Is This Nature Yet?
Updated: May 23
As I toed the starting line of the Utsukushigahara 80km trail race in Nagano prefecture I knew my day would not be done without some suffering. The course is known for it’s beauty, indeed Utsukushigahara means ‘beautiful field’, but the weather dictated that I was not to see much of it. The rain began as I went to bed the night before and would continue throughout the race. And so at 4:00am, along with about a thousand other runners, I lurched forth into the mountains. And after the mud and the slippery climbs and descents, after the cramping, the stomach pains, the blisters, the chafing, even, in some cases, the hypothermia, we finished smiling, satisfied with our battle with nature.
But are trail runners really out in nature? It’s true that we rely on many modern technologies. We wear specialized sweat-wicking, anti-chafing clothes, rubber-lugged, light-weight, low-drop shoes, and running vests with manufactured energy bars, gels, salt tablets stuffed in easy-access pockets. In one pocket there’s almost certainly a Gopro or an iPhone for producing our photographic proof for Instagram. On our wrists are high-tech GPS watches so that when we go home we can look at our GPS data, share our photos on facebook, give each other kudos on Strava. The trails and roads we run on are made by and for humans. One could argue that almost everything about this effort to be out in nature is, manufactured and increasingly high-tech.
Yet I don’t believe that nature is being mediated; all that technology does not turn this experience into a Baudrillardian simulacrum. The fact that we manage our experience in a modern way is merely proof that nature is really there and happening to us. In order to complete an endurance run safely we must have some a contingency plan for all the things that are likely to naturally happen during the activity and even for some that you hope will not. If we don’t eat, drink, replace electrolytes, carefully navigate, etc. we would merely be putting ourselves in a miserable and dangerous situation. In other words necessary mitigation of naturally occurring problems does not equal the negation of nature.
The claim that the places we run are places that show signs of human impact is a moot point. As Emma Marris successfully argues in her book Rambunctious Garden, there is no point in history that humans have not managed their environment, and there are anthropogenic blind spots on Earth today. In other words, there is no place on our planet that corresponds with the notion of a ‘pristine wilderness’. Yet nature is everywhere. We run over real mountains, through real forests. And nature is in ourselves: we sweat real sweat, we feel real muscle pain: the battle with our athletic limitations is real.
Scott Wallace’s response to the notion that humans are not separate from wildlife in The Unconquered is instructive because it shows how accustomed we have become to thinking of ourselves as apart from, and even in opposition to, nature. He writes:
It was a novel idea, for me at least, the notion that people could have an ecology, in the same way that they could have a way of life or a routine. It suggested that human beings were a part of the complex system of interactions among living organisms that made up an ecosystem, rather than apart from it or opposed to it, that people actually had a role in equilibrating that system, rather than destroying it. In fact, it was possible that significant stretches of the forest we’d been trekking through were, “anthropogenic”-previously managed or altered in some way by humans. (p. 249)
Ok, so forest management has been around since prehistory, but mountain trails don’t seem like a naturally occurring phenomenon. This is another reason why my view seems counter-intuitive, but any land animal moves around and makes trails for itself. Whether we mean the great migratory mammals, who have been making trails in the earth on their annual migrations for millennia, or the wild boars just there in the hills. If you step of the human-made trails it won’t be long before you notice other lines in the soil heading off in various directions. Just as animals make their paths through the forests, so do we.
But why must our engagement with nature happen under the guise of a competitive sport? In practice most trail-running is done alone or with a few fellow runners either in training sessions or on longer adventure runs. So really it can be a solitary activity or it can be social or competitive. These are all natural states for humans, just as they are for the other primates, for example. In fact there is not a whole lot that separates humans from not only other primates but as the neuro-geneticist Robert Sapolsky show, wildlife in general. Competition is the natural way to improve one’s position in the herd.
We certainly have a strong propensity to rate things that occur without human influence as more natural than those rely on human influence to occur. But why? We know that we share so much with other animals, and we often feel a desire to get away from the towns and cities and to walk in the forests, to climb a mountain, or to swim in the sea. I’ve come to see nature itself as an activity rather than a thing. It is something that is happening not only ‘out there’, but also all around us and even ‘in’ us. Ultra-distance trail running gives a vividness to nature we don’t get in our comfortable daily lives. There are real stories about nature in the journey. There are the stunning greens of the forest with shocks of yellows and purples in the flowers of the undergrowth. There is the changing condition of the trail and the contours of the land. There is the discovery of details you never noticed before, and the encounters with animals; boars, deer, monkeys, bears, yourself. This is nature. So much ‘nature’ can happen.