What outdoor education didn't teach me

  • Dev Carey

    Lisa Jones
  • Backpackers

    Chris Hanson

"It is remarkable that there is little or nothing to be remembered written on the subject of getting a living; how to make a living not merely honest and honorable, but altogether inviting and glorious; for if getting a living is not so, then living is not."

- Henry David Thoreau

When I was 18, I fell in love with my college outdoor instructor. Joan could scamper up a 5.10 rock face and then turn around and almost cry when she talked about the drowned valley of Hetch Hetchy. She was radiant. She knew how to listen. She had ease, confidence and a tan. She had a noble profession, and she loved her job. I had no choice; I became an outdoor educator.

I met many more people like Joan. People who cared about kids and wilderness. People who combined fun and work. They taught me, and together, we taught kids.

We taught about reverence and risk-taking, self-responsibility and self-confidence. We took people out of their modern-day, comfortable lives, plunged them into wilderness, and proved it nothing to fear. We taught that away from possessions and phones, potato chips and people, they could still smile, breathe deep and feel full of simple purpose. We used words like ecosystem and human disturbance, trophic level and sustainable, and as we talked, we let them see and feel beauty unfiltered by air pollution, noise or fear.

And sometimes it worked. We'd see the beginnings of a passionate, vibrant person searching for a way to live more simply and close to wilderness. We'd smile and encourage them to become outdoor educators.

Something about that advice bothered me; I began to look around. I noticed that we outdoor educators traveled from river to river in Toyota pickup trucks with kayaks on top and climbing ropes and beer inside. Our toys were pile, Gore-Tex and tempered steel. Even a "no-impact" wilderness trip modeled consumption. We ate food grown in Kansas and packaged in Seattle, cooked with fuel from the Persian Gulf and zipped ourselves into sleeping bags sewn in Taiwan. In the end we'd haul our waste to the already-overworked city sewer system and landfill. We preserved the wilderness, it seemed, at the cost of just about every place else.

I could justify the lack of simplicity. If it preserved wilderness while teaching people about it, then it was worth it. But there was a bigger problem. Not only didn't we model the simplicity we preached, I was beginning to suspect that we didn't live all that close to wilderness either. True, we spent more time out there than just about anybody, and most of us had plenty of reverence, but the relationship seemed more like a love/hate affair than true marriage. Why, if we were so close to wilderness, did we always leave to go home? And why was home, for most of us and our clients, some suburb several states away? Why was it that most outdoor educators were young and single and that around age 30 they got suddenly anxious, started talking about a "real life" and suddenly disappeared? Why was it that we were ever moving on, seeking something bigger or steeper or more remote? Why was it that we avoided, even disdained, people who lived off the land - loggers, miners, ranchers, hunters, hicks - yet most of us were dependent on these people and the local store to survive? Why?

But before I figured it out I hit 30 and got struck by my own nesting urge. I moved to a small town and set about trying to live the sustainable, simple, close-to-wilderness ideals I'd been teaching. The truth hit me then - I didn't know how. All the habits I'd developed in my outdoor educator years ran contrary to the ideals I'd been teaching. My habit was to go on a road trip for vacation; to live simply I had to learn how to stay home, to climb the same mountain twice and see wilderness in an overgrown pasture. My habit was to "leave no trace," but to live simply, I had to leave many traces. I had to clear a garden spot, divert water from the river to irrigate, cut trees for fuel and shelter, and kill a few deer. I had to learn applied skills, in which, despite my long résumé, I was remarkably deficient. I had to learn not to devote my life to my job, to save plenty of time and energy for proper living. I had to learn to find the same thrill and loss of self in planting a tree that I used to get out of surfing a big hole. And I had to find new people for role models.

It took awhile. It took deciding to teach a small, integrated curriculum to a few kids and then getting to know their parents. Most of them had never been to college or heard of the Bio-Bio River, but when it came to living simply and locally, they were lightyears ahead of me. They knew how to grow potatoes in the local clay, how to birth at home, how to fix all their tools, how to trade carrots for doctoring, and how to invite the neighbors for dinner. Moreover, I was surprised to find that most of these people loved things wild. They knew where the badger burrowed and how fast the cottonwoods had grown. They knew the local trails and how to find wilderness without the help of government designation. These people are now my teachers, and as I consume less and know the local more, I feel as close to wilderness as I ever did backpacking in the Wind River Range.

And now I understand why that past advice - "become an outdoor educator" - bothered me. The life of an outdoor educator is, for the most part, a life of wilderness trips supported by the very complex, nonsustainable, resource-consuming civilization that ultimately destroys wilderness. It is a lifestyle that destroys what one reveres, while accepting little of the blame. It is a lifestyle that offers few answers.

Outdoor education, when it exposes people to wilderness, may be the first step towards inspiring a way of life that can coexist with the land rather than destroy it. But it is only the first step. Enduring change comes from home. And before we outdoor educators can teach students how to care for home, we have to learn something about it.

I'm studying on it. Joan as a role model has been replaced.

David Carey is an ecologist and outdoor educator in Paonia, Colorado.

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