2020 is finally behind us and, honestly, who knows what 2021 will bring? If we have learned anything from the past year, it has been that we need each other to not only face the bad times but also to bring each other through them. At a time when we have never felt more separated, it has been the one-on-one with loved ones, even if only be phone or zoom, that has got us through-together.
So, let’s start 2021 together, with a weekly look at events that shape our world and consequently shape us. Or is it the other way around do WE shape our world, and is that the event that everything then has to live with, including the habitat and animals that depend on it?
Last summer, with COVID 19 raging and people unable to travel for vacations, many decided to explore the jewels of national and state parks, and national forests, right here in the US. Those vacations ticked all the boxes, they were outside, gas was cheap, so an RV could be rented and the family isolated without having to stay in motels or eat in restaurants. Camping was an option for the fitter and more adventurous, and it all seemed, well, so wholesome, and harmless, and such a relief, from the lockdown and the fear.
And it was, and it IS!
To be in nature is like coming home. She feeds us, she nurtures us, she lifts our spirits, she instills a feeling of belonging, she launders out the bad feelings and makes us crisp and clean again. She helps us clamber to places where we can see visions for our future that are clear and hopeful. When we are in nature we are connected. Each breath pulls in what is around us and our hearts beat throughout our entire bodies and we feel truly alive.
There is a word we often use in the environmental world, it is ‘balance’. Scientists do not use this word, but it is applicable here, because what we are really talking about is cause and effect. The reciprocal aspects of what we ‘get out of’ nature and what we do to get it. Is there even a measurement for what we get out of nature? I doubt it. Sylvia Plath, in The Bell Jar, said ‘I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, This is what it is to be happy.’ But at what cost? How do we balance what we take away from the landscape with what we expect it to keep renewing? Are we anticipating too much of nature’s resilience in sustaining some species? After all, an environment will still be an environment, even if we have destroyed the fragile infrastructure of all the native plants residing there, it will just be an environment, probably filled with hardier invasives or even bare dusty or muddy areas.
An article published last year by the Citizen Times examined the damage and degradation inflicted upon parts of the Appalachian Trail and the steps taken to rehabilitate the worst of the abuse. https://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2020/09/23/max-patch-residents-campers-creating-safety-hazards-mountain/5858936002/ The most important aspect of this story is that it was duplicated over and over again across the country, and while there were valiant efforts to mitigate the damage both on the AT and in other areas, there is never enough money or manpower in the federal or state or local agencies to repeatedly clean up. The negative effects of recreational use may be due to a number of factors, carelessness, inexperience, arrogance, lack of a system that regulates use, abuse of the system that regulates use, naivety about the fact that humans enjoying nature might also be destroying her.
Remember the paragraph about how wonderful it feels to ‘come home to nature’? Well, the crux of this article and the deeply meaningful point that we want you to consider this New Year’s week is that when the incredible privilege to feel you have ‘come home’ in nature happens, you really have– into someone else’s actual home. Into the home of animals who have no alternatives, who cannot go back to another life, who are living in the only place that they can, and that place is getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Habitat loss is the single greatest threat to wildlife today. We chew away at habitat in so many different ways, we encroach, we fragment, we build roads without safe crossings and the irony is that the animals are amazingly tolerant and adaptable, if only we would be thoughtful in how we develop and recreate. People are not an AND with nature, we are a PART of nature, that is why we crave and then recognize that connection we feel when we are able to be out in it as happened last summer. Let’s all be gentle with our home so that the cougars, the bears, the wolves, the coyotes, the deer, the elk, the moose, the martens, the herons, the otters, and every other non-human housemate we share it with can live peacefully and well.