Essay written and published by PinoyMountaineer.com author Gideon Lasco on the occasion of 114th Independence Day of the Philippines, June 12, 2012.
Every mountaineer knows the freedom of the hills. Up there in the mountains, our hearts feel as boundless as the blue skies, our spirits soar like the winds, and our bodies move in the rhythm of nature: step by step, we make our earth our home as we set up camp, and make our way to the clouds as we reach for the summit. In the evening, let moonlight and starlight sliver through the trees, and in the morning, bask in the rays of sunrise. Kiss the earth, and embrace the sky! Breathe, rejoice, and say in your heart: “I am free.”
Today, as we celebrate the freedom of our nation, as mountaineers we have the mountains as fitting metaphors for what it means to be free. We can simply reminisce about the joys we feel when on the trail to imagine freedom.
With freedom, however, comes responsibility. A nation cannot stand by freedom alone, but by the responsibility that its citizens must bear every day, to uphold and defend our freedoms, and to expand it by taking part in ongoing struggles for liberty: that of economic freedom, of freedom from diseases, and many others. This is what nation-building means, and it entails sacrifice.
In the mountains, too, the freedom we experience comes with a heavy responsibility. The first question to ask is: In enjoying the freedom of the outdoors, do we not oppress nature, trample upon it, and do it harm? If this is the case, then we liberate ourselves at the expense of enslaving another. It cannot be.
Next, we must ask the key question: We enjoy the freedom of the mountains, but are we taking on the responsibilities that go along with it? I do not compel anyone to answer this question; instead, let me discuss what responsibilities I mean when I say it:
The responsibility in hiking can be met by what we call responsible hiking, which practices the ‘Leave No Trace’ principles of causing low (or minimal) impact to the environment, and respects three parties: (1) the self; (2) others; and the environment.
Respect for your own self is a very important principle, for it stresses the value of safety, and taking care of one’s self. If you respect your own self, then you will not be careless enough not to climb unprepared; you will not leave any of your essential gears behind. You will not allow yourself to be embarrassment to your country and to the name of mountaineering, and thus you will act with dignity and honor whenever you climb. I feel a positive kind of pressure related to this whenever I climb abroad: I know whatever I do would reflect on the Philippines. Thus, in striving to reach the highest of peaks, we must also strive to reach the best of ourselves. In this way, we not only uphold our dignity; we also become examples for others to follow.
Respect for others is equally important. Calling each other “Ma’am” or “Sir” is a good practice, but it is only skin-deep if not coupled with sincere respect for other people’s values. There is no single way of hiking: you may be a hiker who just wants to run through the trail, or a camper who wants to devote lots of time into cooking and setting up camp. Neither are wrong; they are just two different ways of doing it. We also easily fall into the temptation of judging people by their gear: if his gear is complete and new, we judge a person as a “show off”. If a person decides he or she needs a porter, we judge him or her as weak. There’s also a tendency to discriminate on the basis of affiliation, or the number of mountains climbed, and so on. If we truly respect others, we must celebrate the diversity of perspectives and styles by which and through which the mountains are approached. And when pointing out things we feel need to be pointed out, we must do it in a nice way. Respect for the environment is not an excuse to disrespect others.
Finally, we go back to respect for the environment. Many hikers know this, but we must learn to do it in a quiet but committed way – without judging or antagonizing others in the process. Even when no one can see us or commend us, let us keep doing the Leave No Trace principles. As a way of examining ourselves, let us ask from time to time: If the mountains can talk, will they have bad things to say about you?
Also, respecting and caring for the environment is not a special event; it does not consist solely of “Clean up climbs” and “tree planting activities”. If all climbs are clean climbs, there will be no need for clean up climbs. To achieve a clean and green Philippines, what we need is a change of minds, not clean-up climbs (although clean-up climbs at this point are still very important, because we have not yet achieved the change of minds we seek). Through education, leading by example, and constructive criticism, however, I believe that we can achieve this. These things will take time, but we need the commitment of everyone so we stay on course.
Responsible outdoor recreation is an everyday attitude and an everyday act. There is no need to announce it. Let it be part of our lives. Quietly and with determination, we must do what is right, and if we do not know the way, then we must be humble enough to ask for directions. And whenever we see people who are at fault, we must see it as an opportunity to teach, not to rebuke: the mark of a good mountaineer is his ability to influence others for the good of the sport and for the good of the environment.
Thus, as we celebrate our freedoms today, we must remember that with freedom comes responsibility. We have a responsibility to uphold and defend not only ourselves, but also the environment, and the lofty blue mountains. “Let freedom ring”, Martin Luther King once declared. For us who love the mountains, “Let the birds sing!” is more apt battle cry. Their song is the song of freedom, and it is a freedom we must fight for.
Los Banos, Laguna
June 12, 2012