There is a saying that ignorance is bliss and it is bullshit. It is true, but it is bullshit. It’s a cop-out, it’s an excuse for bad behavior. And in the case of the planet we live on, it’s fatal.
I have spent most of my life loving the outdoors. I climbed my first mountain when I was five, put on my first pair of skis when I was eight, and grew up in a house where the backyard was the primary babysitter. But I have also spent most of my life drinking things out of plastic bottles, turning on my car a few minutes early in the winter, absentmindedly leaving lights on, buying new things instead of fixing old ones. It was too easy to be ignorant, to conveniently separate the trees and mountains and lakes I loved from the habits I’d fallen into.
It was easy until I wasn’t walking on pavement, until I wasn’t sleeping inside permanent walls, until there wasn’t a trashcan to throw things into. These things are common necessities in everyday life, but they are blinders. Once they had fallen away it was clear that this was it. This was where we were from, this is what we had, this is what belonged to us—and what we belonged to.
I had been out in the field with the National Outdoor Leadership School for over a month when the blinders came off, when my compartmentalization stopped being an innocent oversight and started feeling like a blustering act of destruction. We were camped in a valley at the base of the Ashburton Glacier on New Zealand’s South Island, waiting out a snowstorm for our re-ration helicopter to arrive. The grassy braided river valley we’d descended into the day before was now draped in snow, the sky thick with flakes the size of dandelion heads. Having used up most of the food from the previous ration, we were supposed to spend the day in our tents, burning as few calories as possible, making strange soups out of the dregs of our spice kits.
But we were not spending a semester out in the wilderness because we liked to be inside. The storm was a calm one, with almost no wind and temperatures hovering just below freezing. I crept over to the tent my friend Justine was hunkered in and whispered through the tent wall to ask if she wanted to take a walk. We took off in the opposite direction of the glacier, letting the snowy grass soften our footfalls, handrailing the branches of the river we were camped next to. The silence of the falling snow in the enormous valley seemed infinite and impossible. We stopped when the river banked out and we would have had to climb or cross to continue. For a few moments we just watched the water moving, the only sound in the whole valley. We had spent a lot of time on the semester thus far sitting in spots alone and meditating, and staring at the water for even a few moments seemed to almost induce a meditative state. Watching its continuous motion over rocks and sand and around corners slowed the mind and the pulse, matching the easy rhythm of the river.
It occurred to me then, as obvious but overlooked things sometimes do, and as it would many more times before I left New Zealand, that we were nothing but guests here. The water in this river would move in exactly the way it was moving now whether we were here or not—and not just whether Justine and I had traveled to this particular spot on this particular day or not—but whether we as a human race were here or not. The water in this river was not here for our convenience, for our purposes—it was here all on its own, with no other original intent but to keep moving. I looked up at the towering mountains shielding the valley, at the vast white glacier behind us, at the gray sky spilling snow. It was all here regardless of us, independent of us, and at this point, despite us.
Later that evening, all twelve of us huddled inside the four-person tent to have a debate about mining conservation lands in New Zealand. It was supposed to pertain to a specific piece of current legislation in New Zealand , but the debate ended up spiraling into a discussion of conserving land in general, of what our responsibility was as humans to the land
“Where do you think the materials for your cell phones come from?” Our instructor Jared asked us.
Where do you think everything comes from? Where does every piece of material for everything we use everyday come from? It comes from the earth. It comes from things that existed independently of us, that we decided to use for our own convenience. That we decided were put here for us to use. That we decided belonged to us.
And as the debate continued I got quiet, thinking of watching the river move earlier in the day. Thinking of the snowy saddle we’d kicked steps up the day before to get here. Thinking of the sky hanging over us. Thinking of all the different kinds of grasses we’d walked on. Thinking of not just the mountains surrounding our campsite but of all the mountains I’d ever seen, of all the mountains I’d ever loved. And I knew then that the walls of the system of compartmentalization I’d been using had just crumbled. I could not have spent three months out here, in the only place that can be fairly called “the real world” and go back to act as I had before. To pretend that the actions of one person among billions didn’t matter. To act like I didn’t have a responsibility to protect the places I loved—to protect my home. And not just the conservation lands, not just the wilderness—but the air and the water and the planet as a whole.
Everything in the frontcountry, as we called it out here, was put in place for our particular use, to make our lives easier, for our purposes only. Roads, gas station mini-marts, supermarkets, car dealerships, Apple stores. At what point had the fact that the human mind could engineer a smart phone become more amazing than the fact that trees and rivers and mountains somehow existed in their own right?
When I came back to the U.S. after my three months with NOLS, I began coaching the middle school ski team in my hometown. I remembered my own time on the team with a visceral clarity. When I was in middle school things had been simpler, quieter. No one had cell phones, no one had any kind of social media. We did ski team because we loved the snow, we loved the outdoors, we loved a sport that didn’t cram us inside the sweaty school gym. The team was co-ed, which in the sixth through eighth grades was just about the thrill of a lifetime. The bus rides home after practices and races were almost better than the actual sport itself, a time we spent playing games and talking about things and developing crushes on each other.
Coming back to the middle school cross-country ski team ten years later was something entirely different. Not only had AOL instant messenger, the main form of communication in 2003, been all but rendered obsolete, but also every other method of connection had been ramped into high gear. Most of the athletes had iPhones, on which they had access to their Facebooks, Twitters, Instagrams, and Pinterests. They spent the bus rides Snapchatting each other and taking pictures of themselves, of hacking into each other’s various social media accounts. Gone were the days of bus trivia and hand games, gone were the days of being only connected to the people on the bus at that moment. Channels to the outside world had been opened, and a little of the magic had been lost.
But what worried me most was not the loss of the bus culture that had been such an important part of ski team for me—what worried me most was the seeming loss of connection between the athletes and the environment in which they participated in their sport. And obviously, in 2003 we still got cold and we still wished there weren’t so many hills on the course, but for me at least, there was a certain thrill in that feeling of icy chill at the start line, of the quiet moments coasting through the woods when no one was watching, of the inherent link between the sport and the environment.
On the third and final section of my NOLS semester, spent backpacking in the Ahuriri conservation area, our instructor Andy gave a lesson on the six ecological principles and the interconnectedness of nature. Interconnectedness was the antithesis of a compartmentalized attitude about nature and the environment. It said that everything we did, everything we were, was connected to everything else. There was no such thing as loving the outdoors and not molding your actions to reflect that love.
But even more than that, what it demonstrated was that though as someone who loves the outdoors I had no excuse not to do everything in my power to protect it, acting in an environmentally conscious way was not a luxury. It was not trendy, it was not something that only people who like chucking themselves into the backcountry for three months at a time have a responsibility to do. Interconnectedness means everything is connected—everybody is connected. Every single person that exists on this earth has an equal responsibility to protect this planet and its resources.
We spend so much time assuming that everything on this earth belongs to us—its trees for our oxygen, its waters for our navigation, its land for our repurposing, and forget that we belong to it. We belong to this planet in a way most of us like to forget, while we mindlessly consume and destroy and ignore.
And while everything that we are doing now to reduce our impact, to change the way we power our worlds is of course crucially important, I realized that though caring about the environment is not a luxury or a political belief or a pet cause, it is extremely difficult to make people do anything about something they don’t care about.
At the end of practice the other day I stood brushing my skis off, watching the sun sink behind the trees, casting a golden afterglow on the snow around us.
“Will you look at that?” I said to the kids standing around me, thinking to myself for the thousandth time how lucky I was to have a job that allowed me to stand out on a snowy hill and watch the sun set every day.
A few turned to briefly glance at it, but most kept shoving their skis into their bags or texting on their phones, asking what time it was and when the bus was getting here.
Doing everything we can now to find new sources of energy and reduce our consumption and repurpose old things is pivotal and overdue. But raising a generation of kids who grow up with their faces shoved into high-def screens and fail to create a personal relationship with nature is raising a generation of people who will do nothing to protect it. We protect what we love. And so maybe inspiring each new generation to love and feel connected to nature is just as important as finding different ways to power our cars and heat our homes.
Everybody belongs to the earth. Not just outdoorsy folk or liberals or hippies or environmental activists, or eco-gypsies, as my brother referred to me in my birthday card this year. But also people who spend most of their time indoors, people who hate the cold, kids who are growing up in their living rooms instead of their backyards. They belong to it too.
You don’t have to spend three months on the wilderness to start appreciating the earth, to start acting consciously (though it certainly does the trick). Go outside for a few minutes. Breathe in the air, taste its crispness. Stare at moving water for ten minutes, and let your heartbeat match its rhythm. Play in the snow. Take a walk in the woods. Lay in the grass. Feel the sun on your face, the wind on your skin. Acknowledge your place in the interconnectedness. And pass it on.