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We Called Them Polar Bears- Part 3

 By 2006 it was already clear that the erosion of the American wild, while driven by development and resource extraction, was primarily a function of our mindset. We alienated ourselves from the wilderness by creating a social structure focused on passive entertainment, extreme hygiene, and the elimination of risk, one that prefers the sterile and controlled environment of the internet over the unknowns of the wild. 

Our increasing addiction to and dependence on technology is also intimately linked to the disconnect between the American lifestyle and the outdoors. The immediacy of portable technology and the relocation of our social structure to online media have resulted in a culture of multitasking and the lack of the ability to either be present in the moment or be comfortable without constant stimulation. When we do go outside, we proudly post pictures, often while still outside, proof being in the outdoors without having to actually engage in it. Our mindset is reflected in our public polices and management agencies. On a recent trip to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon I arrived at a trail head only to find a sign saying that the fossils along the hike were replicas and that if I wanted to see the real fossils, I should continue down the road to the visitor’s center. It was then unsurprising when I passed no one on the trail and watched as car after car stopped, read the sign, and continued down the road to the comfort of air conditioning and interpretive videos. 

This alienation is particularly profound in American women and codified in the persistent and systemic media portrayal of women as helpless, clueless, and burdensome outside. Even the strong female characters that I grew up with the 1980's, Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia and Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone for example, were ultimately portrayed in this manner. These characters were strong, smart women, allowed to be multidimensional, muscular, and mouthy, but they were still shown to be all but useless outside, dragged to safety by hand, by men, through half the movie. In fact, most movies and television shows, now as then, fail to show women in the outdoors whatsoever, and certainly not in competent, capable contexts.

This myth of female helplessness has only been compounded and exasperated by a lack of wilderness education for girls and women. While learning to backpack, camp, and hunt are considered important rites of passage for our young American men, American girls are more likely to learn an art or craft, how to cook, or play a sport before they are taught how to pitch a tent or use a compass. American women are also not supposed to sweat, carry heavy things, be able to read maps, be seen without their makeup on, or know how to build a fire. Outdoor pursuits then, have a way of putting us in the untenable position of trying to balance our culturally requested veil of helplessness and delicacy with a very real and immediate need to be neither helpless nor delicate.

While women in the United States have met or surpassed men in the workplace and higher education and rallied for the right to be included as equals in traditional male pursuits and vocations but there is still a gender gap in outdoor pursuits. The feminist movement of the late seventies and early eighties cast aside some unnecessary cultural norms; opening up professional opportunities and releasing us from the shackles of unwanted pregnancy and unhappy marriages. It also created two generations of women working both inside and outside the home, an ever-increasing number of them doing so as single parents. Where in the modern model of the American woman is there time, training or opportunity for outdoor recreation? 


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