First written March 2015.
I like to think of myself as a nature lovin’ character. I believe that a connection to wilderness is essential to human wellbeing and count Chris McCandless as one of my personal heroes. I was enthralled by Robyn Davidson’s stubborn slog across the outback in Tracks and I wished that Wild had more sweeping mountain scenery and less Reese Witherspoon getting it on with randoms in alleyways. I follow the adventures of Not A Chance and Carrot Quinn, badass ladies who have thru-hiked more than 24,000km of the Pacific Crest Trail between them. I daydream of trekking through the rich, sweaty depths of the Amazon and scaling the cloud-shrouded dome of Mt Kinabalu in Borneo.
It was with these wild aspirations in mind that I signed up for a volunteer tramping trip: five days in the NZ back country monitoring and catching kea. Despite my enthusiastically earthy self-image, I have only really undertaken day hikes, with just one overnight backpacking stint in the last five years. This lack of experience didn’t deter me, and I spent weeks preparing, acquiring a pack and practising pitching my tent. But soon after embarking, reality cut me down like a tree being logged and my expectations were splintered. The uphill struggle straight up a mountainside burned me out and wore me down. Suffering from heatstroke and with a nerve in my shoulder pinching, I decided to walk out and go home the next day. Since this disappointing experience, I have been wracked with doubt. I had built up these lofty expectations based on the exploits of others, without pausing to consider the extent of my own abilities and what I actually wanted out of the experience.
There’s no doubt connection to the natural world is important to me – and indeed in the age of “nature deficit disorder” it should be a connection we all strive to strengthen. But I got addicted to the idea of nature – a flattened, two-dimensional version splashed across smartphone screens. I wanted to participate in this colourful world of sharp blue, green and brown pixels. But real nature isn’t just a pretty picture – it’s the afternoon sun beating down on the back of your neck, the cool river water tugging at your ankles with a deceptive strength and the wind charging down a mountain pass to rattle and pummel your tent. It’s invigorating, but not always comfortable. Combined with the pressure to maintain a certain pace with others of mountain-goat-ability, my wilderness sojourn was a shock to the system. But there were magical bits too: a low cloud slinking at the far end of the valley, the dark, weedy waters of a shooting cold tarn and of course the piercing cry of kea as they wheeled overhead. Maybe right now I can’t walk for weeks on end, but I can still delight in nature. It’s not about trudging so fast to your destination that the scenery, flora and fauna meld into a barely-remembered blur, nor is it obsessing over getting a spectacular scenery snap to show off to your friends. It’s stopping to admire a particularly perfect fern, or press your hand into a bed of soft moss. It’s sitting on a cool, smooth rock and smelling the earth after rain. It’s about a complete sensory experience.
I think each person has their own unique relationship with nature. For some it will mean detaching from modern madness for days or weeks, but for others it may mean a Sunday picnic by a lake. Both are valid, both can be restorative. But the essence of our enjoyment is not static – like nature itself, it is dynamic and complex, ever-changing and evolving. I can aim to live more authentically with my environmental values, and less vicariously through Instagram. While my planned 5 day break in nature may have come to an abrupt end, my connection to nature in all its beauty, paradox and power can only grow. We should all venture out to visit Mother Earth in person more often, on our own terms.