“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean,” suggests John Muir, an esteemed environmental writer and naturist. It makes sense. Get away from the hustle and bustle of the American lifestyle, breathe in fresh air, and take time to appreciate Mother Nature. Muir’s advice is sadly unattainable for a large part of the American population. The “outdoorsy lifestyle” is an exclusive club for the white and economically privileged.
Being outdoorsy is a privilege, as it requires money. Take a leisurely weekend camping trip, for example. State and national parks are far from accessible to people who live in cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Lewiston for that matter. Public transportation does not take you to the parks, which means you need to either own or rent a car to access them.
Next you need gear. Fortunately for us Batesies, all the gear we need is provided free of charge (minus a small security deposit) by the Outing Club. However, others are not so fortunate. Between a tent, sleeping bags, and cooking supplies, your gear could cost you upwards of $1,000. Taking a weekend camping trip also requires that you be able to take time off from work. Most people working multiple minimum wage jobs to make ends meet do not have this luxury of job flexibility.
Lastly, you need at least one experienced camper. Ironically, nature survival skills do not come naturally. Unless you had the opportunity to attend summer camp or have people around you with the requisite skills or knowledge, it is unlikely that you would feel comfortable enough to venture out into the wild.
Experiencing nature is primarily a white recreational activity. According to one estimate by the Outdoor Foundation, 86% of campers are white. This could be explained by the correlation between race and economic status in America, but it could also be a socio-cultural fact. In a New York Times piece by Kirk Johnson entitled “National Parks Try to Appeal to Minorities,” Carol Cain, a first-generation American said, “The idea of roughing it in a tent, however, can feel to some people like going backward.”
In addition, the perception of the national parks as overwhelmingly white can prevent minorities from exploring them. Research by the National Parks Service disclosed in a 2011 report (“National Park Service Comprehensive Survey of the American Public”), found that minorities often feel unwelcome if they venture out to a national park. It is quite intimidating to be the only person of color anywhere, but especially in a park where you could wander around for days and not see another person who looks like you.
These patterns of exclusivity in outdoor culture are reflected here at Bates. Outing Club attendance and participation as well as AESOP leadership mimic larger patterns of the great white outdoors. Only a handful of this year’s 108 AESOP leaders were minority students. While all were fun, confident, and bold, the overall body fell short of representing the entire Bates community. Many are avid outdoors people who have had a lifetime of camping and backpacking experience. Many are enthusiastic skiers, rock climbers, or summer camp graduates, all activities which require a certain level of economic freedom. Because the Outing Club is very much a dominant culture here at Bates, it is easy to assume that we all have been camping or hiking by default as Batesies. However, this is not close to the reality. While I was able to laugh off not knowing the difference between a normal backpack and a hiking backpack, for some this knowledge gap might feel a lot more isolating and intimidating.
The expansion of AESOP to include more trips like farming and community service was definitely a step in the right direction towards making outdoor culture at Bates more inclusive. However, more can be done. Bates AESOP leaders should be more representative of the diverse people and interests that this school has to offer. This would help not traditionally “outdoorsy” first years to feel like they have a place in this school’s outing club culture. Furthermore, this fall’s Outdoor Nation competition could be a great way to get underrepresented groups on campus pumped about being outside. Trips to local parks like Thorncrag or the L/A river walk would be great beginner outings to incorporate new members into the Outing Club.
It is easy to forget how much of a privilege it is to experience the outdoors. There are so many barriers that low income and minority people face in accessing outdoors culture.Changing the outdoors culture in America will take a collective effort on the part of various organizations. Batesies who have had the privilege to enjoy the beautiful mountains and lakes that our world has to offer should do everything they can to expand the opportunity to promote accessibility to the great outdoors.