Saturday, November 28, 2015

Musings: Opting Outside on Black Friday, and why we need to go further

The sun-drenched forest at the Redmond Watershed Preserve

The frigid, damp air reddened my nose and stung my cheeks, and the weak sunshine spilling through the tree trunks did little to offer any warmth. Frosty dirt crunched beneath my boots, releasing an earthy scent of humus and decaying leaves. Birdsong trilled overhead, and the eardrum-piercing high-pitched call of a varied thrush resounded through the forest, followed by the persistent tap-tap-tap of a pileated woodpecker determinedly searching a dead maple trunk for insects. This was how I spent the day after Thanksgiving, also known as Black Friday. It was glorious.

As I hiked through the Redmond Watershed Preserve that afternoon, pausing frequently to take photos while my patient husband waited shivering in the nearest sunbeam, I could hear not only the sound of birdsong and tapping woodpeckers, I could also hear the sound of other hikers, runners and cyclists who also decided to hit the trails that day. There was a sense of community, a sense of satisfaction knowing that rather than jostling with the crowd of Black Friday shoppers, we were all here, peacefully enjoying a sunny - albeit chilly - afternoon in the outdoors.

This was actually the aim of the much-publicized "Opt Outside" campaign launched by REI this year: in addition to closing their stores on Black Friday, REI encouraged its employees and the general population to opt to spend their Black Friday in the outdoors with friends and family, rather than shopping for those can't-be-missed discounts and sales at the mall.

I've enjoyed seeing photos and reading the accounts of other folks who spent their Black Friday outside rather than in the crush of holiday shoppers. Some people headed to the mountains for spectacular hikes and snowshoe adventures in the high country, and others like myself stuck to the lowlands and enjoyed the nearby nature of local parks, walking trails, and nature preserves. Amid all of the lovely photos and excited sharing of bird and wildlife sightings, there were also the cynics lamenting - even mocking - the fact that people were slapping a corporate hashtag on a life moment, a memory, that was supposed to involve being out in nature, away from the retailers, consumerism, and yes, corporations.

I get the irony there, folks, but there's no need to diminish the fact that the Opt Outside campaign did raise some questions about what's important, and perhaps inspired some people to spend their day after Thanksgiving in a much different way than they would have otherwise. I went hiking on Black Friday last year, and would have hiked this year regardless of whether there was an Opt Outside movement or not (a weekday off work with no obligations? We're hitting the trails!). This is because hiking is a hobby of mine, it's an activity that I enjoy, and spending time in nature is something that my mind, body, and sanity require. And besides, crowds of people leave me in a state of anxiety that just isn't pretty to see. This isn't the case for many people, but if even a handful of people were encouraged to head outdoors rather than hit the mall as they may have initially planned, that's a great thing.

Wildlife photo fail. Had the wrong lens with me - can you spot the tiny woodpecker?

Why is it important to get more of us outdoors? People care about what they know, and getting more of us outdoors to know, connect with, and love the trees, rivers, mountains, birds, and wildlife means that there are going to be more people willing to stand up and protect these things. More of us willing to make better choices in our daily lives to minimize our ecological impact. When we make connections and find an affinity for things in nature, we then have a reason to care and a responsibility to act.

It's important that we don't just stop at "opting outside". We also need to connect the dots and point out the importance of opting out of the consumerism of Black Friday, for the protection of the environment that we just spent our day after Thanksgiving enjoying. We need to emphasize that all the stuff we're buying - not just on Black Friday, not just during the holidays, but all year long - can have a significant impact on the environment. The raw materials that have to be mined and harvested, the water and fossil fuels used in the manufacturing process, the carbon emissions released as products are shipped from factory to retail stores, the waste created when all of that packaging (much of it plastic) is thrown into the garbage... all of these things are unsustainable, harmful, and cause ecological devastation, especially when they occur on the scale of our overblown consumer society here in the US.

So, don't just Opt Outside. Make connections. Consider the environmental impact of every purchase. Gift experiences instead of stuff. If you do give stuff, make sure it's stuff that the recipient will want and be able to make use of. In order to protect the majestic trees, the fresh air, the snow-capped mountains, the chattering Douglas squirrel you saw on your outdoor adventures, it's time we all start making smarter choices - not just during the holidays, but all year long.

As the already-long shadows stretched further across the landscape and the golden afternoon light reddened to amber, we returned to the parking lot at the Watershed Preserve to find it even more packed with vehicles than it had been when we'd set out. Laughter, dancing footsteps, and children's delighted shrieks could be heard emanating through the frosty forest all around. I hoped that those children were awed by the frozen leaves, delighted by the mud, fascinated by a pileated woodpecker's bright red head; hoped that they were making connections, finding a reason to care. Those sounds filled me with that warm, fuzzy, just-drank-a-mug-of-hot-cider holiday feeling - something I couldn't have found in the crowded aisles of a department store.


  1. Excellent post! Going to share on my PNWSeasons FB page. It rings so true and ear to me also. I was outside most of the Friday, but, sheepishly I admit, I was at Husky Stadium for the Apple Cup (family tradition). But I got out yesterday for a walk through the heavily frosted gully in Carkeek Park. Fabulous! Oh and I started Thanksgiving morning with a 3-mile walk at the Seattle Turkey Trot. I especially like your emphasis on making connections with each purchase. I think about that now, especially after I did a beach clean-up event last Earth Day. It distresses me and I think overuse of plastic is one of the major issues of the day and the future health of the planet. Keep up your trenchant and lyrical writing!

    1. Thanks for reading Jill, and thank you for sharing my post! :) The Opt Outside movement was such a great idea and started a lot of good conversations, but I needed to chime in with my two cents and take things a little further. It's so easy for us to enjoy our outdoor adventures, get exercise and take gorgeous photos, without considering or addressing the environmental issues that threaten the beautiful and beloved scenery right in front of us.

      Sounds like you had quite a bit of outdoors time, that's great! And I think attending the Apple Cup totally counts. ;) Who were you rooting for? I'm a UW alum and my sister is a Cougar, so our house is divided!