If you listen closely to the language used around outdoor recreation, you might notice a theme.
Words like "crush" get thrown around, suggesting some form of winning in outdoor activities, even outside a competitive context. Similarly, the term "peak bagging" has always stood out to me. It implies the ability of the athlete to somehow collect or possess an element of nature.
Echoes of conquest and dominance reverberate throughout our vocabulary. Outdoor recreation is often framed in terms of winning, accomplishing, and even conquering. This angle isn't all that different from the war-like vocabulary and culture around sports in general, a norm that inevitably spills over into athletics that happen to be in nature.
Media depictions of outdoor athletics often mirror this mentality. Films, for instance, tend to focus on feats that are stronger, faster, better. In extreme cases such as Free Solo or The Alpinist, the stories highlighted dovetail nicely with the hyper-independent rugged individualism that is prized in American culture. These films in particular take climbing, a sport that is naturally dependent on others, and lauds removal of the elements of trust and shared experience (to say nothing of safety) as superior, desirable, and more athletically impressive. Both films generated popularity and buzz in not only climbing circles, but in the general public as well.
Left unchecked, these tendencies establish a value system that determines a hierarchy of what kind of outdoor recreation is most valuable and worthy of our time and attention.
This value system is inherently rooted in masculinity as the default, and masculine traits as superior. While masculine traits in the outdoors are not inherently a bad thing, they can quickly turn toxic and counterproductive. At its worst, this value system can be weaponized, invalidating broad swaths of outdoor athletes as "doing it wrong", a form of gatekeeping that shoves those with differing goals into the margins.
Valuing masculine expressions to the exclusion of other ways of being outside is an impoverished view of outdoor recreation.
Instead, we should zoom out and ensure a wide variety of mindsets and objectives are held in equal regard.
The Unholy Trinity of Toxic Masculinity, Imperialism, and Extractive Capitalism
In a culture steeped in toxic masculinity, examples of its negative influences in outdoor recreation are not hard to come by.
Toxic masculinity derides the importance of emotion and softness in outdoor experiences. It's more concerned about how outdoor recreation can make us tougher and physically stronger instead of how time in nature can aid in emotional healing and make us more empathetic, caring humans.
It focuses on displays of aggression and posturing, emphasizing the importance of comparison and competition. It pushes us to focus on numbers and leaderboards, compelling us to deride ourselves when we miss some mark of performance. Toxic masculinity asserts ownership of the outdoors, establishing a hierarchy of superiority that deems certain people worthy of taking up more space in the outdoors, literally and figuratively. It believes that stronger, faster, more elite athletes have more of a right to be on trails, treating other users as a nuisance.
These unhealthy expressions of masculinity don't exist in a vacuum. They're intertwined with other harmful but pervasive cultural values. Toxic masculinity leans heavily on notions of conquering and dominion, which is closely connected to the dogma of imperialism.
The idea that land should be conquered is, in the United Stated and many parts of the West, the bloody heritage of Eurocentric settler-colonialism. Challenging this mindset is a critical step to decolonizing the act of outdoor recreation and rebuilding a healthier relationship with nature. We need not approach summiting mountains and sending climbing pitches as a flex of settler-inspired ownership.
Similarly, the mindset of imperialist conquest is motivated by a desire to extract resources from the natural environment for our own material gain. Once settlers have laid claim to the land, they can then move on to exploiting it without question.
In some cases, beliefs around conquering nature are openly regarded as a tenet of faith systems. The conquest mindset is embedded in both historic and modern-day interpretations of Christian doctrine. In Genesis 1:28, the Christian Bible states: "God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'" (Emphasis added.) This passage is often referred to as the dominion mandate, and is leveraged even in the present day by numerous Christian communities to validate and reinforce imperialist and extractive capitalist ideologies. In other words, the reverence of conquest can be found in all corners of Eurocentric culture: economic, political, religious, and more.
Although we often think of extractive capitalism on a large scale, such as fossil fuel extraction or mining activities, it can seep into our lives on a small scale as well. Anytime we purge outdoor activities of mutuality and communion with our environment or with others, and instead approach nature with self-centered objectives of what it can do for us alone, we run the risk of recreating with an extractive mentality. It's important that we recognize the ways in which the normalization of resource extraction can infiltrate our personal relationships with nature. Once we recognize this tendency, we can cultivate a practice of pausing and reseting our intentions.
To be clear, living as a human being always entails consumption and thus a degree of resource extraction. We can't reasonably aspire to having absolutely zero impact on our environment. The point, then, is not to eliminate consumption, but rather to do so mindfully.
A Word on Healthy Expressions of Masculine Values
It's important to acknowledge that masculinity can be expressed and valued in a positive way in the context of outdoor recreation.
Healthy masculine traits include things like bravery, strength, confident self-assuredness, and decisiveness. These can be wonderful values to cultivate and celebrate in the outdoors.
Similarly, doing challenging things outdoors naturally imparts a sense of accomplishment and fortitude. There's nothing wrong with that. Feeling like you've done something very hard and done it well can and should be celebrated. Broadly speaking, it's uplifting for society to collectively celebrate athletes who push the boundaries of human limits. Stories of people overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds will always be inspiring. Engaging with these types of challenges in a mindful way can be a powerful vehicle for personal growth, self-reflection, and confidence building.
The difference, though, is when celebrating great accomplishments turns into social norms around what is and isn't an acceptable way to interact with nature and our athletic accomplishments therein. While healthy masculinity can be a great thing outdoors, we must remember that those traits are just a handful of possibilities among many other equally valuable options.
Creating Space for Alternative Values in Outdoor Recreation
If toxic masculinity, imperialism, and extractive capitalism are examples of damaging value systems in natural spaces, what approaches could we be honoring instead? What might we seek in our own experiences instead? Below are a few examples, though this list is by no means exhaustive.
Listening and receiving. Instead of tying ourselves to a goal-oriented agenda of what we want to accomplish, we can approach time in nature with open-mindedness, a blank slate ready to receive whatever is offered to us.
Reciprocity. Practice the idea of being in nature as a relationship instead of a transaction. Instead of thinking of ourselves as separate from or superior to our environment, we can cultivate a sense of deep connectedness and mutuality.
Healing. As an extension of the above, as we practice the bi-directionality of communion with nature, we can offer our own gifts of energy back to our environment. I wrote previously about the cultivation of healing intentions as an example of offering something of ourselves to nature.
Quiet contemplation and intuition-building. Whether alone with our thoughts or enjoying the quiet with others, nature presents an opportunity to shift our focus. Turning down the volume on the noise of our human-made environments opens up space for us to listen to our intuitions and familiarize ourselves more deeply with the contours of our inner world.
Gentleness. Being in wild places is not all about doing things stronger, faster, and harder. We can go on backpacking trips or runs or lake kayak outings where we are moving purposefully slowly. We can set an intention to process our surroundings more carefully, and to move with gentleness of both body and mind.
Community. Time outdoors is a fantastic vehicle to foster connection and relationships. We can focus our attention on others, whether it be human companions or the flora and fauna we see in the wild.
Expressiveness. The solitude of nature can create a safe haven for expressing emotions freely without the fear of judgment from others. I touched on this in an essay about practicing joy. The pines and the birds have no problem with your bad dancing. Associating nature with freedom of self-expression can be powerful.
Creating a Stronger Culture, One Outdoor Experience at a Time
Shifting the culture of outdoor recreation to normalize different ways of being outside is work that all of us are part of. Examples of these cultural shifts have begun to bubble up more and more in the outdoor community, and the time is ripe to build on that momentum.
Take time to reflect on your own time in nature and how you can experiment with a wide array of experiences and goals outdoors. Validate in yourself that recreation with the goal of gentleness, for example, is as valuable as the goal of pushing your physical limits. Elevate and celebrate the stories of others who share meaningful experiences that fall outside those we traditionally celebrate. The more we can recognize the value inherent in the softer side of recreation, the richer the outdoor community will be.