21 October 2015

Fear, Part 1: The Bear Necessities

"My, child. Aren't you scared a bear is going to eat you?"
-Visitor, Yosemite Valley, Fall 2002

Risk is a fascinating beast, and its cousin, fear, is an even queerer fellow. We live in an ever risk-averse world. Helicopter parenting and anxiety are at an all-time high.  There is a wonky positive feedback loop happening here: the more that anxiety-ridden parents interfere in their children's lives to shield them from danger, the more fearful those children will then be when later faced with difficult circumstances because they do not have the tools to deal effectively. What we're up against here is a mismatch of skills to experiences.

My current job introduces backpacking and wilderness areas to high school students from communities traditionally under-represented in national parks and wilderness areas. As part of my role, I hold in-person meetings in the communities talking to parents and their children about what to expect. Naturally, if you've never had an experience with backpacking and never known anyone who has had an experience like it, you have many questions.  The questions tend to follow a common thread, and inevitably the first question is almost always, "What do you do about bears?"

Ah, yes, our primal fear of the fang-bearing megafauna.  I have also gotten this question countless times since I started regularly sleeping outdoors without a tent (see quote at the beginning of this post) and backpacking solo. There's no doubt in my mind that we are evolutionarily hard-wired to both fear and adore megafauna: our biggest threats, our close mammalian cousins, our potential dinner steaks. 

Friend, foe, or food? (Don't worry, PETA; I wouldn't.)
I've been thinking about my own relationship to bears (and other scary environmental factors), and wondering at what point I became comfortable with the idea of being alone in the wilderness with wild critters. It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment, but I certainly think it didn't hurt that in 2008, part of my job duties included chasing black bears out of our summer camp. I learned how to run at top speed, screaming at the top of my lungs, hoping they would run away before I got to them. They always did. (One day, I even got to watch one doggy-paddle across a lake after I chased it to the shore!)

Twice in the past year, I have giggled while reading accounts of other ultrarunners, far more talented than me, but with seemingly less wilderness experience, who were "detained" for over 20 minutes waiting for black bears. In one case, the woman sacrificed podium place waiting for other competitors to catch up before she would skirt well off the trail away from the bear. Both times I thought, "why didn't they just yell at the bear to get out of the way?" I realized that we're back to that match of skills to experience: scaring a bear, just like tying a fishing knot, firing up a cook stove, or reading weather patterns, is a skill that comes with experience and confidence.
I didn't yell at this one - s/he was way too cute to send packing.
Since I am interested in the question of why more women do not adventure outdoors, I wonder if these innate fears of large animals and other environmental factors are more common to women than men. If so, is that a biological adaptation where men are hard-wired to face those fears so that they can be effective hunters? Meanwhile, are women more biologically inclined to view environmental factors with more caution in order to protect their brood?

Even if my theory is plausible, I would hate to give too much credence to our genetic make-up or to eschew the role of human agency. No matter how we are born, women are entirely capable of being badass adventurers in the face of incredible odds and extremely challenging environmental factors. (Need proof? Watch Tracks on Netflix.  Or read the book.)

How do we connect women with the confidence and skills to combat fears of the great unknown? Can we do more to get women outdoors at a young age? Can I and other women make a point of mentoring more young women to de-mystify wilderness? Are there media messages about the outdoors that speak to women and men differently? On the flip side, are there skills that are more common among women that we can capitalize on to empower women to feel comfortable outdoors?

This is part one of a three-part series on fear. This blog addresses fear of environmental factors. Part two will focus on danger from other humans, while part three will be about fear of our own abilities.
Davidson, Robyn. Tracks. New York: Pantheon, 1980. Print. 
Everett-Haynes, Monica. "The Dangers of 'Overparenting'" The Dangers of 'Overparenting' The University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral 
       Sciences, 19 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Oct. 2015. <http://web.sbs.arizona.edu/college/news/dangers-overparenting>.
Gray, Peter. "The Decline of Play and Rise in Children's Mental Disorders." Psychology Today. HealthProfs.com, 26 Jan. 2010. Web. 19 Oct. 2015. 
Gustafson, Timi. "Anxiety Disorders Are Sharply on the Rise." Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D. Solstice Publications, 30 Sept. 2011. Web. 19 Oct. 
        2015. <http://www.timigustafson.com/2011/anxiety-disorders-are-sharply-on-the-rise/>.
Levine, Bruce. "How Our Society Breeds Anxiety, Depression and Dysfunction." Salon. Salon Media Group, 26 Aug. 2013. Web. 19 Oct. 2015. 
Tracks. Dir. John Curran. Perf. Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver, Lily Pearl. Transmission Films, 2013. Film. Viewed on Netflix. 

1 comment:

  1. Bears scare me. Anything bigger, smellier, and more obnoxious than me is a potential bad-ass. Fortunately, most have more sense than people and we never even get to see them. My fear stems from my first experience with a bad ass bear that was literally poking his nose around my tent. Fortunately, either the hunter or the scared to death scream in the silent black night convinced him to leave.


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