Mountains Without Handrails
Reflections on the National Parks
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Chapter 4
Making a Choice

Everything said up to this point implies that we can choose our recreation as freely as we choose our clothes. But there is a strong strain of contrary opinion that is rarely made explicit in debate over the national parks. Recreation fills needs created by the style of our daily lives, this view holds; and one need only know how someone works to know how he will play. The much-discussed problem of elitism arises from this perspective. For if certain styles of recreation are inevitably the preserve of a certain class of people in the society—fly-fishing for the professional and business executive, for example, and snowmobiling for the blue-collar factory worker—then to embody one style of recreation in public policy, and to commit our parklands significantly to it, is to yield a valuable and significant public resource to a very limited segment of the population (limited not just by numbers, but by class as well).

The determinist view has been stated most strongly by those whose interest is in humanizing work. "What are we to expect?" the psychiatrist Erich Fromm asks "If a man works without genuine relatedness to what he is doing . . . how can he make use of his leisure time in an active and meaningful way? He always remains the passive and alienated consumer." [1] Sometimes the point has been put even more strongly: A certain kind of leisure activity is not only to be expected from the alienated worker, but is psychologically necessary for him.

Mass culture reinforces those emotional attitudes that seem inseparable from existence in modern society . . . passivity and boredom. . . . What is supposed to deflect us from the reduction of our personalities actually reinforces it. . . . So, as the audience feels that it must continue to live as it does, it has little desire to see its passivity and deep-seated though hardly conscious boredom upset; it wants to be titillated and amused, but not disturbed. [2]

These observations are a warning to recreational idealists, implying that no effort to encourage more challenging and "disturbing" leisure activity can hope to succeed unless and until the workplace is reformed. The idea is that we observe in present recreational choices a reflection of profound needs that no mere change of attitude or public policy can affect: that those who already have power in the society (like successful professionals) are attracted to recreation that demonstrates to them that they are above needing power; while those who are powerless need nothing so much as to demonstrate (however pitifully) that they are capable of dominion. Thus the distinguished New York lawyer and fly-fisherman lies by the side of a stream contemplating the bubbles, while the factory worker roars across the California desert on a motorcycle.

Though all stereotypes about recreational use are exaggerated, there is some indisputable data. Studies demonstrate very strong correlations between wilderness use and both occupation and education. Blue-collar workers account for only 5 percent of all wilderness visits. One study revealed that two-thirds of wilderness users were college graduates and one-fourth of them had done graduate work. [3]

There is a real irony here. To nineteenth-century thinkers like Olmsted, it was a question of willing our aspirations into existence; and therefore the denial to the ordinary citizen of opportunities for contemplative recreation reflected a decision by those in power to write him off as a hopeless drudge. The modern psychological observers, and the statistics, suggest not only that he writes himself off—but indeed that he cannot help but do so.

While there is wide agreement that the recreation of "the passive and alienated consumer" is to be deplored (recognizing that not all recreation other than the contemplative should be so characterized), it is by no means obvious how one breaks out of the observed work-recreation circle. If alienating work is an important constraint on recreational choice, that only adds one more reason to desire that the workplace be reformed. Does the difficulty in reforming work, however, suggest that it is fruitless to encourage contemplative recreation until there is a social revolution in the factory and the office?

The dilemma cannot be resolved by data, however carefully gathered. The public has to decide how much overt tension it is willing to generate. Edward Abbey, blunt as usual, put it this way in his book Desert Solitaire:

They will complain of physical hardship, these sons of the pioneers. [But] once they rediscover the pleasures of actually operating their own limbs and senses in a varied, spontaneous, voluntary style, they will complain instead of crawling back into a car; they may even object to returning to desk and office and that dry-wall box on Mossy Brook Circle. The fires of revolt may be kindled—which means hope for us all. [4]

A rather less hopeful, but equally provocative, view is presented by Paul Shepard in The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game. Shepard is describing his childhood in the Missouri Ozarks, and his admiration of the country boys whose hunting was filled with an exuberant "independent, alert confidence" of the sort that Thoreau and Faulkner celebrated as wildness not yet tamed out of men. Yet on returning to see these children as grown men, he finds, sadly, much of the vitality he had known drained out of them:

The childhood training of hunters is not so much practical training as the opening of spiritual doors by leisured and generous people. . . . Years later, after working in the local factories or on the farm they became dull-eyed and defeated. After they could afford guns they could still get excited about hunting but in a sad way, turned in on themselves, puzzled and querulous.

This is not the defeat of innocence and enthusiasm by age and knowledge. It is because drudgery and toil has blunted them and, worse, their life style had failed them. Hunting had put a premium on physical good health, on sensitivity to environment and to the nuances and clues in a delicate and beautiful world, on independence, confidence, persistence, generosity, and had given them a powerful sense of the non-human creation. In their adult lives only one of these—persistence—was rewarded; the others were destroyed. [5]

Perspectives such as these reveal strong parallels between the thinking of the modern preservationist and the views that Olmsted expressed more than a century ago. Olmsted saw the average citizen as a victim of aristocratic condescension, and the contemporary park symbolist-preservationist sees him as a victim of industrial alienation. Of course there is a condescension of its own kind in all this, though it must have been perceived quite differently a century ago. The nineteenth-century citizen was told he was being helped to throw off the shackles imposed by a contemptuous upper class. The contemporary citizen—far more committed to a belief in his own autonomy—sees himself characterized by preservationist rhetoric as the prisoner of his own ignorance. Certainly the average park visitor today does not think of himself either as a manipulated puppet or as an externally determined victim. And he does not take kindly to suggestions that his choice of leisure time activity is unworthy. The inability of the preservationist to win a sympathetic majority for his pleas rests on an unwillingness to come to terms with the full implications of his views.

Though the preservationist sometimes appears as yet another critic of mass culture, speaking the language of alienation, he shies away from the more general—and seemingly radical—politics that posture implies. Unlike most mass-culture critics he seems quite uninterested in social reform. Indeed, most of the time he doesn't appear much interested in people at all. His vocabulary is principally directed to the land and to physical resources, and when he objects to off-road vehicle use or to plans for an urban-style resort in the mountains, his complaint is routinely phrased in terms of adverse impacts on soil, water resources, or wildlife. These are certainly authentic concerns, but they are often viewed as a disingenuous, politically neutral way of objecting to the kind of recreation other people prefer.

As noted earlier, the presence of motorboats in the Grand Canyon is not really an ecological issue, though it was regularly put in those terms. Nor is ecological disruption the sole—or even the principal—reason there has been so much objection to snowmobiles or ORVs. While one element of preservationist advocacy is scientific and truly based on principles of land management, another—and it is very clear in national park controversies—is dominated by value judgments, by attaching symbolic importance to the way people relate to nature. When preservationists are condemned for being more interested in trees than in people, there is an edge to the criticism even sharper than it seems. For the impression often given by preservationist rhetoric is that some people are less important than trees—the people who enjoy snowmobiles and auto touring and other types of so-called urbanizing recreation.

The criticism is misdirected, but it is an understandable response to the naive and uncandid way in which preservationists often state their position. A more plainspoken statement would be this: The preservationist is an elitist, at least in one sense. He seeks to persuade the majority to be distrustful of their own instincts and inclinations, which he believes are reinforced by alienating work and the dictates of mass culture. To the social reformer his message is that he can help generate incentives that will lead toward reform of the workplace. To those who say "let's look at demand," he says that people need to pay attention to what they ought to want as well as to what they now want. [6] To those who ask how anyone else can purport to know what another citizen should want, he responds that complacent acceptance of things as they are is not the hallmark of a democratic society.

The preservationists call for a willingness to be skeptical about our own inclinations raises a problem of self-determination that is particularly disquieting in a society deeply committed to ideas of democracy and equality. The concern has been particularly agitating in the context of "elitist-popular" battles over the national parks, but it is actually nothing more than a familiar issue of self-paternalism. [7] A common example is provided by the vacationer who annually brings along a serious book he has long intended to read, only to slip into reading popular mysteries. Similar rituals are familiar in registrations for music lessons or adult education courses, buoyed by the hope that the investment intuition will be a discipline not to give up, or in the acquisition of sports paraphernalia that collect dust in the attic. Aspiration and conventional behavior are in a continual battle. We are willing to impose coercion on ourselves to some degree (as in paying for lessons that we know we may never pursue) precisely because we recognize that left wholly to pursuit of our routine preferences we are not likely to do and be all that we want. A mixture of autonomy and self-imposed discipline is something we know very well.

Individual behavior patterns have counterparts in public action. Public television is perhaps the most obvious example. We have been willing to coerce (that is, to tax) ourselves to some degree to be induced to view it, even though we know we will probably resist the temptation most of the time. If public broadcasting gave us only what we already knew would be popular, it would simply add one additional outlet to the functions served by the existing plenitude of commercial stations. If, conversely, it was giving us something we knew we didn't want, it would be plainly unworthy of our support. Moreover, public broadcasting cannot be explained simply as a service to the wide diversity of public preferences, for we would never think of offering ordinary public services (like the subway) to as few people as those who constitute the audience for most public television. The most plausible explanation is that we are institutionalizing temptation to pursue some things we have been persuaded we ought to want. At the same time, the pressures we simultaneously generate to make institutions like public broadcasting or the public art museum less highbrow and more popular, demonstrate that there is a tension between self-paternalism and unbridled autonomy that is never fully resolved. [8]

To yield autonomy in this fashion does not undermine commitment to a democratic political philosophy. [9] For if one pursued a philosophy that entirely rejected a willingness to defer to others in giving content to our general aspirations, a very heavy price would have to be paid for that decision. Each individual would have to stand ready to specify his desires exactly. Consider the contrast between the patient who comes to a doctor and orders removal of his appendix, and the patient who asks the physician to help him become healthy again. In the first instance the individual maintains greater control over his own destiny, but at the risk of having to identify for himself exactly what he wants. If one knows what he wants only in aspirational terms (he wants to feel better), then to pursue that aspiration he must give up some of his autonomy. He must let someone else decide in the particular what is good for him, though only in response to something he in general has decided he wants. The problem is even more complicated when aspirations include a desire for opportunities to modify the sorts of things one wants. If avoiding fixity in desires is itself an aspiration, the individual's ability to specify his wants is especially limited. To say "I would like to be a more independent or cultured person," for example, requires even more deference to others than to say "I want to be a healthy person."

In this respect, the traditional question, am I getting what I want, or what someone else thinks I ought to want, may be seen as excessively simplistic. We get both, and the degree to which one or the other dominates depends upon a willingness to accept the possibility that others may know what is good for us better than we do ourselves, on our ability to prescribe for ourselves, and on our willingness to give up some autonomy in pursuit of those needs.

The problem is created not only by lack of knowledge, but by a willingness to confine life within the limits of one's own experience and knowledge. In the simple medical example, the difficulty is merely that the patient lacks certain information or experience. Even there, if he were willing to risk his life by the limits of his own knowledge, he would never have to put himself in the hands of a doctor.

Similarly, in the public context, if the individual were willing to eschew all self-imposed coercion, he could retain a very high degree of autonomy. He could say that libraries should stock only the books he was familiar with, even specifying the titles, or he could establish a university and direct the teachers to teach only what students already knew they wanted to learn.

It is precisely because we have not taken so constricted a view of autonomy that we establish institutions like public broadcasting, or public libraries and universities, and give up some autonomy to librarians and professors. The long-accepted presence of such institutions is evidence of our willingness to adopt a political philosophy that yields to others some power to decide what is good for us.

To those who ask the preservationist why he thinks he should be the recipient of such deference, rather than any other individual who seeks to lead, he responds that he rests his case on the evidence presented by Olmsted and Thoreau, Cotton and Ortega, Faulkner, Hemingway, Leopold, and the myriad others for whose view of man's relationship to nature he claims to speak. To the extent they are persuasive in stating a general philosophy, he asks the public to accept him as a spokesman before the Congress and the administrative officials who will give these views official status. He recognizes that he has no formal standing. He is at most a member of a loose coalition of people called a movement, and he does not have institutions, certificates, or even an accepted professional or scholarly literature behind him. No doubt this is why there has been a special uneasiness about the aspirations of the preservationist for leadership. But, for better or worse, the preservationist is the only spokesman we have for the tradition of man-in-nature.

Just as the professor of history, or the museum director, speaks for his or her profession, the preservationist boldly asks the public to vest similar power in him—to the extent that he remains within the bounds of his tradition. [10] He asks for something akin to the academic freedom we give a teacher in the classroom, which is not at all a freedom to do whatever he wants. [11] A teacher who assigns a controversial book for his students to read, or a librarian who buys such a book for his collection, will rarely defend that judgment in personal terms. It will instead be urged that the book has attained the status of a classic, that it has been widely reviewed in serious critical literature, or that it is routinely used in college or high school classes around the country. Our response to such controversies is powerfully shaped by precisely such evidence. We may, to be sure, reject every such justification and insist upon the implementation of popular judgment. But if we are willing to give any authority to teachers, as we routinely are, what we give is a freedom to operate within a professional tradition, recognizing that the bounds of that tradition are themselves a significant protection against purely personal or capricious judgments.

As the next chapter will make clear, the preservationist does not have to ask the public to eschew opportunities for conventional recreation except to a quite limited extent. His agenda accommodates to a substantial continuation of ordinary tourism as the routine recreation of most people most of the time. Indeed, more than anything else, he seeks a policy that encourages contemplative recreation as one publicly provided choice, separates it from ordinary leisure time activity, and requires a conscious decision either to accept or reject it.

In these limited, but by no means insignificant, ways the preservationist asks that the public let him lead it. In resting his case on the "evidence" presented by the nature writers, he believes he has a persuasive basis for the deference he asks, and though the tradition is testimonial, rather than scientific, he can at least add to it a range of other documentation that supports the coherence of the philosophy for which he claims to speak.

In a book entitled Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, Mahalyi Csikszentmihalyi made a study of activities that generally require much energy but yield no conventional rewards. [12] Csikszentmihalyi's interest was in making the workplace more attractive to employees, and the thesis he set out to test was whether external rewards—such as money and social status—are the only determinants of the incentive to work and of the satisfactions work produces. Pursuing the hypothesis that work could be made more satisfying without the enlargement of external rewards, he set out to discover what induces people to work hard at things they set out to do. He sought out mountain climbers, chess players, dancers, basketball players, composers, and surgeons, and he found some remarkable similarities of response among the participants in these seemingly disparate activities.

Csikszentmihalyi coined the word autotelic to describe the common elements he found among the activities studied, joining the Greek words for self, and for goal or purpose. He found that people who feel they are engaged in an enterprise where the goals are self-justifying, in the sense that ultimately the participants set out to satisfy themselves, are able to experience extraordinary levels of satisfaction. The activities he examined are not necessarily autotelic, nor are they necessarily abstracted from conventional rewards. Surgery, for example, has both an external measure of success and an external reward structure. The same is true of certain games, like basketball. The peculiar interest of Csikszentmihalyi's study was the finding that what makes these activities especially satisfying is their capacity to reward the participant according to his own internalized standard. The surgeon self-evaluates a complex operation without regard to the fact that the patient survives, and that he is paid, and he alone knows when he has performed brilliantly, rather than "merely" successfully. In exactly the same way, the serious climber or basketball player has more at stake—in his own mind—than simply attaining the summit or being on the winning side.

The conclusion the author draws from his study is that there are certain kinds of activity that give participants a sense of discovery, exploration, and problem solving, a feeling of novelty and challenge, of opportunity to explore and expand the limits of their ability, that open the way to feelings of profound satisfaction.

Csikszentmihalyi identifies three main elements that underlie the common responses of his subjects. First, a feeling by the actor that he has willingly undertaken the enterprise rather than being induced into it by external incentives or constraints. This, the author suggests, invites a sense of freedom that may be an essential feature of a deeply satisfying activity.

There is also a feeling of being in control in a special sense that makes taking considerable risks acceptable and even comfortable. Csikszentmihalyi was struck by the distinction climbers made between their voluntary assumption of the risk on the mountain and the risks of driving an automobile. On the highway, they reported, one is vulnerable to the mistakes and recklessness of others; on the mountain one is capable of getting in control of his own destiny. The risks he takes are measured by his own competence and discipline. He is not a passive object of fate determined by others.

Finally, each of the activities has a level of complexity that calls for total engagement, analogous to what was described previously as intensity. The author calls this quality an "infinite ceiling" which heightens concentration and calls for a depth of engagement and a power of perception that is lacking in ordinary activities.

The common element found in all autotelic activities was a range of physical or symbolic opportunities for action that represent important challenges to the individual. Satisfying experiences, the author finds, do not fundamentally involve merely "a passive adaptation to social demands, a normative adjustment to the status quo," [13] but opportunity for the internalization of satisfaction, based on personal knowledge, individual style and expression, autonomy, and a setting rich enough in its complexity to elicit distinctive personal responses. These conclusions echo strongly the private reflections considered in previous chapters. They suggest the distinction for which Olmsted was reaching in his effort to explain the difference between a visit to old Niagara and the experience of prepared entertainment and mass recreation enterprises that had subsequently overtaken it. The emphasis on personal style and challenge resembles strongly the technique/technology distinction that is central to the recreational literature. And certainly there is a parallel to the contrast Thoreau etched between life at Walden and life in the constrained and constraining atmosphere of Concord.

Csikszentmihalyi's findings and the literature of reflective recreation are affirmed by a major current of psychological literature. Carl B. Rogers, one of the preeminent figures of modern psychology, developed the theory that our most deeply felt (and often deeply buried) need is—in his terms—"to become ourselves." [14] Rogers's observations were drawn from some thirty years of experience as a therapist in which he sought to elicit from his patients an expression of the patient's profoundest feelings about himself—what he is, and what he wants to be.

Rogers's conclusion is that our daily lives are generally bounded by expectations others set for us. Have we behaved as a good parent should? Are we satisfying our employers? Are we dressing, or acting, fashionably? While his patients were eminently responsive to conventional fashions and expectations, Rogers found, they were also often deeply unsatisfied precisely be cause their behavior failed to answer the question, "who am I, and how can I get in touch with this real self underlying all my surface behavior?" He found that his patients began to change and to experience profound satisfaction only as they turned to activity that was founded on their own personalities and their inner resources, rather than on standards set for them externally. People who are able to make this break with convention and to carry it through at the deepest level of their own behavior (people whom the psychologist A. H. Maslow calls "self-actualizing" [15]) come to feel a stronger sense of self-esteem and self-confidence. They have come to terms with their own strengths and weaknesses, and they are less dependent on others for their satisfactions or their sense of self-worth.

At least one familiar strain in the recreational literature, and in Csikszentmihalyi's study, is also found in modern philosophical writing. Professor John Rawls, in his book A Theory of Justice, [16] observes that

human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity. . . . Presumably, complex activities are more enjoyable because they satisfy the desire for variety and novelty of experience, and leave room for feats of ingenuity and invention. . . . Simpler activities exclude the possibility of personal style and personal expression which complex activities permit or even require, for how could everyone do them in the same way? [17]

Certainly it would be erroneous to suggest that Rawls and Rogers, Olmsted, Thoreau, and Csikszentmihalyi are all saying precisely the same things; that all their observations are proven theorems of human behavior; or that taken together they can serve as the basis for confident public decision making. In fact, the existing literature leaves numerous questions quite unsettled. Both Rawls and Csikszentmihalyi, for example, use chess as an example of a complex or autotelic activity; yet chess is the perfect example of the game of conquest and dominance, and in that respect differs sharply from the activities most central to the recreational literature. Indeed, the literature on chess masters is a veritable playground of psychological aberration, with obsessions of dominance and conquest one of its focal points. The great chess players seem to be anything but "self-actualizing personalities." [18]

Perhaps analyses of recreation so far have insufficiently distinguished between those activities that turn on conquest, with inescapable winners and losers, and those that have the capacity to transcend mastery. [19] While there are many important similarities—such as complexity, challenge, independence, and skill development—there seem also to be important differences, not unlike the difference noted earlier between motorcycling and fly-fishing.

Plainly our knowledge about differing recreational activities the extent to which they are good for us, and whether we ought to want to give them a distinctive place in public policy, is anything but an exact science. And plainly the preservationist has less claim as an authority than does the scientist, the museum director, or the university professor. They put something before us and say, "this is what you ought to want to know," as the preservationist would like to shape a park and say "this is what you ought—if not exclusively, at least importantly—to want of your leisure." But that is the claim he makes, and whether he succeeds or fails in persuading others that he should be followed depends on the strength of the evidence he has. Right or wrong, persuasive or nor, his claim is that he knows something about what other people ought to want and how they can go about getting it, and he should not back away from, or conceal, that claim.


Mountains Without Handrails
©1980, The University of Michigan
Published by The University of Michigan Press

sax/chap4.htm — 22-Jan-2003