Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…Me and Bobby McGee – Janis Joplin
(Photo credit – Outward Bound Canada)
Wilderness canoe-tripping has long been one of my absolute favourite summer-autumn things to do. I have done it almost every summer for 35 years. For me and those who come with me it is and has been one of the most freeing things we know.
Some sorts of head-knowledge are in the skill-set one needs to “succeed” in wilderness tripping – whether that be canoeing, serious back-packing (which I have also done), or some other kind of ‘in-the-deep-end’ wilderness journeying. But in this sort of adventure, the physical and practical skills decidedly outweigh most head-knowledge. And, unless you are a solo-tripper, such a journey is a social and relational adventure as much as it is physically challenging.
Before setting out, some sort of plan is required, even if only a rudimentary one. First thing to determine is “Where”? In other words, a route must be selected and agreed upon. The agreement may be a simple acceptance by the other group members, or an actual discussion of at least some of the details. For example, how much flexibility in changing it once begun will/should there be? How long will the trip be, both in distance and time? Where will the stops be? Is the distance estimated appropriate to the time allotted? How much food will be required? What gear does each member need to bring? Etc.
Once the basic plan is set, assignments need to be allotted to each tripper – who will bring what, how it will all be packed and divided into portageable loads. How will the canoeing partners be decided – who should be with whom, and can this be varied? It’s nice to change partners from day to day to get to know one another better. Sometimes, it might be better for certain pairs to spend more or less time together. In case of need to make important decisions, is someone the designated leader, or will consensus decide?
This potentially wonderfully freeing kind of activity is an allegory of how human beings function in even the smallest and simplest sort of extended social contact. What could happen if you don’t plan and just get a few like-minded people with similar interests together to just set out on a common adventure with each one preparing however he/she thinks appropriate? Even then they will need to agree on a common time and place to meet in order to go together.
An ad-libbed, ad-hoc trip might end up like this. On the chosen day at around the chosen time, Charlie, Pete, Samantha, and Noreen (our intrepid trippers) all show up with whatever they thought they needed for this wonderful idea of a wilderness canoe trip. At the canoe put-in on Lake Letztango, they begin to discover that not everyone even has the basics. Noreen has no paddle. Pete has no PFD (life-vest). Charlie brought two canoes, but only one of them is an actual tripping canoe with significant cargo capacity. No one bothered to acquire an actual map of the route they thought about following – not even an electronic one downloaded to their phone or tablet! As to food, what a hodgepodge, and who even considered that improperly stored food is an open invitation to bears, racoons, and pesky, ubiquitous squirrels to the feast within hours of setting up camp? Oops! Everyone thought the other people were bringing tents! On and on the sad tale goes.
We will leave this group of sad-sack travelers to their consequences. Does freedom have anything to do with all this? When is freedom not freedom? When are rules and limitations actually liberating? And when are they oppressive rather than liberating?
It becomes very quickly clear that for even the most elementary social arrangement to work, there is a careful balancing act that must be worked out. Not enough organization with responsibilities and duties defined, and the slide into chaos and blame-gaming is rapid and will quickly get nasty. Too much organization with overzealous application of controls and rules reduces people to ciphers, stifling their motivation to reach out and help one another. Over time it builds up anger and resentment for being disrespected and made to feel of no account.
The best wilderness experiences happen when people know their roles, are respected as people who can and will fulfill them, and learn how if they need to. Left with enough independence to initiate and even improve things for themselves and others, things become positively fun! There is a spirit of goodwill, happy cooperation, and genuine concern in case of a problem. Problems are met with steady practical solutions created when the need arises. Sometimes, “stuff happens” even to the most experienced people, but when mutual freedoms within proper boundaries and mutual respect and esteem have been created and sustained within the group, the problems get solved far more smoothly and with far less strain, stress, blaming, and acrimony. Overcoming such things together strengthens the group’s cohesion and mutual respect.
A wilderness canoe-tripping expedition, whether as small as two or as large as ten, has no written rule-book. You can read up about skills and routes to prepare, you can practice canoeing techniques on calm water beforehand, try out your knot-tying and campfire building, and even practice pooping in the bush with no privy, but there is no comprehensive manual or “How-To” book.
Let’s apply our little parable about wilderness tripping to the macro level of running a club, a church, a town, a mega-city, a province or state and even a country. Is there some sort of “manual” for these bigger venues of social management?
Not really. Not even Robert’s Rules of Order or the well-designed Canadian Constitution Act can cover every situation, as helpful as they may be in giving general parameters. They need to be supplemented by the infinitely fluid river called “History” backed up by a lot of written reflections, traditional ideas and principles, and “Here’s How I/We Did It Here at This Time” type writings (Memoirs, if you prefer). History has a ton of stuff for us to look over and consider, but it cannot tell us once and for all “Here’s what you need to do right now where you are with that bunch of people you’re traveling with.” It can tell us a lot about how our forebears solved many of the same problems we have to deal with – although the River of Time and place create variations that must be taken into account.
One thing we should have learned over the last two or three hundred years is that it is an awfully good idea to lay out a set of basic rules for solving big problems in big communities – both national and international. When you scratch beneath the surface, most of those problems revolve directly around the very issue we find ourselves struggling so mightily with worldwide at this very moment: FREEDOM! This humble set of articles is an attempt to make a small contribution to that very big discussion.
What, if anything, has our parable told us, besides how to avoid having our canoe go disastrously crashing into the first set of rapids it meets?
- Freedom is not really freedom if there are no rules and responsibilities.
- Freedom is an illusion if we have no plan, goal, and vision to set out for as a common destination and inspiration.
- If each one of us just acts “freely”, i.e. autonomously, as “seems good in his/her own eyes” (an expression borrowed from the Biblical Book of Judges) our actual destination is chaos and destructive anarchy. Incidentally Judges is a good read for this period we find ourselves in. Even nature teaches us that laws exist and that they will insist on being respected and obeyed. We defy them at our own peril, and ultimately we defy them upon pain of death. You can whimsically decree that you can now fly or walk on water (without extra mechanical appendages) – until you try it for the first time and discover that you too are subject to the rule of law.
- All of us, and all things, are subject to the rule of law. Such is the created order, or “Natural Law” in the old parlance. Even despots with a nuclear arsenal are finally subject to the rule of law. The greatest lawgiver of all once said, “If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword.” That’s a primary law in the way of human behaviour and natural consequences. In the Old West, there was always a faster gunslinger somewhere who would eventually put you into Boot Hill.
- By willingly cooperating together we can overcome many obstacles, and in fact we enhance one another’s real freedom when we excel in what we are really good at. Doing this and encouraging tripmates to do likewise gains their esteem and respect and empowers them to thrive as well.
- The more we act arbitrarily and bully others into doing as we insist, the less they are likely to respect us, and the more resentful and angry they will become. Things will get done less and less willingly, and less and less thoroughly, increasing the risk of accident and harm for everyone. Eventually, order will disintegrate and the society will fail.
The slaves will overcome you too, King Louis, Tsar Nicholas, and Mr. Putin. Maybe not today, but count on it!
To Be Continued