Listening to the Trees: Huddle up-Bears are out here!

Chelsea Johnson

The Outdoor Recreation Club (ORC) has one of the biggest email lists of any student group on campus. Their trips draw students from all the different subcultures of campus life, typically with a healthy helping of the usual, sort of dirty, suspects. No ORC trip is ideal-there’s always one tent, knife, or person (just kidding, Campus Life) left in the car, and sometimes it turns out that walking for a long time is harder than suspected. But a continuous consolation is the strong connections made with people you’ve just met through shared stories, new inside jokes and collective accomplishments. This sense of community has impressive staying power. People often stay friends with their tripmates, and ORC house gatherings make the Fire Marshal nervous at least once a week.
An ORC trip to hike the streets of New York-however hilarious it’d be-would never have this same effect. The wild world uniquely encourages us to build community with our fellows, a value deserving of preservation in light of the increasing tendency of the modern world to isolate individuals.
A few weeks ago I wrote that being in natural spaces makes us aware of how non-anthropogenic the wild world is. This, I argued, gives us a much broader sense of the world and its communities. Being surrounded by rocks and sky and water and trees makes us vividly aware that humans are only a small piece of the world.
But as we look outwards from ourselves, we also look inward at humankind and see how fragile and precious our fellow humans are in the world of rocks and sky and water and trees.
In natural settings, we are much more capable of finding joy and connection with other humans. We are more empathetic and open to each other, because surrounded by pines, you realize how much you have in common with that the human walking next to you, even if they are a little sweaty or dirty. You have infinitely more in common with them than a pine, as its presence reminds us. In non-anthropogenic places, you can’t take humans for granted.
Our awakened capacity for connection is further fostered by the unique difficulties inherent to being in the natural world. Whole fields of experiential environmental education like Outward Bound rely on wild challenges to build community and teamwork in their participants. Because these experiences are fully real with real consequences, unlike a simulated video game or obstacle course, participants have to rely on each other and the support of their formed community to accomplish goals. In nature, there is not only the inclination for connection, but the necessity-very different from a modern world designed for complete self-autonomy.
Even when we return to our towns, the natural world continues to foster strong community ties. Just as we are supported by the environment, we must return that support and protect these places and continually seek more balanced human action. The earth is the greatest equalizing factor  for human beings-no matter our economic class, race, politics or any other divisive factor, we all live and depend on the same planet.
Striving for lifestyles not founded on ecological degradation comes with considerable challenges. The tasks ahead are intricately involved in every facet of our modern lives, and when faced with that fact, it’s easy to become daunted, hung up on the inevitable environmental hypocrisies of your own life, paralyzed by the enormity of the task or your perceived inability to create change. But environmental action is not reserved for recycling saints-it includes every one of us, and to move forward, we can utilize the support, creativity and power of communities.