Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Traveling at home: Can we love nature simply?

There's this store in Ann Arbor called Bivouac. At this store, one may find a whole array of things, including shoes, sweaters, coats, and gloves. These are absolutely essential objects, of course. Especially in Michigan, you'd freeze if you didn't have anything to keep you warm. There's more you can find at this store, too. You can find objects, such as carabiners, ice picks and mountaineering equipment of all kinds. You can find anything and everything you'd need if you wanted to go camping or get into the wilderness. These things are well and good, and it is nice to be able to explore and see what is out in the world. Yet on a number of occasions, I have come across self-professed "nature lovers" who just cannot wait to buy the next new thing from Black Diamond or Petzl, and cannot wait to go on the next trip to use this new equipment, which will allow them to scale some mountain that wasn't possible without it. As I've written about previously, much of this sort of travel degrades what it is that makes us want to go to these places; Mt. Everest is basically the world's highest dump (you can read about this here and here).

Many times, when you look at adventure sports, you see people climbing to the top of a mountain or swimming to the depths of the ocean or what have you. I do not see a difference between those who choose to travel half way across the world to be an "eco-tourist" from the business executive that has to fly half way across the world for a meeting. People need to be more honest with themselves about the impacts of their choices, whether you "love nature" or not. Furthermore, there is a sort of masculinity and dominance that I see when I see people "conquering" mountains or faces of rock. Of course there is an appreciation of the challenge, and it is always amazing to see what humans are capable of doing, but still...maybe I am missing something.

Now, it is nice that people love nature (although the sincerity of these emotions may be questionable at times), but something I have always wondered is, Can we love nature simply? Indeed, the world is beautiful, and what exists here in Ann Arbor, the nature here, is not the nature that exists elsewhere. Similarly, what exists in the Hebrides or Fraser Island does not exist anywhere else in the world. Each place is unique, each place is different. It is that uniqueness and exoticism that I am sure is part of the reason why people travel to these places. Yet it is important to recognise the uniqueness of where we are, in time and space. The Huron River is beautiful, no matter what time of year, no matter whether the sky is cloudy or it is blue. The water lilies in the summer or the barren trees coated with snow, all beautiful, all only here. I can choose to spend an afternoon sitting by the river and seeing the herons, or I could day dream about being elsewhere.

This desire to travel to experience nature, or conquer it through adventure, is in contrast to what Wendell Berry has written in his essay The Long-Legged House. It is some of the most beautiful prose I have ever read. He says,

"There is a great waste and destructiveness in our people's desire to "get somewhere." I myself have traveled several thousand miles to arrive at Lane's Landing, five miles from where I was born, and the knowledge I gained by my travels was mainly that I was born into the same world as everybody else.

Days come to me here when I rest in spirit, and am involuntarily glad. I sense adequacy of the world, and believe that everything I need is here. I do not strain after ambition or heaven. I feel no dependence on tomorrow. I do not long to travel to Italy or Japan, but only across the river or up the hill into the woods."

How wonderful.


  1. Travel and movement is sacred! Freedom of travel, both local and international is a basic human right - one important enough to be enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. I will constantly work to make traveling more environmentally friendly and energy efficient, but I would never give up the right - the basic human drive to move, discover, and explore.

    And while I like the Mr Berry's sentiment, I am more than a little taken back by the sense of entitlement with which he expresses those opinions. The entitlement of experience and a long life - probably well lived. Plus, he just sounds old. His world has become small again. He has traveled far, seen much, and now can having devoured all that life has to offer he can find true happiness in his own backyard. His contentment comes after a life of joy and pain and experience... Those quotes seemed to me a little to privileged and condescending.


  2. In no way am I saying that people shouldn't move. I understand what you're saying, and maybe the sentiment that I was trying to get across didn't come across. What I was trying to say is that people need to be mindful of their choices, even though they think they might be appreciating something, either here at home, or somewhere else. I am talking especially about people that claim that they love nature, but then degrade what it is they love (for example, trashing Mt. Everest). Just because people think and feel that they love nature and say that they are appreciating it doesn't in any way lessen the impact they are having on it by traveling half way across the world to get there. People need to be mindful of this. Furthermore, always looking forward to the next equipment so that you can climb an even harder mountain (and "appreciate" nature) is in no way different than the consumerist motives that drive people to constantly buy new phones or new gadgets.

    (Berry wrote those words when he was around thirty years old.)