It’s hot. It’s humid. I’m sweating so much my t-shirt looks and feels like I put it on straight out of the washing machine without giving it time to dry. My legs feel like useless lumps of lead as I struggle up the side of the mountain. I’m starting to regret packing a 766-page hardback novel into my pack; it seemed like such a good idea at the bottom—more weight! Better training!—but here, halfway up a track built by someone for whom ‘too steep’ was evidently a foreign concept, I’m having doubts about the wisdom of the decision—not that there’s anything I can do about it.
The trail is in many places less of a path, and more of a vertical scramble up a jungle-gym of rocks and roots; it’s ideal for mountain goats, more difficult for us unfortunate bipeds. There are a few lookouts, which on a clear day would provide glorious views out across the wide Hudson Valley, to other, higher mountain ranges beyond. Today, though, the air is too hot, too full of moisture, to be able to see much of anything except the glint of the sun off the distant river and the smudgy shadow on the horizon of what might be the Berkshires.
But the view isn’t why I climb mountains–or at least, it’s not the main reason. I come up here—far from the noise of cars, with only insects and birds and (somewhere, thankfully not where I can see them) bears and a few other hikers for company—just to be here. I come for the wild. I come because it’s good for my mind and my soul to get away from roads and houses and honking horns and flashing lights and sirens and petrol fumes. To bask in the filtered green light; to feel my heart thundering and my legs burning; to lie back against a rock, above the world, the sun on my face, able to simply exist–nowhere to be, nothing to do, nobody to please; to fall asleep to the eternal, lithic heartbeat of the mountain, the slow, gentle breathing of the trees. All this makes me feel connected, peaceful, part of something. It reminds me of who I am. It reminds me that this world is my home, it renews my love for it.
So when I walk past a large sign that says, “Camping and Picnicking Prohibited in this Area” I feel cross and confused. I understand the sentiment. People treat beautiful places with disrespect. They leave their rubbish—their chip packets and their empty plastic water bottles, their beer cans and their cigarette buts. They light fires, their footsteps erode precious habitats. It’s true. I’ve seen it. But I wonder…. I wonder….
Is banning people from the wild places the solution to the problem? Will prohibiting people from enjoying the forests and the mountains teach them to love and respect them? Or will it alienate them further? Will it make nature seem like just another place full of rules and restrictions, governed by a distant authority that invents regulations for the fun of it, and so deserves to be snubbed, ignored? Colonised by human hands and human laws, does that approach turn the wilderness into just another outpost of a broken civilisation that already excludes so many? Will a sign like that, a rule like that, increase the love between people and nature, or will it ensure that people more and more consider themselves to be separate, above, independent of the world around them—with the disastrous consequences we see all around us every day?
By excluding people from the wild places of the world, by placing too many rules and restrictions and prohibitions on what and where people can and can’t do a simple thing like picnicking, all you’re doing is to make sure that people won’t get out into nature at all. It’s too hard. It’s too easy to get it wrong, to accidentally break a rule and get into trouble. It seems to me that far from the protection of nature that a sign like that undoubtedly aims to achieve, its actual consequence will be the increased destruction of the environment. Because people are much happier to destroy what they don’t understand, what they don’t care about, what they don’t identify with.
If I don’t care about the health of the forest and the animals that live in it, a sign isn’t going to stop me from dumping my rubbish in a bush. A sign won’t stop me from eroding a delicate slope or lighting a fire that gets out of control and spreads across a whole hillside. And on a bigger level, I won’t care if the foods I buy at the supermarket contribute to the extinction of orangutans half-way around the world. I won’t care if loose regulations (or none at all) allow factories to dump their waste and farms to allow nitrogen to run-off into rivers, starving the aquatic life of oxygen and leading to the collapse of riverine ecosystems. If I become the President of the United States, it will seem like a good idea to open up protected land for uses like mining and extraction.
Surely a much better approach is to teach people—from a young age if possible, but at whatever age and stage you find them at—to love and respect the world around them. If I care about the forest, and if I see myself as part of the world, rather than separate from it, ruling it, it doesn’t matter whether there’s a sign or not, I won’t leave my glad-wrap lying around. I might not even use glad-wrap, because I’ll have learned the damage plastics are doing to the world, and that will matter to me. I’ll go hiking up a mountain because the forest that covers it is my home, and I’d never dream of befouling and degrading and destroying my home.
Surely, it’s encouraging people to camp and picnic, and teaching them how to treat the mountain with respect, that will ensure these glorious, irreplaceable, inherently valuable places survive—for their own sake, for the sake of every living thing within them, and for the sake of all the people who come after us?