Self Love and Wilderness

self love and wilderness

Submission by Avalon Qian.

“Tag responsibly, keep the West wild.”

I pause mid-mindless-instagram scroll. This is not the first time I have seen this sentiment in an instagram post or an article about leaving no trace: “Tag responsibly.” “Keep the West wild.”

What does this tag mean? I understand the fear that wild places may become negatively impacted when overrun with people as the result of an alluring instagram post. Yet this also could be a toxic form of gate-keeping. Tag responsibly? Does this mean: Keep people from being able to get here? While the author of this post gets to flaunt their cool instagram photo? If you don’t want the people to come, then why post the photo at all? Who does this actually serve? What does it even mean to “keep” the west “wild”?

I have been working as an outdoor educator for the past 8 years for various organizations, mostly with GirlVentures and NOLS. I dedicate much of my time to encouraging, pleading, coercing, and requiring that students come into right relation with the land they travel through. I ask them to be mindful, to be respectful, to pack out their trash, to leave a place better than they found it. Yet constantly I am fighting, in every small way, against the concept of “wilderness.” My perspective is informed by a vast bank of literature that deconstructs this concept of wilderness, inspired by Carolyn Finney, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Christopher Carter, David Treuer, William Cronon, among others. Their insights have changed the way I understand and relate to land and “wilderness,” and they are changing the collective consciousness around this in important ways.

The concept of wilderness was constructed. As the idea that there is a place untouched by humans, it was a particularly compelling support for the concept of Manifest Destiny, as early colonizers encountered what they claimed to be pristine nature. The construct of wilderness has evolved over time, culminating in the Wilderness Act of 1964 that defined it as: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

If “man” is a visitor, then removing indigenous people from the land becomes a simple affair. If “man” is a visitor, then all the work indigenous people did that shaped the land to be as it was when first seen by colonists, is erased. Instead the story is created that humans do not belong in the wilderness. The European settlers brought this idea that to be human is to be “civilized” and not of the land. This mentality easily lends itself to the insidious tendency of the settler society to see indigenous people as “sub-human” because they do not follow the guidelines of “civilization” that colonists used to set themselves apart. This is the legacy of wilderness.

Wilderness was created to justify the cutting off of people from their land. In the false dichotomy of wilderness and civilization, there exists a hierarchy. Civilization is better than wilderness. And then civilization is positioned to take care of wilderness. This erases all the very real ways that humans are actually taken cared of by the land itself. If civilization is seen as higher, as the ultimate expression of humanness, then we see ourselves as separate from, and superior to, wilderness. When this idea is turned on its head and contemporary “outdoors” people flip the hierarchy, the inherent nature of the disconnect is still perpetuated. Either way, this cuts us off from being able to be in right relationship with the land.

The idea of wilderness is an integral part of our violent history that justified genocide and removal of indigenous people from their land. In order to challenge the concept of wilderness, we must then challenge the concept that humans are separate from nature. Many of us who recreate on the land in the US cannot claim ancestral roots from this place. And so; it is actually impossible for us to “leave no trace.” The very existence of our national parks is a violent trace. How can we be mindful of the land that we move on, without separating ourselves from it? How can we expand the ethics of leave no trace to include more than just parks? How can we expand the ideas of leave no trace so that we are not just building more barriers and gates that are kept locked?

How do we move away from telling people to not tag a post, and rather move toward noticing the nature that is within our own selves, and within us all?

If it is wilderness, then we do not belong, we only visit. If it is wilderness, we do not see how we come from it, and instead we are oriented to taking from it for ourselves. When we see ourselves as “separate” because we consider ourselves to be “civilized” and not of the “wilderness,” we are cutting ourselves off from a part of ourselves.

If the wilderness is separate from us, then only an elite and exceptional some of us get to experience it; playing upon it with our fancy equipment and then “returning” to civilization where we may believe that our comfortable homes and convenient machines have no effect on the wilderness because it still remains “untrammeled.”

The continued narrative of wilderness as being separate from ourselves is an idea that began with colonialism and continues to pervade our sense of ourselves as we relate to the world in the United States. This understanding of wilderness is both cause and symptom of a deep depression that keeps us from truly, deeply, being authentic with ourselves, each other, our communities and the land that we live and play on.

Oppression may be understood as a system that teaches groups of people to not love themselves. Oppression teaches groups of people, through various horrible means, that they are not worthy, not loveable. Fighting against oppression means undoing this conditioning first within ourselves: understanding that each of us do absolutely have worth and are ultimately very loveable. That we all exist as integral to the whole.

If I am not accepting myself as nature, as of this world, then I am not truly loving myself.

You are your first most immediate and intimate relationship to nature: from the moment you wake up, throughout the day and into the rest of sleep, you are the nature you spend the most time in, no matter what you do. You are situated entirely within yourself: the natural form that you are. The way we care for the environment can only start with how we care for ourselves and each other. In doing so, we co-create and care for a more just and healed world, and we may come closer and closer to leaving as few harmful traces as possible.

As an outdoor educator, what I am most interested in is how we may learn to see and understand ourselves as part of nature, as part of this beautiful world. This view is all about learning and choosing self love. This way we may learn to be in loving relationship with others and with the land; coming from a place of self love. It has nothing to do with exclusion and gatekeeping. We love this world around us and find it to be an absolute wonder, and recognize it as a shared reality. When we see ourselves in it, we can love ourselves. We can love our humanity, our natural, beautiful, loveable humanity.

When we see ourselves as separate from nature, this creates an emptiness inside that precludes self love. This sense of lack then leads us to want to TAKE from nature, as if it were separate from us, in order to make ourselves feel whole again (i.e., extraction of materials OR outdoor pursuits as being ways we gain value). When instead we learn to see ourselves as part of nature, we are choosing to love ourselves, and gain the ability to be in loving relationship with nature, with our own selves. I believe we cannot do this, if we continue to see it as a “wilderness” – the representation of it being outside and separate from ourselves.

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