Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Throwing stones.

Today, I'm thinking about rocks. Specifically, boulders, and even more specifically, the practice of rolling them downhill. Out of the many hours I've spent outdoors -- hiking, biking, reading, reflecting, being generally quite responsible and picking up other people's trash -- one of the best was spent hucking big rocks down a rocky bowl in New Zealand.

It started with a small rock, about the size of a basketball. One of the Kiwis I was hiking with nudged it with his toe down toward the lake below. It bounced once -- rock crashing against rock with an loud, echoing crack -- before landing in the water with an equally satisfying thump. We all stopped in our tracks, smiles tugging at the corners of our mouths. Then someone else picked up a rock, then another, and soon, the quiet mountain was alive with a resonant, joyous cacophony. It wasn't the noise so much as it was the giddiness of making big splashes and playing outside.

I think of another time -- the summer I spent doing trail work in Idaho, when one of the tasks was to create gravel where there was none to protect a trail. The work involved taking a large rock from nearby, placing it on a flattish rock, like a log about to be split, then swinging a sledgehammer ('doublejack,' in trail-crew speak) over your head and smashing the rock to smithereens. The work was backbreaking but utterly satisfying, and the chalky smell of powdered rock still brings me back to those days in the mountains.
These experiences, I understand, are different from the recent episode caught on video of two Boy Scout leaders toppling an ancient rock formation in Utah in front of their students. That was a poor example of leadership and not exactly how to teach kids respect for the outdoors. The backlash over the video also brought new attention to a 2011 essay by the inimitable Micheal Branch, a professor in Nevada's Great Basin who writes for High Country News. In his essay, What Would Edward Abbey Do?, Branch recreates a scene of he and three other grown men mischievously dislodging a giant, precariously perched boulder and "trundling" it into a canyon. His writing reminds me that there are certain impulses that transcend time and age, and that indulging in a bit of unadulterated fun in the natural world is often what forges a connection to it.

Some readers with a sense of humor seemed to agree, but Branch's essay also prompted a backlash of its own from readers who called his act "selfish," "bad karma," immature vandalism and worse. One particularly insightful reader, however, noted to the detractors that "your privileged North American consumer lifestyle does more harm to the so-called environment than an army of 'trundlers' could ever do." I imagine that gets at the reason why humble Kiwis not responsible for quite as much global environmental destruction were more unabashed about their rock trundling than we Americans are.

The online vitriol surrounding rock trundling in all forms brings up another issue described in David Sobel's 2012 Orion essay, Look, Don't Touch. In it, Sobel laments the direction that natural education has taken: A hands-off approach that sees nature as too delicate and easily disrupted to be explored in a meaningful way. Trying to make kids (and big kids) feel guilty about picking up frogs, taking home feathers and chucking rocks off cliffs only deepens our alienation from the natural world.

So, should you topple an ancient, beloved rock in front of children and gloat about it online? Probably not. Should you compare that action to the innocent pleasure of throwing rocks downhill, or villainize people who partake in such indulgences? Again, I think not.

People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. But if people outside want to responsibly throw stones down a hill and laugh hysterically at themselves afterward, I fully support it.

Trundle fail.

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