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Peter H. Kahn, Jr.
Peter H Kahn Jr., Ph.D.

Is it Elitist to Limit Easy Access to Natural Areas?

One way of forming a deeper relationship with nature.

Imagine the following situation. You live in a town with access to a beautiful river, and have on many occasions meandered down river off trail over sharp rocks and small waterfalls to secluded spots of immense beauty. There is one pool in particular that takes effort and time to reach. While you do not always have the time and energy to head there, when you do you feel yourself, with each step, pulling away from the busyness of the day, and the comfort and safety of the town, and moving toward something less trammeled and more wild. You feel a joy and also a little fear. It would not be a good time, for example, to twist an ankle. Hours later, on your return, you look forward to rejoining your family and friends in the comforts of your home in a domestic landscape. Now imagine - which is easy for me to do, because something similar has happened in my life - that people put in a quick access trail directly down to that river pool, so that within minutes anyone from town can enjoy the pleasures of swimming in that special spot. People make a strong case that their lives are busy and there is not always time to walk the long way down river. People also argue that it is elitist to restrict the river pool to those who have the time or the stamina to reach it. Perhaps they even mention that just yesterday they took some young children to that pool, using the quick trail, and that it was a joy to see the children connect to nature in such a way, and who would want to deny children such intimate connection with such a beautiful nature spot in the world?

What can one say in response? One answer, of many, is that something deep and profound occurs in the human psyche as it moves out and away from human settlements. Often the mind quiets itself from social chatter; the senses become more alert because one is off the trail, finding one's own way, and because you know you need to keep yourself safe. It is not that one is anti-social. Not at all. It is that part of being deeply social is to separate at times from the larger society and then from that stance of separateness to rejoin. Milton writes in Paradise Lost: "For solitude sometimes is best society, And short retirement urges sweet return" (Book IX, 249-250). It has been this way for homo sapiens for tens of thousands of years as part of the life of the hunter and gatherer. Too, this form of interaction with nature has been, in some form, incorporated into virtually all cultures, as in the adolescent initiation rites among indigenous groups, such as the Dagara of Burkina Faso. We can refer to this form of interaction with nature as "Movement Away from Human Settlement - and the Return." This movement can happen in small groups, as happened in ancestral times when small hunting parties would separate from the main group for one to five days at a time. This movement occurs perhaps most powerfully alone. When Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in the desert, he was not with a support group of other humans.

It was asked above by the advocates of the new river trail: Who would want to deny children intimate connection with beautiful spots in nature? But I think that question is framed wrong. First off, the question is part of a slippery slope. Why stop with a trail? Why not put in a driving road, with bus access, and make it wheelchair accessible? Why not put in roads to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite and to the base of Annapurna? Why not replace all trails in wilderness areas with roads, so as to make those beautiful spots accessible to all? Many people would object to such roads, but do not see that after 50,000 years of expanding across this planet, we are closer than not to that road-full condition. But even setting aside the counter-argument of the slippery slope, the trail-advocate's question is framed wrong because it assumes that by granting easy access to places in nature that we lose nothing in the process. But easy access deprives people of this opportunity to experience the movement away from human settlement - and the return. That trail causes a harm to people now and to future generations. It is a harm of unfulfilled flourishing. People may not recognize this harm. If that is the case, then it likely represents more evidence of the shifting baseline and the problem of environmental generational amnesia that I wrote of in my first post in this Blog.

Against this backdrop, we should be asking the trail advocates this question: Who would want to deny children the profound experience (Biblical in kind) of movement away from human settlement - and the return?

As we populate the planet with over 6 billion people and increasingly use our technological prowess to control if not destroy nature, or to mediate it, we are losing patterns of interaction with nature that have sustained us for tens of thousands of years, and which contribute deeply to our flourishing as individuals and as a species. As we lose these patterns of interaction, we are losing the very conceptualization and language to speak about that which we are losing. In future posts, I'll say more about the patterns of interactions and the idea of generating a "nature language."

About the Author
Peter H. Kahn, Jr.

Peter H. Kahn, Jr. is Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington and the author of Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life.

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