There is a popular movement in the urban epicenters of hip in this country that romanticizes the great outdoors. Like any movement that starts with genuine trailblazers, it gives way to a wider swath that imitates the most outwardly visible traits of those purveyors of cool while entirely missing the point. In this case, our latest infatuation with rugged individualism spawned the lumbersexual. Someone who looks utterly prepared to fell a tree and roast a salmon over an open fire he started without a lighter or matches, only those activities might scratch his boots or tear his designer waxed canvas coat.
But I don’t intend to sardonically pick apart the nature of mimetic fashion and the ironical disconnect between appearance and reality in most aspects of modern culture. My distaste for such thought exercises grows stronger by the day. And if you crave it, there are thousands, if not millions, of other aspiring journalists who will glibly sell you on the fetishized exoticism of witch hunters in Papua New Guinea while feigning superiority to other journalists there to sell you on the same thing. Can we not highlight the things we notice without traveling to far-flung locales, is there not much to learn about our condition that could be gathered from simply doing that which is at our disposal rather than ruminating on that which isn’t?
The problem with romanticizing the outdoors and this whole Pacific Northwest-y movement that’s so big on the internet is not that it creates a hypocritical standard for adventure, but that it makes it awfully easy to become an excuse-making armchair quarterback. “Those guys are crazy,” or, “Well, I don’t live close to anything that looks like that.” But if you sit in your living room or coffee shop dressed like something out of a Carhartt catalogue, you’re clearly communicating your appreciation of the outdoors to everyone who’s around you. Only, it’s not an aesthetic or idealistic appreciation that we need. It’s a practical application.
The outdoors are not always picturesque. Not every hike or bike ride is postcard-worthy. Those that are ridiculously scenic provide great inspiration and wall art, but they do not provide an excuse to only go when the conditions are right and the stars align. Much of what we get from simply going and doing is the discomfort, the need to zoom way in or even further out to find the nuanced beauty in any place on any day, the conscious, tangible choice to act instead of to not. And perhaps that truth goes beyond going outside, though that’s an easy non-abstract example of what can quickly become quite an abstract concept.
Action versus well-defended inaction is what defines the urban-rural divide that continues to get revisited in the back pages of the LA Times. It’s what rescued me from the throes of what felt like an inescapable battle with depression and unhealthy, cyclical ‘classroom thinking.’ When we sit around and ponder things that are wrong, things that we could do, the infinitude of subtly different outcomes of every decision we have to make in our lives, we allow reality to begin to weigh more than it actually does. And we become weak because we never use our minds or our might for action. That perceived weight becomes even more unwieldy as our ability to act atrophies.
So in a literal sense, going on a hike, or repairing the roof to the chicken coop in a snowstorm, or fixing a flat tire on your bike when you’re fifty miles away from home is the type of action that trumps thought spirals. In rural life, business and pleasure alike do depend on a certain type of quick-thinking, sprawling savvy. Looking at a problem, acknowledging that it requires immediate and practical attention, and executing a solution is such an essential skill that is so lost on the majority of our alleged problem-solvers. Because they’re insulated from everything, by everything, and they even get from their apartments to their offices to the bar on those damn hoverboard tilting Segway things. There is so little practical difficulty in the day-to-day of most of us that we have to create solutions to nonexistent problems for our own entertainment, to provide that sense of accomplishment and satisfaction where none can be found.
But this is not a manifesto against cities or cityfolk. I live in an American metropolis, albeit one with an exceptional amount of public greenspace and rural land easily accessible without ever hopping in the car. It’s not even an insinuation that everyone needs to take up the same activities that bring me daily joy, that remind me in condensed form that we can experience the gamut of human emotion in five minutes, five miles, five days, five rides, five years. When we make ourselves averse to the challenge of climbing a hill and dismiss those that do it as “nuts,” we decide that we are incapable of doing something that we absolutely, positively are capable of because we are definitely not “nuts.” And that may be the most nuts thing of all.
That endeavor may be learning an instrument or training a dog or restoring an old car; each may sound nuts, but that is only because it hasn’t sufficiently piqued your interest or you’ve yet to discover that we are all supremely capable at whatever it is we decide to do. I deeply believe that anyone is capable of anything, but we have coddled ourselves into forgetting that by building worlds so void of tasks-at-hand that we have to constantly hit refresh so we can be force-fed by news feeds. The greatest danger of city life is not getting hit by a bus or choking on smog; it’s slowly becoming so comfortable that we are rendered powerless against our own problems.
To be sure, the lines between urban and rural are much more blurred than they used to be—the internet is everywhere and machines can do pretty much everything nowadays. Perhaps I only invoked that dichotomy at all because I have read much about it lately and it does strike a chord when I realize how few of my peers are interested in my snapdragons. Because, like, how do you even figure out how to keep those things alive?
In comfort, so few demands are made of us that we can sit and pontificate until we unravel. We don’t have to do anything, so we are free to think about everything. This is extolled as a virtue, but so often it’s anything but. Sitting and thinking that learning a new skill is “hard” and that there are so many contradictory “facts” that the only thing we can be sure of is nothing is hardly the epitome of civilized society. And every day that I grow more comfortable being candid and transparent with people I’ve met for the first time, the more I realize that we all thirst for connection and agency and self-assuredness. And we’re not going to find them if we don’t ever get up and go look for them.
It is this inactive thinking that leads to political extremes; it is quite easy to hate something you’ve never met, to pass final judgment on an incident you’ve never come close to experiencing. It’s inevitable that if you sit for long enough, you can imagine the worst-possible-outcomes of something and decide that it’s not worth doing. That sweeping changes in the status quo must be made to suit your current mood. But what is being safe and ideologically placated if you are fundamentally stymied?
These questions are big and require much more examination and discussion than anyone feels like reading right now. But in light of so many recent events and revelations, I can finally feel my pent-up energy for creating a full-length book concretizing into a clearer vision. I don’t have to wallow in sorrow and self-loathing to be at my artistic best—maybe I’d write a more poignant novel in the Modernist style if I allowed myself to keep feeling as I did two years ago—but I can be informed by that knowledge of high art as I create something filled with high hope.
I’m excited to hold two ideas in my mind with equal regard and genuinely believe in what I’m doing. Can we not see the beauty in the city and the country alike? Can we repair the fence in our backyard on a silent street while mockingbirds sing and squirrels store, then hop on our bikes and ride ten minutes to a thriving city center? Of course these are literal, practical dualities, but you have to start the conversation somewhere.
I’ve come to accept lately that when people have positive feedback about my writing or words that brushing them aside is not humble, it’s disrespectful. And so, recently, while offering the most emotionally taxing words I’ve probably ever had to speak, my main audience’s girlfriend remarked afterwards, “I’d read everything you’ve ever written.” I assured her that wasn’t true, but I also felt profoundly called to write something that I’d actually want her to read, that reflects the truths I communicated to her and her boyfriend, that I emphatically believe in but so rarely articulate in written and public ways.
And I’m reluctant to parse it all out at once, because as this piece demonstrates, as soon as I try to include too many ideas at once, it becomes overwhelming. But it’s my hope that we can start a conversation here about why I do what I do and how, really, I’m just like you. We’re all just like each other. But I’m stricken by how surprised people are by what I consider basic words of comfort and candor. As if they’ve never been told, “Hey, I actually have felt that way, too, and this is what I did and now I am doing much better.” Of course it’s more complicated than that, but we should all be more encouraging and more honest with each other! After the last post I wrote, I got a lot of really nice notes that genuinely humbled and inspired me and made it clear that it’d be a disservice to not be honest and intentional with people at every opportunity. I may be nuts, but it’s not because I ride my bike fifty to a hundred miles fairly often. That’s what I do to prevent myself from going nuts. And it may not work for you, but I am absolutely positive that something will. We just need to talk about that and be honest about where we’ve been and where we’re going.
As for the lumbersexual question—I don’t think I’m good enough at color coordinating to qualify, but I’d definitely rather be lumber than metro.