Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Rebecca Young’s nonfiction piece, 10 Gazes Collected While Recreating in the Anthropocene Epoch
John: I’ve always thought something subtle but very important is lost when people have no access to the natural world, but I’ve never been able to express exactly what that is. Can you help me out with this?
Rebecca: This is a tall order, John. I suspect if you asked this question a hundred times, you might get a hundred different answers. Perhaps, and I have nothing to back this up with, what we lose is our sensory connection with the real. I’m foreshadowing your question later about collective lies, but many facets of society are collective lies—the internet, economy, your job, your bank account—all things that control your life simply because we all agreed they should. The natural world, while full of collective lies, too, (that it’s still natural, that it’s ours, that the animals within it are somehow more honest or noble) roots us back in our senses and our physical bodies. Nature holds a radical realness when much of the stuff of our lives is intangible.
It strikes me that we have a radically different relationship with the outdoors than we did even 200 years ago. For much of American history we talked about things like “conquering nature” and “taming the wilderness.” How much of our affection for the natural world derives from the fact that we have rendered it largely harmless to ourselves? Would we feel differently about things if we were constantly in danger of starvation, or of being eaten by bears?
The “average” recreationalist functions within a very limited sphere of wilderness that has been purposefully cultivated for us. Trails, roads, climbing routes, bolt anchors, specialized equipment, guide books, GPS tracking and personal panic devices, all of these things insulate us from harm and risk in the backcountry. They’re not fail-proof; every year hundreds of people in Colorado (my home state) require rescue, and an unfortunate handful die, but these tools have allowed us to embrace the idea promoted so effectively by John Muir and others of wilderness-as-healer for our weary, city-sapped souls. Don’t get me wrong, I use these tools almost daily; you won’t find me in the backcountry without my GPS and my gore-tex shell and puffy jacket, but I’m aware that my wilderness experiences are shaped by these tools.
To put it another way: as a member of my local search and rescue team, every year I help rescue folks who venture into the backcountry without the necessary tools. Like me, they’re seeking some of that wilderness beauty and healing. I’ve never rescued anyone who in the midst of being cold, wet, and hungry, has waxed poetic about the beauty of the wilderness, or told me how they felt healed by the freezing alpine wind and snow. All of them more-or-less say the same thing: get me the Hell out of here!
That said, I also believe we (the human species) want desperately to feel ourselves a part of the tangible web of life on Earth, to feel like there are still some things we haven’t altered and don’t control, and we’ll accept quite a bit of risk to satisfy that need. I even enjoy the risk, the feeling that there are some things out of my control. My relationship with wilderness is predicated on my access to technological tools, yes, but that doesn’t mean that the value of the relationship is any less, that the wilderness is any less real.
So the question now is, how do we live with wilderness now? Muir’s wilderness-as-healer was instrumental in bringing society to wilderness and in making that society care for wild places. But I worry that we’ve run it into the ground now, along with so many overused and misused wilderness areas. Wilderness-as-healer infantilizes us in many ways, and puts the power and burden of healing and restoration onto wilderness. In the coming years, we as a society must work to re-envision our relationship to wilderness: wilderness-as-healer, yes, but also humans-as-healers-of-wilderness. Despite how we sometimes feel as individuals in the wilderness, collectively we’re not children anymore, we’re stewards. We now know how to protect ourselves from the inherent dangers of wilderness, but we don’t yet know how to effectively protect wilderness from us.
Would we all be happier as hunter/gatherers?
Hunter/gatherers lived by-and-large in the hands of nature, though even this is reductive, as we know that hunter/gatherer cultures managed the land and animals. Certainly I think there was joy to be had in harvesting everything you needed directly from the source, no intermediaries, but living in the hands of nature meant your fate was sometimes not within your power to control. Now that almost every aspect of modern life is industrialized, we’re in each other’s hands. Which would you prefer?
Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens, posits that one of the reasons humans have dominated the earth is our ability to believe in collective lies, that by investing in communal fictions we have been able to unite large groups of people to achieve larger objectives than we otherwise might have. Corporations and money are examples of things that we have imbued with a reality that doesn’t exist beyond our conceptions of them. What is your favorite collective lie?
I remember reading Sapiens some time ago and learning a lot from it. Gosh, there’s so many real ringer lies out there, it’s hard to choose just one. The collective lie I am probably most guilty of believing is that freeze-dried backpacking food is actually good. It’s not. But i’m going to keep on eating it, and believing in it.