“Pop quiz: In which of the following situations should you avoid wearing wool? (Choose all that apply.)
- Cross-country skiing in mild spring conditions
- Alpine skiing
- Hiking on a warm, sunny day
- Trail running on a shadeless route in summer
- Fitness training, indoors or outdoors, year-round
Answer: None of the above.
Surprised? You’re not alone. Personally, I would have never imagined wearing wool when I expected to work up a sustained sweat. Wool, as I perceived it, would be too hot, too bulky, too scratchy, just plain too old-school for most of the activities mentioned above.”
The above comes from the “expert advice” section of REI’s website, which I understand to be a sort of White People version of Bass Pro Shop (or perhaps one could say, BPS is the redneck equivalent of REI). While this fellow goes on to write a favorable review for his new merino wool hiking shirt, the opening was what really bugged me. It elucidated a disturbing misconception that a lot of people seem to have, that there’s something wrong with “old”. It’s an issue that’s at the heart of our disconnect with the natural world: new is good, old is bad.
I’m going on a trip with one of my professors this summer, to go mountain-climbing in Peru. My mom was concerned that I wouldn’t have enough cold-weather clothing or that what I had wouldn’t be adequate, and wanted to buy me more. After I listed off the gear I already had that I was planning on taking, she explained, “I just don’t want you to be looking like Edmund Hilary up there.” I exclaimed, “Just what is wrong with Sir Edmund Hilary?!?”
(Eventually I compromised and agreed to a set of new coal-silk long underwear.)
One idea which I have taken to heart in recent years is that “What one man can do, another can do.” If the “battered bastards of Bastogne” could go a month without washing their hair, who’s to say I cannot? If Heinrich Harrer could climb the Eiger in 1938 with gear made of canvas, leather, and wool, then so can I.
Old-school things are secondhand. Old-school things have character. Old-school things have class. Best of all, old-school stuff (if you go back far enough) aren’t made of petroleum-derived materials!
To tie this back to the opening comment (“Personally, I would have never imagined wearing wool when I expected to work up a sustained sweat.”): tell that to the GIs who helped win the Second World War. Just because something hasn’t been branded with The North Face, doesn’t make it inferior.