“So what are you guys doing in town?”
We get asked this question every day in the front country, in some form or another.
“We’re a college course based out of Missoula,” we answer. “We’re learning about people’s relationships with the land in Montana.”
“Oh, so is that just a field trip then?”
“No, we’re out in the field for two months, for our whole fall semester. We’ve been backpacking and kayaking and staying in campgrounds all over Montana.”
Then comes the key question, the one that every conversation eventually comes around to:
“Aren’t you cold out there?”
This question really bothers me, mostly because I don’t know how to provide an adequate answer. Yes, it is cold outside (I scraped inches of snow off our tent the other night), and those who ask know this. What they really want to know is why we are choosing to be outdoors, at the mercy of the weather, when it is more comfortable to be indoors. At the beginning of the course, I did not have a good answer to this question. Is there a rational reason for spending time outdoors when the wind or the rain seem to be shouting to stay away? I believe there is. Over the course, I have found that the most incredible moments, the ones where I feel truly connected to the natural world, have been when I am most uncomfortable.
Our class readings over the past week have focused on the ethics and morality of having a relationship with the natural world. We read a piece by Jack Turner which lays out the claim that there are no wild places left on the planet, and any relationship we think we have with wild things is manufactured or severely altered by our conservation attempts and commodity-driven society. Another by Lynn White claims that the only relationship we have with nature is the domination of it. These readings are grappling with the repercussions of us no longer spending time outdoors. A rainy day is often enough of an excuse to hunker down and not leave the house. Why would you want to spend time outside in the rain?
Edmund Burke’s idea of the sublime gives us an idea of why it might not be crazy to do so. He argues that when one is submerged in the experience of the natural world, one can feel the beauty and the power of nature. This is at once magnificent and terrifying. We experienced a truly amazing storm in the first week of the course, rain and hail and lightning rolled in fast and furious. That night, I wrote in my journal “It always amazes me that as powerful as humans have become, that nature is always able to show us up… I was both struck by the beauty of the storm today and absolutely terrified of what it could do.” I also remarked that the storm made me feel unwelcome in nature and like I should leave. Fast forward to just this week. I have seen almost everything that Montana has to offer in the way of weather, and I no longer resent it. There is a beauty in the power of nature that I am slowly learning to appreciate; it is scary but also amazing and allows for some of the most fun I’ve had.
We went on a day hike recently, where the wind and the storm were relentless. The rain was soaking through my jacket, my boots were heavy and wet; we were constantly checking to make sure our fingers were still moving. I was at my most uncomfortable and yet it became such a cool experience. We climbed up the side of a mountain while the wind suggested we do otherwise, and when we made it to the top, we stood in awe looking out over the valley. “I can’t quite explain it, but I know that these things stir feelings in me that point toward a greatness that cannot be found within the human world alone” (Paul Kingsnorth). This feeling of wonder could never be gained from an afternoon on the couch. That feeling of the sublime, of being both terrified and in awe of nature, is still out there (despite Turner’s argument) and still valuable. It allows us to create an intimate relationship with nature, one of reverence, which allows us to feel alive and connected to the natural world around us.
Returning to that question, the well-intended “aren’t you cold”, the answer is yes, sometimes we are. But in the process of being cold and uncomfortable, embracing it anyway, we are building a powerful relationship with the natural world.