What I would really like, what I hope and dream for, is that people try to think outside of themselves when they are in wild places, or when they are in nature in any context, even in a backyard! What is our place here? How do we share our planet with the other creatures who call it home? Do we give them enough space to live their lives? It’s all about survival to them: finding food, finding mates, raising young. How does our presence impact what they need to do to simply survive? Does our spiritual quest, the testing of our bushcraft, or whatever other reason we’re out there supersede or have more importance than their right to live and thrive?
I am a recreationist too. I have hiked long trails (the Appalachian Trail, the John Muir Trail) and I have paddled long distances in Southeast Alaska and know the transformative process and the unspeakable bliss that comes with living day-to-day with nature at your fingertips, from sunup to sundown, open spaces filled with beauty that evoke a feeling of awe from moment to moment. It’s an exquisite experience when you can taste life in every breath.
The problem is how to square that with the state of the planet in 2021. How much of Earth do we need to set aside from human modification (as much as that is possible)? 50% like E.O. Wilson proposes? Will that be enough elbow room for our non-human brethren? Should we go into these sanctuaries to do things like climb mountains, ride snowboards, ride mountain bikes? Should we treat these places like shrines, and tiptoe around or not go at all? Leave the creatures their space, and keep to ours? There’s got to be a middle ground, and I think that’s the hardest question to answer—what does that look like? Meanwhile, how should we treat the wild spaces that we have now? What does wild even mean?
So, we have circled back to the question of point of view. Is the world our playground and place of spiritual renewal? Well, yes, maybe. Is the world a place to be shared with non-human life, and are there some places humans should leave alone, not trample with our feet or bring our accoutrements into? Well, yes, maybe.
Two summers ago, I canoed with three friends down the Marsh Fork/Canning Rivers in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. We meticulously practiced ‘Leave No Trace’ principles. But twice, we unintentionally left things behind. Both were made of plastic. One was a map case and the other a watch. Both times I had a shouting fit; both times I broke down in tears. I was to blame because I was on camp-sweep and had neglected to see them. I also left a tiny plastic bottle filled with biodegradable soap way up on a talus slope (we carried water far from the river to bathe). Upon returning to camp, I realized my mistake. Everyone was packing up, but I asked them to wait while I went back to search for the tiny bottle of clear plastic among an enormous jumble of grey rocks. I did a grid search and had nearly given up when I saw a semipalmated plover hopping around, and I remembered seeing that bird when I was bathing, and sure enough, that little plover led me to the plastic bottle.
I guess I’m telling you this story because it shows that wherever we go, even with the best intentions, there we are. We leave our traces. We are part of nature, after all, but we come now with a new kind of permanence and impact. It fills me with gratitude and wonder that this wild bird met me on middle ground, with grace.
Janiene Licciardi has been exploring woods and waters since she was seven years old, when she went on her first backcountry canoe trip. A veterinarian by profession, a biologist at heart, she is happiest with one of her favorite accoutrements in hand: a paddle, a backpack, or a hand lens.