The West & Texas - Borrowed Paradise | Photography by Will Crites-Krumm
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NO ESCAPE

Big Bend National Park, Texas //

'Getting away from it all,' 'getting back to nature,' 'An escape,' At this point sentences like this are cultural stock-phrases, cliches, go-to constructions for describing a trip to the mountains, forests, beaches, countryside, anywhere that's not City. OK, sure. I mean, I know all to well myself that if you spend too much time among walls and pavement, traffic-roar and hammer-smack, you start to get a little...off. But there's something that's been nagging at me lately about these stock-phrases. I think it's that they seem to have become less stock-phrases and more stock-motivations, stock-thoughts. They've started to color people's experience of capital-N Nature in a weird, arguably unhealthy way. They've turned our experiences instrumental (more on this word later).

I first started to notice this weird relationship between experience and verbalized-reflection-on-experience a couple of months ago. A few friends and I were out exploring some local park, and as people generally do we were vocalizing our perspectives of whatever was going on at the time. As the conversations multiplied, I picked up an almost ontological difference in the way me and my more citified friends were experiencing the place and moment. It (of course) wasn't until much later, when I was zipped up in tent and sleeping bag, that I found the words to describe this difference in descriptive words—my friends were using overwhelmingly relative constructions (e.g. “being out here,” “getting away,” etc.). They were appraising the current experience in relation to some other experience, in this case the experience of being 'in Nature,' vs. that of being 'in the City.'

(I want to make a note here that I generally find the word 'nature' very sticky and hard to use in a way that doesn't imply some sort of fundamental separation between 'man' and 'nature,' but considering this is Texas and there's no such thing as wilderness within state bounds it may have to do for now.)

This kind of terminology is problematic partially because it's basically City-centric. “Away” tends to encompass everything and everywhere that's not City, creating a weird weighted duality between City and the entire rest of the planet, where City is so important compared to Entire Rest of the Planet that Entire Rest of the Planet is defined by its relation to City. The best illustration I can think of is another stock-phrase: The Great Outdoors.

(This is basically the same problem with World Music, which as a genre tends to encompass any and all Human Music that's not Euro-American Pop.)

But the real danger of these constructions is that they simply limit our ability to experience the Entire Rest of the Planet in an open, positive way. By defining Nature as not-City, we confine our thinking to some imagined Venn diagram of comparisons and contrasts. The only things that we allow ourselves notice in Nature are those that have some positive or negative counterpart in City: where Nature has “calmness” city has “hustle,” or where City has “indoor air conditioning,” nature has “heat, rain, cold, all within half an hour.” By only appreciating Nature as opposed to, in reference to some imagined external City, we only consider things like “calmness” or “heat, rain, cold, etc.” in relation to their City counterparts, not on their own experiential merits. Even more dire, the terminology of not-City keeps us from even noticing things that exist outside the imaginary Venn diagram, things with no Nature or City counterpart, things that can't so easily be conceptualized into a schema, things that are only and entirely right here right now.

Ultimately, the City-centric terminology begets City-centric thinking which begets City-centric experiences of not-City Nature. These experiences, as betrayed in the opening stock-phrases, are overwhelmingly instrumental, i.e. for the sake of some external goal. That goal is largely some escape, decompression, etc., which allows us to continue living in City for a while longer before going completely off our rocker. But by experiencing Nature as not-City we keep ourselves closed off from the truly meaningful lessons that Nature has to offer (e.g. the fact that Nature and City are not actually existentially separate entities), in turn assuring that we'll keep repeating the cycle of instrumental visit to not-City, return to City, and going slightly more insane within City. It's kind of problematic.

So what are we to do about this? It's actually pretty simple, I think. I'll term it here as I did scribbling in my dark tent on that first night: Listen respectfully to the everything! Trying to be totally open to the present moment and everything around us, listening without preconceived conceptual frameworks, without ulterior motive, without external reference points, but instead respecting and appreciating every thing as it currently is, and listening to the lesson it surely has to give to us. Because everything around us is just as valid and proper a part of the Universe as we are.

Wherever we go, there we are: there is No Escape.

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