Where’s all the other mountain mamas?
Seriously. In a survey of through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, only 23% were female. When I worked on a trail crew in Vermont, there was only two other women besides me on my 9-person crew (one was the awesome crew leader…) and I noticed a similar imbalance on the other crews from the conservation corps. When I tagged along on a class backpacking trip from my former high school as a chaperone, I noticed an even more dramatic gender distribution: I was the only woman on the trip! And earlier this year, I was talking with my aunt about my interest in taking some classes at a primitive skills school, only to be startled when she told me that the instructors have a reputation for trying to put the moves on any young, attractive female students that come their way. Great-that’s really comforting.
So where’s all the other women exploring the great outdoors? I know there’s more of us out there, but we’re few and far between, or so it seems. It’s not as if we can’t do it. Before the walling off of the world and the rise of civilization, as humanity spread to all corners of the earth, women survived in the same harsh conditions and endured the same dangers that men did-and sometimes carrying a baby on their back or in their belly, too. Many mystical traditions see nature as female, and women by extension as having some sort of mysterious connection with nature. As women are so closely associated and involved with the creation and nurturing of life (even for those of you who can’t have children or don’t want to-there’s some ancient deep part of your consciousness that knows) we also have a deeper concept of our mortality and the fragility of life. Nature is very cyclical and death and life are closely intertwined. Because of its ability to create, destroy, then re-create in cycles, nature is associated with female-ness. I could agree with this; I feel pulled along by the mysterious cycles and currents of the natural world. Yes, Nature is a mother, but she can be one mean mama.
Partly I think it’s because our view of nature has changed. In a way, even perceiving nature as something separate and removed from us is a great change from when it was simply…home, mother, whatever-an entity that could both give and take, create and destroy. Now nature is seen as an adversary, something to be conquered rather than feared, respected, thanked for our daily existence. And conquering is not thought of as something women do. There’s also a pervasive stereotype of the lone wolf isolated badass woodsman type. I seem to see this a lot in the backpacking/nomadic/bushcraft community. Guys just want to play caveman and grow a beard and get some nature-related tattoos and stomp around in the woods feeling all badass. Not that there’s anything wrong with that in itself. But for those of us with neither the capacity for beard-growing or lone wolfiness can feel a little put off and feel like we don’t have what it takes to survive in the great outdoors. Also, on the whole solitude thing: humans are not solitary animals. In fact, in modern studies of hunter-gatherer groups living in remote areas, people tended to value companionship and cooperation, and formed close social bonds with their small group. There’s many reasons for this, not the least of which is that an extra set of eyes and ears helps alert you to dangers you might not otherwise notice, and a second pair of hands helps deal with danger when it arises. And human contact and human voices are essential for the health of the mind and emotions, just as good clean food and water are essential for the health of the body. In fact, it’s good to take your friends and family into the wild with you; you will develop a closer connection sharing space and time and conversation with them uninterrupted by the noise of industrial civilization (which is good for many things, like the invention of antibiotics and hot showers, but not conducive to deep social bonding.)
There’s also a message that women get fed from a very young age, whether unintentionally or intentionally: You are weak, you are especially vulnerable, you should not go out on your own somewhere. The world is out to get you and exploit your weaknesses, you should be very much afraid and ever vigilant because you’re a woman! Eventually your gender can start to feel like a liability or something. But don’t listen; channel the spirit of your ancient ancient ancestresses. Get outside. Have fun. If you’re really concerned, bring a friend, as mentioned before: an extra set of eyes, ears, and hands.
Fellow mountain mamas, I’ll see you on the other side of the hill!