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Hikers and Nature by Ron Strickland

Hannegan Pass
Hannegan Pass

How should hikers, experienced or otherwise, think about Nature? My own thoughts have evolved in ways that I never expected. Back when I was a teenager I fell under the spell of a seductress named Wilderness. Her allure was originally defined for me by Howard Zahniser. “A wilderness,” he wrote in the Wilderness Act, “ in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is … an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Such hallowed spots predated the arrival of civilization. As Zahniser wrote in “The Need for Wilderness Areas,” they were “essential to a true understanding of ourselves, our culture, our own natures, and our place in all nature.” Certainly they were vital to young, bearded Ron Strickland who hiked wilderness in summer and dreamed about it the rest of the year. In 1976, I earned a Georgetown doctorate after writing a dissertation about the National Wilderness Preservation System.

As time passed, however, my faith wavered. Soon I ran up against Seattle’s conservation leaders who doggedly resisted my proposed creation of a major new trail between the Continental Divide and the Pacific Ocean. I vehemently disagreed that the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) would “attract more users than the resource can withstand” and that construction of a national scenic trail would impose “irreversible damage on the wilderness resource.” In my mind the PNT would enhance visitors’ experience and broaden the constituency for backcountry conservation.

There was also the issue of what to do with the newly-protected sanctuaries. Suppose, for instance, that hungry beetles killed an official wilderness’s forest; would it be sacrilegious, as the purists said, to remove and use the fallen trees? And what about all the new evidence that North and South America had never really been “untrammeled by man” after all? And, as a decidedly non-religious person, why should I couch my love of the outdoors in quasi-mystical terms? By the time that Congress added the PNT to the National Trails System in 2009, it wasn’t that I loved wildlands any less but that the relationship between Man and Nature had grown in richness and in possibility.

That is why I so heartily recommend Rambunctious Garden by Emma Marris. She dispenses with the ideology of ecosystem purity in favor of 21st century, evidence-based common sense ecology. She approaches Nature not as a static church but as an evolving wonder. “Ecosystems are in a constant dance,” she says, “as their components compete, react, evolve, migrate, and form new communities. Geological upheaval, evolution, climatic cycles, fire, storms, and population dynamics see to it that nature is always changing.” Furthermore there is no place on earth that is not already radically influenced by humankind.

That means that conservation will often involve complex and painful choices. As Emma Marris writes, “We’ve forever altered the Earth, and so now we cannot abandon it to a random fate. It is our duty to manage it.” Back when I was first seduced by the clarion call of Wilderness I would have strongly rejected that idea. Today, unlike Howard Zahniser, I believe that man and his own works influence, in varying degrees, all of the earth.

But what does that mean for us on a day to day basis? One of the great charms of hiking is that we walkers, new or not, can get up close and personal with the winds, streams, and flora and fauna. I feel sorry for the vast multitudes that never experience the freedom and the beauty of the natural world. As hikers we learn that Man and Nature are intertwined and that the environment welcomes us in multiple, unexpected ways.

It all comes down to two things. First, get outside as often as possible. Stroll, hike, backpack: see as much as you possibly can. Second, join a trail club. Don’t be one of those shirkers who leaves everything up to somebody else. [A local club is always best, but I am not shy about recommending the Pacific Northwest Trail Association]. Most of the world’s problems often seem insurmountable. But when you install a waterbar or lead a hike or simply pay dues, you know in your heart that you are on the right track.

As a teenager I always looked forward to my next hike. Today, whether on my neighborhood rail-trail or on a world class supertrail, I am still dreaming of the fun that lies ahead.

About Ron Strickland

Ron Strickland is the founder of the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail.  His books about hiking include Pathfinder: Blazing A New Wilderness Trail In Modern America.

9 comments

  1. Sweet! Thanks for putting this together.

  2. Marris’ work is shallow and late to the party. Her portrayal of the nature/culture bifurcation only pays lip service to the complexities of the issues and the larger anthropocentricity which still underpins most of what she talks about. Naess was doing better work on the subject 40 years ago.

  3. another article today from the UK which mentions the contentious Marris text, in (a) context.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/01/neogreens-science-business-save-planet?fb=native&CMP=FBCNETTXT9038

    I haven’t read this book but I thought Ron’s piece was well put, thanks.

  4. The reason that there are ducks, deer and turkeys for hunters to shoot is because of hunters. They’re the ones that spend the time and pay the money to preserve and enhance the animals habitat. Everyone else thinks that it’s a “nice idea” and worth spending other people’s money to do.

    Walling off the wilderness and then expecting people to care about maintaining it seems to me to be counter intuitive.

  5. Good post Ron. I haven’t read Marris but we are very familiar with those ideas here in Scotland where we talk about wild land rather than wilderness because we know the history, which tells us that little is untouched. Also, because much of the wild land is degraded due to overgrazing we know that management is needed to restore it to some semblance of balance and health. This involves reducing deer numbers (all natural predators were exterminated long ago) so trees can regenerate and, in places, fencing out grazing animals and planting trees.

  6. Excellent piece Ron. I don’t think that there is anywhere in the North American continent that can be truly classified as “wilderness.” Human influence is everywhere omnipotent. I think it is already too late to be discussing “if” humans will have an impact on some particular area. Climate change and the very air we breath will determine the eventual survival of these areas, even if a human fails to set a foot in them.

    By default we are the custodians of these regions, each and every one of us. Oil drilling, coal mining, and forest harvest can affect regions far removed from those activities. Building a trail through some pristine region can never have the impact that many commercial activities. In fact, the benefit of having people hiking through these regions shows them first-hand just how important protecting them can be.

    When I hiked the Appalachian Trail I found it almost comical in some places. The trail would take the form of a long green tunnel, giving an impression of being a remote area. Then, every few minutes, one would hear an automobile, motorcycle or large truck zoom by, not far away. The “remote” experience was merely a facade, civilization (or lack thereof) was a few scant feet away, it just wasn’t visible. I knew I was deceiving myself.

    Thanks for the inspiration Ron, and all you’ve done.

  7. Myles Denny-Brown

    Well put, Ron.

    I was a wilderness advocate in the sixties and have made the same tranisiton as you have to recognize that wilderness is an ideal that is rarely found any more. What is more important is to create windows on nature, like hiking trails, that appeal to a broader constituency such as day hikers.

    I myself have been nomre than a day hiker since I finshed graduate school in 1975, but that is the bst way I know to charge my batteries and inspire me about the importance of pretecting the environment fomr mankind’s ever growing footprints.

    Keep up the good work, Ron.

  8. Barbara Strangfeld

    Excellent article, Dr. Strickland. The combination of appreciation and respect for our natual world as well as the conservation and preservation of its resources with a recognition that human beings are part of the ecology of this planet and just plain common sense is absolutely refreshing. I believe it is the only way forward. Thank you for saying this so well.

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