The forest is larger than one tree

Philmont_Shoes_JL
(Chronicle file photo)

Ellen Miller-Goins

Saturday morning a teen Boy Scout was killed when a flash flood swept him and three other Scouts away before they could get to safety.

Predictably, this incident spread immediately from news outlet to news outlet. A Reuter’s article by Ellen Wulfhorst even ended with this helpful reminder: “The Scout’s death comes less than a week after the body of former White House chef Walter Scheib was found off the Yerba Canyon Trail, north of Taos. An autopsy determined that Scheib, 61, died of accidental drowning in a mountain stream.”

Is the implicit message that nature is <em>dangerous</em> and must be avoided? I hope not, but here’s the thing: Nature <em>is</em> potentially dangerous.

My good friend Bob Blair, a longtime river guide, once recalled a trip during which a woman grew increasingly alarmed until she finally asked where the “tracks” were, as if a river trip were really a water-park ride.

No doubt she was frightened by the uncertainty a trackless trip provides, but I agree with Richard Louv, author of two books on the phenomenon he calls “nature-deficit disorder”: “The pleasure of being alive is brought into sharper focus when you need to pay attention to staying alive.”

I agree with the late Aldo Leopold, who wrote, “I am glad I will not be young in a future without wilderness” and the late Edward Abbey who wrote, “We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may not ever need to go there.”

Philmont Scout Ranch provides an unrivaled experience for thousands of teens every summer. It is, according to its website, “the world’s largest youth camp” on about 140,00 acres with “315 miles of trails, 35 staffed backcountry camps and 770 campsites.” About “22,000 Scouts and leaders… go on 12-day treks” every summer. “Every day, 350 arrive, 350 leave, and 3,500 are hiking in the backcountry.”

When one considers that the first Scouts attended Philmont Scout Ranch in 1938, well, odds are tragedy will strike from time to time.

I do not mean to diminish or sweep away yesterday’s terrible tragedy, only to express that hope that parents will continue to seek outdoor experiences for their children — like Philmont.

Louv also eloquently states, “An indoor (or backseat) childhood does reduce some dangers to children; but other risks are heightened, including risks to physical and psychological health, risk to children’s concept and perception of community, risk to self-confidence and the ability to discern true danger”

As the world becomes increasingly urbanized and people increasingly view nature as something to be feared, I am reminded of an old Nike ad:  “You could get mauled by a bear and die./You could get bit by a snake and die./You could fall off a cliff and die./You could get gored by a bison and die./You could get struck by lightening and die./You could get shot by a hunter and die./You could get attacked by fire ants and die.

“Or you could stay at home on the couch, eat potato chips and die.”

Death is an irrevocable part of nature, no doubt, but nature is essential to life.