The problem follows us into the woods

Closing the dog-gate on my front porch, I cross Harton Park and follow a short street to the stone gatehouse of the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly. Down a hill to the right, the pea-gravel sidewalk takes me past Victorian, Queen Anne, and Carpenter Gothic ‘cottages’ with deep porches and labor-intensive trim details.  Lawns thick with hemlocks and oak-leaf hydrangea lead to a small park, with a pavilion and a stone-lined stream. Century-old mossy blocks of sandstone edge the park and the flowing water.

From a nearby plaque I learn that the spring at Moses Rock initially furnished water for the Assembly. I also read that it was restored in 1904 after a botched attempt to increase its flow by dynamiting resulted instead in the spring’s being blocked. A 19th-century attempt at geo-engineering, gone awry.

The Assembly was founded in the 1880s as part of the national Chautauqua movement of intellectual and spiritual self-improvement. What began as a summer program for Sunday school teachers soon attracted Mississippi Delta planters fleeing the malaria festering in the newly-drained alluvial swamps of the Deep South. Hot-weather refugees from an environment of their own devising, they likely never pondered the contradictions of farming such inherently unsustainable land; of building massive levees to hold back the Mississippi River while plundering its fertility.

Like those planters, I too am altering the place where I live and work. To be active in the outdoors in the 21st century is to move through a world that you are actively helping to damage. We keep making, buying, and using things even as we witness how the results reverberate across the skies, oceans, and lands of our planet.

Writing as an outdoor athlete in this time of environmental catastrophe means that hypocrisy lurks at every turn…and every fire lane, and technical single-track trail. Carbon fiber, EVA midsole, wicking Capilene, H2No waterproof-breathable membrane: all these innovations in gear result in environmental harm. We go outside to get away from, or at least to forget about, the problems and practices whose end-products we are wearing or using as we run, hike, or ride. We help sustain the crisis, and then take it into the woods with us.

This conflict informs my writing, even when it’s not clearly discernible to the reader. Navigating the world in the Anthropocene may require big, hard choices of the human race: moving inland, giving up car culture, becoming more localized. But it may also demand small hard choices from individuals. How can I insist that my neighbors change their consumerist lifestyles even while I head to Chattanooga to shop at REI, or drive to the lake with my two inflatable paddleboards?

The simple narrative established in the Western tradition, of (mainly white men) lighting out for the territory to escape civilization and ponder the soothing effects of nature, doesn’t work any more. There are too many complications crowding in, of social justice, of global ecological deterioration. It’s like writing paeans to the birds of the Black Forest in 1938 as the Storm Troopers march by your window. Or describing the architectural wonders of Rome as the Visigoths’ horses paw the earth on the outskirts.

The consolation is that as both a writer and an outdoor athlete, I am part of a sort of vanguard. My tribe of runners and mountain-bikers and paddlers is, or should be, exploring the tension between the activities we love and the natural world we harm in the process. We have the love, the care, the passion to work the problem, to test solutions. The storytellers among us can share what we find, bringing back some possible ways that we all can squeeze through the slot canyons of the apocalypse.

This spring, record-high waters are topping levees throughout the Mississippi River system, drowning crops and endangering lives from the Midwest to Louisiana. Whether in the Mississippi Delta or on the Cumberland Plateau, we are complicit in creating this and other environmental disasters. We’ve dynamited the spring; now we have to restore it.

We can’t keep fleeing to higher ground.

Patrick Dean