environmentalism

Trees, Public Lands, and Politics

“The second best time to plant a tree is today.”

I have this thing about adages, corny  or cliche though they may be.  I think I’m just wired to appreciate them.  And, I’ve found myself quoting this one on a regular basis, especially in the years since I began doing seasonal work with the Intervale Conservation Nursery.

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Bur Oak seedlings

This spring, I’m up in Vermont again, working with the tree planting crew based at my favorite nursery.  We spent a few weeks “harvesting” the trees – removing trees from their beds and preparing them for bare root plantings all over the state – and now we’ve moved on to planting projects.  For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been based in northwestern Vermont.  There, on a cattle farm that sold a riparian buffer to the Vermont Land Trust, we revel in views of both the Green Mountains and Lake Champlain as we plant a future forest to improve and protect water quality.

Up in this corner of the world, it’s easy to imagine that we live in peaceful times.  It’s easy, too, to forget that development is a pressure that landowners struggle to ignore, that, in most instances, land is moving into use rather than becoming open space.  In New England, where populations long ago became dense, the importance of setting aside land for natural resource protection and public enjoyment was realized generations ago.

But even these wildlands face threats by the current political climate.  When I was growing up, I remember hearing about acid rain and the damage it caused to northern forests.  Then, the commotion died down, and I didn’t hear about acid rain until I came to New Hampshire for a summer research project in 2010.

As it turns out, acid rain didn’t stop being dangerous; there just stopped being acid rain.  Midwestern and Appalachian coal-fired power plants, in the face of increased regulations, cleaned up their processes, and, as a result, the weather patterns were bringing less toxic rain to the northeast.  The forests were healing.

These days, I’m dreaming of a wonderful summer of hiking in the Adirondacks, of climbing to the top of all 46 4000-footers and learning about the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States.  My pre-hike reading is also making me concerned about the future of this amazing resource, faced with development pressures and potential acid rain resulting from policy reversals.

What’s more, the adversities the Adirondacks might face pale in comparison to the challenges awaiting other public lands, should we decide not to champion these areas.  Policymakers need to hear our voices loud and clear, and it’s never too late to join the conversation (because, as they say…).

On the PCT: Acton, Part Two

In civilization, life is carefully constructed so that meeting our basic needs is generally easy and convenient.  When we’re cold, we turn on our heaters and bask in their warmth; air conditioning cools us when we’re hot.  We rarely find ourselves rained on, snowed on, or hailed on, and we generally only sunburn out of choice. Our world is made light with the flip of a switch.  We browse refrigerators and aisles of neatly-packaged food for our meals, or we order and get them delivered to our door.  We find ourselves at the top of a food chain we likely didn’t work directly to climb.  In these ways and others, most of us are fortunate enough to have our basic needs met with ease.

Meeting one’s basic needs when living outdoors, even by choice, can be much more challenging, as was readily apparent as I walked from Wrightwood to Acton.

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The view from the summit of Baden-Powell

The snowstorm that brought Pine Nut and me running to Wrightwood ushered in a chilly and sometimes even cloudy weather pattern.  In the low desert, that might have been helpful, but the Pacific Crest Trail goes over the top of Mount Baden-Powell, a 9,406-foot behemoth.  The first day I attempted to summit the mountain, the remnants of the storm made the day so wet and bitterly cold that I decided it would be safer to wait for some warmth or sunshine.  When I did go up Baden-Powell the following day, I slipped and slid on snow and ice and slush much of the way to the peak.

In places, the backside of the mountain was even snowier.  I followed the occasionally knee-deep postholes of intrepid hikers as I worked to stay on trail.

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Snowy Baden-Powell

That night, hoping the thin silnylon of my tent would protect me against the cold wind as I slept atop snow, I thought about human innovation and our fragility.  Squirrels and chipmunks scurried among the trees nearby, but hairless me needed to wait out the night wrapped in the feathers of other organisms.

The sunshine of the following morning felt miraculous, and relaxing as I descended thousands of feet into the warmth of the desert made me realize how stressed I’d been in the cold.

But, soon, the dry heat, too, proved challenging.  I drank more water to ensure I stayed hydrated and removed my socks and shoes to cool my feet at breaks.  I donned sun protection, both clothing and chemical.  At the margins of the trail, lizards and snakes basked in the sun.  I sought shade.

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A stunning view on the detour

The path took me along steep, eroded hillsides.  The trail, held together with all sorts of metal and wood contraptions, was dangerously deteriorated, and I chose my steps carefully.  Unstable footsteps sent pebbles tumbling into the valley below, their clattering resounding in the air as they rolled.

The ridiculousness of what I was undertaking struck me as I slowly and methodically moved northward, perched atop a disappearing trail with my trekking poles poking into the rock and providing a fleeting sense of security.

How is it that we humans, little desert scavengers that we once were, have become so powerful?  How have we wiped out whole species and destroyed entire habitats?  How have we come to occupy every biome on Earth?

I thought of the mountain frog whose limited habitat we hikers were avoiding with an extensive detour.

I thought of the ancient mountains I treaded on, of how they must have been perceived by the Americans of centuries and millennia ago, who wouldn’t have known what lay beyond them.

I thought of the 1500-year-old tree atop Mount Baden-Powell, a tree that had stood for 1000 years before Europeans came to the New World and had witnessed more time than my brain could fathom.  I thought of its windswept appearance, of its steadfast endurance as the weather has tested it for a millennium and a half.  And, I thought of the initials carved into its bark next to “2015.”

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Desert flora

Why is it that we find the need to leave our mark on the world in such destructive ways?  Is our own short existence part of the reason we seek relative permanence?

What if we were, instead, to walk gently?  What if we left no trace of our time here?  What if we just moved through time and space quietly, like leaves in the wind?

Five Addresses in Eight Months, Part One

It’s funny which days are etched forever in our minds. One year ago today, I was enduring my second ambulance ride in as many weeks. A year before that, after having one of those life-changing, put-in-it-the-memoir family crises, I was living with 26 other people in a bunkroom in a very snow-covered Western Massachusetts as part of the SCA.

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SCA Massachusetts Class of 2013

Perhaps it’s the changing weather or perhaps it’s historical precedent, but this time of year sends me into a reverie, and I decided I’d interrupt our regularly-scheduled hiking story to share some of my recollections from my time with the SCA.

In this case, the SCA is the Student Conservation Association, not the Society for Creative Anachronism. I stumbled upon the former while searching for the latter. The Student Conservation Association is an organization for which I’ve had tremendous respect for almost a decade now. Most of the members of the SCA are young adults who serve with various organizations and in various capacities across the country as they work to conserve natural areas and promote environmental awareness.

Long story short, three weeks after I got my driver’s license (as a 23-year-old), I loaded my tiny little convertible to the gills and drove it 1000 miles to Hawley, Massachusetts.

Some SCA positions are “front-country” positions. Like AmeriCorps VISTA positions, these usually see SCA members working individually with organizations, in internship-like settings. Other positions are backcountry positions, where (generally) teams of SCA members serve and camp together. Most backcountry positions focus on trail building, and the position to which I’d been accepted in Hawley was no exception.

My interview with SCA Massachusetts was memorable. They asked a question that I’d spent a great deal of time thinking about but still did not have a concise answer to: “How do you feel about cutting down trees?” I suppose my rambling answer — about the way cutting down trees for trails leads to an increased awareness and appreciation of the natural world, which leads to more conservation of trees — must have been acceptable.

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My first attempt at using snowshoes

Because of everything that had happened at home, I was a mess when I got to Hawley, but the whole crew of SCA members who were already at the base camp greeted me and helped me bring my belongings into the bunkhouse. Soon, my upper bunk in a corner of the giant room started to feel homey.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much effort put into group building and communal living as that displayed by the leaders of SCA Massachusetts. They ensured that we had plenty of formal and informal time to get to know one another, led us in many reflections and games (that we could later use when we led classes of children), and set group expectations. They encouraged us to view our base camp as home and took us on outings to familiarize ourselves with the area.

Coming from the South, I wasn’t sure whether I could ever feel at home in a place like western Massachusetts in early March. The snow was three feet high, and new snow fell every few days. Winter was my usual running season (and my key stress management strategy), and I couldn’t run at all. I’d never used snow shoes, and I had no clue how to cross country ski. I didn’t even know how to split wood to heat our bunkhouse. I was eager to learn it all.

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Our bunkroom

Serving with the SCA did have its challenges. The 29 (27 SCA members and two leaders) of us who lived at base camp during training had 76 gallons of water to share each day. We rarely flushed the bathroom toilets and signed up for a couple short but precious showers at the start of each week. Our bathroom was up a hill, the path to which I watched go from snow-tunneled to bog-bridged. Sharing one room meant that this SCA member, whose Lyme Disease was slowly rising to the surface, could never get enough sleep.

But, it also meant that there were always great people around. It meant that someone could find a book recommendation, a service project buddy, or a head massage whenever the mood struck. Our living situation made for an unforgettable game of Cards Against Humanity by the fire one night, and it gave me a snowy sunrise that brought me to tears a few mornings later. The SCA’s base camp in Hawley earned a special place in my memories.

Unfortunately, my time with the SCA was cut short. It turned out that lots of reflection exercises and no space to be alone to process things weren’t very conducive to phase of the healing process that I was in at that time. Our leaders were incredibly understanding when I explained what had been going on and why I needed to leave the program; I was astonished when they invited me to apply another year.

Another year, in another mindset, I think a program like SCA Massachusetts would be right up my alley. I love communal living, love the backcountry, and love being around like-minded, passionate people. But, that year, I just needed to be around friends.

And so, on a bright sunny day, moments after I’d given my goodbye hugs to SCA Massachusetts, I climbed into my convertible again, turned up the Indigo Girls, and headed to Burlington, Vermont, where, sleeping bag in hand, I knocked on an old friend’s door.

On Nature and Spirituality

Since I am currently stuck in bed and far too sick and sleepy to compose a coherent sentence, let alone a coherent blog post, I thought that I’d share the text of a speech I gave a couple weeks ago at a local Methodist church.


Katahdin's alpine zone

Katahdin’s alpine zone

Henry David Thoreau, arguably the most famous hiker and naturalist, once declared, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.”  The various truths that can be extrapolated from this quote were nowhere more evident to me than when I was atop Mount Katahdin, which, incidentally, Thoreau had climbed as well.

In recollecting his time on that magnificent, mile-high mountain, Thoreau wrote,

“It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man. We habitually presume his presence and influence everywhere. And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast and dread and inhuman…Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste-land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever.”

The Tableland

The Tableland

During my own climb of Katahdin, I, too, was awestruck by the wildness of my surroundings.  Located hundreds of miles north of the Maine-New Hampshire border, Mount Katahdin has seen snow every month of the year.  A monadnock, it rises, alone, far above the surrounding landscape.  Its treeline is crossed before a hiker begins her ascent in earnest, and, from there, the rest of the climb is a steep scramble over boulders.  The steepest portion of the ascent is from treeline to the aptly named Tableland, but one’s hike is by no means over after she’s climbed onto the Tableland.  From there, it’s another mile to the summit, a mile during which one is, inevitably, nearly knocked over by gale-force winds onto the rime-ice-covered rocks and alpine plants that comprise the treadway.

The climb up Katahdin is, indisputably, the hardest climb on the Appalachian Trail.  (And, that’s saying something; in the White Mountains, the climbs up Moosilauke and Wildcat are so steep that a misstep is certain to have dire consequences.) But, as challenging as the climb up Katahdin is, most thru-hikers barely notice it.

Instead, as I was, they’re likely lost somewhere between being entirely present to deal with the task at hand and in a reverie. For my part, my reverie began with memories of the days when I was learning to love hiking, when I spent a summer in the White Mountains of New Hampshire as part of a Research Experience for Undergraduates affiliated with the National Science Foundation. Thirteen aspiring young scientists and I lived in a little farmhouse in the middle of the woods, and, while we spent all week hiking for our research, we found nothing to do on the weekends except to hike some more. And I loved every minute of it. My reverie continued as I thought about what the Appalachian Trail meant to me, about the big questions I set out on a 2200-mile hike to answer and the answers I’d come up with. I thought about how the trail had seen me come of age, so to speak, and become, to quote Broadway’s The Secret Garden, “the girl I mean to be.” Perhaps most of all, on my second climb up Katahdin last September, my thoughts centered on my battle with Lyme Disease, on the ten months I spent in bed and on doctors’ visits and ambulance rides and panic attacks and relapses and abdominal surgery and lots of medicine…and my eventual recovery. I thought about how, just a few months earlier, after surgery in May, I was so proud to walk down my family’s driveway in June. I was even prouder to go for walks on the road in July, thrilled to begin hiking again in August, and ecstatic to shoulder my pack and set off into the Maine woods in September.

It was these recollections that brought hot tears to my eyes as I neared the wooden sign atop Katahdin, tears that I quickly wiped away for fear they’d freeze—until they came too quickly that my efforts were pointless. I took the summit photo of another Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, whose trail name was Not Worthy. My sentiments exactly.

Katahdin makes a great many “thru-hikers”—hikers who walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail (which stretches from Georgia to Maine) in a year—feel not worthy. The mountain serves as the northern terminus for the AT, and, as a result, serves as a receptacle for hikers’ hopes and dreams as they make their northward journeys. Sometimes, the enormity of the task of walking a couple thousand miles forces us to take it a day at a time, particularly when we’re trudging through snow in the Smokies, wading down a rain-drenched trail for the fifth day in a row, being eaten alive by mosquitoes, or being burnt to crisps atop Pennsylvania ridges. But, sometimes, on crystal clear nights, when we’re camped atop ledges and looking heavenward, we let ourselves imagine reaching the monolith in Maine that marks the end of our journey.

Katahdin's Knife's Edge

Katahdin’s Knife’s Edge

How, exactly, can one end what for many has been a life-changing journey? Generally, hikers come out to the trail at a transition time in life, between, say, high school and college, college and career, family and empty nest, or career and retirement. Setting out on the trail often means giving up an apartment or even selling a home. It means paying off bills and getting rid of unnecessary possessions. It means quitting a job. It means saying goodbye, at least temporarily to loved ones and patterns of living. And, thus, the logistics alone of getting off trail pose challenges.

But, most hikers agree that the far more challenging aspect of ending a thru-hike is emotional and mental. It is difficult to describe the spiritual connection many hikers feel with the trail; I find it difficult to describe my own experience, as so many of my feelings are contradictory and counterintuitive. Crossing mountain creeks and standing atop the eastern peaks with nothing but what I carried on my back made me feel both infinite and infinitesimal, remarkably powerful and remarkably powerless, and completely independent and connected to something greater than myself.

It’s only fair to point out that backpacking 15-25 miles every day seems to tinker with hikers’ brain chemistry. I’ve talked at length with many backpackers—male and female, young and old alike—who all describe heightened emotional experiences in the wilderness. The highs I experienced on the trail were the highest of my life; similarly, the lows I felt were unparalleled. On the AT, I was miserably sad, crippling lonely, and euphorically happy. Perhaps it is the endorphins of hours and hours of exercise every day…or the hunger…or the tiredness. Or perhaps it’s something more.

In the wilderness, life is simple. Days consist of walking, eating, and sleeping—and walking, eating, and sleeping some more. When all of your belongings have to be carried on your back, you’re likely to have few possessions, many of which serve several functions and all of which are as light as they possibly can be. It’s almost as though the trail forces hikers to exist at the base levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—we’re concerned with our physiological needs and, perhaps, with basic social needs such as safety and community.

Complimenting this simplicity is a deepening of interpersonal interactions. They say that the trail dissolves friendships made at home, while friendships forged on the trail endure the test of time. I’ve found this to be true in my own life, as hiking nearly disintegrated the friendship I had with a college buddy who’d accompanied me on part of my first foray on the Appalachian Trail in 2011, whereas a hiking partner I found on trail for part of my thru-hike remains a very close friend. On trail, there’s virtually none of the schmoozing and one-upsmanship that seem far too common in interactions in civilization. It’s not about what job you held or what car you drove or what organizations you’re part of or where you went to school or how talented your spouse is or how successful your children are. There’s no need for any of that when everyone is wearing the same filthy synthetic T-shirt he or she has worn since Georgia, and there’s no time for it when there are miles to be hiked, dinner to be cooked, and water to be gathered.

We say that the trail may be long, but it is very narrow. Time and again, when I’m hiking in the eastern woods, I run into other hikers that I know. Atop a peak in Massachusetts a few summers ago, I ran into the first hiker that I’d met; in Maine last summer, I had lunch with a fellow 2012 thru-hiker I’d stayed at a shelter with; a few weekends ago, I hiked in North Carolina and ran into the guy who had taken my summit picture atop Katahdin. And, whenever we meet again, like old friends, we pick up where we left off.

It’s not just the other hikers who add to the sense of community on the trail. Perhaps even more important to the cultivation of the spiritual connection to the trail that many hikers describe are people we call trail angels. A trail angel is simply a generous human being who is kind to hikers. Trail angels, and the “trail magic” they provide, can take many different forms. A trail angel might offer up his backyard for hikers wishing to camp in a trailside town while resupplying, or she might shuttle hikers to and from the trail, if a road crossing the Appalachian Trail is too quiet or too dangerous to facilitate thumbing a ride. Trail magic might be a cooler full of brownies or tomatoes left in the middle of the woods, a pack loaned to a thru-hiker after the shoulder strap of his gave out, or a trailside barbeque.

The most memorable trail magic I had the privilege to receive came to me in Massachusetts. At that point, I’d hiked 1500 miles through sun and rain and snow and hail, climbed over Everett and Race (two mountains marking the end of the mid-Atlantic and the return to actual mountains), came down to a road crossing, stepped onto the road, and promptly tripped over a branch and fell. Now, I generally don’t think of myself as a pansy. I spent my teenage years on a farm and have seen my share of animal and human emergencies; I tend to pride myself in keeping my cool in such situations. That wasn’t the case on that summer day in Massachusetts. I sat to examine my knee, from which a sizeable amount of flesh had just been removed—I came to call the resulting area the Barrington Crater, after the town whose road I’d fallen on—and realized that the liquid running down my bent leg and pooling in my shorts was my blood. Instantly, I got incredibly lightheaded and lay backward on the road. At that moment, an SUV came rumbling toward me and quickly pulled to the side of the road. Out jumped Mary Kate, a middle-aged nurse who was on her way home from her shift. Without pause, she rushed to my side and began examining and treating my wound. Once I was bandaged up, she invited me home to her family’s house for a few days to recover.

What Mary Kate probably didn’t know was that she gave me a tremendous gift when she helped me on my northward journey. Unitarian Universalists describe a virtue that they call “sacred hospitality,” an altruism and caring for others from a place of love, and any description of that virtue brings to mind the generosity and thoughtfulness of Mary Kate. I know so many hikers who have been on the receiving ends of such kindness—some who have found ways to pass it on and some who are anxious for such opportunities—that I’ve come to think this hospitality is fundamental to the formation of the spiritual and emotional connection most hikers have with the trail. As much as backpacking is an inherently independent endeavor, it also leads to the creation of community. When you’re facing a cold night in Vermont and haven’t received the mail drop containing your winter gear, no one hesitates to offer to let you share their tent; if your water filter has broken, it’s assumed that you’ll be able to tag along with another hiker and use theirs. With its love of independence, the American culture tends to ignore the healing and freeing power of interdependence, and I believe it’s this interdependence that we get to experience when we are more vulnerable, as nomadic travelers.

Katahdin's tranquil Chimney Pond

Katahdin’s tranquil Chimney Pond

Trail angels and interdependence and an adherence to the principle of reciprocity—if not directly to the giver, then to the community in a larger sense—might be part of the reason that there’s a saying up and down the trail: “The trail will provide.” I think that this was a sense that was born of necessity: It was no use to stress and worry about something hundreds of miles away because other things need to be dealt with immediately; moreover, by the time you’ve walked hundreds of miles, other things are likely to happen that will, seemingly serendipitously, make whatever you were stressing about inconsequential in one way or another. A byproduct of the notion that the trail will take care of its own is a beautiful surrendering to experience, a trusting that all will work out, a profound presence in the here and now, a peace with the way things are. And, this is deeply spiritual.

As he was marveling at the beauty of a summer day, Ralph Waldo Emerson once described the globe as a toy, given by God to His human children. Turning on the news or reading a newspaper today, it’s readily apparent that we have broken our toy. We’re warming the planet, killing off entire species, poisoning our water, and blasting the tops off mountains. It seems that we, as a species, have lost our spiritual connection with the Earth.

And, this brings us back to Thoreau’s declaration that the wilderness holds the secret to the world’s preservation. In my mind, there are a few ways to think about that quote. Perhaps, in spending more time in—in knowing and understanding—the wilderness, we can come to care for it, to preserve and protect it. Familiarity leads to appreciation and love, and knowing more of the world might well be the best way to preserve it.

Or, perhaps, we can think about the great many scientific and medicinal gains that can be made from further study of the natural world. Thus, in the wilderness, we can find means to preserve the lives of those who inhabit the world.

Or—and this is my favorite conceptualization of Thoreau’s statement—perhaps we can take the deep ecology approach. Perhaps, in some intrinsic way, we are part of the wilderness, and the wilderness is part of us. I don’t mean this to sound New Agey; I’m just suggesting that time in the wilderness may enable us to be somehow more human. The naturalists of the past have romanticized the natural world, have held it up as something essential for the soul of man, as a way for him to recover that which he loses in the hustle and bustle of daily living. This sounds overly sentimental until you see people actually discover the essentiality of time in the wilderness—and until you discover it for yourself.

At Katahdin's summit

At Katahdin’s summit

In our shared cultural heritage, we have a recurring theme of clarity gained in nature. Moses climbs a mountain, sees the face of God, and is forever changed. Buddha experiences enlightenment beside a river. In Disney’s The Lion King, Rafiki gives Simba an important lesson under the stars, and Pocahontas seeks guidance in the presence of a willow tree. Furthermore, Heidi grows strong in the Alps, and Mary Lennox and Colin Craven are emotionally and physically healed in their secret garden.

I think of these moments of peace and lucidity as mountaintop moments. From the top of a mountain, the thin air enables the stars to appear brighter and the sky to appear bluer. Similarly, “getting away from it all” in the wilderness allows our thoughts and actions to come into better focus, to be seen with greater detail. The key, it seems, is to hold tight to mountaintop moments and create some of our own when we return to the valley, so to speak. In this way, we might regain our spiritual connection with the rest of God’s Creation, might act as the faithful Stewards of Earth that we ought to be, and might, in protecting and nurturing the wilderness inside us, aid in the preservation of the world.