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Is It Time to Move Beyond “Leave No Trace”?

March 30, 2017

As spring emerges across our landscape, California is alive. Lush, rolling hills give way to spectacular wildflower displays. The cows are certainly happy with the green grass pastures north of San Francisco. Even the biting wind coming off the Pacific feels a little milder these days.

As the local ecology transitions, my mind turns to getting back outside. I’ve been holed up and pretty sedentary this winter for any number of reasons. Writing for this blog is certainly one. I work from home twice per week, a recipe for pajamas and bed-desk. Three days a week, I’m out working at the farmer’s market, my dose of abundant fresh air delivered in spades. That’s nice, but it’s work, and it all happens on a flat-top. My feet crave dirt, my ears listen for silence.

In the past, that has meant getting out on the trail: hiking, camping, finding my way to the ocean. And with that, the necessary research into trail maps, campsites, overnight permits, fire guidelines, trail food, and the first commandment of avid hikers: Leave No Trace.

Thou Shalt Leave No Trace

The idea that we leave no trace on the landscape is, at this point, religious and unquestioned.  It came about for a damn good reason, too. The nascent environmental movement of the 70s brought the Leave No Trace concept to light (though that name wouldn’t catch on until later), at a time when clean air and water were in serious jeopardy. The formation of the EPA in 1970 coincided with a growing public consciousness of global pollution and its far reaching effects. Littering wasn’t the cultural taboo it is today. Rivers were catching on fire and Los Angeles’ air was barely breathable.

Protecting spaces that were still “pure” was something we could each accomplish. And we could leave our mark directly on the movement by leaving no mark at all on the landscape. Staying on the trail was a point of pride. Packing out your trash was a novel concept. Catch and release was the new motto. Hunting was for barbarians. Nature was a virgin, not to be touched by humanity’s groping teenage instincts.

The movement was effective: Leave No Trace is so fully ingrained (and often unquestioned) today that in some respects we go too far in the opposite direction. Many of us no longer interact with our natural environment. For those of us that do, we experience it in a dilute and detached way. We stay on the trail, we look but don’t touch, and we pat ourselves on the back for leaving it alone. In our efforts to protect mother nature, we’ve divorced ourselves from true participation in it. With that, we lack authentic inputs critical to our own biology as a species that, once upon a time, was wild.

Monkey See or Monkey Do?

The “look and see” format of spectatorship that we encourage when “in nature” needs to evolve. This deserves to happen slowly and in a measured way, but it needs to happen. As it stands now, we’re at risk of losing our relationship to the land and reducing “nature” to a commoditized piece of political and economic leverage.

And while there are myriad economic services that the natural world provides to society, I can’t give you a dollar value of learning to fish on Lake Champlain with my dad. I couldn’t begin to tell you the political worth of fresh mint foraged from the shoreline. Or how my cup of tea was later imbued with a sense of place and relationship to the piece of land from which I gathered it.

I have no doubt that a seasoned hunter would speak in much the same terms of their relationship to the land and their prey – speaking, of course, about hunters who eat their kill. The same goes for foraged plants, mushrooms, fish, firewood, driftwood, rocks, clay. Relationships transcend economic valuation. We know that when it comes to our friends and families. But we’ve forgotten about our core biological, evolutionary relationship to the land. We’ve forgotten that we protect what we love. We conserve what we use. This “conservation through use” ethic is what I am proposing.

Land on Your Feet

In 2017, one of my resolutions for the year was to be more active in my participation with the local ecoscapes of northern California. To develop both a physical and dietary relationship and report back on it via this blog. I’ve always wanted to learn to fly fish, gather shellfish (for non-scientific purposes), and forage wild plants. I’ve done a pretty piss poor job of getting to work on any of those pursuits so far. I lack mentors for these tasks and so I’m setting out to find and nurture those relationships, as well as to take first steps learning these new skills on my own.

The reason I emphasize wild food is not strictly dietary – it’s physical. The dynamism of being immersed – whether it’s foraging or fishing or navigating by the stars – engages our full biology in ways extend beyond a hiking to a vista (those are cool too, though). It affords us new and different textures of feeling to our hands and feet, of color to our eyes, of sounds to our ears, of smells to our noses.

My feet are soft and unweathered, and I’d have trouble walking barefoot for any real distance over dirt and rocks. My eyes mostly see green plants as one homogenous kingdom, rather than a mix of culinary, medicinal, adaptogenic, or toxic species. And my ears hear birds and insects at exactly that level of detail. All of that is a problem, because it highlights a lack of relationship, in the same way that we know the quirks and personalities of our spouses, but not those of a stranger.

I don’t want to be a stranger to this world.

Next Steps and Accountability

We should still respect boundaries: there’s no longer enough wild space for everyone to eat a fully wild diet (and most of us don’t remotely have the time for that). Endangered species need to be left alone and unharassed. Folks with zero outdoor skills or training have no business galavanting off into the bush and getting themselves into all manner of trouble. But there’s plenty of green area in between those extremes and the sterility of “leave no trace” to carve out a more refined type of participatory ecology. We just have to start talking about what that looks like for all of us, and how we do it responsibly.

What are you doing to deepen your connection to the landscape, without leaving it worse for wear? How can we leave an ecologically appropriate trace, rather than one marked by trash, pollution, and gratuitous extraction? I’ve decided my first step is to find some local shellfish to harvest, learn the rules I need to abide by, and do an initial forage in the next 20 days. I’m listing it here to hold myself accountable.

Leave a comment to let me know what you’re doing – or how you feel about either Leave No Trace and/or Conservation Through Use.

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