There is a road near Waco, Texas, where I ran every morning during graduate school. It is not a particularly good road, for cars or for people. It has divots. The road is not flat enough to run consistent paces during tempo runs. It is also not hilly enough that the vertical gain profits me strength-wise.
On this road, there are ducks and small dogs. They pay no attention to each other. There are weeds slowly dismantling the perimeter of the asphalt. There are teens riding bikes on weekends, and there are three schools within one mile.
It is just a normal road. But while I lived in Waco, it was my road. I still think about it often.
Knowledge and Responsibility
There is something interesting that running does to a person. It transforms our relationship with our own bodies, as we grow in strength and submit ourselves to daily disciplines. Running also transforms our relationship with the physical world around us, by firmly rooting us in a place. As someone who has lived in a lot of different places throughout the years, this rootedness feels important.
The idea is this: nearly every day, we travel by foot over the same sections of ground, observing bumps and divots, seasonal changes, and flora and fauna. We forge relationships with the places we run. These repeated encounters facilitate a connection to place, similar to what I imagine a farmer might experience. We know the land, we mix our toil with it, and we develop a personal stake in it.
Moreover, this knowledge carries with it responsibility. I can’t claim to be ignorant about the conditions of the land, as I might if I stayed indoors or only traveled around by car. In the same way that my knowledge of a good friend means that I can care for her better, recognizing and acting for her good, this familiarity forged through exposure to the land makes me particularly well-positioned to act for the good of the land.
Furthermore, because of my knowledge, if I do not act for my friend’s good, I am not a good friend. And if I do not act for the land’s good, I am not a good steward. The knowledge I have makes me accountable to certain actions on its behalf.
In Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse, American novelist, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry provides a set of 27 propositions about sustainability (1). The essay was written in 1991, but Berry’s article is just as timely now, in light of growing environmental crises. He makes the case that sustainability — living in a way that supports the health and continuity of natural spaces and the communities that reside there — is often the result of small, humbling work, rather than big, glamorous feats.
It is not fancy to compost, reduce waste, carpool, or pick up garbage, but these things matter (1). Berry also argues that sustainability is something that should be prioritized locally. This is because our knowledge of, and affinity for, a place provides us with both the motivation to take action, and the insight for how to do so.
Furthermore, while environmental public policy can make a big difference in reducing consumption and incentivizing sustainable commerce on national and international levels, Berry argues that these laws and protections are sometimes shallow. This is because these policies are abstracted from particular places, in order to cloak a wide area in a shared policy. Often the unique needs of particular places are lost in these policies.
Berry notes, “Global thinking can only do to the globe what a space satellite does to it: reduce it, make a bauble of it … On foot you will find that the earth is still satisfyingly large, and full of beguiling nooks and crannies (1).” On foot, we develop acquaintance with a place — its nooks, crannies, and specific needs — and this positions us to see and respond to these needs.
As runners, we can see and respond to the needs of a local place in the way Berry describes. So, how do we get started in acting for the good of the local environment? Here is some advice.
Get started to get started.
I love virtue ethics for many reasons. One reason is that it takes the guesswork out of how to develop a good character. Aristotle writes that we “become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts (2).”
The idea is that to become a good person, you practice good actions until they define your character in a stable way. We become just by doing just acts. So, how do we become people who care about the environment? We act on those cares until they define us.
This means we should start by taking action. Choose some way to care — be that composting, trash pickups, reducing waste, or something more tailored to the place you live — and practice it until it becomes a habit.
Habits are great because they lessen the cognitive load of needing to continue choosing to do good actions. Habits make it easier to sustain good actions, and sustaining good actions is what is needed to make lasting constructive changes in how we treat the world around us.
Mobilize one another.
Runners, we can work together.
Last semester, I taught an Environmental Ethics course to a great group of students. One of their assignments was to actively care about something in our town throughout the semester. Students selected a way to invest in the community and journaled about it throughout the semester.
The projects were great. A few students worked together to advocate for better recycling policies on campus and worked to have recycling bins placed in the dorms.
Two students cleaned up trash on the roads. One reduced plastic use. Another student did a photography project of the local trails to showcase the beauty of the area, as a means of drawing his peers in to enjoy the natural spaces. A couple of students focused on becoming more informed consumers, making sustainable choices, and a group of students met for lunches to talk about, and share recipes, for reducing meat consumption at meals.
At the end of the semester, we debriefed. They told me it was a lot easier to invest in our community, knowing that their classmates were doing the same. There is momentum in collective action. So, as running groups, I suggest we take initiative together.
It used to be the case that, in order to compete in a 100-mile race, you had to fulfill a service requirement, such as by performing trail maintenance. There are still races that have this requirement. Examples are the Western States 100 and the Grindstone 100 Mile. This tradition is becoming increasingly rare. But if we run the trails, we should care for them. Having service requirements like this, or days when running groups pick up trash together, are good ways to gain momentum in caring for local areas.
Invite your friends outside.
Hike with friends who would not go otherwise. Invite friends to run, walk, or be outside. The goal is to help friends to develop an affinity for, and investment in, the natural environment. The more people who see the local area as something valuable and worthy of care, the more people will work to preserve it.
It is not particularly surprising that trail runners are often also environmentalists. These concerns are forged through close acquaintance with outdoor spaces. Furthermore, running encourages not just any relationship with the land, but a good relationship, and this is because we have to enjoy the land on its own terms.
When I ascend a mountain, the mountain does not change for me. Rather, I need to change in order to become the kind of person who can ascend it. I approach the mountain with respect because mountains are dangerous, and I am continually humbled over difficult terrain.
For runners, the relationship we have with the land is not one of mastery and consumption, but of enjoyment and humility. These are sturdy grounds for caring about our local natural spaces.
Call for Comments
- What are some ways you invest in your community — be it the environment itself, or the running community at large?
- What are some ways you’d like to see our community better care for itself and the lands through which we run — and live?
- Wendell Berry. “Out of Your Car, Off of Your Horse.” The Atlantic. February 1991.
- Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1103a-b