Updated: Sep 10
Since climate activism typically focusses on carbon emissions, the mirror crisis of our destruction of ecological systems is woefully underdiscussed in much of Western environmental discourse. After lockdown forced her to put her hiking boots on, Eleanor Salter reflects on her growing understanding of the politics of the outdoors.
Despite growing up in the countryside, walking in any serious, long-distance way seemed beyond me. Hiking either reminded me of the painful teenage experience of the Duke of Edinburgh award, or seemed exclusively for the over 60s – a boots-on, thermos-and-maps type hobby.
Besides the raw recollections of school trips like the Duke of Edinburgh in the Wye Valley (happy memories of WKD confiscations and teenage horror at the prospect of ticks), lockdown boredom finally pushed me out of the door and into the hills. Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve taken my ‘one bit of exercise a day’ allowance very seriously. I started to walk long distances, sometimes covering 15 miles and heading out for several hours at a time. My family have always been avid walkers – although rambles are getting shorter and shorter with an increasingly arthritic dog in tow – but I’d rarely walked far alone.
Lockdown boredom finally pushed me out of the door and into the hills
And, unexpectedly, rambling became a key lockdown activity. There is nothing remotely productive about walking, which is exactly why it is so lovely. It has also encouraged me to think differently about the environment – building up my nascent knowledge of the natural world – and it’s acted as an antidote to the Zoom-induced coma in which I was languishing most days.
After initial hesitation, I’ve started to learn about plants, trees, moss and birds, weeding out the anxiety that this is something for members of my parents’ generation, not for me.
This learning came in part from my walks and natural curiosity about the things I came across. It’s also been a concerted effort, coming from an underlying sense of inadequacy – as a climate activist, my ecological literacy has been quite limited. But a visceral knowledge of the natural world does matter.
As a climate activist, my ecological literacy has been quite limited
According to a report by the WWF, 60% of animal populations on Earth have been wiped out since 1970. The panoply of global heating, agriculture trends and sweeping habitat destruction of land and sea has devastated ecosystems. The UN has noted that one in 4 species on the planet are now at risk of extinction.
I’ve been slow getting to grips with climate breakdown’s twin – ecological collapse. Many climate activists argue that a sole focus on the animal world detracts from the real present suffering of humankind. The martyrdom of the polar bear, for example, is not more upsetting than the human death toll in nations on the frontline of climate breakdown. But, of course, it isn’t a zero-sum game. Destruction of nature leads to a cascade of harms into human life: it means, for example, more flooding, more drought, poorer harvests, and devastation of Indigenous ways of life. We are part of the ecosystem, so caring about nature needn’t transcend anthropocentrism.
Engagement with the natural environment can mean reflection on human survival and the actions required to secure it. But being able to switch off that instrumentalisation of the natural world is worthwhile, too. Like walking itself, nature has become something I can enjoy for itself, without needing it to be productive. Just recently I was accompanied by three sparrowhawks on a wander along the south west coast path and I’m still thinking about them, with their controlled hovering and lunging. They aren’t things I can use, watching them had no innate purpose – instead they had intrinsic value.
Just recently I was accompanied by three sparrowhawks on a wander along the south west coast path and I’m still thinking about them
Once you can identify something, you can look out for it. Gaining this rudimentary naturalist’s vocabulary has been a gateway to caring about and wanting to protect the natural world, bringing a new corresponding dynamic to my climate activism.
Getting out and about has also made me trace new paths in a landscape I’ve known all my life. I’ve discovered small rivers with places to swim and pockets of pinewoods, and traversed the ruffles of an undulating valley I’d only ever seen from the road.
This pointless exploration of the familiar has been respite from the overwhelming technological focus of lockdown, where whole days are consumed by online meetings, Slack and social media. The pandemic has unleashed momentum towards an increasingly digitalised, online culture of work – the kind of work that seems to enter the home and never leaves.
The pandemic has unleashed momentum towards... the kind of work that seems to enter the home and never leaves
I’ve found it bizarrely fantastical, then, to leave my phone at home and just walk out the door. I’m not tracking every move on an app, timing myself or counting steps. This tiny slice of freedom from the digital has allowed me to stop, to be awed by small things, to take diversions – habits that aren’t afforded in the jostling hurry of online life. To step outside a world that demands relentless productivity and digital attention, to wander aimlessly even for a few hours was enormously restorative.
Private: no access
Along the way, I’ve realised how much of the land is restricted for the average person. Bad map reading has left me scrambling through places I shouldn’t be, hurriedly coming out the other side of NO TRESPASS fences.
Currently, just 8% of England is accessible under the Right to Roam – the right that allows the public access to walk, run, camp and climb without obstruction or fear of trespass. Additionally, with the majority of the British population based in urban areas, accessing the countryside requires time, money and planning – things that just aren’t abundantly available.
With the majority of the British population based in urban areas, accessing the countryside requires time, money and planning
The Right to Roam should be expanded, unlocking land across the country for all to explore. Besides physical access, there are significant cultural and socioeconomic barriers to the great outdoors. As a woman, I’d never camp alone. It takes time, money and effort to get out of large cities to go for a walk, which many can’t afford. When Dwayne Fields appeared on Countryfile, exploring how many BME groups consider the countryside to be a white environment, the Twitter backlash was typically in bad faith (‘HOW CAN BIRDS BE RACIST’ was the thrust of debate).
There is real reason for concern, in addition to the lack of opportunity for many inner-city kids to get outdoors. Racism exists in rural areas too; between 2018-2019, police in Dorset were 25 times more likely to stop and search Black people than white people. With trespass laws remaining in place and the potential criminalisation of trespass being introduced by the current Tory government, there’s a long way to go before everyone has fair and equal access to the land.
Now lockdown is changing shape again, I’m hoping to find gaps of time that I can still fill with purposeless long walks. It’s time to make the countryside accessible for everyone – not just via Duke of Edinburgh. For ourselves and for understanding our planet, a stroll can do a lot of good.