Music makes hanging around a campfire even more hypnotic than it already is.
Henry McCausland
Music makes hanging around a campfire even more hypnotic than it already is.
Music makes hanging around a campfire even more hypnotic than it already is. (illustration: Henry McCausland)
Chuck Thompson

Are Backwoods Beats Really Harmless?

Most of us hit the outdoors seeking calm and quiet, but Chuck Thompson prefers to blast a little 38 Special by his campfires. Still, even a rustic headbanger like him has to wonder if the coming age of total connectivity in otherwise wild places is good for bees, beasts, and man.

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I’d like to ask that you not judge me for what I’m about to say. Though I know you probably will.

Two years ago, I made an important discovery—that Thin Lizzy, specifically the Jailbreak album recorded by those star-crossed Irish legends, actually enhanced the experience of hiking in Central Oregon’s Mount Jefferson Wilderness.

It happened by accident, more or less. All I knew that morning, with eight miles and lots of elevation gain lying ahead, was that I needed a few classic jams to help push me through. So I brought my iPod and earbuds, just like I do when I’m out for a run in my neighborhood.

What I didn’t know was that I’d taken the first strides into a thicket of backwoods recrimination and guilt-inducing moral ambiguities. Do electronics belong in the wilderness? If so, to what extent? And what kinds? These questions are currently being debated by ideological progressives and puritans alike, not just on outdoor-related websites but in the medical community and the halls of Congress. Opinions come from a bewildering range of people, everybody from peer-reviewed scientists to borderline cranks, and it’s not always easy to tell who’s who.

On that promising morning, though, discord was but a faint abstraction as I began to learn how much I loved packing tunes into the woods. Then, after merely hiking with music, I graduated to camping with music. The breakthrough was the acquisition of one of my favorite gadgets ever—the iHome iHM60 rechargeable mini speaker. About the size of a racquetball, this featherweight little gizmo pumps out surprisingly resonant beats. It works whether the lakeside mood calls for Drake or Thy Art Is Murder. Or, for that matter, Lakeside.

After these bands became part of my rustic jamboree, I went further into the production end. My tasteful campfire playlist now includes acoustic and semiacoustic leaf-rustlers from the Marshall Tucker Band, Robert Earl Keen, Israel Nash, First Aid Kit, Jolie Holland, the profoundly uncool Spyro Gyra (no apologies—they’re from Buffalo, by the way), and a little-known Canadian folkstress named Lindsay Ferguson, whose touching ballad “Ships” never fails to stop everyone mid-s’more.

There’s no denying it. Music makes hanging around a campfire even more hypnotic than it already is. In the Yukon’s stunning Kluane National Park, it also gave our little party comfort. We let the iHM60 purr through the night in an effort (successful, apparently) to keep the park’s grizzlies at bay while we slept.

Still, while I’ve enjoyed this new world of camping wonder, I never felt completely at ease about my zeal for arriving in the backcountry with guests named 38 Special and Breakbot—a moral dilemma that’s been around longer than you’d think.

As far back as 1978, outdoor writer Patrick McManus called the bleating of transistor radios in the woods “among the most hideous sounds on earth.” In their 1993 book Wilderness Ethics, Laura and Guy Waterman presented a full-on case against outdoor electronics, calling them an affront to the spirit of the occasion. “Much more important than the intrusion of noise is the intrusion of a tie back to the world of technology and civilization,” they wrote. “Wilderness has nonhuman significance…. Wilderness is a place where we leave Earth alone.”

This predicament has become exponentially more complex with the universal wireless miracle that compels us, like it or not, to remain attached to civilization wherever we roam. We’ve left the quaint world of transistor radios far behind, and most of us seem electrified to have done so. After all, only lunatics would argue for an outdoor ban on all modern technology, which includes everything from digital cameras to water purifiers to life-saving SOS devices. And goddammit, seeing as how they went to the trouble of inventing it, I’m not prepared to give up my Jetboil.

It’s connectivity that’s causing unprecedented concern.

Studies are proliferating on “electrosmog,” the blanket of electromagnetic fields that we've cast across the planet, which could be harmful to various wild species

On the surface, it would seem that my backwoods beats are harmless, so long as I’m not a jerk about inflicting my noise on other people. But the entire notion of technology in the woods turns out to be a much more significant issue than that, with ramifications that can’t just be reined in simply by using the volume control.

Even when we’re not actively interacting with the digital world, our devices are. Packing music into the toolies isn’t just about being a clueless boor with questionable habits in the field. It’s also about being a clueless boor who might be harming the environment. Literally.

Around the world, studies are proliferating on the devastating effects of “electrosmog,” the blanket of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) that we’ve cast across the planet, which could be harmful to various wild species. For example, German scientist Ulrich Warnke has argued that there’s a link between colony collapse disorder in bees and our mania for cell phones, whose RF waves discombobulate bees’ orientation and navigation mechanisms.

Then there’s FirstNet, a nationwide wireless-broadband network for emergency communications that was approved by federal law in 2012. Backed by numerous studies, the Department of the Interior has raised concerns about the harmful effects it may have on migratory birds. In a dramatically titled 2014 book, An Electronic Silent Spring, Katie Singer reports on a Spanish study of a frog habitat located near a cell tower. Researchers found that frogs artificially shielded from the antennae’s waves had a mortality rate of 4.2 percent. Frogs left exposed to the waves reportedly suffered a whopping 90 percent mortality rate.

Singer is a consultant who works with the Vermont-based EMR Policy Institute, which studies—and generally opposes—federal standards for environmental exposures to non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation associated with broadcast, radar, mobile-phone, and personal-wireless technologies. As I grew morally muddled about my habit of camping with electronics, which has come to also include a smartphone and tablet, I decided to call her at her home in northern New Mexico.

“These issues you’re raising are actually terrifying, but the questions need to be asked,” she tells me. “We have deployed all this stuff without asking: Is there any harm here to ourselves, to biodiversity, to the entire ecosystem?”

Singer talks with me on a landline; as she mentions, she has never owned a cell phone. “I don’t mind telling you that I don’t have a cell phone, except that it can trivialize the issue, because then that’s all people focus on,” she says. “They think, ‘Oh God, is she totally weird or what?’ Yes, I am weird, but that’s not what we’re talking about.”

We end up talking about the Federal Communications Commission. Singer is tweaked by the FCC’s July 2016 announcement that it is taking steps to enable rapid development of next-generation 5G technologies and mandate the spread of wireless to rural areas.

To deliver the expected huge leap in performance, 5G will likely depend on “millimeter waves,” signals in the high frequency range. Scientists are already looking at the health risks these pose. Singer speaks emphatically about the potential harm to wildlife.

Albert Manville, a former biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and now an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University, echoes Singer’s view that there is legitimate cause for worry. “Complicating the issue is the fact that there currently are no standards for wildlife exposure,” he says. “That includes the licensing and regulatory rules and procedures of the FCC.”

The FCC hasn’t updated its guidelines for power-density exposure to humans since the passage of the Telecommunications Act in 1996. Singer points out that section 704 of the act includes a clause that forbids state and local governments from regulating “wireless service facilities on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions.” According to critics like Singer, this verbiage means that even if everyone in your town agrees that a proposed new cell tower is going to kill all the birds, bees, and frogs, your city council is legally prohibited from denying a permit based on emissions. In effect, telecom profits trump environmental health.

During his remaining time in office, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler isn’t expected to exercise the hand of restraint in this Wild West of wireless. Prior to assuming his post in 2013, Wheeler was a famed advocate for telecom-industry interests. From 1992 to 2004, he served as president and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, a group that describes itself as lobbying for the industry “at all levels of government.” That’s no bullshit, either. President Obama once called him “the Bo Jackson of telecom.”

I thought Wheeler might be able to shed some useful light on the government’s plans for backcountry wireless. But the FCC media office ignored no fewer than five e-mail and phone requests for statements from him or anybody else—about 5G, section 704, or anything that touches on the wireless wilderness.

Meanwhile, the news from the government is relentlessly pro-wireless. In January 2016, five Democratic congressmen, led by Jared Huffman of California, sent a letter to Obama urging funding to extend Wi-Fi and cell service throughout all of America’s national parks.

The effort sparked the expected Internet opprobrium, but when I get Huffman on the phone, he comes across as a thoughtful guy who’s simply in favor of a popular proposal.

“I’m not hearing any blowback to the idea that our visitor centers and park facilities should have basic connectivity,” he tells me. “Overwhelmingly, people agree that it’s a good idea.”

Huffman’s Second Congressional District stretches from the Oregon border all the way to Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and it includes heavy hitters like Redwoods National Park.

“We have to recognize that a new generation is coming up, and they access information differently and experience the parks differently,” Huffman says. “We need to keep up with the times.”

(Henry McCausland)

Huffman also waves off environmental teeth-gnashing. As a member of the California State Assembly, he says, he worked with the state’s Council of Science and Technology to survey the land use and produce a report after public concerns arose because the California Public Utilities Commission authorized the installation of new wireless smart meters throughout the state.

“I’m aware that there are a number of people who worry about [electrosmog], but it has never been validated by any peerreviewed science,” he says. “The California Council on Science and Technology did not validate concerns about EMFs and health risks.

“I really don’t think it’s an issue,” he adds. “From what I’m told, there are far greater EMF exposures that people should be concerned about from their microwave ovens.”

I’m cynical about all politicians, but Huffman doesn’t strike me as unreasonable. Even so, his “everybody just chill out” position is cold comfort for people like Singer, who are perpetually frustrated by government agendas and roadblocks in the face of a danger they perceive as self-evident. Approach this byzantine subject from any angle and you’re in danger of tumbling into an enormous gulf of misunderstanding and distrust of Big Government. Given my own frustrating experience trying to pry an official word or two out of the FCC, it’s easy to see how cynicism develops around the issue.

When I first called Singer, I was stone in love with pumping up my campfire sounds. An hour on the phone with her was like rayeeain on my wedding day, a black fly in my chardonnay. But it was also, still, the good advice that I just couldn’t take. I might not be as gaga over wireless as the rest of the planet, but I’m not as freaked out as people like Singer seem to think I should be. And I’d gotten attached to having Norah Jones in my tent at night.

It was that damn frog study that kept nagging at me. Ninety percent mortality rate? Jesus!

I decided to take my problems, literally, to Nancy Messinger. A cofounder of the Portland Natural Medicine clinic in Oregon, Messinger is a cardiac nurse and electromagnetic-radiation specialist certified by the International Institute for Building Biology and Ecology in Santa Fe. I wanted her to give me a precise sense of my personal electronic footprint in the wild. Messinger’s EMF-mitigated office—it’s surrounded by poured-concrete walls that are two feet thick—is rigged with an impressive set of research-grade meters, gizmos, and assessment instruments for detecting radiation and radio frequencies. “The Europeans, especially the Germans, are light-years ahead of us in understanding this stuff,” she says.

We have to recognize that a new generation is coming up, and they access information differently and experience the parks differently.

I lay out my favorite backwoods toys—iPhone, iPod, iPad, the adorable iHome mini speaker. She breaks out Gigahertz Solutions’ HFE59B meter with a UBB 27 omnidirectional antenna (to measure radio frequencies) and a Gigahertz NFA 1000 EMF/gauss meter that measures magnetic and electrical fields.

The unit of irradiance we’re measuring is microwatts per square meter, or µW/m². “Anything over 1,000 microwatts per square meter is a serious concern,” Messinger says, because increased exposure may create health risks.

She begins by waving the HFE59B over my iPhone. Bursts of loud static tear through the room. The meter surges between 4,720 and 6,000 µW/m².

“That’s not bad compared with my Android phone,” she says. She tests her phone to demonstrate. The meter crackles and pops like an angry bug zapper as it bounces between 8,530 and 15,140 µW/m². The iPad fares better, registering anywhere between 1,770 and 4,050 µW/m² while it pulses, searching in vain for a wireless connection in the bunker office.

The iPod is a disaster. It blows the meter to 14,000 µW/m² when it’s turned on and finally settles in at 13,830 µW/m² as it cries out for an electronic mama every two seconds like an orphan in a barren field.

The numbers certainly seem ominous, but what do they actually mean?

Messinger whips out a chart of reported health effects associated with RF radiation. The data on it comes from BioInitiative 2012, a report issued by 29 international scientists and health experts who warn of possible risks from wireless technologies and electromagnetic fields, based on information from more than 1,800 studies. Exposure to a given source of radiation varies depending on how far away you are, and Messinger appears to have peppered the chart with a few examples (“Microwave oven at 4 ft.,” “Cell phone at 30 ft.”), benchmarks for predicting exposure levels herself.

According to the studies in the BioInitiative report, adverse conditions connected with exposure to a power density of 100 µW/m² include headaches, sleep loss, and concentration problems. At 10,000 µW/m², studies indicate emotional and behavioral changes, weakened immune systems, and a doubled leukemia risk in adults. At 100,000 µW/m² and up, you’re looking at DNA damage, loss of critical cell functions, and learning problems in children.

There are just two entries at the 10,000,000 mark on the top of Messinger’s chart: “DNA damage exceeds repair ability” and “FCC Limit.”

“The FCC is ridiculous,” Messinger says, laughing hard when I bring up my attempts to talk with someone there. “There’s going to be major fallout from all this wireless,” she adds. “We can’t feel what it’s doing to us, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”

Messinger seems like a grounded person, but a lot of people will tell you that the scare science is dubious. She shows me a 2013 Swedish study linking cordless and cellular phones with increased risk of brain tumors. It includes spooky MRI scans of microwave-absorption damage in brains, particularly among children.

When I call Dr. Jill Barnholtz-Sloan, a lead epidemiologist at the Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States, she’s more equivocal. “In the past 12 to 15 years, the incidence of malignant brain tumors in the U.S. has not increased,” she says from her cell phone while riding in a car between Cleveland and Detroit. Recent increases in reports of nonmalignant brain tumors are attributable to changes in ways that information is being collected and recorded, she says.

But what about studies linking brain tumors to radiation emitted by cell phones and wireless gadgets?

“Data so far has been very inconsistent,” she says. “I think we all believe the jury is still out on that because of the inconsistency of the current evidence.”

I went into this process seeking clarity—or at least some assurance that bringing Golden Smog into the woods didn’t mean I was actually polluting the place. What emerged instead were passionate responses from people with clashing agendas that played out like a Taylor Swift–Kanye West feud—which is tough for me, because I like them both.

The problem with my fretting all along, however, has been the spectral understanding that none of it really matters. No matter how much malignant data we keep amassing, does anyone really ever expect the clock to be turned back on wireless technology?

“Having a little bit of wireless connectivity does not necessarily compromise the wilderness experience. It doesn’t mean Pokémon Go,” Congressman Huffman has assured me. “It’s not a sinister plot, it’s not a conspiracy.”

However you feel about that statement, it’s happening. So what does it matter that I stop hiking with my electronics if people like Huffman and Tom Wheeler are determined to “enhance” the wilderness with wireless waves?

Of course, leaving gadgets at home doesn’t have to mean leaving music at home.

Maybe on my next hike, before it’s too late, I’ll place my iPod on the kitchen counter, lace up my boots, and walk out into the country, as far as I can get from the wireless cage. Another kind of jailbreak.

I’ll imagine Tom Wheeler hiking alongside me. Maybe, just after we’ve started down that dusty trail, I’ll turn to him and, invoking yet another classic, let him know that, even without digital support, we can still be men in harmony with the wilderness. “You do know how to whistle, don’t you, Tom?” I’ll say. “You just put your lips together and blow.”

Chuck Thompson is the author of five books, including Better Off Without ’Em: A Northern Manifesto For Southern Secession.