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Getting Radical in Nature

Civil disobedience. Twenty Lakes Basin, California

Civil disobedience. Twenty Lakes Basin, California

Tim Grierson said, “Being angry all the time is exhausting and corrosive. Not being angry feels morally irresponsible.” 

It’s so easy to feel hopeless.  Ramping injustices in the world, back lit by climate change, have coincided with an information age that’s incentivized to tell us every gruesome detail of the day.  It breaks you down and that’s the feature, not the bug.  It’s important to care and speak up and get mad and fight, but detaching from the bullshit is the first thing anyone can do to start working toward constructive change. 

Backpacking has a potential to provide the escape and the change. 

Vanlife is in part a reaction to insane housing costs and the fallout from the recession.  The lifestyle gained popularity not in spite of an unfair system, but because of it.  Vanlifer’s didn’t game the system, they abandoned it and started something new.  Climate change is going to instigate radical behavior and an army of idealistic backpackers—self-sufficient, community oriented and loyal to the earth—is a healthy faction to encourage.

This is one reason why backpacking has become an acceptable and even praiseworthy pastime for hippies, radicals and other members of the "counterculture."  It offers equality.  It is believed to offer honesty.  It even fits in nicely with the counterculture's fascination with Zen Buddhism.

Gary Snyder's "The Back Country," Kerouac's "The Dharma Bums" and other writings have influenced the young by combing backpacking and Zen.  Both teach delight in simplicity and silence and the eschewing of the intellectual in favor of the intuitive.  Both deplore the Western Habit of conquering and exploiting nature rather than harmonizing with it.  The wilderness lover sees himself in his mind's eye much as Japanese Zen painters depict a human being--as a dot in the entire landscape, a part of the whole rather than master of all he surveys.

I love Snyder and Kerouac.  And though I didn’t know it when I started backpacking, my love for it today is absolutely motivated by an urge to remove myself from a cruel system and relax for a while.

It’s healthy and important to stop caring about problems for a while, to do something that forces us to be mindful of the present moment (and hopefully realize that moment is good).  Backpacking is a perfect Zen escape, carrying your necessities anywhere you please, usually to a land without straight lines and few rules, independent from commerce or wages.  Muir talked about “[sleeping] in forgetfulness of all ill.”  Wendell Berry called it “[coming] into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought.”

But what happens when our problems follow us into the woods?  What happens when my anxiety is a ticking clock strapped to my chest that says Climate Change on it?  If you’re late on your mortgage you don’t go to the bank to forget about it.  Out in nature I meditate on the fragile genius of ecosystems and fear what’s happening to them.  I admire wildlife and fear what’s happening to them.  I worship the earth and my life and worry what will come of either.

Going to nature means putting a puzzle piece back in place and becoming one with something whole again.  One with nature and one with our species who on most days are viewed as personal brands to compete with.  Again Muir, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

Nature may not cure climate anxiety, but it can organize us to.  As Yvon Chouinard says, “The cure for depression is action.”  Reversing climate change is going to require massive public mobilization far greater than the Civil Rights Movement or Indian Independence. 

Snyder dreamed of this:

I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of 'em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures.

A labor group would call that a general strike. 

Camping on the weekends won’t solve climate change. But when we drop off the map, when we don’t spend money or go to work, when we live simply, when we feel grateful to see another person on the trail, when we love a community and a place and our lives, we become the people who will.

Have a great week!