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Can’t escape our political nature

Hikers descend a mountain in the High Peaks Wilderness in September 2019. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Election Day is upon us, and the fatigue from another vicious campaign season is palpable. There is no small number of people who have expressed the desire to take a break from the “real world” lately. This is a pretty common sentiment to hear on the trail, even in non-election years.

Many people choose to head for the woods for a sense of liberation from troubles in their day-to-day lives. I hear this from clients, friends and my own internal dialogue all the time. The sense of perspective, the calm and the ability to direct all focus on the trail ahead of you is a major draw for many wilderness recreators. But ultimately, that time spent in the woods is, for most of us, a temporary escape. As with all forms of escape, eventually we must face the rest of reality again. Though it would be wonderful to flee this responsibility, we’re tied inextricably to one another by our shared participation in the massive social experiment we call “the world.” Whether we feel the need to draw on the strength and solace available to us in wild places or not, we must consider the fact that we participate, willingly or not, in a broader union that we call “society.”

It can be quite tempting to flee the chaos of the American political landscape, even if just for a little while. Over the last three decades, the veneer of decorum in this country has given way to increasingly rigid animosity between the two main (yet still loosely defined) factions. For those of us who are compelled by the notions of community, dialogue and compromise, watching this process unfold has been difficult, to say the least. This is to say nothing of the variety of movements that have developed on the fringes of the mainstream. Every one of these addresses a feeling of dire need, whether rational or not, felt by some element of the population. Yet the directors of our entrenched systems of power have, by and large, sought to maintain an increasingly unsustainable status quo while engaging in dramatic acts of political theater to distract, enliven or enrage the rest of us. Given all the above, the decision to turn one’s back on a system one feels powerless to change may seem like a rational one, even if it’s made in desperation.

This was a major motivator in my decision to pursue a life in the outdoors. After studying political systems for half a decade, I was sure that the thing humans are best at is devising systems to oppress those they disagree with. Rather than taking part in a process I considered hopelessly corrupt, I decided the best way forward was to move to “the woods,” where practical considerations, like having enough wood to heat your home, take precedence to abstract, ethical-political concepts that lead to more heartache and dead ends than solutions. As such, becoming something like an outdoor educator seemed like a positive way forward. I assumed that I could focus on changing individual perspectives regarding the issues most important to me — the preservation of our natural resources — with nature right there to prove its worth for any given student to see. I hoped I’d be able to ignore the gross political realities that existed beyond the confines of the mountains, so as soon as I could, I attempted to separate from my political past.

It did not take long to realize that there is no such thing as disengagement, though. As much as I craved separation, I was still a part of society. As such, every action I performed, every opinion I clung to and every conversation I had was ultimately a political act. The realization was stark, though unsurprising: We are, at our core, political beings. Even at the most local level, we form communities, make laws to keep us from chaos, and inevitably form and express feelings about how these communities should be run. Unless we recuse ourselves from anything resembling social order and choose to live feral — without grocery stores, phones, paved roads or neighbors — then we are engaged in politics. Even by choosing to go on a hike for our own personal pleasure, we are expressing elements of our value systems.

The salience of this point has become clearer to me over the past six months. The cold realities of our nation’s political situation have made our Adirondack wilderness (and so many others) into yet another social battleground. There are plenty of surface-level issues — parking, mask wearing on trail, and hiker overuse and misuse, to name a few. But there are more foundational issues at stake as well. There is tacit (if not active) debate over the actual value of wilderness, as such. Though this conversation isn’t happening in the open to the same extent as others, some consider its protection to be an impediment to progress and profit, while others consider it sacrosanct and deserving of protection regardless of how it benefits humankind. Some consider it their personal playground while others see it as hallowed ground.

This difference in opinion is on display at this very moment, and it by no means follows party lines. It’s one of many issues that reflect a greater political schism, both in this country and across the world. Some consider only how they might benefit, while others are at least marginally aware of their place in a greater system, no matter which side of the political spectrum they might sit upon.

So today I encourage you to take time to consider the values you hold most dear and how they fit with the society you live in. The luxury to run from that responsibility is available only because some who came before you fought hard for it. So whichever way you vote, and even if you choose not to voice your opinions by ballot, please take the time to consider what it means to be part of a community and what it means to be an inherently political being. While you’re at it, try to remember that the incredible wilderness areas we can access across this country are not to be taken for granted. They’re not just a safe haven for the disaffected, for those who wish to renounce their civic responsibilities. In fact, they are not safe at all. If you value their continued existence, whether as a refuge for humans or for the very notion of “wildness,” then consider making that known today in whatever way you can.

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