Coming home?


A favorite quotation of my early twenties was by none other than the archdruid himself, David Brower, from an essay he wrote for the Sierra Club Bulletin in 1935. Having spent the previous summer wandering around and over the high peaks, Brower wondered whether his adventure was “the limit? Could the Sierra offer only transitory enjoyment, merely a temporary escape.” Fired by my own desire to escape suburban life, to test my mettle on hard terrain through performances that I later realized were central to modern masculinity, Brower’s answer to his question resonated strongly. Leaving the mountains “was not coming home--he had just left it!”

Of course, a twenty-something’s world eventually grows much messier, and Brower’s remark began to seem quaint. Outdoor play left permanent marks, but the wild itself was a transitory home. The same held true for most of my friends, as it did for Brower himself, and part of growing up was realizing that it had to be so. Manly adventure was a passage, a rite performed on the way to maturation, and once established, other challenges displaced the games and ideals of youth. Our time on the rocks, slopes, waves, and rapids were important, but we also moved on. Thus what are we to make of those adventurers who stuck it out, who did make the landscapes of play their literal homes?

This is not a prelude to a hoary tale about some legendary adventurer, usually seen at a distance in the early light on the way to the big one or virgin powder or a thin line, always alone with elemental nature in its purest form.  Rather, my question is about the social and environmental implications of adventure. Outdoor sports can produce such intense emotions that the self merges with wild nature, and once that happens it seems natural for athletes to identify with nature. Although society deemed them marginal figures, outdoor athletes strongly influenced the history of environmentalism. For John Muir, Bob Marshall, Richard Leonard, David Brower, Ed Abbey, Andrea Mead Lawrence, Mark Massara, Galen Rowell, and Yvon Chouinard, their passion for play fueled their passion for the landscapes of play.

This might seem a latter-day academic distortion, but by the 1950s even Sierra Club members were arguing that “the basic purpose” of their organization was “to fight to the last ditch to preserve places to have fun in” but also “that an equally basic purpose . . . is to have fun in the wilderness.” I once felt the passion for wild nature as intensely as Brower or any adventurer, but ultimately my buddies and I left it behind because, like the sociologist Georg Simmel, we learned that “an old adventurer [is] an obnoxious or tasteless phenomenon.” Outdoor play was rewarding but also transitory in the truest sense of that word, a phase one lived through and moved beyond. The problem is that part of western environmentalism has not grown beyond this adolescent vision of authentic nature as necessarily pure and separate, and outdoor athletes played a significant role in shaping that vision.

The more outdoor sports and environmentalism were guided by ideals of purity, the more both have suffered a kind of arrested development. Climbers, kayakers, skiers, and surfers celebrate extreme performances and view moderation as signifying weakness in physique and virtue. Meanwhile, the fixation with unpeopled spaces enabled wilderness opponents to dismiss the idea with a bumper sticker phrase: Are you an environmentalist, or do you work for a living? The climber in me bristles at that, but the scholar in me knows it contains more than a little truth.  In studying the history of outdoor sports, I also know that this was not always so. There was a time when the firebreathers of the Sierra Club were quite comfortable with complexly inhabited landscapes, and nature play was primarily about group fun rather than solipsistic quests to the edge.

Thus the tales of extreme adventure in wild settings sold at Barnes & Noble and REI reveal a key convergence of sporting and environmental culture. Outdoor sports illuminate not only the desperate desires within Camp 4 and the Teton Ranch but, to varying degrees, the impulses driving any athlete in Bend, Moab, Squamish, or Waialua. Beneath the sweat and dirt burns a desire for wild nature that is intrinsically linked to their sense of self, and their adventures have shaped our ideas about authentic nature. It behooves us to understand the roots of that passion and its implications, but it is also important to recognize the culture it displaced, and when and why the transition occurred.  Through outdoor athletes we discover something important about environmentalism, and through our ideas about nature we learn something important about outdoor adventure.

For me there is something indisputably true about Brower’s vision of the mountains as home. He felt it in his bones just as I once did, but “home” was ultimately a much more complicated concept. The history of outdoor sports reveals that play links us simultaneously to the wilderness, to each other, and to the larger world. In the end, there really is no escape, but then there never has been.

Joseph Taylor teaches in the history and geography departments at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver. He is the author of Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk and Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis, which won the American Society of Environmental History’s best book award. He lives in Oregon.

Coming Home
Chris Greeff
Chris Greeff
Oct 07, 2010 07:43 PM
You fail to mention Norman Clyde in your article. He was the antithesis of the intellectual Brower and he was inarguably "the real deal": an articulate, powerful intellect who lived the dream. He was so old school that the Sierra Club types completely blew him off. He did not move in their circles or play their games. The Sierras were his full time home.
Coming Home-Norman Clyde
Joseph Taylor
Joseph Taylor
Oct 10, 2010 09:46 AM
It's interesting that you should mention Clyde. It was in fact Clyde who gave Brower his first climbing lesson and steered him (fatefully) in the direction of the Sierra Club. Clyde did, in the end, make the mountains his home, but his was a story tinged in darkness rather than enlightenment. It was only after the death of his wife that he looked to the mountains as a refuge from pain, and it was only a decade later, after he pulled a gun on several of his high school students, that Clyde mostly left the flat land behind, having been terminated from his last teaching job. And that complicates things. Although Clyde did write lyrically about "limpid streams," "battlemented minarets," and the rejuvenating powers of the mountains for the "city-jaded tramper, the further he retreated from civilization the more he seemed an anachronism to other Sierra Clubbers and climbers. He was a romantic throwback and, sadly, a figure of pity. Thus, at least within the context of the above essay, he does not fit within the ranks of outdoor athletes who were also influential environmental advocates.
Oct 10, 2010 09:54 PM
Way too smart for me. I'm forty-something and haven't moved out of the anabolic/wilderness-is-where-I-LIVE phase and into the full psycho/socio-analytical phase, I guess. I do sit around the fire with beer and friends and talk, and I'm sure we get really deep sometimes.
desolation row
marty weiss
marty weiss
Oct 12, 2010 03:21 PM
Between the cattle, the huge feedlots/farm factories, the coal-burning power plants, and the septic tanks, the sources of clean water I've found were too sparse and unreliable to depend on. In Oregon's Cascades, on the McKenzie River, My wife, baby daughter and I drank, bathed and cooked with water from a mountain cistern, which would occasionally in the fall get clogged with leaves, but was potable. Water from the cold stream above the hot springs at Cougar Reservoir never hurt me.In California's Los Padres Nat'l Forest as a cadastral surveyor, I sometimes found upwelling springs in the mountains which were frequented by birds and bees and butterflies and were potable. But in Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota, giardia made all that crystal-clear water unhealthy, though I was unable to resist a sip and unharmed by it.
My general impression of living in nature or wilderness-like natural settings is that it's a whited sepulchre. Very pretty, but not viable either to eat the fish or drink the water.
I'd love to live in natural places. But it has all been ruined. I carry clean water even in my canoe. I buy food from grocery stores. Besides the elementary disconnect of venturing somewhere beautiful and eating someone who lives there, the contamination is so widespread as to make it all unsafe or questionable.
There are exceptions. The water in the pump-handled wells of the Chicago area forest preserves is quite good, counter-intuitively. But if I were to venture out now, I'd take supplies from "civilization".
Not only is it seemingly impossible to live on earth without paying somebody, it's generally impossible to live on earth without relying on corporate resources. And I suspect the polluters are the investors in water utilities.
Cynical, but how else explain privatization of water?
And I find the ambiguous quality of bigger game's taint of chronic wasting disease dissuades me from relying on that protein source. But I do eat wild salmon...
Maybe I could live in Southeast Alaska? I'd love to try. I'd love to live on earth without paying homage to monetary wealth and the Midas Touch.
Lost me in the end
Bob Henry
Bob Henry
Oct 12, 2010 10:39 PM
Insightful essay. It rings true for me and the meandering life path I have traced. It explains much of what I observed living in Jackson Hole for several years. But in your second to last paragraph you lose me. Can you elucidate "It behooves us to understand the roots of that passion and its implications, but it is also important to recognize the culture it displaced, and when and why the transition occurred. Through outdoor athletes we discover something important about environmentalism, and through our ideas about nature we learn something important about outdoor adventure"?
Coming Home-Lost me in the end
Joseph Taylor
Joseph Taylor
Oct 13, 2010 07:59 AM
A fair question. Succinctly, I mean that our ideas about wild nature and outdoor sport have a genealogy. There is nothing timeless about these activities. How people experienced each changed as their social, technological, and environmental contexts evolved. Thus studying the history of an outdoor sport such as climbing, kayaking, skiing, or surfing can illustrate how sport, environmental advocacy, and the wider world influenced each other over time.