Adventure Fosters Creativity—The Social Benefits of Greater Wilderness Access
Cathy Teng /photo byChuang Kung-ju /tr. byScott Williams
Though our island is small, Taiwan’s abundant natural resources include 268 peaks over 3000 meters tall. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)
“What we call a mountain is… in fact a collaboration of the physical forms of the world with the imagination of humans,” writes British author Robert Macfarlane in Mountains of the Mind.
Though our island is small, Taiwan’s abundant natural resources include 268 peaks over 3000 meters tall. Yet few Taiwanese let their imaginations roam Taiwan’s wilderness. Why do we recoil from our mountains?
Thinkingdom Media’s “Reading Mountains” lecture tour, which began in April 2019, featured cultural critic Chan Wei Hsiung and music critic Chen Te-cheng discussing tales of mountains and adventure with Taiwanese audiences.
Humanity’s attitude towards mountains has tracked a path from fear to exploration to love.
A shackled sense of adventure
Chan presented the program’s first talk, tracing the development of Western attitudes towards mountains from fear through engagement and on to love. He argues that the rise of Romanticism and its radical individualism in the 19th century led to the idea that people should strive to lay bare their senses to the world, and that their experience of the natural world and danger would create new life narratives. This expectation changed their attitude towards mountains, which transformed into places in which people sought unique life experiences. People of this era went into the mountains again and again to feel more “alive.”
How then should we understand the negative depiction of mountain climbing in Taiwanese society and media? Chan views it through the lens of history, proposing that Taiwan’s restrictions on venturing into the wilderness and onto the ocean during its long years of martial law engendered a terrible fear of these environments.
He sees Taiwan’s nearly 30 years as one of the world’s largest manufacturers as another formative factor, arguing that manufacturing’s production-line mentality treats individuals as nothing more than society’s smallest cog, less important than the higher-level collective. In this way of thinking, the individual’s mission is to preserve the collective of which it is a part, and ensure that it does not injure the collective. Adventurous activities are seen as opposed to the primacy of the collective good, and are therefore denigrated and prohibited.
“That period’s style of management disciplined the body and ultimately gave rise to a valorization of collective glory. The other side of this was a suppression of the individual’s physical subjectivity and ability to explore the world,” says Chan.
But with globalization, manufacturers began relocating to mainland China in large numbers in the 1990s, and Taiwan developed a new economic model: taking orders and developing designs in Taiwan, manufacturing in mainland China, and exporting to the rest of world.
This economic shift wrought a change in Taiwanese society’s expectations of individuals. Instead of merely requiring people to march in lockstep, they are now asked to be creative. With this new focus on innovating rather than following, individuals are expected to have adventures because adventures and experiences are the wellsprings of creativity.
Chan Wei Hsiung says that climbing mountains opens up the body’s senses to the world, and that experiencing nature and danger brings forth new life narratives. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)
Taiwan has an abundance of mountains encompassing a variety of characters and climatic zones.
Experiencing the world through the body
Consider how children understand the world. From the moment we’re born through our early childhood, we experience the world around us through our five senses. But once we enter the educational system, language takes over. “Taiwanese children come to know the world in abstract and scientific ways, rather than through direct sensory experience. Their conception of the world orients around its administration and use.” We have less creativity in our lives because we haven’t been thoroughly educated by the natural world.
Take the design industry as an example. Taiwan produces large numbers of industrial products, but few with any kind of distinctively Taiwanese character. “Taiwanese design is all about solving problems and refining models that have already been invented. In other nations, design focuses more on creating new values and new lifestyles.”
Chan says that if we want Taiwan’s design industry to progress, we need to awaken our bodies and get out into the natural world, in part to wake up our cells and in part to renew our acquaintance with the environment in which our bodies exist.
Chan has observed Taiwan’s design expos for the last few years, and notes that mountains are beginning to appear in exhibition spaces. InFormat Design’s “Up to 3742: Top of the Ridge” relates travelers’ conversations with themselves while exploring the natural world. The 2018 Creative Expo Taiwan, which took “Body Knowledge” as its theme, included an “alpine museum” called Body Knowing that was populated with items and images from a trip up Xueshan (Mt. Snow). And the Taitung Design Center’s “Raw Trip: A Trip of Collecting Taitung” depicted a journey to Jiaming Lake and suggested that a physical “baptism” in Nature was a necessary precursor to creativity.
Climbing mountains is one route to experiencing nature. When your path disappears, finding a new one is a creative act. When you face danger, your body does its utmost to come up with a way to escape it. These moments are the seeds from which creativity grows, and provide those who experience them with the feeling of being truly alive.
Mountain climbing is a way to experience the natural world, one that gives climbers a sense of being truly and vibrantly alive.
Creators find inspiration in the mountains. The photo shows the Taitung Design Center’s “Raw Trip: A Trip of Collecting Taitung.”
At least we set out
Last year, Chan hiked the second southern segment of the Central Mountain Range trail system, from the Dongpu trailhead to the Xiangyang trailhead. While stopping at Jiaming Lake, he met Chang Yuan-chih, who was working at the mountain cabin where he stopped over. As the two chatted, Chang mentioned that he was planning to climb K2, the world’s second-tallest mountain, with Lu Chung-han.
Chan had learned about K2 as a boy, and knew that the 8611-meter-tall “savage mountain” was very dangerous to climb.
He decided to organize some friends to help the two young climbers raise the money they would need for a support team that would make their attempt safer. Chan also wanted to use Chang and Lu’s climb to communicate with Taiwanese society at large, seeing it as an opportunity to let people know that two young people were willing to invest more than a decade of effort into achieving their dreams. He wanted to encourage people to remain curious about unfamiliar parts of the world, and be willing to take on challenges and explore. “If every Taiwanese person could find their own personal K2 to challenge, and then put their all into climbing it, Taiwan could easily make it through the morass of its current transformation,” says Chan.
These kinds of ideas led to the fundraising effort’s “K2, We Too” slogan. Chan had the names of the 2283 people who contributed money to the climbers’ attempt inscribed on the flag the two young men carried up the mountain, to encourage us all to seek our own personal K2s.
Mid-July looked like the perfect time for the climb—the weather on K2 was unusually good, and Lu and Chang were in tiptop condition. But faced with an elevated risk of avalanches on the descent, they decided to halt their ascent at 8200 meters.
“We felt that setting out to make our climb was more important than reaching the summit, because most Taiwanese never do. In Taiwan, setting out is the hardest part.” In Chan’s view, the act of setting out was equivalent to achieving 80% or 90% of their objective. Plus, this year’s experience would set a benchmark for future attempts on big peaks by Taiwanese climbers.
Chang Yuan-chih (right) and Lu Chung-han (left), members of Taiwan’s younger generation of climbers, attempted to summit K2, the world’s second tallest mountain. Their fundraising for the climb enabled them to share their dream with Taiwan at large. (photo by Chen Te-cheng)
Chan Wei Hsiung hopes to bring the spirit of adventure back to Taiwan.
A ban lifted
At the end of May, an Executive Yuan interdepartmental committee approved a draft amendment to the State Compensation Law, with the effect that people engaging in risky outdoor activities in Taiwan’s mountains or waters will merely be required to be aware of changes in the natural environment. While the government will provide appropriate warnings and signage, it will not assume any liability for injuries resulting from these activities. In response, the national parks intend to abolish restrictions on entering mountain areas, and the Forestry Bureau plans to open all forestry roads to visitors.
Minister without Portfolio Chang Jing-sen commented on Facebook: “Goodbye, nanny state!” Moving forward, Taiwan’s government will no longer invoke safety as a reason for limiting access to mountains and forests. The amendment will relieve the government of liability, and make individuals responsible for their own actions and safety. This change should help cultivate a greater spirit of adventure and creativity. Besides, every citizen should have the right to experience nature.
Chan Wei Hsiung explains that this kind of change is crucial to Taiwan’s progress and transformation. He says: “The natural world will be what finally leads Taiwan out of the morass. The pursuit of transcendent ideas that the Alps inspired, and the spirit of exploration that Europeans like Captain James Cook felt when they looked out to sea, will return to our small island.”
Walking into the mountains and interacting with nature, experiencing the world through your body, leads to the development of a personal philosophy and feelings, enabling us to build our lives on our own ways of thinking. This will in turn make Taiwan an even more exceptional nation. “The year 2019 is crucial. It is the transition from dark to dawn,” says Chan.
Walking into the mountains and interacting with nature, experiencing the world through your body, leads to the development of a personal philosophy and feelings.
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama