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.