“Let’s meet them where they are” is often a statement I hear in outdoor recreation. I have been unpacking the statement and it seems to have a dualistic tone to me; in us or them, in-group, or out-group way. What if instead, we asked; how do we meet people? Based on my experiences in teaching several nature and outdoor-related workshops this year, I’ve come up with five things to consider in order to be able to meet all people on the topics of nature and the outdoors. I’m posing these over a series of two posts. This first post focuses on the most important piece in meeting people; do no harm. Our intention to do no harm is not enough, however, and we must consider a continuous study of what this statement means.
Do No Harm
In the medical field through the Hippocratic Oath, medical doctors express a ”first, do no harm” affirmation. The American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics includes “avoiding actions that cause harm” in its preamble. The closest thing I could find to a code of ethics related to the outdoors is Leave No Trace. A few scientific organizations have codes as do some outdoor education associations, but I could not find much related to avoiding harm when it comes to working with people. I wish more people in outdoor-related agencies and industry spent time thinking about “do no harm” because I believe conservation and outdoor education would be more welcoming and relatable.
A simple question to ask is what I am doing or asking to cause harm to someone? Make sure you consider in your response in light of people most unlike you. Going further, you might find someone who IS vastly different from you and ask outright.
Harm through quick judgments
I recall my first archery instructor training when I barely arrived and was judged. I was unpacking my bow when one of the other participants said, “You shoot a [and stated the brand] bow!”. The bow was used and had worked well for me so far. When I heard that statement I immediately second-guessed if I belonged at the training. I was already feeling small and we had not even completed introductions. As a result, when I did introduce myself, I provided no indication that I worked in the archery industry, just in case I was, indeed, not ready to be an instructor. Thankfully, our trainer welcomed everyone, regardless of the level of experience or equipment. She was simply excited to have everyone there.
I wonder what kind of additional harm that individual has caused over the years. I learned what I didn’t like about that experience and tried to incorporate the lesson into my own archery training. One of the ways I do that is by starting my training by letting people know that while I am a Level 4 (there are 5) certified instructor, we are here to learn together. Any participant may have a useful tip of which I was unaware, so I encouraged sharing. This strategy welcomes contribution and creates a more engaging environment, in my experience.
A statement that would have welcomed me into the archery trainer community would have been “Tell me the story behind your bow.” That would have resulted in my saying I got it from a stash of equipment our company used for shooting events. At that time, it made sense for me to start with a used bow instead of buying brand new. That might have led to a more interesting conversation.
Harm through projections
An early childhood experience in nature story told by a workshop participant really struck me. The workshop was for counselors and therapists taking clients outdoors which I call The Outdoor Life Task. One of the participants spoke of a beautiful spider she saw inside the outhouse at their family’s cabin. When she pointed the spider out to her mother, it was promptly swatted and killed. At the end of the story, this participant paused and said, “and people are still squishing things.” In the process of wanting no harm for the child by killing the spider, the child was profoundly harmed because there was no explanation for the action of killing the spider.
When taking others outdoors, we must be careful not to project our own fears and rigid beliefs about nature onto others. Certain spiders can kill you, so there is reason to respect them and keep your distance until you have more information about the species. However, spiders are a valuable part of the ecosystem because they help keep insect numbers in check.
In summer, I reset myself by being present in a neighbor’s prairie. This was my second summer to walk the land but the first time I noticed the incredible number of garden spiders. The first time I saw one was while going in for a picture of a beautiful coneflower. I jumped back at first, then paused to capture its amazing beauty. While garden spiders will bite if harassed, they are non-venomous. I grew in my own appreciation of spiders and often share this appreciation by sharing my pictures during online workshops.
Not understanding harm
So many in the outdoor industry are simply passionate about what they do and aren’t thinking about harm. One story that helped me think about unintentional harm came from an elementary teacher who used to teach bowhunting to his urban students. He described a big mistake he made the first time he took his students out hunting after completing their bowhunting education program. Shortly after dropping some of the students off to their hunting spots in the early morning, several quickly made their way back to their “home base”. What was missed was that many of the students had never been in the dark in the woods. They had practiced and studied hunting skills but hadn’t talked about or practiced just being in a quiet space in the dark.
Most experienced hunters, like this teacher, take experiences like these for granted. We have been doing the activity for so long we have forgotten what it is like to be a beginner. Thankfully, the teacher had built a great deal of trust and after a little more practice, most of the students were comfortably back out in the woods.
How to think about harm
Marshall Wallace has a whole website dedicated to “do no harm” work; http://www.principletopractice.org/from-principle-to-practice/. Wallace states, “The warning of the words “do no harm” reminds us to think before rushing to do good, not to stop us from considering the good altogether.” His guide is more psychology focused but we can use the basics in the outdoors as well. We can’t let the possibility of harm prevent us from taking people outdoors. We must be mindful of possible harm and actively consider words and actions that prevent harm.
Before I proceed, let me be clear that I am on my own journey of understanding the term “do no harm”. We all cause harm, unconsciously and unintentionally, at times. My desire is that we all think about harm while building and conducting our outdoor programming and experiences. To that end, here are questions I have prepared as I think about my own journey to do no harm when taking people outdoors.
Where am I in my spectrum of learning or skill level regarding my outdoor activities (beginner, intermediate, advanced, expert)?
When I was a beginner in this activity, what was uncomfortable for me?
What parts of this activity have I done most of my life and therefore might be blind to discomfort in others?
Which words or questions instructors/mentors asked of me that caused harm to me (so I do not repeat it)?
What questions could I ask to assess someone’s comfort level with this activity without judgment?
What assumptions could I be making about the person I am with based on how they are different from me (by address, gender, or race, for instance)?
I recently partnered with Breanne Hiivala Cahoy in co-teaching a session on Ethics and Responsibilities in Outdoor Therapy at Adler Graduate School. While I talked about do no harm to the Earth, Cahoy talked about doing no harm with regard to counseling clients in outdoor settings. We are all learning together about ways to reduce harm to people and the Earth. There is much work to do. Personally, I am grateful for several Adlerian Psychology communities where I continue to learn about harm in its many forms.
In the meantime, I am also rethinking my nature gratitude art practice in the realm of “do no harm”. While it isn’t rock piling, I recently found a couple of articles on why rock piling causes harm and it made me think about my practice of creating nature art in outdoor spaces. Look for my reflections in a future post.
In the next blog, I will continue with four more ways to meet people. For now, consider that you might be causing unintended harm in your words and actions. First, grant yourself compassion as we all do it. If you can, apologize directly to those to whom you may have caused harm. Then, reflect and take steps to change so that everyone feels welcome in the outdoors regardless of their outward appearance, condition of equipment, or past outdoor experience.