Environmentalists, hippies, and vegans are often found waving placards or posting long digital updates to remind us that we humans are one and the same with nature. That in spite of our clothing, tools, and smartphones, underneath it all we are just animals. And it’s true; we were born from nature, but then our evolved intelligence made us decide that nature is dirty and cold, so we funnelled our abnormally large brains into crafting spaces separate from the rest of the Earth, determining everything else as ‘outside’.
Thousands of years since our rudimentary huts and foraging spots turned into stone monoliths and vast swathes of agricultural land, we and the planet are starting to feel the effects of this segregation. As a species, our progression has engendered a new identity of humans; we are superior, and we are beholden. These crafted spaces have become the only thing we know, and many of us die in pursuit of ideals of success and items that have been decided to have value. Now, these digital realms where nature only exists in pixels, and concrete skyscrapers through which we have come to believe that our worth is determined by how far up an invisible ladder we reach, have created massive mental health problems within our society. We are now so desperate for respite from these built-up spaces we have manufactured that our only way out seems to be subscriptions to meditative apps where we sit cross-legged on a mat in the living room.
The planet too is suffering from our creations. Great swathes of the Earth that neighbour our engineered realms are being cut down to meet our insatiable need for stuff. Too many synthetic compounds we have generated are upsetting the natural balance, wreaking havoc on the natural world and threatening our ‘inside’ sprawling towns and cities.
One way that members of our species can attempt to create a balance between these two forces that constantly seem at odds is by stepping beyond our crafted territories and into the wild. Outdoor recreation allows us to tap into a forgotten aspect of our selves; the humility felt when confronted with the power of nature. Sports like trekking, climbing, and kayaking use the out-of-doors environment as a platform get us out of the curated spaces that we are often so loathed to leave, and reward us with a greater sense of self. Simply getting outside shows us the other planes of the planet, beyond GDP, the 9-5, and packaged food. It reminds us that the idea of the world we take so seriously is just one facet of the entire world at our feet.
These activities help to put the problems of our built up lives in context, providing a momentary hiatus from responsibility, and to connect with something other than what humans have constructed. As a mutual relationship, these outdoor activities also benefit the planet by helping us challenge the destructive patterns that our society encourages. This is reflected in sports brands; from Patagonia, Finisterre, and Howies who have been championing sustainable fibres and production long before environmental-chic became mainstream.
There’s a common misconception that sports like trekking, mountain biking, mountaineering, kayaking and surfing are merely an attempt to conquer nature; to prove our physical limits can reach beyond challenges that the planet has set. But this plays into the very attitude that has created the problems we and the world face today. Seeing the value of nature only as utilitarian – by the assets it provides – discounts the less tangible benefits of wellbeing that comes from being exposed to the elements. This attitude stems from our isolation of spaces that are not our own and are therefore something to fear, which for humans means it’s something to challenge.
Modern industrialised society has produced an idea that humanity is separate from the natural world, creating an alienation from places that haven’t yet been colonised by humans. As a result, the perception of sports that engage with outdoor spaces is that the natural world acts only as an opponent for battle. But the truth is that you can’t beat a wave that lasts a moment or a million-year-old mountain that will remain unchanged long after we’ve gone. Mother Nature doesn’t care or even notice our tottering adventures.
Instead, using nature as a stage for recreation enables us to recognise the more subtle intrinsic value of mountains, rivers, and forests. From your relatively tiny position scaling a mountain or floating in a river, the playing fields are levelled. No longer are we superior in the environments we have crafted for ourselves without room for anything else. Out there, you can witness how nature busies itself and how everything plays a small role in part of the bigger picture. See how insects, that are a nuisance in our homes, actually play a valued role in the ecosystem as pollinators and prey; how birds work together as a collective; and how industrious small mammals are in building their homes. Witnessing how species other than our own go about their lives serves as a crucial reminder that we are only one member of a much larger whole. Out there, we are forced to let go of any idea that we can control natural forces, just that we must participate and adapt to the realisation of our powerlessness.
A 2010 interview study and analysis of veteran extreme sports devotees, including big-wave surfers and rope-free climbers, discovered that for these participants, nature is, rather than a vehicle for self-satisfaction, a channel for a more positive understanding of the self and its place in the world. As eloquently explained by big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, “We’re all equal before a wave.”
Most of these activities, be it hiking or swimming, force you to look at the world around you. You must devise a route, identify obstacles, and be wholly present in your pursuit, whatever the motivation is. Through these tasks we are obliged to develop a kinship with the natural world. In the case of sports like kayaking and rock climbing, you have limited time available to make a decision. It is in these moments that we are forced to pay attention wholly to our natural surroundings.
Aside from competition season, most of these outdoor sports are independent of other participants. There are no contestants to beat, save your previous achievements, and no one to compare yourself to but you. Without the pull of expectation from anyone else, it is only you, with the environment around you serving as an ally. In these sports, the battle is in your mind and your own limits, making it essential that you trust your instincts and make decisions. To be able to do so, you must first have confidence in and know your surroundings.
Because of our custom built spaces and lifestyles that we have crafted for comfort and familiarity, humans have a tendency to take things for granted and presume ourselves to be unequalled in ability. But taken away from our curated environments, feeling the water, stone, earth and snow with bare hands serves as a reminder of the force that is far greater than ourselves and our civilisations.
It is when immersed in these spaces, so remote from that which we are accustomed to, that our division between human and natural dissolves. It is a growing realisation that we are just as vulnerable and connected as the birds at the feeding table and the cats on our doorstep. All of a sudden the “I” mentality that has been spoon-fed by our human ideologies doesn’t literally exist anywhere but in these spaces we have designed. It is in these moments that we realise that humanities place in the world is crafted on top of, not in spite of, the natural world around us.
But it never takes long for the cohort of society to cotton onto the areas where there is money to be made. The mental and physical benefits of outdoor recreation are beginning to bleed into the corporate industry. As sports like stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) and rock climbing become more mainstream, it is the natural areas that are becoming damaged. Great swathes of once-gravel pit lakes that have been reclaimed by nature as massive ecosystems and habitats are now being sterilised by companies who have recognised there is profit in erecting a shed and hiring out water sports equipment. Grand arenas for mountaineering like the Half Dome in Yosemite National Park has permanently installed climbing ropes to help it’s hundreds of visitors, making the trek resemble something more like a semi-vertical queue at the post office. Even Mount Everest, arguably natures most impressively tall feat, now has 3G phone signal. This commercialisation of nature’s spaces is slowing beginning to absorb these outdoor environments into our man-made societies. Rather than helping connect people with these places they are instead manipulating them into palatable versions that our species can handle.
Social media has helped highlight these issues but is causing a lot of the problem itself. As impressive and previously unknown to the public natural vistas are streamed to our phones tagged #nature, these places that were once rarely visited by humans are becoming tourist hotspots, damaging sensitive habitats and ecosystems because that’s what hoards of humans do best. It is so important that we become more engaged with nature so that we can begin to appreciate it for more than a resource, but we must also be aware of the impact that our mere presence can have on these delicate areas. What may seem a harmless selfie of a picturesque view and your new climbing equipment, could lead to hoards of visitors that degrade the area to little more than another playground for our species.
As we become more attuned to the characteristics of nature and the role we play within it, we are forced to look at our own responsibilities. Like an invasive species – the grey squirrel for example that has all but wiped out the UK’s native red squirrel – as a collective, we humans do the same. We invade, wipe out habitats and make it impossible for other species to exist. The difference is that grey squirrels are simply surviving the only way they know how, but as humans, without a natural predator to maintain our population, we are fully aware of what we are capable.
Perhaps at this crucial moment when we are beginning to realise the effects we are having on the planet, and are being mentally affected ourselves by our isolation from it, outdoor recreation can offer benefits to both these forces on Earth. For ourselves, nature can provide much-needed respite from the always-on society that is charging forward in our daily lives. For nature, perhaps this much-needed connection can help us to forge more a more mutual relationship with the spaces that have allowed our progression. A more in-tune attitude towards nature is now more needed than ever as the activities in our built-up areas are beginning to wreak the consequences we’ve been warned of. As sea levels rise and great forests wither and burn from the heat, perhaps all it takes is for all of us to engage with the waves and countryside to feel their value, before we damage them irreparably.
But we must learn from our mistakes in the industrial revolution and be careful not to overstep our boundaries. As we seem determined to set nature apart from our human-made spaces, save for specifically designated areas that are obsessively maintained and cordoned into parks or recreation grounds, we must respect these borders we have created. Humans have already forced chemical and physical alternations on worlds natural landscapes to what could prove to be a detrimental effect. It would be foolish and disrespectful to now attempt to encroach further on these unspoilt spaces. We must engage with nature on its own terms and maintain our expectations that these spaces should be adapted for our own shortcomings. It’s only by throwing ourselves in at the deep end or climbing to heights no way-marker has graced, that we can succumb to the true superiority of nature, and treat it with the respect it so deserves.