I recently came across an interesting blog by the name of "Obesity Timebomb" on Blogger -- more specifically, an entry titled Fatphobia, Outdoors, and Belonging.
The blogger concludes with a request: "The fraudulent feeling is connected to a broader sense that I don't belong out in the world, that exploring wild terrain, or feeling a connection to nature is for other people, like the man we encountered, not me. (I know that some black and Asian people in the UK have written about not going to or feeling part of the countryside, with good reason, I too associate country politics and culture with intolerance). Anyway, this is a terrible feeling, not helped by that guy's thoughtless comment, or organisations like the Ramblers Association and their bullshit anti-obesity campaigning. I want to feel more able to enter wild places and feel that I belong there as a queer fat woman. Suggestions as to how to do this are welcome."
I am not sure how successfully I can fulfill this request. I'm American, and I am willing to bet our attitudes toward outdoor/wilderness recreation and the ways we value land -- the way we relate land use/ownership to a particular class system, for example -- are different from those in the UK. I'm not particularly queer and not particularly fat. However, I am a woman, and I have run into certain exclusionist attitudes about enjoying the outdoors because of that status. The most common of these seems to revolve around the idea that, eventually, my enjoyment of the outdoors as a lone woman will lead me to be horribly raped and murdered.
In over ten years of enjoying trails by myself, I have been attacked exactly twice, and both of those times were by dogs whose horrid owners decided it would be a good idea to allow them to run off-leash, in spite of well-posted rules to please keep dogs leashed. ("DON'T WORRY! HE'S FRIENDLY!" -- this called out by a frantic Bad Dog Owner whose dog is aggressively advancing, barking and growling.) All in all, my injuries from off-leash dogs have amounted to scratches, a bruised tailbone, and a bloody nose. My injuries from evil rapists hiding in the woods?
In some ways, my problems -- like the Obesity Timebomb blogger -- have been caused by fellow recreators (recreationists?) who have aggressively interfered with my own rights to enjoy the natural world on public property that has been designated for outdoor recreation. The woods became a place where it was "okay" for them to enact a weird kind of social dominance.
So, on that basis I think I could TRY to give advice.
I could also try to give advice based on my scholarly studies of space, place, wilderness, and women. Ecofeminism. As a soon-to-be Former Academic, I've been redefining that term for myself. The woods I habitually inhabit are also inhabited by certain hyper-masculine MANLY MAN trail users who are out to conquer. Typically, they take the form of mountain bikers, and let me tell you they do NOT like the fact that slower pedestrians have the right of way. Some of them show this distaste by trying to run you over. (Many are okay -- I don't want to paint with too broad a brush.)
As much as this type likes to pretend otherwise, the woods in THIS domain are not a lawless place where the fittest survive. Dogs have to be kept on leashes. Pedestrians are granted right-of-way. If equestrians approach, keep well away from the horses. Don't use trails that have been washed out. Common sense so everyone can enjoy it.
Maybe there is something about public nature areas that invites otherwise "civilized" people to test those civilized limits? And it has been demonstrated to me that there is something about looking non-"normative" -- as in the Obesity Timebomb post -- that invites the same sort of testing. My experience bears out the idea that a woman enjoying the woods alone, without company of man or dog, is non-normative. She doesn't belong out there alone. It's not safe for her. She's acting stupidly and unwisely. She's bringing violence upon herself. Etc.
Wow, some of that reads like the victim-blaming that rape victims do indeed experience. That's disturbing.
Is there a connection between the dominant, aggressive behaviors of male recreators and the rapist-in-the-bushes narratives that many concerned loved ones throw at me from time to time? Is it wrong of me to feel like a safe and happy woman while alone in the woods, no matter the weather? Even at NIGHT? EVEN WITH NO PEPPER SPRAY IN MY POCKET????? *gasp*
I dunno. All I know is that for ME, here, now, ecofeminism has retained one of its most important aspects: a kind of cooperative coexistence between women and nature that is safe, normal, and joyful. It has also come to mean "inhabiting the woods without fear and with respect, peace, knowledge, and joy" -- enjoying how the place shapes me physically as I shape the place by treading the same trails over and over again -- and passing on an understanding of nature that is not based on fear to my brave-as-dragonflies girls.A little more about Me.
I do have a lifelong history of woods-loving. Maybe I have that going for me; it was nurtured in me by MY parents. That might be why, after reading this, I had an immediate reaction of sadness. I grew up in a rural area and spent many an hour as a child catching creatures, nursing injured animals back to health, building forts, cutting trails with my brother and sister, walking the dogs, cross-country skiing, hiking (both at night and during the day), snowmobiling, and even getting horribly LOST in the woods. If I was feeling sad or depressed, being in the woods often helped me to feel more at peace. It is a little embarrassing to admit, but quite a few of the trees near my childhood home had names. (Still have names, really.) While for some the woods represent something to be feared or something unknown and dangerous, to me they were always more of a haven -- a place to hide, to think, and to dream.
Today I still have this love for forested and otherwise wild places, all with a dose of healthy respect and awe. In some ways, my children help me to understand small miraculous things about seemingly "ordinary" nature: "Mommy, the dragonfly is the bravest bug." Sometimes they bring me back to childhood fancies -- building fairy houses or investigating good climbing trees or seeing weird patterns in branches and clouds. As a trail runner I make it a point to observe everything -- sights, changes, patterns, smells, weather, animals, tracks, changes in trails. I've recently been learning about different varieties of wild mushrooms. (YES THERE IS ONE CALLED BLACK DEATH AND IT CAN KILL YOU AND IT IS A TERRIFYING FUNGUS!!!) I have become wise in the ways of animal scat. I know how to tell the difference between coyotes yipping and dogs barking.
I like coyotes. They leave me the hell alone. DOGS? NOT SO MUCH.
I feel like who I am today, physically, has been shaped so much by the woods, from the wrinkles on my rather weatherbeaten YET STILL GORGEOUS AND YOUTHFUL FACE to the occasional scratches on my skin to the muscles that have been hardening in particular
ways from a very particular terrain. And as much as the parks have given me, I try to give back. I have joined the local open/greenspace organization, I help keep trails maintained and safe, and I keep any and all disturbance of the natural places through my own use to a minimum. (OH YOU TURKEYS ARE NESTING HERE? I WILL GO THE LONG WAY 'ROUND SO AS NOT TO BOTHER YOU. SORRY.) I have made an effort to learn about the species that inhabit and the natural cycles that characterize my particular wilderness.
I think it's important to become familiar with the history of a place as well; there are still some mysteries in the woods I want to learn about. One includes a cylindrical, rock-lined hole in the ground that measures about twenty feet deep by fifteen feet across. Was it an old cistern? Root cellar? I'm still learning how to read landscape archaeology. But for me, each stone wall is a connection to another time and another group of people who also valued this place, as well as to the place itself. And our goal here is to feel placed. Like a placed person. NOT out-of-place, and not Other, and not Not-Belonging. WITHOUT FURTHER ADO OR ANY KIND OF DECENT TRANSITION BECAUSE I AM TIRED TONIGHT, A LIST OF ADVICELETS.1. Preparation IS KEY
When I was 21 years old I took a course and became certified as a Wilderness First Responder.
Theoretically I can still splint and care for pretty bad injuries and build a rudimentary yet safe litter to transport an injured person off a mountain.
I'd rather NOT do this, ever, but the course did open my eyes to how proper preparation can make or break an experience and affect one's comfort levels.
For a long ramble or hike, bringing along plenty of water is important. So many injuries and illnesses can result from dehydration. In fact, so much of my WFR course basically boiled down to "JUST MAKE SURE EVERYONE'S HYDRATED."
It's not a bad idea to bring along snacks as well. A granola bar can go a long way on a hike and is light to carry.
Clothing should not restrict movement; it should be comfortable and appropriate for the weather. It doesn't have to be expensive brand-name OUTDOOR GEAR RAAAAHR. Truth is, plus sizes in outdoor clothing are out there -- LL Bean, Athleta, Columbia, REI, and other companies do boast of selling plus-sized clothing lines. Trouble is, it sometimes can be more expensive than non-plus-sized clothes. Creativity in shopping might help here. Often winter clothing goes on sale in the spring; ditto summer clothing in the fall. It takes a bit of commitment and planning ahead to outfit yourself if you want to hit the sales.
You don't really need a TON of clothing, but the basic layers you will want for cold weather are a polypro or moisture-wicking bottom layer, a fleece/warmth mid-layer, and a windbreaking (snort) outer layer. Fleece-lined tights under waterproof pants will keep you toasty. Synthetic or wool socks and comfortable waterproof hiking boots will help your feet stay warm and dry and will help prevent blisters. (You really don't need a heavyweight mountaineering boot for woods rambling or nature walks. A trail running shoe, which is light but tough, might even be a better option depending on what kind of activity you are going for.) Quick-drying moisture-wicking fabrics in the summer help a lot. Cotton kinda sucks. Jeans get wet easily and do not dry, and wet clothing can make you quite cold, which can be dangerous. A warm hat is important in cooler temperatures, as well as gloves -- so much heat gets lost from head and hands. Things like bug spray and hunter's orange might be required depending on the season.
The thing is, the more time you spend outdoors, the better idea you will get of what you need personally to feel comfortable and appropriate when you head out. People have different comfort levels with the outdoors and with their own bodies, but a general rule of thumb is that layering is the best bet in iffy weather.2.) The Imaginative Trespass
In his 1854 Walden
, Henry David Thoreau wrote:"I found thus that I had been a rich man without any damage to my poverty. But I retained the landscape, and I have since annually carried off what it yielded without a wheelbarrow. With respect to landscapes,
"I am monarch of all I survey,
My right there is none to dispute."
I have frequently seen a poet withdraw, having enjoyed the most valuable part of a farm, while the crusty farmer supposed that he had got a few wild apples only. Why, the owner does not know it for many years when a poet has put his farm in rhyme, the most admirable kind of invisible fence, has fairly impounded it, milked it, skimmed it, and got all the cream, and left the farmer only the skimmed milk."
Robert Frost holds a similar sentiment -- to my mind -- in "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." Both writers imaginatively and rather smugly, in the case of Thoreau, possess the land through for a brief while before going about their business. This sense of imaginative possession might help the queer outdoorswoman as much as it helps ANY outdoorswoman. I'm not saying to go write a poem about the place.
No, screw that -- go write a poem about the place. I haven't quit teaching English YET.
Maybe what I mean is that it might help to impart a bit of yourself to the place. Go ahead: name one of the trees. Conjure up a legend about that weird-looking boulder. Name a hill after your grandfather. Measure a trail in your own particular stride. (It takes me exactly sixteen Chrissy-steps to get to the top of Stanley Hill.) It can be silly; it can be fun or joyful or even sentimental. And it can be a step towards creating your own personal cartography that no ill-mannered jackass (or his stupid unfriendly unleashed dog) can steal away from you.3) Building Familiarity into your Bones
There is a Great Horned Owl on my regular running route. That damned bird hates me. He inhabits a particular territory on one of my routes and in winter, when I am out running in dead darkness with only an occasional corrective flash of my headlamp, he HOOTS THE SHIT OUT OF ME. It's scary, really, even though I am always half-expecting it in that particular place. The Stone Cat itself starts in the early morning hours before sunrise -- a very foreboding time of day when you consider the dangers of trailrunning. I think it's healthy for wilderness to preserve this sense of the uncanny, and of mystery, and of the unexpected, and I don't think it is mutually exclusive with familiarity. Both imaginative and physical familiarity with a place are built upon the amount of time one spends there. I began going back to the woods a few years ago in order to combat severe postpartum depression; it has since worn its patterns into both my mind -- healing -- and my body -- building. It tests me constantly, and I can test myself against it or simply throw myself into it and refresh my body and spirit. So maybe advicelet #3 is to not be afraid of the fact that the outdoors might surprise, or shock, or change you, and to accept that and perhaps even welcome it.4.) Building Familiarity into your Brain
Very simply? Learn the place. Human history. Natural history. I am not any expert sort of birdwatcher or botanist but I do experience a kind of satisfaction in recognizing a bird call or a rare flower. This knowledge has also helped me to better respect the place; I don't feel I am "using" it so much as being in it. Existing within and among it. Learn the trails and cartography, the names of rivers and nearby roads. Be the hero for all those other people who end up getting lost. 5.) Recognizing "Everyday Nature"
This was at first a tough concept for me to grasp in ecocriticism. The writings of Wendell Berry really helped me. Where does wilderness begin? Where IS the entrance to the woods, and what expectations do we bring with us -- personal or cultural -- when we go there? Is it all about what the place can do for us, or how we in our own particular personal moment are part of that place? Is that patch of weeds outside your apartment building "nature"? Wait -- are those weeds, or flowers?!?! WHY ARE THEY WEEDS THEY ARE REALLY PRETTY! What about those wild grasses growing in the median at the center of the highway? It's an interesting exercise to consider how we humans classify and assign values to nature, and how we judge it on appearances and according to our own fears or desires. I still haven't found a satisfactory way to "let nature speak for itself," but I know that this line of ecocritical thinking has given me pause when it comes to the values I personally put upon other creatures and creation itself. Perhaps there is a "queer nature" out there. Maybe this has already been defined by some scholar or other. Maybe all it takes is embracing an alternative system of values: "I value this open field because it provides shelter to endangered migratory birds, not because it would be a money-making cash cow for a land developer who wants to construct exclusive condominiums for wealthy people."
That field, by the way? It's condos now. 6.) Peace and Joy
Sometimes you have to bring these with you. Other times you might go into the woods and discover them, whether through the exhilaration that physical activity or sunshine or a fresh breeze or crackling leaves can bring, or enjoying the experience alongside a loved one, or whatnot. Sometimes I think joy is both a choice and a habit. (Peace is something I'm still working on, but I'm getting better at it at least.) Too many times in life I let the jerks get to me. Often what happens is I will stew over a remark and then finally come up with an appropriate comeback HOURS LATER. It's a complete waste of my energy and my spirit. Often? The act of walking a trail helps me to find
peace. Somehow it helps me to work that physical anger response out of my body and to just let it go. Yeah, this is my weakest advicelet, but it had to be in the list.
I hope some of these help you to map out your own sense of belonging and being whilst in the great outdoors. I know so many women who are simply afraid to venture out for one reason or another. (Some of them are even trail runners. They train on the roads and then race on the trails. This is actually potentially dangerous to their health, as trail and road running are different sports entirely. They put themselves at risk of injury, and all because of fear.) It would be a wonderful thing if a more sensible narrative of women and the woods could culturally take the place of the fear-narrative, which has been in place since colonial times here in America.
PS: a good book that I recommend for armchair woodsing is Woodswoman
. It was quite groundbreaking in its day and I think would still be a bit of a surprising read to those who doubt women's capabilities in the wilderness. Wendell Berry? Also a good source for nature reading.