Gentle Use During Trying Times – A Reflection (Dave Salzer, SWV)

There is an understood need to escape.

The COVID surcharge taxing our physical and mental health is significant and increasing. So, in larger and larger numbers, we answer the call articulated by John Muir, and to the mountains we go! The latter, in itself, is a good thing. No doubt the outdoors offers the immediate and enduring correction to the mounting strain and the compiled stress placed on us at home, school, and work. I’d argue that unlike ice cream, Cabernet, binge watching favorite TV series, among other comforting compensations…going outside is purely restorative and beyond the old criticism of “too much of a good thing” at least for the solace seeker.

There is real & present danger, however, in loving our great places to death at these levels of use. The resource itself always suffers somewhat for hosting us, and over history we have exceeded, even knowingly outstripped the land’s ability to recover from our affection. With our sudden, massive concentration of front country use and even more conscientious back country travel – we are devastating otherwise self-healing landscapes. This is happening nationwide, sadly in some of the most pristine areas. The restrictions placed on caretaker agencies are severe with respect to staffing levels, limited contact with the public, and now the added burden of a hyperactive fire season. The usual guardian presence on wilderness areas is decimated.

There is a profound need for us, as responsible visitors, to assume the guardian role. Survival of accessible wild places is, more that it has ever been, up to us. This can happen only with a widespread and persisting shift in public perspective – from viewing the land belonging to people, to people belonging to the land. Stewardship is inherent in native cultures and celebrated in the awakening of American generations coming to contemplate our sense of citizenship more deeply. There is rich meaning in the spiritual and practical connection of humanity to the earth, and a wealth of goodness that stems from it.

Any outdoor traveler, of any culture, in any demographic, with any point of view can practice the ways of the ancients and deter the ruin of places most dear. The answer is not to shutter ourselves indoors. You absolutely should go out and saunter the trails, another nod to Muir.

Some thoughts to pack for your rambles:

  • Arrive with patience as you hunt for parking, then do so conscientiously.
  • Head out from the trailhead calmly, expect to interact with more fellow travelers, and consider them your cohorts rather than as the competition.
  • Stay on the trail. Know that every single step of yours on delicate ground has been preceded and will be followed by a thousand others’ tread. Imagine that emerging flora as fresh paint and reconsider your footfall.
  • Where you find “trace” in the LNT parlance, please assume the role of caretaker to the master’s estate (choose your favorite metaphor here) and remove what should not have been left behind to the degree your means and ability allow.
  • As you leave, consider that your presence was welcomed, and your return is anticipated by the rocks, waters, and trees who observed your passage and concluded that you are a friend.
  • Finally, when you share your story and images – impress upon all who’d listen how your love of the great places compels your gentle touch and invite them – exhort them where amendable – to join you in that mission.

“We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

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