized” world.  I’ve never comprehended infinity so well as when lying under the vast expanse of the Milky Way in the middle of the New Mexico desert.  I’ve rarely felt as inexplicably happy as when watching the enormous smooth backs of whales undulating in the choppy gray waves of the Atlantic Ocean.  Few things in the manmade world can compete with the spectacular beauty of snowcapped mountains.

This is why I’m passionate about outdoor education; I wish for everyone the challenges and triumphs, the insights and wonder, the exhilaration and the sense of peace that await us in the woods.  It’s strange to me that we spend so much time watching characters have adventures on screens when there’s so much to discover firsthand if we get off our couches and out the door.  There’s nothing wrong with finding technology interesting and useful, but we do lose something when we start watching life through a piece of glass.

— Hannah Poor

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 23, 2013 3:11 pm

    Nice post, Hannah. I stumbled here through the CES website. I’m a colleague of Timmons Roberts who you might know. I also used to teach at Providence College and worked for about 7 or 8 years on research projects with Phil Brown (formerly in Sociology and CES at Brown and now at Northeastern). Anyway, reading about your wilderness experiences in the post it occurred to me (unless you’re graduating) that you might be interested in a wilderness experience program I’m running through USF this summer. The highpoint is a 10-day backpacking trip in the Desolation Wilderness of the High Sierras. Details are here:

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