Through brand marketing and sponsorship of professional athletes, outdoor retailers promote their gear and merchandise through the extraordinary talents and lives of the few in order to sell to the many. The people who accomplish such phenomenal athletic feats and live adventurous lives are thrilling to watch by any standard, but the advertising is targeted at the lay, amateur, or hobbiest adventurer hoping to add more adventure to their life – and the brand ambassadors do indeed sell.
But the subliminal message at the core of such advertising instills disappointment in the common life where none may have been before and where none need be. For the masses who were not born with extraordinary athletic ability or who do not have the financial luxury to live lives of travel, leisure, and adventure, to be peddled messages suggesting that a fulfilling lifestyle is one of unending adventure ultimately delivers disillusion and disappointment in an ordinary life by comparison. The ads feed off the hopes and dreams of a new life, a life not one’s own, lived in the virtual reality of the mind and realized more often than not, through shallow consumption.
While the end goal of a business is ultimately profit, the ends do not need to justify the means. For what is lacking in promoting highlights and snapshots of the world’s greatest athletic ability is the depth of personhood. What is absent is the nobility of character and depth that comes from the day-to-day struggles and growth that come with the endeavor to live a good life – of which even athletes must contend when they are not putting up a first ascent or catching a wave.
While the elite life of a professional athlete captured in moments of brilliance is phenomenal, it does not provide a good example of right living. Because the message sets the bar at a level out of reach for most it is like selling a shooting star: something beautiful and out of reach, distant and spectacular, to be observed from afar.
The noble life, on the other hand, is one that anyone can have. It is a life of the common, day-to-day struggles that everyone faces, but is only gained through perseverance, inner strength, and the determination to build the character that comes with playing the long game. It is the life-long devotion and perseverance to unglamorous actions that develop into stewardship for that which lies before us in daily life. As Wendell Berry said, “It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife for 50 years.”
The noble life, unlike the athletic ideal, is at once worthy, honorable, and decent – both for the common man and woman, and the elite athlete as well. There is no biological barrier, no contingencies on net worth, and no in-bred disappointment, except that which comes from the endeavor to overcome failure in one’s pursuit of fine personal qualities born from upholding high moral principles and ideals.
This is not to say that there is something wrong with athletic ability, or promoting activities in the outdoors, for those are good and necessary and foster love and appreciation for the landscape, but caring for the earth requires so much more than using it for play, at least if that care is meant to translate into action.
Sustaining recreational lands requires knowledge, maintenance, care, and labor. If we do not understand what the earth offers us and requires of us, then we will continue to destroy it. For no matter how much one may love the earth, one can only live fully in it by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. You cannot save the land apart from the people or the people apart from the land (Wendell Berry).
The noble life has been ignored, I think, because it’s not a shiny object; it does not end in a spectacular singular event. It is not a candle burning at both ends. It has the unfortunate commodity of being personal and slow, built on values not easily measurable or even visible. The noble life unfurls behind the man or woman living it where understanding requires knowing the story, seeing with different eyes, and valuing the slow and steady march of time, for that is what it takes to grow into such a life.
To promote such a lifestyle, a company would be dealing with the common man and woman, the laborers, the advocates, the volunteers, the safe-keepers and people who not only play and develop themselves in the outdoors, but who work and care and try to restore the outdoors. To do this, a company would have to watch, and listen, and capture what amounts to a life fueled by spiritual and community values not quantifiable or easy; at certain points it may even deal with mysteries and unknowns, for the actions are but a hope and dream engineered in the mind of an individual brave enough to put those ideas into action. What they would find is that these undefinable and often unseen rules such people have chosen to live by have results, among others, that are economic – and probably profitable as well.
To promote such a life would add depth to the message of the company while giving people the space to love where they are, to rejoice in what they have, and to be comfortable in their own skin, knowing that it is the person wearing the clothes or using the gear that gives such things value, rather than the other way around. In short, the person adds value to the company because they feel valued and proud of their own life and their life’s work and the brand becomes a part of it.
For, if we have a common purpose, which is to value our lands, to promote a clean and healthy environment, and to sustain outdoor recreation for generations to come, how successful do we hope to be by peddling dissatisfaction that leaves people unhappy with their own lives and hence will not invest in their home community because they are consumed with living a different life elsewhere?
If one does not find value in the day-to-day investment in the place in which they live, no amount of moral messages or theoretical ethics from a business will change anything. To echo what Wendell Berry suggested, issues on a landscape or world scale cannot be solved until it is understood and dealt with by local people as a multitude of local problems hinging on the relationship between them and the local ecology, community, and culture.
Teddy Roosevelt and America’s first Forester, Gifford Pinchot, believed that conservation was a cause vital to the United States’ remaining a land of equals. Acting on that belief, they did the unthinkable – they set aside large swaths of the American landscape as public land, designating National Parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges, thus protecting both land and resources from the rich and powerful, the industrialists and capitalists who would “not leave the land as it is, who would only mar it.”
It was anathema to their class and status, both coming from wealthy and privileged Eastern families. The issue wasn’t necessarily class warfare; however; and it wasn’t just a battle for land or money, though those certainly played a part. It was a battle between two different mentalities sprouting from the same root that came to a head over deeply held yet conflicting American principles: the right to property and the right to liberty.
In order to have true liberty, or free-will, one must be on equal footing with everyone else. Inequality diminishes liberty. If one’s right to vote is contingent on owning property and there are laws that say certain groups cannot own property, then those groups are not on equal footing with their fellow countrymen and hence their free-will, or liberty, is hindered. This is an example of unequal treatment under the law in that some are granted privileges while others are excluded from them.
Equality is inherently an issue of access: access to an education, to vote, to own property, to employment, to knowledge and information, to the internet, to medical care, etc. The list goes on and on. Not having access to any of these leaves people in the dark ages.
Unfortunately the principle of property rights has been used as a tool to deny access to others for centuries and its use for those ends is still pursued today. The thing to understand about owning property; however, and this must be emphasized, is that property rights imply the freedom to act. Having title to property amounts to legal proof of ownership; property rights, on the other hand, amount to the owner’s possession of rights to perform certain physical actions on that property (1). In other words, property rights allow or restrict actions depending on whether you are the owner or guest of the property.
When public lands were created and given to the American people, what we got possession of was not the physical land, but the rights to perform certain actions on those lands. We were given access and equal footing with everyone else who was given those rights. It was a radical idea that rivals colonial America’s win against Britain for most unbelievable success story in American history.
But success can be short lived. The same forces working against Roosevelt and Pinchot are alive and well today. The same mentality is trying to take our property rights away, be it to the states, industry, or private citizens. The people pushing this agenda are not only trying to take public lands, they are trying to wrestle away our possession of property rights, and thus access and freedom to perform physical actions on those lands. If they succeed we will lose more than the ability to hunt and fish, to hike and bike, to backpack and kayak; we will cease to be a nation of equals and this is why:
Not everyone will have access to the pristine, natural beauty found on public lands. Places outside the noise and clatter of cities with clean air and water; places of spiritual significance, solitude and space will belong only to those who have access to them. Our ability to escape to cool and quiet alpine air to heal from an angry and violent world or to walk in the footsteps of past generations in places unchanged for hundreds of years will be gone or off limits, open only to those with the money and property rights to be there.
It’s not a partisan issue, though it is the GOP pushing this agenda. If you don’t like the presidential candidates, remember what Teddy Roosevelt was able to do and imagine the opposite. Remember also that 80 percent of Congress is up for re-election. They control the purse strings that can fund or starve management of our lands, as well as the pen to pass laws that undermine or enhance our access to them.
Holding lands in trust for future generations was a great moral issue 100 years ago and it’s still a great moral issue today. Right now, even if we do not own a house, we have property rights to land that grants us access to engage in a host of physical activities where we can feel as at home in them as anyone else.
Most of our public lands exist in the West, and the West has always been synonymous with freedom – freedom to enter what the Irish officer in the British Army, William F. Butler described in 1872:
“The great ocean itself does not present more infinite variety than does this prairie-ocean of which we speak. In winter, a dazzling surface of purest snow; in early summer, a vast expanse of grass and pale pink roses, in autumn too often a wild sea of raging fire.
No ocean or water in the world can vie with its gorgeous sunsets, no solitude can equal the loneliness of a night-shadowed prairie; one feels the stillness, and hears the silence, the wail of the prowling wolf makes the voice of solitude audible, the stars look down through infinite silence upon a silence almost as intense. One saw here the world as it had taken shape and form from the hands of the creator.”
So long as the public keeps vigilant watch over the land, deep pockets of the powerful will not prevail. But keeping watch entails more than using the land for recreation, it presupposes a duty to act as sentries and guardians ready to sound the alarm when under attack. It would be a mistake to assume that our public lands and our access to them will always be there. Nothing in politics is written in stone. In this arena, those who care the most, win.
(1) Foundation for Economic Education, Gary Pecquet. Private Property and Government under the Constitution.