Science, Religion and the Outdoors

It’s long been recognised that the wilderness, especially mountain wilderness, has a spiritual quality that humans need. John Muir expressed it perfectly when he said “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.” and it’s interesting to see the use of the term “pray” in this famous quote.

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CREDIT: “John Muir, full-length portrait, facing right, seated on rock with lake and trees in background.” c1902. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920, Library of Congress.

When I first heard the line I just dismissed the term “pray” as coming from the steotypical religious mix of Scottish heritage and American tradition and substituted it with “think” in my mind, but experience slowly changed this view. It’s no coincidence that we bestow religious terminology to the finest mountain wilderness, and how early descriptions were full of the sense of awe and wonder usually reserved for religious sights. For millenia people have held nature in awe, from early beginings when deity was bestowed on nature itself to the use of natural amphitheatres in the Peak District used for banned religious meetings.

There is something spiritual in nature, and like religion an introduction to wilderness can change lives in the same way as a religious epiphany – read Andy Cave’s book Learning to Breathe to see just what a difference it can make. Like a religion experiencing the outdoors is a personal experience, but one that can benefit at times from being shared with others, and there’s no-one more enthusiastic than a new convert. The great outdoors draws us at weekends, replacing for many the traditional Sunday church attendance as our feel good factor and inspiration, and when we find the perfect mountain view we even refer to it as a cathedral.

Alpenglo on Longs Peak, Colorado_Small

Almost un-noticed, science has entered the spiritual world of the outdoors, but rather than destroying the religious analogies it merely reinforced them. The key to religion, no matter which religion, is surely faith – and that’s precisely what science tries to grow in us. Take a look in at any piece of outdoor kit nowadays and examine the label – you’ll be confronted with more science and technical terminology than the average A level student, but what does it really mean? Take some of the most popular fabrics used for outdoor clothing: There’s Pertex Endurance, Pertex Quantum, Pertex Shield, Pertex MicroLight and Pertex Classic for a start………..now Classic is obviously an original form but how much should you read into the others? Pertex Shield you’d expect to be some sort of shield so probably good for abrasion resistance, and Pertex MicroLight seems pretty self explanatory. Pertex Endurance doesn’t seem too difficult to work out where its strength lies but Pertex Quantum??? Is it some weird option based on advanced physics? The only way, of course, of finding out is to check out the labels and tags that adorn every product, and that’s where faith comes in.

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Read a garment tag, skipping the washing instructions, and you’ll find wonderful descriptions of how oilophobic membranes with XYZ ions and silicone dioxide beads combine with silver fabrics and microfilament yarns to produce ……what, really? something you can wear and not something you expect to find in a government laboratory? Seriously now, how many peopple really follow all the scientific or pseudo-scientific geekspeak? You’re expected to put your faith in it just because it’s got a paragraph or three of jargon behind it that makes it look like it’s come straight from NASA. Personally I’m not bothered if it says it an intelligent, semi-permeable micropore membrane with hydrophyllic and hydrophobic lares laminated together – I want to know if it’s going to keep me dry when it rains, and shift perspiration when I get warm…end of! Faith may be defined by a belief in something you can’t see, but surely that doesn’t mean in something you can’t understand either? That’s why I’ve been happy this week to go through all the outdoor clothing on the site, noting their core technology and coming up with a real world description of what they are and what they do. Don’t let the science baffle you or demand a faith it may or may not deserve, save that for the wilderness itself and the faith that it will always be there when we need its spiritual qualities.

3 thoughts on “Science, Religion and the Outdoors

  1. I’ve always had transcendent faith in food as holy, in chefs and chocolatiers as divine. My own most enduring ritual of faith is devouring human creativity in any form it presents itself. I’m not such an omnivore as Anthony Bourdain and his extreme cuisine — his favorite eggs are the eggs of sea urchins, not exactly conducive to the traditional holiday rituals I know! — but I do enjoy a variety of foods and well-rendered cultural infusions and combinations, and as you’d expect now that you’re getting to know me, I especially savor the stories BEHIND the food.

  2. This is a really interesting read, I’m currently studying the outdoors in the lake district uni. And I’ve been hitting similar topics in many of my essays. You should read the journal by Chris loynes witch is called “adventure in a bun” really interesting stuff. I’m thinking of writing a dissertation on the mix of religion, industry in terms of the outdoors, but am struggling to keep a singular topic. And good reads you could suggest?

    1. Cheers for your comments Rob, We’ll check it out. As far as good reads are concerned on your level I’m a little stuck, but you might want to try the Book of the Bivvy by Jon Turnbull. It’s tangential at best, but for me bivvying is the closest thing on a “spiritual” level when getting outside. Best of luck with the dissertation!

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