Friday, July 22, 2005

Interlude (cont.): Liberty, Wilderness, and Wildness

July is a very poor time for blogging, because July is a good time for wilderness expeditions. (Admittedly this standard may imply there is never a good time for blogging, but I'll bypass that issue for now.) I've just finished the Devil's Backbone 50 mile trail run this past weekend and am about to take off on nine days of mountaineering, trekking, and trailrunning in Montana and Wyoming. Prior to the DB50 a sports reporter for the local newspaper interviewed me re why ultrarunners run ultras.
While hardly any of our 20 minute conversation made the article, it did get me thinking about a tangential point that needs to be made...

What do wilderness activities have to do with libertarianism? A great deal, I think. Libertarianism is much more than distrust of government "solutions" to problems -- real libertarianism is first of all a love of liberty and of life. This love can take many forms, but it is always manifested in enthusiasm for living, in passion for activities of life. And there is perhaps nothing that more systematically puts a person into such a frame than spending time in "nature," as a fit, free-ranging animal, in touch with the earth and comfortable with being here.

Out of touch with "nature" runs the risk of being out of touch with reality -- a life too insulated leads to us to forget too much. And a life that is too easy, overfed, underchallenged, with others making sure that nothing "bad" happens to us -- this leads us to expect not freedom to pursue happiness, but rather "happy" outcomes...and if we don't receive them, someone else is to blame (sue 'em! pass a law!)

When we learn to live and be comfortable in the wild, and to really be a part of it, we give ourselves a very different understanding of the world. We learn self-responsibility, that we, not others, bear primary responsibility for taking care of ourselves -- when you are all alone at mile 35 in the midst of a 50 mile backcountry trail run, or find yourself "exhausted" on a glacier with a 12,000 foot pass between you and basecamp, this lesson comes quickly and easily. (It's the only thing that comes easily at that point.) We also learn what a beautiful universe we are a part of -- this is two lessons really. Spend enough time inthe wilderness, and you begin to notice things -- creatures, plants, events, connections -- that you never imagined. And spend enough time in the wilderness, learn to live comfortably there, and you begin to notice yourself as an integral and proper part of the universe. It's a feeling that is essential to a real appreciation of liberty.

Thomas Paine knew this well:

"But if objects for gratitude and admiration are our desire, do they not present themselves every hour to our eyes? Do we not see a fair creation prepared to receive us the instant we are born — a world furnished to our hands, that cost us nothing? Is it we that light up the sun, that pour down the rain, and fill the earth with abundance? Whether we sleep or wake, the vast machinery of the universe still goes on. Are these things, and the blessings they indicate in future, nothing to us?" (Age of Reason, Pt I Sec 3

Similarly, Thomas Jefferson hoped we would become a nation of farmer-citizens -- independent, close to earth and nature, self-sufficient if need be:

"Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if He ever had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth." (Notes from Virginia

Perhaps the division of labor and modernization of agriculture preclude us from all being farmers, but we can still cultivate in ourselves the characteristics Jefferson saw as essential for a free people -- independence, self-reliance, understanding and appreciation of nature. But this is difficult to do when we live lives that are overly-insulated and un-vigorous, spending all of our time in artificially lit boxes, mesmerized by electronic entertainments. We begin to forget we are wild animals, and turn into domestic ones, ready to be controlled by whomever picks up our lead ropes.

This is no plea for for luddism or anything similar. We needn't (and shouldn't) foreswear technology, specialization and the division of labor, nor the extended market order that makes us interdependent. But neither should we forget who and what we are: properly, we are wild animals in a wild and wonderful universe. We need to cultivate this in ourselves, for our own sakes. It isn't absolutely necessary to do 100 mile trail runs or summit snow-covered peaks to do this...but it is necessary that we find for ourselves challenges, that we learn to see ourselves as a magnificent part of a magnificent universe, and that we work to build our own independence and encourage this in others.

For one of the finest fusions of thinking about libertarianism, wilderness, and fitness, go over to GoAnimal (see the links section of this blog), take their "Wildness Personality Profile" test, and then get outside and do something exciting. July is a very poor time for blog reading.

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