Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Playing with words

My friend Andy writes on his blog of the delights of playing in the Brechfa Forest.  Always alert to the use of language, I sense he is echoing a trend amongst outdoor thrill seekers who refer to their exploits as 'play'.  I have used the phrase myself: 'playing in the rapids' is commonplace jargon of kayakers.

But their use of the word is more deliberate.  By describing mountain biking, or surfing, climbing, snowboarding et al, as 'playing',  they want to emphasise a carefree, non competitive side to their nature. Perhaps giving a subliminal two fingers to the rules and regulations and health and safety junk that so stifles much of the outdoor experience.   

They are saying something about themselves too:  Hey, I'm cool enough to use a word like 'play', I'm in touch with my sensitive side...  And in many cases they position play in contrast to work; not rejecting work but saying it isn't the be all of life.  Some go further and disingenuously hint that play is all that really matters.

And it strokes the ego too.  For we know that activities like riding a black run or kayaking white water are fraught with danger.  Being on the edge, that fine line between control and wipeout,  isn't play in the normal sense of the word.  Only those with the requisite skill and courage can take part - by calling this play, they are making a statement as surely as a peacock displaying its feathers.

We should forgive all this, for I think the intentions are honourable - and I have much sympathy for their message too. We do need a better balance in our lives; we need to find meaning too, and the outdoors is one way to that end.  At times, we just need some fun.

But herein lies a slight danger. It is hubris to see the landscape as our playground. The Brechfa forest is more than the Raven black run - and though I know my friend Andy would feel this way too, not everyone does. Visit the French Alps in the summer, see the ski runs and high rise apartments, and think again if playing is without a dark side.

There is a need for balance here. The landscape should be enjoyed; there's nothing wrong with playing (if you're inclined to use the phrase) but we should not seek to reduce it to our level. For in the end, it is bigger than us, beyond our control and out of our bounds; ultimately, unknowable. 

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