You Are Not Safe

The scenario was pretty straightforward. A guy takes his small children to the woods and encounters a pair of rowdy, off-leash dogs, whose owner refuses to get them under control. A minor conflict ensues, but ends with the one guy asking the internet if they agreed with him that the dog guy was out of line. He just wanted to be able to go to the woods with his kids and have them feel safe. The internet supported him more or less completely.

I didn’t chime in, because my opinion would have been unpopular, and I feared the nuance in what I’m about to say would be lost.

First, the guy with the two dogs is/was an asshole. Clearly. When you fail to consider other people or dismiss them willfully, then you’re a dick. In this regard, I was on the same page with most commenters.

But there’s another aspect to this, and that’s that the woods aren’t safe. They’re not meant to be safe. They’re meant to be wild. The idea that we get to decide the rules, not only where we live, but also where we don’t, is fundamentally wrong in my mind. And it’s not that I want people’s kids to be bitten by unruly dogs, but I think there’s actual benefit in leaving wild places wild. It moves humans out of the center of their own thinking in a helpful way.

In the scenario above, the thing that was dangerous wasn’t really the dogs. It was the asshole that brought them to the woods, although, when you maintain the view that the woods are for the animals, it’s hard not to feel he had some sort of point. If dogs can’t run free in the woods, then where can they run free?

The idea that outside should be safe creates this recklessness that sees people getting themselves into all sorts of trouble, the hiker who goes astray and requires rescue, the folks who blunder into conflicts with wild animals. You see all the signs at the trailhead, useful guidance maybe, but I wonder if there isn’t some sort of Disney-fication going on, a nurturing of the idea that we are in control and everything will be easy and pleasant.

As a dad, I have sympathy for the guy with the kids. He wants them to experience nature and learn to love it like he does. Having them terrified by big scary dogs derails the project. On the other hand, a health respect for nature isn’t a bad thing. I sometimes feel fear when I’m out there, maybe I’m afraid of getting stuck in serious weather, maybe I’m wary of running across a coyote or a fisher cat, maybe I’m concerned that I don’t know my way and getting lost might be costly. Those are good fears.

As a species, we have a history of killing rival predators. If we feel safe or perceive a “problem” in nature, like flooding or insect infestation, we think we have to fix it, rather endure it. If there is a beautiful view, we will pound a trail to it and install ropes to keep people from falling. Everywhere we secure the way, we remove some of the wildness of the world, a wildness we need at the end of the day, for our own survival.