I write to you, just back from three weeks of summer hiking in the French, Italian, and Swiss Alps.
As you might expect, this extended trip was both challenging and quite inspiring. In my case, my hiking came in two segments, and in the company of two different hiking groups, with some day-hikes before, between, and after. The first part of my journey was the traditional eleven-day Tour De Mount Blanc, a famous hike that normally moves in a broad counterclockwise, mid-altitude arc around Europe’s highest peak. After the Tour, I stayed on in the French Alps for some higher altitude alpine hiking, and was thankful that my first trek preceded the second. In additional to great vistas at nearly every turn, the many strenuous ascents and descents of the Tour prepared me for the still greater demands of day-long alpine hiking and technical climbs above 3000 meters.
The title I have chosen for this article might seem lighthearted, since it is a familiar, gently mocking phrase, one that usually refers to our needing to get out of our homes and into society more often, and thereby to have a broader range of cultural experiences. In my case, as my subtitle and introduction suggest, I actually mean the title more seriously and in a different way than the usual. Coming immediately after of my extended time of hiking and living alongside pristine nature, I want to say that almost all of us really do need to get out far more than we do, and by out, I mean away from settled life altogether and into natural wildernesses.
I came to this simple but quite important conclusion, or more accurately returned to it, during my recent trip, though in a more poignant and enduring way than ever before. Perhaps this is because my most recent natural trekking involved repeated descents into towns and cities of varying sizes along our routes, often after several days and nights high in the mountains. In this trip in particular, with our many returns to alpine valleys and settled life there, I was struck by the stark contrast between the power and vibrancy of our time high up in the mountains and the more prosaic and constricted forms of human living waiting for us below.
The Alps are of course Europe’s principal mountainous region, a rugged area that is unique in its extraordinary compression of wild and settled life – the two are often separated by only a few thousand meters of topological distance. The Alps thus offer the opportunity for the elation of rapid immersion into pristine nature, and the experience of sudden departure from it too. Our sometime precipitous descents into urban life, in fact, often made the towns and cities we encountered seem surreal and even theatrical in comparison to our natural settings. By theatrical, I mean perceiving this life as artificial and a production of sorts, a scripted and staged arrangement of human life, and as such each only one of many possible presentations.
In this case of seeming theatre, though, the actors were the audience, and the audience actors, and both seemed unaware of their scripts, unaware that they were acting in a production, that their setting was a setting, and that their stage was adorned with fantastic props, long in the making and now persistent artifacts in this living theatre. I’ll come back to this idea, but such are the things one is apt to see with the new eyes waiting for us in new immersion in wild nature – with the new eyes that Proust encouraged us to seek through travel, through the new sense of self and world that comes from sudden experiences, from getting out more.
As I suggested already, being confronted with a stark contrast between time traveling through wild nature and returns to settled life is a recurring theme in my life. This time, perhaps from the force of its repetition in the short span of a few weeks, the experience was especially pointed for me, and in three specific ways that I would like to share with you. Most obvious and superficially were the physical differences between my hiking groups and the townspeople we encountered in our descents. As you may know firsthand, even just a few days of hiking in mountainous conditions provides us with intensive physical conditioning and physiological renewal, quickly returning our bodies to far more natural and robust levels of fitness.
At each descent, our hiking groups entered the towns progressively more fit and conditioned, our bodies stronger and suppler, our strides steadier and more deliberate from exertion. Our skin became increasingly tanned and unblemished, and our eyes and voices ever clearer and more open from the clarity and openness of life in today in high mountains. By contrast, the townspeople we encountered seemed to grow physically smaller and frailer with each descent, increasingly either too heavy or too thin and bent or distorted from our natural uprightness. I increasingly experienced townspeople as more and more tentative and circumspect in their movements, more guarded and apprehensive physically, and lacking the ease and self-possession that had come over us and is everywhere in wild nature.
A second contrast between life in and along wilderness areas and in the towns and cities was in the general perspective and outlook of people. This difference seems more substantial than simple physical fitness, but is perhaps related to it too. Modern people seeking increased health and new perspective through a re-immersion in nature form a remarkably cooperative society, with the potential for exceptions of course, as many who have returned to nature in this way in our contemporary times well know. The numbers of people one encounters in nature are much smaller than in urban life, and those people one does meet are often quite health and aesthetically oriented, and often surprisingly and refreshingly relaxed, peaceful, and forthcoming.
As a result of both this different density and general demeanor, there is often a special intimacy and camaraderie among the people one meets in wild nature today, a shared sense of quest for new life and experiences outside of the ordinary and modern urbanity. People exploring nature today are generally contented and unstressed, and often far more inquisitive and gregarious than is typical in settled life. One finds oneself among people who are genuinely willing to help, share, talk, and wish others well. There is often a sense of abundance and openness, and an unspoken imperative of life above or apart from the more overtly selfish and zero-sum thinking that often, and often irrationally, embodies life in urban settings today. In nature, we must also carry what we have, and so are often more measured in and sensible about what we have and, having less and being more equal to others in this regard, are more inclined to both support and rely on the company of others than might otherwise be the case.
How different the perspective of settled life seems to the outsider, for the traveler who descends rapidly from mountain summits or passes, or otherwise abruptly returns from nature, and I suppose for the aboriginal suddenly encountering settled life. In an environment of confined spaces, of specialized and specified roles and classes, and of countless ideas and artifacts superfluous to a journey or life on foot through nature, one discovers a more buffeted and thus shielded form of human life and perspective, even and ironically as this life is largely protected from the perils of nature and more natural human life. One senses co-existence instead of natural camaraderie, discerns a palpable frustration and often an unspoken dread among people, not universally but pervasively enough to dominate settled life if one is not aware of it. And ones finds other common feelings and perceptions that come as a result – hostility and antipathy toward others, a blurring of people into a mass or background condition and thus a dehumanization of others, a more general inattentiveness to one’s surroundings and especially one’s place in the natural order, and an obvious replacement of our natural curiosity with indifference toward others, the world, and even ourselves.
On a trek, wild nature compels us to be attentive to all these things, and encourages us to separate rather than blur key aspects of our surroundings. No doubt because we first evolved in wild nature, this higher attentiveness and discernment is strangely effortless and natural, and not work and an impingement on our self, once we are away from settled life and in or near wilderness. We thus arrive at alternative states of mind in wild nature, especially when we have open vistas and sheltering stopping points, where we are both alert and relaxed, attentive to the environment and at peace within ourselves. In our modern times of relative lawfulness and security that extend far into nature, re-immersion in wilderness is now primarily a comforting and new and more open life in the larger and uplifting environment of wild nature. It is no longer one that is threatening or diminishing, or that inclines us to be hostile toward and contemptuous of nature (as was once commonly and sometimes still is the case).
By contrast, in our towns and cities there is often a noticeably defensive and narrowed mindset among people, and often an offensive and quite pointed one too, often far different than the outlook we can and usually do now have in natural settings and amidst the smaller densities of people there (again and tellingly, both sources of insecurity in earlier times). In truth, despite and really because of the much greater levels of material comfort available to us and the prospect of mechanical conveyance of our possessions, life in the towns is often more burdened and concerned with possession, and less free and conscious than is possible now through a commitment to healthy, natural, and progressive life. With modernity’s many new entrapments and demarcations, town and city life can be a more competitive, and thereby a narrower and more focused place, than life in and near the wild can be today. Ironically, when descending from wild nature and coming upon the abundance of modern settled life, when one finds an ironic, heartrending, and unnecessary sense of scarcity everywhere – our natural imperatives placed in an unnatural setting and left unexamined.
Before leaving for my trip, I published an extended writing, entitled “Our Natural State,” which is available on the HumanaNatura community website now. In it, I explore the question of our true human nature and conclude that our character is a malleable one, like other animals and like them within innate or natural bounds. We are thus often quite dependant on and heavily influenced by context in our lives and life expressions. This is the principal reason, I argue, that we see the continual spectrum of human behavior that we do – from highly principled and conscientious life, all the way to criminality and sociopathic variations on our nature. I also suggest that it is a highly compelling reason to exercise great care and foster new attentiveness toward ourselves, our settings, and our current patterns of thinking – for our “Taking Control of Life,” the title of a companion article to the first. In both of these essays, I characterize much of human life today as stalemate, a condition of co-existence between our potential for the extremes of higher, conscious, and cooperative life (that seeks to raise and pattern all life in this way) and for thoughtless brutality (that seeks to subordinate all life to one self and thus pattern life in a very different way). My periodic returns to urban life during my recent hiking seemed as if they were each studies in stalemate and co-existence, a sharp contrast with the higher life in more natural community, and a reminder and new catalyst to pursue the human heights and possibilities available to us.
The final comparison I wanted to highlight returns to the idea of theatrics and our human capacity to unconsciously or thoughtlessly lose ourselves in our immediate environment. This common, cognitive idiosyncrasy I would guess began and was selected for in wild nature to strength social groups, though of course not with an eye to the elaborate and highly evolved theatrics and scripting of urban life today – features of modern life that now may well keep us from the larger context of nature and new balance and perspective in our lives, especially as life in nature and at lower densities can now be lived securely. Coming into a town or city, of almost any size, after the re-orienting or perspective-changing experience of hiking in nature for several days, one is struck by the fact of unconscious resignation to and the limited sense of context that people have in our urban environments, in our often entirely artificial surroundings.
By this, I mean to capture a new sense of our common inability to apprehend or appreciate, and our tendency even to generalize as a universal condition, the very specific form and character of our lives in any traditional and contemporary society. I want to emphasize and encourage you to consider our common inability to see, or aptness to forget (as I have begun to forget after my own return to settled life), just how much around us is truly novel and idiosyncratic – how we are often inclined to take our place and setting as inevitable, as set and settled, and even as natural. The thespian layout and make-up of any town’s evolved maze of streets and landmarks, its festivals and rites, and its many customs and manners are all often thought of reverently taken as imperturbable, even as they vary widely around the world. What does this pervasive fact of settled life tell us, about settled life and about ourselves?
In physics and our own intuition, there is the ubiquitous phenomenon of inertia: things at rest, or moving, are expected to stay as such unless acted upon. With my renewed perspective on settled and urban life, I have to think this phenomenon applies equally to people too. Coming off of a long hike, it is startling, enlightening, and cautionary to see how easily and unconsciously we can become adjusted to our surroundings, accept what is around us as fixed and given, and see our immediate human world and relationships as inevitable and even as constant. This may be a central bias in our human nature, from the point of view of our personal growth and new awareness, even as it was and not doubt remains quite useful to the formation of social groups and the progression of society and technology. Today, and always, habituation to our conditions is likely both an enabler of life of all forms and a principal barrier to progression to more optimal life – especially to our formation of more conscious, cooperative, healthy, and universal forms of human life.
If we could live each moment with new eyes, to return once more to Proust, what might we see, day by day, and what might we do too? Many things perhaps, but one thing at least: that we all need to get out more, everyone of us, whether we are natural health practitioners or simply people interested in a more open, direct, and full experience of our human lives. And by getting out, I do not mean into society and our own culture, or even into other cultures except as an intermediate step.
More directly to the task of new perspective and our seeing new possibilities for more natural and progressive life, I mean that we need to get out of our cities and towns, out of civilization altogether, regularly and deeply. I mean that we need to return to our origins in nature and to the larger world outside of any human society, and to find what we each will find from these experiences – and thus create our future and not simply relive our past. It may be we discover that we need to live differently pr less constantly in our urban settings, or that we need to work to change urban life as it has been and is today, or that we must create whole ways of life for the future, perhaps ways in much closer harmony with nature. All of this based on what we see with our new eyes, and the new ideas they allow us to see.
Perhaps predictably, but I think importantly and instructively in its ubiquity, let me end my most recent travel reflections with a call for more travel, especially for more travel that takes us into the heart of wild nature, from where we came as people and perhaps where our true and natural heart lies. And ideally travel into nature that is long enough so that we return to our settled lives renewed and changed, and alive with new eyes.
With fresh and new modern perspectives on human life in nature, on settled life and our settled selves too, and on our potential for life amidst the larger backdrop and theatre of nature, there is no end to what we might see, seek, and be in our lives and as people living together.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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