Letting Go of Gortex: Vulnerability and Place

They say that food always tastes better outside, and while I’m not sure if that has been empirically proven, I am someone who enjoys a good picnic any time. On a late fall day in November, I decided to escape the house and venture out to one of my favorite haunts, despite the threatening rain and chilly weather. In my bag I brought slices of sharp cheddar, and a ripe apple to compliment it, as well as a fresh roll from the bakery. I packed a thermos of hot mint tea, and my trusty camping cup, and a bar of dark chocolate, this one with flavors of blackberry and sage. A steady drizzle fell I drove to the nearby Big Rock Park, where the Sioux River tumbles down a sandstone ledge in a rushing cataract, and where I spent many summer evenings casting dryflies to rising trout.

The Sioux River, Bayfield County, WI

The river felt different in the grey light of autumn. The usual obscuring green cloud of vegetation along the banks had since lifted, and the brilliant flame of the North Woods fall had faded as well, leaving bare branches stretching over a carpet of wet, moldering leaves waiting for a blanket of snow. The river was different too, higher after several weeks of consistent precipitation, and slightly turbid from the resulting runoff.

I trudged up the road a bit before turning on another access trail cut into the river canyon to a particular section I wanted to explore. Jamming my hands into my vest to keep them from the chill, I ambled down the trail, noticing the droplets of moisture that beaded on my clothes. I had a raincoat in my backpack, but I held off on putting it on, reluctant to shield myself from the weather of the day. As I got moving, I began to feel warm, and the air no longer felt as chill. The ground around the trail was steeped in water, and here and there it pooled in ponds and puddles lined with mosaics of fallen leaves and white pine needles. Where the trail turned, I decided to leave it, striking off along the rim of the river canyon through a grove of red pines and stands of dead bracken fern.

The woods seemed quiet and subdued, and I moved slowly to not make any undue noise. A narrow deer trail traversed the slope, threading its way between lush firs and the trunks of naked oaks. I followed along the contours of the canyon, catching every now and again the constant rush of the river down below. At one point, the rain became more earnest, and I again thought of my rain jacket nestled in my backpack, but when I stopped get it out, I realized I was hardly getting wet.

A single balsam fir tree, dense with branches and fragrant needles, stood over me, its interlocking foliage catching and dispersing most of the precipitation. The ground beneath it was hardly wet, and a nearby patch of moss seemed to almost call out for me to spread out my picnic there, so I accepted the invitation.

I remember a good friend of mine and fellow outdoor educator, talking to students about cultivating one’s awareness skills by focusing on our sense of taste, even trying to taste the last thing one ate. As I began to enjoy my humble but delicious picnic, I attuned my awareness to my taste buds, enjoying the complimentary flavors of the sharp creamy cheese and the sweet apple, the tangy chewy sourdough roll and the hot mint tea. The aroma of the damp earth around me mingled with the smells of my food, and the patter of rain falling around my temporary shelter, and I felt my awareness extend beyond my picnic into the trees and canyon around me. A shaggy looking spruce gripped the slope a little below me, and an oak lifted its spreading branches toward the sky, a few bedraggled leaves still clinging to the twigs.

A flash of white appeared through the trees, and I caught a glimpse of two eagles taking wing. One of them glided down the canyon, while the other flapped its way up river, approximately at my eye level due to my position on the side of the canyon slope. It turned and wheeled higher over the treetops, before disappearing from view. I leaned back against the fir, and listened to the rain fell around me, safe and dry under my tree.

In reality, there wasn’t much environmental danger from the weather. I knew I wouldn’t have died, or even gotten hypothermic if I had pressed on in the light sprinkle. I could have also easily gotten my raincoat out, and continued down the trail in the rain. Many times when I am leading kids outdoors, I model good thermoregulation behavior by putting my raincoat on at the first sign of rain, especially if we are planning on being out for a while. However, there was something to be said for not putting on my coat, and instead seeking out the shelter offered to me from the land.

Modern outdoor equipment development has given us material that is light, durable, sharp, strong, waterproof, windproof, wear-resistant, and every other attribute it seems. This advanced level technology lets us function in a wider range of temperatures, climates, and environmental conditions with less effort than ever before. We can continue to pursue our activities without worrying as much about being wet, cold, or injured, relying on our gear to shield us from the weather.

Outdoor gear companies perpetuate this protection attitude, with powerful, defensive, sounding names and technologies and add campaigns that tell us that nothing should stop us from summiting a snowy peak or landing that trophy steelhead. In this human vs wild paradigm, the world is out to kill us and it is only by purchasing the latest and greatest outdoor gear to shield us from the effects of the environment can we hope to survive this onslaught.

Not only does this maintain the problematic human and nature dichotomy, which keeps us thinking we are separate from the world we live in, but also sets up an attitude of privilege concerning the outdoors and the gear needed to participate, an attitude I don’t think belongs in the outdoors. The truth is, you don’t need to carry the most advanced ripstop, Gortex, graphite, 800-fill goose-down whatchamacallit to be outside. All you need is a body, and a place to put said body.

Now, there are climates, terrains, and outdoor activities where not being prepared can certainly cut short your adventure, and even your life. I am not suggesting we should summit a mountain peak in the buff, or try rock climbing without ropes simply to get to know the rocks better without the layer of human technology, (although it would be interesting to get a free climber’s perspective on this idea.) All I mean is perhaps we should, where safety and situation allow, remember to make ourselves vulnerable again to the places we love to be with.

When you first meet someone, we are shielded by layers of social conditioning and behaviors meant to keep people at a distance, allowing us to carry on without having to cope with complex emotional shifts and changes. However, if you ever seek to make friends with them, there has to be some mutual vulnerability. I know that places, whether they are a streamside canyon in Northern Wisconsin, or a sunbaked sage-flat in Utah, is not exactly a person, but maybe we can learn to love a place in the same way we come to know our friends. Slowly, through a series of interactions, each time letting some layer of our protective trapping slough away, revealing our emotions, fears, and desires to reach out and connect with what really matters.



Why an outdoor education blog?

I think that Outdoor Education is at a turning point. Formally, we’re still a very young field, only a few decades old, and we still struggle with justifying our existence and methods to those outside the experience. But as anyone who is paying attention will know, the outdoor education community is gaining momentum, power, and numbers. Just last month, the US Senate and House of Representatives passed the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act. This unanimous and bipartisan act is expected to be signed into law by President Obama before he leaves office, and will include the multibillion dollar economy of the outdoor recreation industry in the GDP. Not only does this give the outdoor recreation and education community more political clout to wield when we advocate for the conservation of the places we work and play in, but also tells us that national attitudes toward us are changing.

Just as the perception of outdoor education and recreation is changing at a national level, so too are the demographics of those participating in this rapidly evolving field. Universities are producing a diverse array of graduates with majors such as adventure leadership, recreation and leisure programming, wilderness therapy, and environmental education to name a few. Social barriers that prevented racial and ethnic minorities from participating in outdoor recreation are being dismantled, and outdoor education is becoming available to people of many backgrounds, abilities, and socioeconomic statuses. As the industry adapts to a new generation of professionals and participants, it is vital to maintain the personal narratives of those involved, and to learn from their stories how to become better outdoor professionals.

In this day and age of accessible information, it is becoming easier to experience stories from across the globe with the flick of a finger. This opens up a world of possible learning opportunities for outdoor professionals to discuss what they are doing and how they are doing it, allowing for shared knowledge and inspiration. I hope that this blog will let me chronicle and reflect on my own experience as an outdoor educator, and allow me a platform on which to share my view of the outdoor education community. I want it to be a place of connection, where I can share the stories I encounter, and where my friends and colleagues can disseminate their own thoughts and ideas about the field.

I don’t claim to have all the answers for outdoor education, nor do I think that any one person, philosophy, or program has a full comprehension of what they are working with. I believe that by trying to understand as many perspectives and stories about outdoor education as we can, we can come to a more complete idea of the field in which we work.

These perspectives include those of people who have worked in outdoor education for years, who know where the field has been, and those who are just entering the professional community now, diplomas hot off the press. We have to listen to the needs and advice from the populations we serve, and remember to look behind us to see who our worldview and cultural or personal ideals are excluding. We have to remember that while empirical research and case studies can indeed be enlightening, there are some components of outdoor education experiences that resist analytical comprehension, and are best conveyed personally, face to face over the crackling flames of a fire.

Above all, I think that what connects outdoor educators and professionals is their love of the land. From the rugged coastline along the wave-sculpted shores of Lake Superior, the secretive sagebrush flats, haunted by lizards and jackrabbits, to the snowy, knife-edge cornices of the Rockies, and the fecund, teeming mangrove mazes of the Everglades, we all   have places that call us home and inspire us toward right action and compassion. It is from these places we know and love that I believe we can be the most powerful teachers. I seek to discover and share ways of discovering, connecting with, and teaching from the land.

It is my goal to spark discussion with this blog. I welcome comments, suggestions, and critiques, as well as guest writers. If you have something to add to this conversation, please contact me and we can discuss how to share your story.