Go toward the light

I used to delude myself that going on hikes and encouraging others to do the same via my blog was the extent of my obligation to the planet that makes it all possible. The guiding philosophy of outdoor-oriented recreation is that being out there is the first step toward appreciating it enough to keep it around for our great-great grandkids.

That’s true as far as it goes — but it does not go nearly far enough.

Over the weekend I finished reading the biography of Steve Jobs, who was depicted as an occasionally reprehensible human being who had at least one redeeming quality: zero tolerance for lame excuses. Inspired by his famous reality-distortion field, I started thinking about how much good my hikes and my blog posts were doing for the planet. And I had to sneaking suspicion it was not a hell of a lot.

And that’s what got me thinking the next thing I’d blog about is how being a hiker — or hunter, mountaineer or kite surfer — is better than nothing, but better than nothing is not going energize our species to stop trashing stuff faster than it’s being replaced.

So you no doubt noticed that November was a slow month the ol’ blog. I finally had a feast of work on the business side that left no time for hiking or blogging for four weeks in a row. After nine months of famine, I was so happy to have constructive work to do that I had no qualms about taking a hiking/blogging break.

So I finally got my first chance to do a little hiking this morning at Tanglewood Park, the big urban park where I go when I’m too lazy/busy to drive to a trailhead. And guess what: in the four weeks I was away, the thoughtful caretakers of the park had painted a bunch of wide cuts through the woods with big fat strips of asphalt.

Actually these “trails,” paved though they may be, make the park much more accessible to casual walkers and bicyclists, who otherwise had to dodge cars, RVs and park district trucks on the park’s main roads. The park has three golf courses, so you can imagine the motorized traffic it gets.

Most of the paved trails are far from the places where I walk but still, they were a jolt of reality about the imperative to pay attention to what’s happening to our open spaces. I just walked over there; I never gave any thought to how the park was being managed until I saw they’d put in a bunch of pavement without consulting with me.

But here’s the reality of how the world works: while it’s a certainty that nobody will ever ask for your permission if there’s reasonable suspicion you’ll say no, most often they won’t ask if you’d say yes, either. If you want to have a say in how things turn out, you have to speak up.

In the case of Tanglewood, I’d have to weigh the asphalt blight against the reality that we have serious obesity troubles around here. The new trail lets people who can’t afford the entrance fee ($2 is a deal killer if you haven’t got it) park in the free area and walk/ride with considerably less anxiety about getting flattened by a soccer mom’s SUV.

Most likely I’d have gritted my teeth and put up with the decision to pave the trails. At some point they must have been discussed at a public meeting and voted on by elected officials. I could’ve at least raised a little hell to let ‘em know somebody’s paying attention.

In years to come there are going to be some very heated arguments over the most productive use for open spaces. Sure, we’d love to see more wilderness areas established and current protections strengthened. But more people and more energy demands are going to make that seriously difficult. Those of us who like our fun under the sun will have to become a lot more zealous about our default position: recreation that preserves 80 percent of an ecosystem is far better than development that ruins all of it.

I think once you get involved in, say, the politics of local parks you might understand that it’s not so hard to influence how things turn out. And once you start local, it’s not such a huge leap to start thinking global.