Freedom from the media and love of the outdoors

By Ralph Maughan

In front of my new laptop with its twinkling lights and shimmering keyboard, I have quick access to exciting games and news from every source. Virtual events come fast or slow, totally at my will. It is hard to be bored as I sit in comfort slowly wrecking my spine.

Natural experience

When people are outdoors, “in nature,” as we sometimes say, events usually happen slowly. It’s not a thrill every minute, except if you fall into a swift river. Events of the day are mostly predictable. The sun rises and sets. The weather is often the same all day long. Sometimes the temperature hardly changes, like with the two-week winter ice fogs we have in Pocatello, and we live in monotones of charcoal, gray and tan. Likewise, when the temperature does change, it is hardly every 30 seconds, and it is usually predictable as it culminates and peaks in the late afternoon.

But you do have to pay attention to the weather. If not, you can get drenched, frozen, sunburned, struck by lightning.

On rare occasions the solid unchanging ground might actually shake and crack under you. Though it was in 1983, I still recall the Mt. Borah earthquake. I also remember the ash cloud from the explosion of Mt. Saint Helens on May 18, 1980. I was in the Beaverhead Mountains on the Idaho-Montana line. The ash sparked an incredible snowstorm. I was snowed in and “lost” to my friends, family, and law enforcement for seven days.

Real versus cyber experiences

Of course, in nature you might spot or run into wildlife. You might even shoot a deer, usually after stalking it in deer season. Real hunting is much different than a video game hunt. It is much slower walking over broken ground, looking for signs such as tracks and scat. Perhaps while mosquitoes bite or your fingers numb in the cold you get a position for shooting. Then in just one or two shots it’s over. Now comes the real work field dressing the deer and hauling it out. Perhaps my strongest memory is all the effort.

With video games there might be some tracking, but it is mostly shooting. After a few games, the details are all forgotten. Your fun is not added to your life store of memory.

I like to explore the earth’s geology —  rocks — but the subject matter couldn’t be slower. You don’t have to sneak up on the Grand Canyon, the Grand Wash, or the Grand Teton. They will be there. At the bottom of the Grand Canyon’s inner gorge you can touch, stroke perhaps, the Vishnu Schist. This usually pinkish rock is more than 2 billion years old. To me this is like holding a bit of eternity, a fleeting experience of deep time. This kind of experience is not possible in the on-line virtual world. How can you understand several billion years?

Direct estimation of risk versus media fright

Doing research for the various backpacking/hiking guides I wrote with my spouse, with friend Lee Mercer, and alone by myself, I spent much time in grizzly bear country – thousands of miles and hundreds of days. Many nights I was camped by myself, hours from any road. It was more exciting than any virtual experience, and at first it was very frightening at night. Initially I had no capacity to judge the likelihood a grizzly would rip my tent open and turn me into Hugh Glass, or worse. However, several decades later in the same circumstances and the same territory the bears were just a minor consideration. Over time I had learned the actual probability of harm. The possibility was always there, but now I knew the actual risk and was able to easily judge whether to accept it.

On the other hand, judging the real risk of harms is often difficult in our media filled world, the world we live in most of the time. For example, the media tell us many of our fellow citizens fear that ISIS might come and whack off their head or kill them in a mass shooting incident. The media created this fear by massive coverage of ISIS atrocities. By my calculations, I think the chance any one of us will be killed this way is so small there is no need to worry, nevertheless I have no first hand knowledge of it. The same is true of  probably every reader. We only have mediated knowledge.

There was a terrible fright about Ebola in 2014. Again it was based on almost no direct experience. Significantly it was just before the congressional election. Overblown fears from this media coverage affected the elections. After the election the media stopped covering it. The media now provides us with all the information we have about the Zika virus. By “we” I do not include the researchers, doctors and patients. They have unmediated (direct) knowledge.

If you take off a week or more away from the media into the woods, hills, or best, in the wilderness, you have to depend on your senses, reason, and accumulated knowledge. This isolation will be for your good or ill. When you are away from the messages conveyed by the politicians, prognosticators, presidents, personalities, and prophets, you have to learn to think free of social distraction. On your own in the wilderness, you must use your own will to determine what you do.

Loving the outdoors best comes early

Among the young there often a quick love of the outdoors, of nature, and a desire to learn things first hand.

I was brought to the outdoors early. My grandfather developed mining properties. These were not big operations by the time I was born. My father and uncles were his volunteer labor. My father was about 26. My two uncles were a couple years younger. Grandpa was wise. Father and uncles were big, strong and brave, and I was under their guidance and protection. Each morning before the mining road was built, my father carried me up the mountain on his shoulders to the infant mine.

Though I was just four, I still see my dad, Uncle Stub and Uncle Bill  covered with ore dust. On the mountainside at the Moon Mine, they labored to build the mining shack and blast and dig a tunnel. I was left on the sagebrush hillslope with some water, food, and knowledge about rattlesnakes to look and learn about things and do minor explorations of the country. I learned to find my way back when out of sight, how not to slip on the talus slope, and to pay attention when they yelled “dynamite.” My first powerful odors of memory outside the home were of sagebrush and wyethia. A thousand feet below me were spread the greens, browns, yellows, and distant blues of the south end of Cache Valley. Then, and now in long memory, it was beautiful. The earth and life were good, and I always wanted more.

Children should be getting outdoors more

Today children are kept indoors too much. This is both by accident and design. There need to be fewer lessons on stranger danger and worry about dirt. They need more time outdoors. The cyberworld and our smart devices are fantastic, but every child also needs experiences like I had. The world be a better place. The world itself would be healthier too.

Dr. Ralph Maughan of Pocatello is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He retired after teaching there for 36 years, specializing in voting, public opinion and natural resource politics. He has written three outdoor guides, including “Hiking Idaho” with Jackie Johnson Maughan. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.