Friday, March 19, 1999
Over the weekend, while snow fell outside, I made a unilatleral decision that it was spring, and went shopping online for outdoors stuff.
The technology was a great help. I trawled through reviews from people who already had the gear I was looking at, and discussion board questions from people going through the same process as me (incidentally, if anyone here has anything good or bad to say about the Specialized Stumpjumper or the Gary Fisher Ziggurat, drop me a line).
In retrospect, using the Internet to research this stuff says a good deal about our attitude to what used to be termed Nature. At least from the Romantic period (although Irish language scholars would point to much earlier nature poetry in medieval manuscripts), the great outdoors was seen as a place of simple beauty, away from the strictures and straight lines of cities and industry.
Time spent among the woods and mountains allowed us to feel part of Creation again, soothing our furrowed brows after our toil in the dark satannic mills.
If forced to explain what they get out of a weekend in the sticks, most people would probably end up with some version of that argument today.
Which is fine, but let’s look at what they do when they get to lands of natural wonder. The idea used to be to live simply, in harmony with nature, to strip away the artifice and excess of urban living; now people drive to the Grand Canyon in their RVs, shut the door and watch Melrose Place on the TV.
Younger people might scoff at this approach, before communing with nature in their 3-layer Gore-Tex jackets, or zooming down mountain singletracks on their $1500 bikes that look like pieces of alien technology.
Instead of sitting under a tree and watching the daffodils, we use nature as a testing ground (and excuse) for all our cool gear. Forget William Wordsworth – this is more like James Bond: ‘Ah, Q, I see you’ve improved the metal matrix composite aluminium oxide ceramic particulate in my bike frame so it now weighs only 3 pounds’.
We still dream of a remote log cabin beside a lake, but an increasing number of us would picture it complete with leased line Internet access so we could mail our friends the pictures from the day’s excitement, and keep up with the NASDAQ.
In some ways this is very positive. If people are getting out there and enjoying what nature has to offer, then maybe they’ll be more environmentally aware when they’re back at home. But as I order another piece of hi-tech kit, I do wonder sometimes if we’re missing the point.
(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, March 1999)