Fighting exclusion in the wilderness

In troubled times, the wilderness is a great refuge. These days, it would help to remember that not everyone enjoys easy access to this spectacular beauty. (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

Journeying into nature is frequently thought of as an escape. For many, it offers the ability to step away from the normal constraints of social and economic existence. It allows us to be immersed in a seemingly different reality than the one that faces us daily. Wilderness is a space where we can slow down, feel a greater sense of freedom, and discover a deeper connection to the planet we inhabit. The trouble is that some of us have disproportionately greater access to it than others.

There are millions of people for whom “escape” is not an option. Many communities, especially communities of color, across the country are forced to face the stark reality that American social and political institutions are inherently biased against them. Not just law enforcement and the penal code, but even seemingly benign institutions like the education and electoral systems leave millions of people unsafe, with their bodies threatened and their voices marginalized. If you add that to the long list of overt and covert biases that people harbor, the picture you see should terrify you.

There are, however, many people who just refuse to look at that picture. Those of us with the privilege to do so can usually just walk away (mentally and physically) from thoughts and situations that make us uncomfortable. They can choose to disengage if they wish. Thankfully, not everyone seeks to escape that reality. Despite the horrifying displays of hate and ignorance, more and more people are engaging the issues at hand and trying to learn how they can contribute to a solution.

Last Tuesday, hundreds of people in Saranac Lake engaged in a heartening show of support for Black Lives Matter and the protests happening all over the country. They showed up to exhibit solidarity and share a message of welcoming and inclusion in the heart of the Adirondacks. It was encouraging to see, but, as several of the speakers that day noted, one exhibition of support is not enough on its own.

As we consider what we have to share as a community and the ways which we can contribute to progress and change, we would do well to remember the healing quality of wild spaces. With a wealth of wildness right on our collective doorsteps, one contribution that Adirondack communities can make is to consider how to make this space more welcoming and accessible for more people.

Unfortunately, many social constructs surrounding outdoor recreation have elements of exclusion built into them. At the simplest level, many wilderness enthusiasts shun and condemn those who aren’t as experienced as themselves. But a harder look reveals more insidious examples of exclusion. Recreating in wild places is a luxury that is more accessible to those with the privileges of time and money. Throughout this country’s history, those people have been disproportionately white, as well. These two realities lace that simple initial exclusivity with economic and racial biases. Some of these are obvious; easy to spot and to confront if we choose to. However, the more subtle biases we harbor are the ones which require the most attention to challenge in ourselves.

Rather than seeking an escape from this uncomfortable reality, everyone who recreates outdoors in the Adirondacks and hasn’t had to consider systematic oppression should take this time to consider how can make enjoying wild spaces more inclusive and equitable. They should also take a very close look at how the previous sentences makes them feel.

I am, by no means, an expert in this field.

As I seek to learn more, listen more, and confront my own biases, I’ve come across some great resources to help me understand some difficult truths. I’m happy to share those with anyone who is interested. There are professionals within our community working to address this incredibly complex issue, as well. If you haven’t already, consider visiting the Adirondack Diversity Initiative website or Facebook page to see the work being done already. Confronting issues this complex and daunting is hard work to do but the less we try to escape it, the better we’ll get at sharing the strength and beauty of Adirondack wilderness with more people who need it.


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