Desperately seeking wilderness. We outdoor writers have a responsibility.

The holiday chips are almost down, the travel cards have nearly been dealt, and it would appear that the most likely scenario for the 2021 UK travel season is the staycation.

Our empty places are at risk

Whether our staycations end up being hyper-local or UK-wide will be up to us (or perhaps Boris) but one thing’s for sure; after all that being cooped up together, the vast majority of us will be looking for opportunities to find a bit of empty space in the good old British countryside.

This is ironic because our rush to find space is going to result in a lack of it in many areas.

Search engine politics

If you’ve done as much online reading about the outdoors over the last five years as I have, you’ll have noticed, especially in ‘certain’ types of publication (yes I believe I am a travel-reading snob) the trend towards attention-grabbing titles. Nothing new there you might say but I’m not just talking about the attention of a human readership here, I’m talking about the search engines.

It’s our own fault (readers and writers). Online writing is pointless unless somebody finds it to read. This means that understanding and using the ‘right’ keywords has become vital for anyone who wants their writing to have any kind of impact.

You can investigate this for yourself. Try typing ‘secret’ into a search bar, or ‘wild’ and you’ll soon be overloaded with results for ‘secret escapes’ and ‘wilderness cottages’. It’s the same for ‘countryside’, which will bring up lists of peaceful villages and cute cottages.

The problem is of course that the end result of a first or even second-page search engine result is likely to be the exact opposite of secret, wild and peaceful.

Even greater a problem is that our top ‘beautiful’ and ‘idyllic’ spaces are sometimes so overwhelmed with visitors that they are at risk of becoming anything but.

Finding the outdoor balance

So what can we writers do about this? How can we help protect our outdoor spaces whilst continuing to encourage even more people to enjoy the health benefits of an outdoor lifestyle?

There are no perfect answers but I have thought long and hard about this. Here are the three key questions I’m planning to make the basis of my future writing.

  • As well as attracting people to the outdoors, have I helped them understand how to look after it?
  • Will any locations I have included in my writing suffer from overcrowding or damage as a result?
  • Does my outdoor writing encourage the development of an exploration mentality over an ‘ultimate destination’ one?

The commodification of the outdoors

Much has been written about the commodification of the outdoors but in truth, it is nothing new. From hunter-gathering to modern-day well-being travel, we have used our outdoor spaces to suit our needs, and will almost certainly continue to do so.

Urban nature is increasingly seen as a manageable resource to enhance human well-being. By viewing nature as a commodity that supplies health benefits, and by identifying minimum amounts needed to gain benefits, we risk trivializing a deep affective response to nature.

Yolanda van Heezig and Eric Brymer - Nature as a commodity: What's Good for Human Health Might not be Good for Ecosystem Health

We are responsible for nature

There’s no getting away from it. We outdoor writers might love our outdoor spaces but by making a living from them, we also use them as a commodity.

This brings with it enormous responsibility. Skilled though we might all be at writing, route planning, and persuading, my recent research suggests we are far less skilled at delivering the friendly and educational ‘look after this space’ messages our green spaces so desperately need.

It’s time for a sea change but it won’t necessarily be a difficult one. If we all shifted our thinking processes a couple of steps from ‘benefitting us’ towards ‘benefitting the outdoors’, it would make a huge difference.

Guardians of our landscapes

Encouraging people outside is a laudable activity. It is good for them and, with the right input, has the potential to also be good for our outdoor spaces. However, the last couple of years have shown us that encouragement without education is irresponsible.

Whether we choose to be or not, we are guardians of our landscapes. Let’s think about how we are going to face up to that responsibility. And let’s do that now!


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