Sunday, April 16, 2017

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

In the transcendent words of Aretha Franklin, 'R-E-S-P-E-C-T.' The queen of R&B may have been singing about romance, but she knew that any functional relationship revolves around respect. I've been giving this particular topic a fair bit of thought lately as I rocket towards the third decade of my existence and reflect (as most people are prone to do) on what I've sort of got figured out. The answer is mostly 'nothing', apart from my basic knowledge including the constant laws of the universe.

Take gravity, for instance -- it's what holds us to the surface of this planet, is our greatest challenge and our biggest fear. But like the inevitability of death, we know it's there. We have a healthy respect for it while we gently push the boundaries of how we can manipulate it. The same goes for death. Bear wrestling and downhill mountain biking seem to examine that fairly well. But what about respect itself as a universal law?

That we seem to have a bit of a struggle with.

In an attempt to engage and mobilize the Utah trail community, I've recently begun talking more about my efforts to give back; while I've been a pretty outspoken advocate of public dig days and responsible use for the majority of my bike-riding adulthood, I tend to keep my shovel antics behind the scenes. My low-key approach stems from a combination of feel-good anonymity and, until recently, a belief that most enthusiasts within the trail community step up when they're needed... That and nobody wants to hear about how I spent my weekend digging holes in some random corner of the forest. Trailbuilding is a good outlet for me, but not a riveting story one relates at parties. Due to the current debate around trail access and the explosion of growth in the outdoor enthusiast market leading to a boom in trail use, however, collaboration with land managers and cities is more important than ever. It's been good for me -- In spite of my anarchy-driven solitary soldier style, I've gotten a bit more involved with the local organizations responsible for trails, because everything about MTB has changed. We're a high-school sport now rather than just a few crackpot bike guerrillas bucking meat in some dark corner of the planet, and as such, organization is more important than ever. In working with these groups, I've been a bit surprised by the low level of public relations functioning and the amount of information and engagement that happens with the community, so it seemed like an appropriate time to broach the subject publicly from whatever diving board/soap box I have.

The only problem? Public awareness campaigns never begin when the situation is manageable. When informing and educating the members of a community is imperative, it's always because the issue has reached terminal velocity and must now be dealt with thanks to years of neglect. And neglect, unfortunately, breeds contempt. It's safe to say that most public relations and advertising in the mountain bike community (and outdoor industry at large) has been less than informative about our responsibilities as enthusiasts. Less Americans understand the 'leave no trace' edict than ever, trash and vandalism are at an all-time high, and as America battles for the preservation of it's most precious public lands, a few of us are left scratching  at our scalps and wondering how on earth the situation deteriorated to this point.

Neglect is sneaky like that. One day we're on top of our collective shit and the next, we're fighting to keep oil companies out of national parks.

But I digress.

So we're raising awareness, discussing the need for public involvement as a local community, setting up dig days and suddenly, there's backlash. 'Backlash to trail maintenance?', I can hear you ask.

Yeah. Something like that. Or talking about responsible use and appropriate behavior. See, that's the other problem with neglect -- when the standard of operation goes by the wayside, it's essentially every person for themselves. When there's a vacuum left by bad/nonexistent leadership or lack of guidance (aka, public awareness), the community at stake will flounder without gentle direction and reminding that yes, this is a functional relationship between the land and the users of it. Without Smokey the Bear smiling at us as we enter the forest and explaining that only WE can prevent forest fires, would we even think about forest fires? I grew up on Smokey's influence as he stood there leaning on his shovel, or pointing at me from under the brim of his ranger's hat. He was the edifying deity of my childhood and possessed more authority than Jesus himself... Because who wants to disappoint a friendly, talking bear by setting his home ablaze?! Come on now.

The same lack of care extended to the sports industry in the early 2000's as the 90's fight for women's equality faded, girl power reached peak saturation and lazy marketing took over -- because we didn't actively fight sexism in cycling, it began to rule our lives like a virus run amok. And now the same issues are back on the equality table once more as we talk about things we covered twenty years ago and solve problems that were supposedly solved then. And in the 50s. And in the 60s. And 70s. And 80s.

Human instinct requires maintenance. Evolution and progress demand vigilance, but we can't pass (or take) the baton of responsibility if we lack a basic understanding of the need for it. This is where the backlash to awareness and my girl Aretha meet up.

Responsibility is accepted based on the level of respect one has for the issue. Accountability is rooted in a healthy appreciation for whatever subject needs maintenance, and maintenance stems from respect.

These are laws that apply to car mechanics and public lands alike. Like gravity and death, respect and accountability are immutable laws of function upon which society rests. Without them, we have nothing. Literally. We lose what we don't use and what we don't use, we neglect. When a wound is neglected, gangrene will set in. Gangrene will kill us. Even as a rule breaker, I follow these rules. Chalk it up to the ripe old age of 30, but respect for my environment and my place in the ecosystems of functional relationships has driven me to more value than any other single motivator... Even death. Or gravity. Combined. But I grew up on tales of respect. I cut my teeth on the stories of heroes who fought for something greater than themselves, for a higher plane of existence. My brain developed to the music of legends who built noble legacies with the bricks of respect and loyalty and it still took me years to embrace the concept of respect as an undeniable law.

As cliche as it might sound, fostering and promoting a sense of respect towards each other, our surroundings, the planet and the situations on that planet won't hurt anyone. What's the drawback of understanding history and taking part in how the world moves forward? Where is the negative consequence of respecting those who have come before us, those who come after us and living in a way that honors and benefits both? What do we lose by operating with respect, and not as a weapon to be tossed around, but a living, breathing embodiment of what and who we are?

Respect and it's inverse aren't the ego-driven concept that we're accustomed to. It's not a reason to kill or maim  (i.e., "They disrespected me"), but rather as a rule of functional relationships inside of a healthier existence at every level. Respect breeds respect. If you earn respect, you'll be respected. But we can't earn respect without showing respect, and the idea of respect demands self-discipline and control based on the functional respect carried for that subject.

Kids who respect Smokey the Bear don't set the forest on fire. People who respect the autonomy of others don't make jokes about rape or portray other people as sexual objects to be used and abused. Riders who respect the planet respect the scientific evidence that protects natural habitats from damage and neglect, and they respect the work done by other respectful users to maintain that delicate balance. People who respect the delicate balance want to learn more about it, and they educate themselves and help other people learn more so that a higher level of respect begins to build.

You see how that works?

Now imagine for a second that everyone operated on some level of basic respect for life. Yes, ALL life. Humans, plants, animals, molecular, historic, life. Imagine that respect folding into the other plane of thought where we respect life so much that we choose to respect the actions of people as long as they don't negatively impact someone else. Why would they? After all, if everyone respects everyone else and life in itself, there wouldn't be a reason to NOT act with respect and autonomy.

Respect is a universal law. We either have it or we don't. But when we respect something, we begin taking accountability for ourselves.

Think about it. Or don't.

I respect your decision.