Mountains, not Screens

Climbing in Red River Gorge

Three years ago, I started rock climbing in my college gym. At the time, I would have called myself an indoor person. I liked climbing, but I would never have volunteered, as I have twice since, to camp in Colorado without running water, waking up to subfreezing sunrises. I wouldn’t have driven six-and-a-half hours to Kentucky’s lush Red River Gorge to fight my way up routes, mosquito-bitten legs shaking with exhaustion—and yet, by junior and senior year, these trips to the Red became my most precious and highly-anticipated weekends.

But before I got hooked on climbing outside, the gym’s plastic holds were enough for me. I was content to see my sport, as I saw the world, from an inside perspective. I considered mountains and canyons with a distant respect, but was convinced that they weren’t for me. I had a similar perspective about the environment in general: worth protecting, but for someone else. Or worth protecting, but only because the collapse of natural ecosystems has consequences that seep into even the most “indoor” lives.

There’s nothing wrong with that perspective. It is right to care about habitats and species we’ll never see in person—they are intrinsically valuable. Deforestation, desertification, shrinking ice floes, and the sixth mass extinction all threaten precious, created life. Neither is it wrong to protect the environment to preserve human routines. We should be concerned about the effects of climate change on crops (higher food prices) and urban centers (damaged infrastructure, dangerous air quality). We should worry about communities near the equator or on coasts, places that are becoming progressively less habitable; this damage fuels migration crises.

But we shouldn’t let these worries make our relationship with nature seem stressful or inconvenient. Rather, we need to keep the mutualistic quality of the relationship in mind. While we should remember our common responsibility to heal the planet, we shouldn’t forget its ability to heal us.

 

The point of an integral ecology is not just to curb appetites, but to develop new ones.

When I come home from a climbing trip, I feel whole and clean. Physically, I’m a mess: sweaty and grimy, dirt caked under my nails, legs covered in bruises, fingertips raw. Yet days spent hiking from one crag to the next, pulling myself up on broad plates of rock, inevitably leave me feeling more comfortable in my skin. The trips cut through anxiety, reducing the itch to reach for my phone, the restless closing and opening of the same five apps, the pressure to keep up with the news and incessant updates from friends and strangers. At the crags where we climb and the campsites where we congregate for pizza or camp-stove curry, cell service is nearly nonexistent. There, I can let go of the futile desire to know everything that everyone else is doing. The lack of technological distraction on climbing trips allows me to focus on the people I’m with (even if we’re only quoting Zoolander) and the world around me—a small, bright orange lizard on the side of the trail; my tenuous grip on an incut crimp; the sweet dried mandarins shared by my friend. The outdoors, where my perspective is scaled to mountains rather than screens, centers me, reorients me physically and spiritually.  

Study after study shows the benefits of interacting with nature, even in urban green spaces. Meanwhile, the current administration constantly undermines national parks protections. These short-sighted decisions ignore the value of nature, which extends beyond human survival to an improved quality of life. Pope Francis encourages us to embrace an integral ecology, which isn’t solely a matter of cutting back or denying ourselves in order to protect natural landscapes. The point is not just to curb appetites, but to develop new ones. Included in the exhortation to make choices that respect the planet is the call to connect to it, to immerse ourselves in it, to allow it to affect us. We do ourselves and our planet a disservice when we exploit it, but also when we treat it as something we have to protect purely in the abstract, apart from ourselves.

Because I live in the city, I climb mostly in a gym these days. I value my community with other members: together, we decipher tricky routes, share chalk, and call out encouragement to climbers of all levels, our phones forgotten in lockers. I can train in the gym, pushing myself physically on brightly colored holds drilled into plywood walls.

But pulling on plastic, even with friends, can’t fully satisfy me. Instead, I have to seek out places like the Red, its massive cliffs traced with iron deposits that curl on the sandstone in sharp, dark curves. It is humbling and comforting to know that this rock, irreplaceable by anything humans can make, makes me feel more human.

Isabella Simon is an editorial intern at Commonweal.

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