Checking E-Mail in Eden
An Essay Concerning Modern Social Responsibility and Off-the-Grid Living
By Mac William Bishop
Tuesday, August 4th, 2015
Is the desire for a simpler outdoor life ethically responsible? Like many people who grew up in the American West, outdoor activities were at the center of my recreation on weekends and holidays. I grew up hiking, camping, fishing, skiing and mountain biking in the Rockies. Many of my summers were spent exploring the San Juans in southwestern Colorado, particularly the Weminuche Wilderness, a vast and remote area where one is unlikely to encounter another human in the course of a day-hike.
I have long associated these activities with “good” living - unconsciously placing them on the higher end of a scale of human endeavor. This unwritten value system has an ethical component: a day outdoors hiking is not just pleasant and healthy activity, it is morally superior to sitting at home and watching TV or hanging out with friends for a brunch. A lot of people think this way, without considering what it means.
The philosophical and ethical aspect of humanity’s relationship to nature has been explored in great detail, and the American relationship to the outdoors has been the subject of literature and study from the beginning of U.S. history. Primers on the subject can be found across centuries, from Henry David Thoreau's Walden to Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash.
My purpose isn’t to add to this substantial body of thought, but to explore a very specific issue which I think many outdoor enthusiasts and professionals face: How does one reach a workable balance between living "off-the-grid” and fulfilling her responsibilities in an always-connected world?
Spend a little time in the backcountry, and I find there are generally three types of people you are likely to encounter. I have classified them as Purists, Adrenals and Lifers.
Purists view living outdoors as ethically superior to life amid society’s day-to-day grind. To them, achieving total disconnect is the only real way to experience the outdoors. This kind of person doesn’t car camp. They don’t bring stereos into the backcountry or watch movies on their iPads from the comfort of their tent. From the Purists point-of-view, such things are not merely impractical, they are sacrilegious.
Why bother going into the outdoors, if all you are going to do is try to replicate the ephemeral pastimes of society?
Recently I spent about a week in the Wind Rivers Reservation in Wyoming, on a backcountry fly-fishing trip.