In The Field: Nature, humanity and our responsibility to care for both
June 17, 2017
A thought occurred to me while recently perambulating. I use that word because I was in no hurry, had no destination in mind, but simply placed one foot in front of another on a path behind my house attempting to appreciate my great luck at having lived in such an inspiring place for so long. The sun cut crisp strips of light to the forest floor and in them hung tiny insects and floating seeds, much like dust motes in a single beam in a still, quiet room. The soil was finally dry and almost soft underfoot. The many shades of green were returning to the county. It was a singular moment of gratitude.
My mind turned to somehow preserving that memory however I could. I stopped and loitered and focused on every detail: the colors, sounds, smells, all of which I would describe in my own way. Then I realized that the only true way to reproduce the moment was to return, again and again, to such places at such times throughout my life. There is no perfect reproduction of nature in memory and the best one can do to preserve such a memory is preserve the place, so that they can return again for the same pleasures.
Man meets nature
Not far away to the east, a large city continues to grow at a record rate. In that city are over 600,000 people. Over two million others live sprawling beyond its borders. Many of these people have a similar affinity for the mountains and the wilderness. We are lucky to have a population that cares about preservation and conservation, about keeping these mountains as they were, so that we can return to them to create new memories.
Collectively, we are part of a species that has continuously expanded across the Earth like a vine, finding ways to flourish in every environment. That expansion has created many environmental issues, which I do not need to name. I realized this is certainly not the fault of any individual and that humanity is like a great body of water that rises or recedes with the tides of population growth and redistribution, war and famine, and other innumerable inducements that pull on us like the moon pulls on the seas. No one person is to blame for the diminishing of wildlife populations, or any one species' extinction. No one person can hide or save a beautiful mountain-flower grotto, or the slow bend of a river percolating with rising trout. Individual efforts to save some piece of the Earth from ourselves will surely fail, if only because we cannot stand protector of a place forever.
Man as nature
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Alone in the woods, I cannot turn my back on my humanness. I am part of a collective, one that has the power to preserve and destroy. Because of that, I have the responsibility to be part of humanity, not continuously shy away from it.
This also means that I must be educated on what practices are working and what are not, so that I can share what I know with others. In our community I have learned about biodiversity and sustainability, and how hunters and fishermen are some of our most important conservationists, as they have seen first-hand what the rising tide of human pressure on nature can do to an ecosystem. We've removed predators because they were nuisances or we were afraid (often ignorantly) and have changed entire ecosystems because of it. We've changed habitats and eradicated species, rerouting rivers and dissolving fish populations simply by doing so. I have learned that money from hunting and fishing licenses contributes substantially to sustaining animal populations and preserving habitats. I have learned that permaculture and sustainable agricultural practices can, if we learn about them, help our communities grow in symbiosis with nature. We do not have to be a viral, bickering mass in diametric opposition to nature.
Want more? Read on for the moment when Western and Eastern philosophies collide in the Rocky Mountains
A need for nature
With that, it is not enough to be singular stewards of nature. I need to understand that on an individual basis, my kind — the caffeine-fueled, bipedal creatures of habit that tend to run blindly into the future — is usually just as desirous as myself to preserve this wilderness. Everyone wants the opportunity to seek solitude in nature, even if we live in the vast hive of a city.
The human race is ever pressing against nature and it is our collective responsibility to be educated, to make sure we balance our desires to enter nature with our obligation to preserve it. Even though I am conscious of my relationship with nature and know I'm not alone in my vigilance — recycling, using only felled wood for my fires, keeping on paths, hunting and fishing ethically, et cetera — I need to engage just as much with people as with nature.
Man's call to action
I would prescribe many things to an open ear, but I wonder how many open ears are left in the epoch of social media and schadenfreude-fueled television. Maybe a call to action should be: go into the woods and return to humanity with gratitude. Be grateful that we are surrounded by mountains, by opportunities to find solitude and purpose in nature, and be grateful that we can easily return and be surrounded by humanity, by opportunities to intelligently engage with each other about that beauty.
I, for one, am grateful for the ability to perambulate around and above Summit County, to look upon the homes and streets and know that there my kind struggles, like me, to find its place between the mountains.
Mark Palz teaches writing and literature at Colorado Mountain College. He is an avid outdoorsman who has also taught fly-casting for over 10 years, starting at the Orvis School of Fly Casting in Manchester, Vermont, briefly at Colorado Mountain College and presently with Breckenridge Outfitters. He lives in Frisco.
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