And of All the Plagues with Which Nature Is Cursed, Could It Be Me That’s the Worst?

So, you have to ask, when it comes to the great outdoors, is anything OK anymore?

Jack Hitt

Don’t Climb Rocks (it scars them).
The disapproval was overwhelming, and so was the déjà vu. It was a midsummer night, and an old pal who lives on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau was visiting. My Weber was smoking gently. The coals were banked just so, and a fresh dinner of barbecued chicken crackled over the flame. In the distance, my unruly yard stretched its vines over my back fence and into neighboring trees, rioting in a late slanting sun. My compost bin was warm to the touch. The top of my apple tree boasted its fruit. It was perfect.

 “I have bought a propane grill,” said my pal. My teeth clenched. We’re old friends, so I knew exactly what he meant. The condemnation hung there in the smoke: We both knew (and knew the other knew) the latest thinking on grills: Charcoal is bad. It pollutes. The inefficiencies can best be understood in the cryptic code of Btu’s and kilowatts per penny, but the math is all there. Propane is cleaner, hotter, better.

I said déjà vu because it was only a few years ago that I was the first in my crowd to own the chimney starter, that outsize coffee-can-like device that can light a few pounds of charcoal with a piece of newspaper. The real beauty of that invention, however, is that you don’t wind up hanging your righteousness in everyone’s face. Around the dinner table, you can just slip into a bit of commentary about how London broil tastes better without the stench of lighter fluid. Or disguise your piety in Mister Science gee-whiz, tossing off words like “capillary effect” and “convection flow.” As if you knew what they meant.

Now I was back on the other side. My pal had passed me by. His thinking was more advanced. His concern for nature was more profound, his virtue superior. Suddenly I felt, well, guilty. Funny. I had long thought of myself as a dutiful environmentalist. I mean, I compost. I recycle. I keep my winter thermostat at 68. I pay a little extra to get well-designed appliances (like a Weber). I pack out what I pack in. I satisfy most of my appetite along the lower register of the food chain, mostly locally grown. I have been known to let it mellow when it’s yellow. But the grill was a sign of something bigger. Apparently I no longer was a real environmentalist, by purist standards anyway. I don’t know exactly when, but the cutting edge of concern for our planet had up and left me in the dust.

My long wooden fork held still in the air; my shoulders slumped before my smoking kettle. Suddenly I transmogrified into a Dickensian baron poised before what now looked like my very own tiny nineteenth-century coal-burning London factory, spewing black soot, soiling the birds, quite possibly forcing the white peppered moths of my neighborhood to microevolve black wings for protection.

I began to wonder just how many other well-intentioned backyardpersons and outdoorspeople now found themselves slipping on the hair shirt of this new, subtle form of shame. I probably should have seen this coming a few years back, when the stakes were raised in home recycling. Suddenly, folks who earnestly and faithfully separated glass from plastic were looked at askance by those who, without thinking, knew bimetal from tin or polyvinyl chloride from low-density polyethylene. The greener catalog companies began recycling our trash into fleece sweaters, and sneakers made from old diapers. That was then. Now the scolding puritanism that has overtaken our garbage is loose in the backyard, and making a beeline for the forests, the mountains, the deserts, the national parks–our wildlands. I can’t step out my back door without wondering, Is anything OK anymore?

When you camp out, do you swallow your toothpaste? Do you carry out your apple cores and banana peels because they are foreign to the surrounding ecosystem? Do you wear soft shoes? These days what determines proper behavior outdoors begins with the concept of “weight,” a literal lightness of being. A handful of influential outdoor organizations with names such as Leave No Trace, made a reputation asking the above questions. Indeed, their original philosophy of treading lightly on the land always seemed sound to me. But sorry, pack-it-in-pack-it-out is yesterday’s beatitude. Now, the Leave No Trace folks can be found on the Internet, vehemently thinking and rethinking the minutest details of backcountry etiquette, mulling all the ways in which we grind our heavy heel into Nature’s face. They’ve left no stone unturned.

Do you refrain from wearing brightly colored parkas and pants so as to blend more tranquilly into the landscape? Do you strain your pasta water and pack out the leavings? How to Shit in the Woods is actually a book, and the topic is complex. Do you smear your feces across the ground so that the natural processes react immediately and remove your traces within a few days? Do you bury your used toilet paper? Better yet, do you pack it out in Ziploc baggies? Better yet, do you wipe with dried leaves? Better yet, would you use a handful of rocks? All of these are straight-faced suggestions put forward by the freshest thinkers in the business.

Don’t Fish (it scares them).
These matters can be funny, but only because the suggested behavior is so utterly impractical. You don’t drive to Timbuktu to get to Toledo. Likewise, carrying your feces out of the forest, where animals have happily deposited for millennia, just doesn’t compute, no matter who’s saying it’s the right thing to do. For that matter, neither does fishing without a hook so that you don’t harm your catch. But an emerging voice in the ethic of fly-fishing says that’s what you should be doing.

In 1994, an angler from Denver named John Betts proposed an alternative to the practice of “catch and release,” which at the time was the height of angling virtue. Betts correctly pointed out that released fish usually ended up with a shredded lip or a torn face. Worse, fish that enjoyed this humane treatment more than one or twice in a week typically died from all the handling. Filled with remorse, Betts strained to find a solution. And he found one: cut the barbs from his hooks and fish with no intention of ever landing a rainbow, brown, or cutthroat. He calls his new philosophy Touch and Go.

“You get the ‘take,'” says Betts, employing his self-coined jargon. “You know you’ve touched the fish. Then, by keeping some tension on the leader, you can keep it on the hook.” For a split second, Betts says, a good fisherman can keep the fly between the fish’s lips and feel the essence of Gaia tugging from the silent depths, just like in a real fish-fight. But now there’s a democratic justice involved too–a kind of equality. In Touch and Go, the trout theoretically possesses the same power as the angler, maybe more. When the fish decides it’s had enough “touching” of your life force, it can simply slide off the line and move on to touch some other Orvis bedecked human. But do you ever land a fish accidentally? “Land a fish?” Betts barks. “No. You’ve missed the point. You don’t want to land a fish.”

Thinking like this, of course, is practically theological, a latter-day version of counting angels on the head of a pin. I mean, once you’ve started down this road, why pester the fish at all? Sure, you’re getting to “touch” the life force. That’s cool. But aren’t you just pissing the fish off? Traumatizing it? Are you any different, in the eyes of God and Gaia, from a child fussing with a wounded bug?

Frankly, I find the ideology at work in this thinking infinitely condemning: Man’s intrusion into nature is wrong, no matter how light. Heaviness is a mark of shame, and lightness an emblem of virtue. We’ve seen this on the backwoods trails in California, where for at least a decade the seemingly natural allies of hikers and bikers have been at war. There and elsewhere hikers consider themselves truer participants in the wild because they’re on foot, touching the soil with only their boots, while bikers are wicked, with their infernal machines churning up the ground and startling the wildlife with their fat tires and smoking brakes. In fact, hikers in southern California have a new and potent weapon for the fight against bikers: lizards. Hikers claim that the little things are getting run over out on the trail. It’s become a battle cry: “Mountain bikers are creating a holocaust for lizards and reptiles!” proclaimed one hiker at a recent hiker-biker peace summit in Orange County. There is a problem, though: They haven’t produced any evidence, not even the sun-dried skin of a dead reptile, to lift their argument above demagoguery. Why? “It’s the raptors,” explains one hiker. “They pick up the lizards before we can get to them.” Ah, yes, the raptors.

With or without lizards in the vicinity, under the new mountain biking ethic there is officially only one safe condition in which mountain biking should occur: when the soil has achieved a mystical state of half-dry, half-wet known as “loamy.” You avoid the wet, of course, because you tear up the trail, causing erosion. You should avoid the dry because you leave skid marks, also leading to erosion. Some of this makes good sense. But taken too far? This ethic altogether eliminates riding in the boggy Pacific Northwest, the Mississippi Valley, and a good deal of the East Coast–and certainly the dry Southwest. Which leaves, I believe, a single hill in West Virginia.

Of course, we’re used to this kind of hand-wringing in the sport of rock climbing, where two factions have been battling for decades over the issue of bolting, a common practice in which bolts are drilled into the rock to serve as permanent protection. Of course, we’re not used to seeing the battle rage so fervently in the mind of one individual. Meet Ken Nichols, who’s working toward a new, cleaner brand of climbing. The longtime king of bolting on the East Coast and author of the popular Traprock: Rock Climbing in Central Connecticut, Nichols put up many of the most popular routes in the 1970s and later mapped them. But recently Nichols was overcome by guilt. In a Dr. Frankenstein God-what-have-I-done moment, his self-loathing brought him to a kind of conversion. Again, technology is the evil genie that must be rebottled. The new method: Nichols no longer clips in to the bolts. Instead, he simply tosses a skyhook onto a ledge above him and starts climbing, hoping the hook will hold if he takes a fall. As he moves upward, he chops at the same bolts he once installed, a practice that can often leave a different kind of blight-golf-ball-size pock marks in the stone. Meanwhile, in what is becoming a serious problem, local climbers are still using his book. And they’re finding out well above terra firma that his life-supporting bolts are no more.

Even the deep blue sea doesn’t provide much haven from all the nitpicking. Snorkeling, which was once a harmless tourist business in the Caribbean, now prompts technical debates as dreary and dense as a fully convened United Nations discussing mineral rights in Antarctica. The traditional “giant-stride” dive from the edge of your boat is now pooh-poohed, since it may alter water-flow patterns carrying invisible fish eggs. Naturally, touching anything is forbidden. Taking snapshots traumatizes the fish. Suddenly the embarrassingly tacky trip our grandparents took in Florida in the 1950s–the glass-bottom boat–now seems positively avant-garde. Although I think any correct-minded guide these days would install a one-way mirror in the bottom of the boat so the fish don’t have to see all those scary mammalian faces.

Just regular old beachgoers should take heed, as well. That soft sand bodysurfers stand on to get their balance between waves? According to the latest thinking, it’s home to millions of little burrowing creatures whose homes are crushed with each human step. Your only ethical choice: tread water at all times.

Of course the luxury of such thinking–of retreating inch by inch from life in order to live more lightly on the land–is that the possibilities are as infinite as walking halfway down a plank and then halfway again. You never run out of steps to take. There is always another micrometer of virtue to squeeze out of any behavior. But then isn’t the lightest way to live off the land to jump off the plank altogether?

Founded by a schoolteacher named Les Knight, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement–the acronym is pronounced “vehement”–lives by its motto, “May we live long and die out,” and sells its bumper sticker, “Thank you for not breeding.” The goal of the organization is to promote the extinction of Homo sapiens, and like everything in the Age of Irony, VHEMent both is and isn’t kidding. Its propaganda solemnly suggests that folks should channel their sexual energy not into the creation of children but into the adoption of a stream or the care of a bonobo ape. (“They have 98 percent of our genes,” observes Knight).

But wait, isn’t Knight a sellout? What’s this “live long” business? And consume resources? Quite possibly procreate in some drunken act of lust? Check out Snuff It, the quarterly journal of the Church of Euthanasia ( This group’s argument is perfectly refined: Get the handful of pills now. Find the dry-cleaning bag at once. Call Kevorkian today, this moment, before you finish this article. A quick click on “Frequently Asked Questions” will result in fun how-to instructions for offing yourself this very afternoon. A combo of pills and plastic bag (ecologically unfriendly, true, but think of the greater good) is preferred: “Use a rubber band to fasten the bag around your head. It’s best to hold the bag open while you’re falling asleep, so you can still breathe and not panic. After you fall asleep, your grip loosens, the elastic tightens, and presto: you stop breathing. The only hard part is getting the pills (some folks just use the bag, but this is hard-core).”

Like those nineteenth-century religions that promised salvation but forbade sex, the voluntary suicide set finds recruitment tough going. Maybe you want to be pious, but still live: This being America, there is any number of spanking new “worldviews” promising a full rethinking of how one should exist–so long as you buy the book, attend the seminars, and subscribe to the magazine. Yesterday’s worldviews, topics like permaculture and ecopsychology, are still crowding the shelves in paperback. But this season’s hardback edition in new visions is called “voluntary simplicity.”

“Simplicity is just one aspect of an earth-centered life,” says Dick Roy, cofounder of the Northwest Earth Institute, a nonprofit vehicle for his thinking on pared-down living. “Satisfaction for us is just a state of mind.” Roy, who’s preached his method to staff at Nike and Hewlett Packard, among others, says that it would be hard to even mention one big change in his life since he dropped out of his high-paying Oregon law practice to pursue simplicity full time. He explains that a good deal of simplicity living is mastering the accumulation of many small changes. So he ticked them off. Some of them sounded like Heloise Hints on speed. Among them, he owns only one garbage can, which he filled just once last year. “It’s mostly dental floss,” he says, “which really isn’t recyclable. And then in this context, he actually said, “My wife and I have three children, two of them are adopted.” Roy no longer vacations far from home and has sworn off airplanes.”I hope never to leave the Pacific Northwest again,” he says.

Don’t Bike on Mountains (it crumbles them).
Should you arrive at this exquisite modern condition, you’d have to wonder how you’d measure your virtuousness against someone of comparable good intentions. You’re in luck. Don Lotter, an ecology grad student in Davis, California, has solved the problem. His EarthAware program ($69.95; 916-756-9156) poses 120 questions about every aspect of your life, crunches the data, and then pronounces you an Eco-Titan, Eco-Hero, Eco-Mentor, Eco-Average, Eco-Slowpoke, Eco-Frankenstein, or Eco-Tyrannosaurus rex. Lotter scores in the Eco-Hero range himself. I asked him what advice he’d give others for striving for Eco-Titan. “I buy all my clothes secondhand,” he said proudly. “All of them.”

“All?” I queried.

“Yep. I buy everything used,” he said. “Even socks.”

“Uh-huh,” I said, as if both of us didn’t know the next question. “And, um…underwear?”

“You know,” Lotter piped up, with that it’s-funny-you-asked kind of earnestness. “You’d be surprised how easy it is to get almost-new underwear at used-clothing stores.”

The words hung in that twilight zone of silence on the telephone. I can’t really remember what else we talked about or how the conversation ended. The phrase echoed for a long, long time: almost-new underwear.

Is there a difference between respecting nature and worshiping it? I think there is, and this new shame digs deep into the crevice of that distinction. I return to my backyard and my compost heap. Mine is just a mess of lettuce and carrot tops and onion skins and old apple cores.

But not long ago I found myself in Tennessee at a friend’s home. Out on the front porch on a beautiful, warm summer evening, I met another houseguest named Sanford–the brains behind an innovative concept in communal living that has protected hundreds of acres of river valley against development by buying up surrounding property and putting it in trust. Sanford thinks deeply about every aspect of his life, but none so profoundly as his compost heap.

“My compost is different–it’s better,” he said, leaning on his last word. “I’m adapting bio-dynamic methods developed by Rudolph Steiner. Have you heard of him?” I had, and I knew that he was a turn-of-the-century mystical homeopath known for some very hairy ideas.

“It involves remaking the soil itself,” he said excitedly. “It’s a complicated process. I can’t really describe it. I’m not sure I should. It involves using, you know, yarrow flowers fermented in stag’s bladder.” Then he described a detailed theory about the positioning of the heap, what direction certain things in it faced. He mentioned burying cow manure all winter long and then digging it up to mix with bark that had been stored in an animal skull.

“The food I grow from this soil, man, is different from other food,” he told me. “It’s better. It’s superior. It changes you when you eat it. The vegetables from my garden, I believe, are actually structurally different from the ones you buy in the store. I believe they actually are changing the cellular structure of my body. They’re turning me into something different. When I eat now, it’s like I’m consuming something sacred, something holy, something divine.”

I would occasionally make excuses to secretly jot some notes, because I realized I was listening to something rare. I was hearing a religion emerge, like listening to a first-century Christian describing the awe of holy communion: consuming something divine.

Environmentalism is often attacked for being a religion. But the critics only mean that its advocates (like me) behave like zealots when they do outrageous things like parade around naked to protest fur. What I was hearing from Sanford was a different kind of religion. It was medieval-the beginning of a belief system that, if you took it far enough, could explain every occurrence with a special clarity, from how you were feeling that morning to the shortage of rain this season to, well, everything. The hurricanes that battered the East Coast this fall might have been God’s wrath 500 years ago, but today they were Nature’s fury at global warming. As I listened on the porch, the entire collection of ideas and abstractions that we consider “religion” emerged from their old context into Sanford’s new language: sin (pollution), resurrection (recycling), salvation (balance), rebirth (reuse), redemption (harmony)–if you’re willing to run with this kind thinking, even the tree sitters who block lumberjacks have their counterparts in the early Christian stylites, who sat atop trees in a search for virtue.

As I looked at my new friend who lived off the grid (monastery) to avoid consumption (temptation), wore used clothes (hair shirt) and practiced an isolated lifestyle (eremite), I thought he was so beyond the pale that he was admirable. He is a modern monk who has taken all the traditional vows except chastity. I’m glad he’s there, just as I’m sure Catholics are inspired to know that somewhere, cloistered far away, is a monk sworn to silence and endeavoring to drain his body and soul of all sin. But then there’s the rest of us back in the fleshpots, with our lame compost heaps, our mountain bikes, and our fishing rods. We’re left to stew in the guilt of watching our best efforts ridiculed as if we were a bunch of paleolithic yahoos.

Were I to sit in a house covered in flattened-beer-can shingles, wearing shoes made of Pampers, and kept warm by the now commonplace fleece sweaters spun from the finest plastic soda bottles, I wonder, would I be moving closer to nature? Or would I just be a freak of an ornate consumer culture, living in a synthetic realm made possible only by the accelerating castoffs of a frenzied global turbo-capitalism? When I step outdoors, convinced that my presence in the wild is always damaging, aren’t I just allowing myself to slip into the old habits of romanticism, worshiping nature rather than respecting it?

Where those of us who stoke our Webers (trying to be good) part company from the propane fanatics (certain they are good) is around that weird taste for misanthropy that characterizes puritans of every age. Homo sapiens has caused extraordinary damage. But the accusation is meaningless if it’s not met with the faith that what also defines our niche is the human ability to invent creative ways beyond our own sins.

What saved Dickens’s London from its anthracite-burning, smoke-belching, black-cloud economy was not a few saints agreeing to burn one less chunk of coal each night. It was undone by the discovery of petroleum, a less pollutive alternative. Now that we’re far too addicted to oil, should we press for one more mile per gallon in our subcompacts, or should we hurl ourselves into the hard work of making solar power, or something else, work? I’ll vote for both, but I’d really like to drive that clean car. Retreat and retrenchment are never as interesting as the human imagination. I mean, we can curse the darkness. Or we can light a single candle. Or we can choose the more natural path and invent electricity.

Of course, progress in the protection of the environment isn’t coming so easy these days, whether from Democrats or Republicans. In the last few years, toxic polluters have been invited by congressional poltroons to sit in on the drafting of EPA regulations. And, this year, in a complex web of election-year deals, President Clinton signed into law the protection of more than 1.7 million acres of red-rock country in Utah preserving the Escalante Canyon, the Grand Staircase cliffs, and the Kaiparowits Plateau. The deal, which entails giving a mining company as-yet-unspecified land elsewhere in the West, has plenty of skeptics, but many environmentalists seem to agree that it was basically a sound move. At the same time, everyone knows Clinton well enough to realize that he never would have risked it if there weren’t a lot of people who would back him. A whole lot.

He had the political cover not only from purists chopping rails and wearing almost-new skivvies, but also from bikers and fishermen and kayakers and skiers and hunters and hikers and spelunkers and snowboarders and rock climbers and even the couch potatoes in their RVs lining up at Yellowstone for their annual nature experience.

Puritanism is a great American tradition and manages to show up in every age. But puritans, regardless of the century, are basically pains in the ass. Besides, when sainthood is the goal, we all end up miserable hypocrites. What can I say? Let he who is without sin wipe his butt with stones.

Oh, yeah, my friend with the propane? That night, I barbecued two chickens, slathered in my own secret South Carolina mustard-based sauce, above flames of smoking charcoal. My pal managed to maraud his way through five big pieces, uttering only Homer Simpson grunts. His conscience didn’t stand a chance.