This short speech I delivered recently to the Marin Academy campus community as part of an all-school assembly. It was a small part of a larger effort to promote MA Outings and the value of getting outside, but it figured prominently in the program, was requested by students, and I was proud to address my colleagues and students in this manner. Other than my meager contribution, the entirety of the assembly was organized and presented by the committed and enthusiastic students of the Marin Academy Outdoor Leadership Emphasis (OLE). It was impressive to witness these students owning their experience outdoors and promoting something they believe in to their community.
I have always wanted to quote Thoreau to my colleagues – one more thing I can check of my must-do list. The speech went something like this:
Why go outside? Some wonder: why do we do it?
Why have outings? Why hike in the mountains? Why go SCUBA diving? Or snow camping? Or kayaking – when there is so much good stuff to do – inside.
Why learn to surf? Or climb rocks? Or hike in the desert? Or dive for abalone? These things are hard – and they can be scary. I can fall and get hurt, and I like to play it safe. So why do it?
And why spend the time and energy to learn the skills that these activities require? Why learn to identify a wild mushroom? Or the print of a coyote? Or the call of Red-Tailed hawk? These things take time. And I don’t have a lot of time. I have things to do. Homework. Emails. Staying current.
So why do it? Why go outside – to spend time I don’t really have – to do things that are hard and possibly unsafe?
It is not an easy question to answer. Not really. Not today. Not for us living in a day and age in which we define progress as technological advancements in the art and science of – standing still. Think about it. If we were to catalog all of the major technological advancements of the 20th century – and if you were asked to identify the one distinguishing feature common to them all – you would have to say that 20th century technology gave us a greater and greater ability to be less and less active. 20th century technology gave us the ability to produce more by doing less.
The radio, the telephone, air conditioning, light bulbs, the automobile, the airplane, instant coffee, television, the yo-yo, the parking meter, drive in movie theaters, the photocopier, the microwave oven, fast food, Velcro, cake mix, super glue, the credit card, the VCR, the integrated circuit, the microchip, the calculator, post-it notes, the lap top computer, cell phones, the internet, email, the tablet computer. All came about in the 20th century in the pursuit of productivity – and all require almost no effort to use. Progress is in some way defined by how little effort is required to produce a product or an effect.
What does progress in this light do to our sense of self-efficacy, our physical sense of our bodies existing in the world by the effect they have on our surroundings? Do I exist in any meaningful way in the world if my body does not exist in an efficacious physical relationship with its surroundings? Consider it? How do you know you exist except by your effect on your surroundings?
You know, I spend a lot of time in the Outings Office – which is adjacent to the Science office. My desk is not 35 linear feet from the desk of my good friend and colleague John Hicks. And yet, more times than I care to own right now I have picked up my phone, which is within arms reach of the chair in which I sit, and I have dialed extension 274 – which is the numerical identifier of the phone which sits on the desk of my good friend and colleague John Hicks. Why? Why do I call instead of taking myself on a short jaunt into the Science Office to speak to my good friend and colleague John Hicks? Because it is easier, it is quicker, and I don’t have to go outside to do it. Of course, right? No.
It is not a matter of course. In fact, it is inconceivable, because it is not easier. Not in the long view. I memorized John’s extension. Okay. Not hard, right? What is it again? Right. 272. And to do that I had to print out the Voicemail Extensions list – think: printer – manufacturing, shipping, diesel, electricity, ink, paper – I had to find his extension listed there – think about all that went into creating that list and the need for it – all those extensions, and all the work that goes into assigning them, reassigning them, and sending out electronic copies of updated versions – and then I pushed some buttons on my phone that elicited a few sounds from that device and I waited to hear John’s voice – think about what goes into that. Yes, you get the idea. Is technology of this kind really easier? Or does it merely duplicate simpler existing techniques?
It is not easier or quicker to stay still and develop a dependence on technology. Technology has done some wonderful things, of course look at us here, now, inside this gym with heat and lights and a microphone and – but a dependence on technology is an addiction like any other.
For one thing humans grew up outdoors, understanding ourselves in relation to the natural world of physical things. Real things. Our brains evolved in response to outdoor challenges and we developed the ability to make meaning in natural settings. Real is still more meaningful and more salubrious to us than virtual – and we can tell the difference because we are human and we are alive. Nature – and its physicality – makes sense to us on a very deep level.
And the inverse is also true. We make sense to ourselves in nature. Nature doesn’t lie to us. It doesn’t sugar coat the truth and it doesn’t respond one way or the other to the stories we tell it about ourselves. It’s neither impressed with our successes, nor is it disappointed with our failures. Nature is impervious to charm and wit and spin and elocution. And yet, it speaks to us. Every time we grow hungry, thirsty, sleepy, weary, or cold our deep and true selves are in dialogue with nature. Even if we aren’t listening. Nature reminds us in the language of our native tongue of the rules we must live by, the boundaries of our existence, and the limitations of our physical being. Nature defines us.
So why go outside – to spend time – doing things we find challenging? Because we are alive, because we are human, and because being alive means something by our relationships with the physical world.
But don’t take my word for it – I might just be nuts. Listen to your self. Listen to your peers. And listen to our old friend Henry David Thoreau from the second chapter of Walden. Listen to how many time he uses the word life – and live:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Marin Academy – I invite you – I encourage you – I implore you. Get outside and into your next excursion.