Charles Aaron Camp
Gateway: Helping Others Connect to the Land
by Aaron Camp
November 21, 2018
What was your gateway into the outdoors?
Sadly, many people in this increasingly digital era just aren’t ‘into the outdoors’ at all! Some, no doubt, were raised by parents already awakened to the majesty of nature. Others were introduced to the natural world through a hobby they picked up or a move to a rural context.
My personal story of connection to the land came through what some call adult-onset hunting. I’d been fishing most of my life, but with little exposure to the wild side of this world as the majority of my fishing excursions took place at local ponds in the suburbs. Over time, exposure to hunter-conservation organizations like Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and voices like Charles Post and Steve Rinella helped me develop a more complex view of hunting that appreciated the process and purpose beyond just the kill. I began reading Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry. I began frequenting rivers and forests of the American Midwest for less-consumptive reasons as well. Conservation was now on my radar! These organizations and men began to shape my mind to grasp the connection between my love for doing things on the land to my part in caring for the land!
To many, it seems obvious that outdoorsmen and women have an uphill battle for the heart and soul of American society and “land enthusiasm”. Knowledge of our public land system, methods of wildlife management, and environmental protection are lost on the average person. Also, many sportsmen and women who love the outdoors tend to feel that it is a very personal – maybe even private – thing, so it’s hard for them to envision bringing others along. Thirdly, there is an almost cliquish tendency in the outdoor world to cling closely with those most like us, and to steer clear of people outside of our immediate sphere.
I’d like to propose a few tactics to fight this uphill battle of land disconnection. I believe we can help others connect to the land in three ways: educational, experiential, and communal.
One of the best ways to protect the land is to educate people in how our land system works. I’m not talking about convincing someone to get a degree in Environmental Studies. I’m suggesting that when people understand the basics of ecology, our agricultural system, or wildlife management, they seem to develop a newfound respect for the land and interest in being involved. Educated people are then able to have meaningful conversations with others. When minds are opened up to the reality that there are philosophies, systems, and worldviews that underpin human relation to the land, a layer of depth develops around these topics.
This requires us to be informed enough to speak responsibly on these issues! It requires nature lovers to be up-to-date with solid, science-based solutions to ecological issues. It requires us to read books and blogs, listen to podcasts, and watch documentaries about the land and its use. It requires us to have compelling reasons to be listened to! We want to be measured in our pronouncements, not always doom and gloom. We also want to be winsome in our tone. Nothing is more annoying than being beaten over the head with information without context, so make sure to meet people where they are. Ask a lot of questions and be willing to find out the answer if you don’t know. Don’t fake it. If the reward for respectful, intelligent conversation is another soldier in the fight to care for the land, then we should all add this tool of education to our arsenals.
Another way for exposing others to the land is to help others actually experience it! No amount of flowery language or articulate explanation can match the experience of seeing a sunrise in person. Society values artists, poets, and photographers who capture a portion of the experience. How can we describe a wild experience to someone who really doesn’t have a meaningful definition of the wild? It’s not impossible for someone to grasp your definition, but it’s an incomplete one if they haven’t experienced it.
Helping others experience the land requires us to let go of viewing our outdoor life as something that is ‘just for us’. As I mentioned before, it’s far too easy for us to keep our wild places, activities, and acquired skills to ourselves. Does your heart still skip a beat when you’re surprised by a whitetail doe as she darts through the woods at an almost inexplicable pace? What about the sense of accomplishment when you’re dragging the raft out of the river? These things are intensely personal, but these experiences – and many more – have the ability to change someone else’s life as well.
By introducing someone to the land in this way, you equip them to stop viewing the environment as a political topic because the places, animals, and experiences become deeply personal. By involving them in your experience, you give them a tool to remember smells, feel cool wind, and taste fire-grilled food when they hear people speak of the wild places. Give someone something to daydream about in their cubicle by taking them with you.
The final way I suggest to help provide a gateway to the land is inviting people into a healthy outdoor community. This requires the outdoor community to actually be a healthy community. It’s an unfortunate thing that we in the outdoor world have a real temptation to view each other as enemies rather than friends. Are there situations where one hobby’s activity annoys the other? Of course! Are there times when preservationists and conservationists aren’t going to agree on the best course of action to care for the land? Absolutely! Are hikers going to feel weird about gun season on public land? Yep. Will fishermen and women cringe when kayakers float through the pool they’re casting into? You bet. The problem is not disagreement or even a little conflict now and then. The problem is us versus them. We’re living in an era where all outdoor sportsmen and women, all foodies interested in agriculture (from hobbyist to professional), and all land-care advocates have the opportunity to unite rather than divide.
This is going to require people to connect and talk. When you’re afield, be cool. The other guy scouting for wild game is probably a good guy – you know you at least have one thing in common! After a few minutes of chatting, he’ll probably be less likely to mess with your trail cam too. If you see kayakers floating the river, recognize that the river is theirs too. You have the chance to ask them if they’re having a good time, and, while you’re at it, find out what the water is like upstream! You also may want to consider joining an advocacy group that stretches your views. If you’re a member of a political organization focused on environmental change, join a local conservation group to get a better view of your local land and water issues! If you’re part of a hunting and fishing organization, find an organization that specializes in protection of non-game animals.
We have an opportunity to live out our ecological views. We can be different, yet unified in purpose. We have the chance to see the places where our views and activities interconnect. This isn’t mystical kumbaya mumbo-jumbo. I’m talking about mutual benefit. I’m talking about doing things that are good for you, good for others, and good for the land. If we can demonstrate these values, we become an attractive community, guiding those who need a connection to the land.
It won’t happen immediately. It’s not easy. If it’s working, you’ll begin to notice people around you looking for their gateway to experiencing the land. They may bring up something they saw in the news about water quality in your region, where their food comes from, or an interest in wildlife that wasn’t there before. People will start asking you questions. They may even ask if they can come with you.
Which tactic will you use to help someone find their gateway to the outdoors?