In 1917 a Yale geology professor enthused that “the Green Mountains end in West Rock in New Haven, the White Mountains in East Rock. All trails lead to Yale!” He may have been wrong on the geology, but he was right about Yale’s connection to the land.
For over a century and a half, Yale has been a locus of environmentalism. Prominent figures — including Josiah Whitney 1839, a father of American geology; Gifford Pinchot 1889 ,a father of American forestry; Aldo Leopold FES 1909, author of “A Sand County Almanac”; William Cronon GRD ’90, a pioneer environmental historian; and Gus Speth ’64 LAW ’69, the outgoing dean of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies — have spent appreciable time here. As seen by the environment school, the Yale Sustainable Food Project, the Yale Student Environmental Coalition (YSEC), the Student Taskforce for Environmental Partnership and the undergraduate outdoor pre-orientation trips, there is no shortage of environmental thinking, training and activism on campus.
But our environmental culture has one significant gap: recreation. Yale has long-standing clubs devoted to hiking and climbing mountains — in the mid-20th century Yalies helped to popularize these activities around the country. But for decades now, the groups have been small and fragmented. We have nowhere near the resources or opportunities of clubs at Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT or Princeton. We, the leaders of these groups, hope to change that.
This is not our plea for financial parity: There are a hundred higher priorities that deserve Yale’s attention. But we want to make clear, in anticipation of Earth Day this Wednesday, the role of recreation in an environmental ethic.
Our planet is in bad shape, and we need to change our collective behavior. No news there. So why spend time drinking from mountain streams or climbing frozen waterfalls when you could be advocating for sustainable water policies? There is no need to crouch on a windy summit to appreciate that gravity carries our mine tailings and industrial pollution downhill. There is certainly no need to fall into a crevasse to be able to discuss the world’s shrinking glaciers. We need clean air, clean water, open spaces, vegetation, and more, and we should fight for them. But we should not forget: There is more to nature than need.
What would it mean for us, in our industrial, digital, crowded urbanscapes, to feel at home in nature? To be at home is not to escape. We can’t simply retreat to the mountains. But there is an exhilarating gratitude that comes from communing in the hills. This is what you feel when you experience the land as a place to recreate — as the type of revelatory playground that makes living on this planet more than a happy coincidence. This is not about needs. We can call it fun, and that would be accurate; but it is the kind of fun that makes a home out of just another place.
It is unfortunate that at this school, with such a powerful impact on the environmental movement, there are few opportunities for this kind of experience. If we want to re-consider our place in nature — and all the facts argue for the urgency of that task — then we need to make these experiences available to one another. They are what give value to our politics. They foster responsible stewardship of the land. While we are stuffing our heads with the latest environmental theories and data, or whatever it is that we are studying here, we should remind ourselves to go traipse around this beautiful place that, at least while we are here, we can call home.
In view of this, last fall the outing clubs — Yale Outdoors, the Yale Mountaineering Club and the Forestry Outing Club — decided we could accomplish more if we formed an umbrella group, with affiliations to groups like YSEC and FOOT. The group is slowly coming into shape. While we take care of the logistics of consolidating our activities, we hope that Yalies will take advantage of the new opportunities that this makes available. Between now and Earth Day, look for YSEC and our groups at events around campus. We have a common message: You have to go seek out the planet in order to think about what it means to be a part of it.
Spencer Gray is a senior in Trumbull College and the president of the Yale Mountaineering Club. Eli Bildner, a junior in Davenport College, and Frances Douglas, a sophomore in Trumbull College, are co-coordinators of Yale Outdoors. Bo White is a second-year student in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the president of the
Forestry Outing Club.