There is paradox among ‘outdoorsy’ people that manifested itself to me in an indelible way over the weekend.
Being something of a ‘crunchy con,’ I took part in the Pennsylvania Environmental Council’s Public Lands Ride — a group bicycling event that tours riders through Moshannon State Forest — that happened to take place on opening day of archery deer season this year.
I was biking beside Six Mile Run, admiring the picturesque outline of a lone fly-fisherman standing in the glittering stream, when I glimpsed a tired-looking Subaru Outback parked along the side of the gravel forestry road.
‘A support vehicle,’ I thought, wondering why the volunteer would choose to set up her station so close to the one I’d just passed. Slowing down to communicate with the middle-aged, Patagonia-fleeced, Birkenstock-wearing female eco-warrior I was sure would hand me some sort of sustainable/ethically sourced/dairy-free/non-GMO/vegan granola bar made from repurposed bird seed, my stereotyping self was shocked to see the polar opposite: a grizzled older fellow dressed from head to toe in RealTree camouflage with a ZZ Top beard was seated in the driver’s seat, evidently preparing to venture into the nearby state game lands and bag himself a deer.
I could probably have begged a bologna sandwich or a pinch of snuff from this gentleman, but he seemed focused on his map. Further pedaling produced even more paradoxical phenomena: zero-emission recreationalists in neon spandex suits, pausing in their philanthropic pursuit to consume a soy snack, ate the dust (literally) of diesel-powered super-duty trucks, driven by hunters in oversized garb of muted earth-tones who rumbled by on their way to camp, where they fired up their coal stoves and prepared to harvest a year’s worth of venison.
‘Wow,’ I thought. ‘These two sets of people have nothing in common. Even the color and style of their clothes could not be more opposite.’ But then I realized I was riding with the bikers and returning the ‘Cheers!’ of a beer from one of the camps (greeting me at 11 a.m.) with a smile and a feeling of genuine friendliness.
We were all, after all, outside together that day, amid the finest fall weather we could have asked for, enjoying God’s creation and using the public lands to our advantage in different yet responsible ways. Uber-leftist tree-huggers and backwoods conservatives both have an interest in conservation. The idea that the political right ‘doesn’t care about the earth’ is promulgated by progressives who don’t know how much a rural hunter relies on the land for survival. And you haven’t known ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ until you’ve seen the number of uses a redneck can find for an old tractor trailer tire.
The great outdoors provide us all with resources we need. Nature is also good for our physical and mental wellbeing, which explains why so many of us are drawn to the wilderness and find common ground in our common public wild places, even when we have almost nothing else in common.
The Yale School of Environment reported on a new study last year that found what the Japanese, who practice shinrin-yoku, or the art of ‘forest bathing,’ have known for a millennia: that ‘nature has robust effects on people’s health — physically, mentally, and emotionally.’
According to the study, ‘People who spent two hours a week in green spaces — local parks or other natural environments, either all at once or spaced over several visits — were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who don’t… The effects were robust, cutting across different occupations, ethnic groups, people from rich and poor areas, and people with chronic illnesses and disabilities.’
Such research, Yale reports, ‘has led to tipping point at which health experts, researchers, and government officials are now proposing widespread changes aimed at bringing nature into people’s everyday lives.’
Could increased access to nature provide the antidote to our nation’s ever-growing political polarization? Surely anything that gets people away from fear-mongering TV pundits and the inflaming 24-hour news cycle is a good thing.
I suggest we start this experiment by holding the next presidential debate plein air at one of our nation’s majestic national parks. Yellowstone is ideal: the presence of bugs and the threat of a wildlife stampede and inclement weather would keep the show mercifully short. The vast wilderness would weed out the senile candidates by tempting them to wander off and get lost. And with any luck, the rhyolite magma chamber beneath Yellowstone would erupt, sending all the power-hungry hacks to Mars, where they belong, leaving us to live in peace and quiet, free from politics altogether.