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Safe, Sound and Intentional in the Great Outdoors


An interesting piece ran in the St. Petersburg Times this week, syndicated from the New York Times, with the intriguing title: Lawyers, Goats and the Wilderness.

Of course, you have to read something like that. Sometimes the headline is better than the article, but in this case, on the heels of my celebratory lauding of Hog Island in Maine, the article provided some serious food for thought.

The writer, Timothy Egan,  had come across a sign while hiking in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington that read, “Aggressive mountain goats have been reported. Use caution and move away.

Apparently a hiker had been gored to death by an irate mountain goat in Olympic National Park last year, triggering a $10 million lawsuit by the victim’s family, and commensurate reflections by Egan about what appears to be our increasing need for “lawyer-vetted” nature.    Signs everywhere warn against the obvious: Not wearing flip-flops while hiking, staying out of strong currents, remaining on the safe side of guard rails, not feeding or approaching wild animals – all cautions necessitated by events like the recent deaths of several people who got swept over a cliff in a water fall at Yosemite.

Many of these people aren’t used to nature,” a Yosemite park ranger is quoted as saying in the article. “They don’t fully understand it. We’ve got more than 800 trails and 3,000-foot cliffs in this park. You can’t put guardrails around the whole thing.”

And indeed, suggests Egan,  the more we warn and try to protect, “ the more careless, and dependent, people become.  There will always be steep cliffs, deep water, and ornery and unpredictable animals in that messy part of the national habitat not crossed by climate-controlled malls and processed food emporiums.

That’s why I think we need more places like Hog Island, and more beginners outdoors experiences like my friend Jeanene Arrington offers, with her Not a Clue Adventures company; opportunities  for a people increasingly distant from nature, but with an often innate desire to be part of it, to become safely reacquainted with our natural heritage.

Most people naturally love the outdoors, and clearly our pale human landscape of obesity and urban sprawl would suggest we really need to get out more often.   For the more outdoorsy among us, it’s easy to make Darwin Award jokes about fatally clumsy attempts to be one with nature. But that doesn’t address the real problem, or offer practical solutions, any more than do silly litigation-jumpy signs making bids for common sense conduct in the wilderness.

With more people than ever visiting our parks and wild places, this is a great opportunity to provide some real outdoors education, from works like my upcoming Florida Allergy Handbook that’s as much rudimentary outdoor health and safety guide, as allergy guide, to places like Nature’s Classroom ,  guided hikes with groups like the Audubon Society and others, and reacquainting people with some of our greatest outdoor writers and their literature, from John Muir and Henry David Thoreau to Annie Dillard and Bill Bryson.

If we want  “the outdoors”  to be something more than an annual – and potentially dangerous – summer excursion experience for more people, it needs to be something we think about more often, even when we can’t go out; something that we read about with interest,  consider daily, and find small scale opportunities to enjoy in our urban and suburban communities.

Maybe, instead of warning and protecting, we could simply better educate and inform. Then perhaps a whole new generation of people might be inspired to enjoy the outdoors more intelligently and with a greater sense of appreciation and intentionality, rather than litigated caution.

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1 Comment

  1. Jay Collier says:

    Thanks for sharing these important points.

    I think the issue is even deeper than outdoor education.

    Marketing agencies have been using fear — by conflating high and low risk “dangers” — for over a generation and it appears to be working. An issue of no statistical significance is screamed out as breaking news, while true risk assessment is seldom presented in the mass media.

    So, the outdoors is simply a movie, watched from the arm chair and, when the audience is actually in it, there’s no news anchor screaming “danger” at the edge of the cliff. So, no need to worry.

    In my humble opinion, one solution is evolving one’s viewpoint from passive to active long before heading out into the woods (or anywhere beyond the screen, for that matter). With an eight-year-old, I can attest that this is possible, but it takes the ability to use media actively.

    Can Americans learn to do so before walking off the cliff into extinction? 😉

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