by Becca Nelson '20
When I was a kid, I used to watch the scraggly trees along the highway rush by through the car window. I would try to imagine what was there hundreds of years ago. I dreamed that a vast forest blanketed where the subdivisions and strip malls now sprawled. A wilderness of thick, gnarled trees, seemingly devoid of people. Growing up, I used to think wilderness and people were separate. Wilderness was the moon-swept forests in Ansel Adams’s photographs, not the Chicago suburbs I called home. This conception of wilderness is perpetuated by the Wilderness Act of 1964, which played a crucial role in protecting areas of biodiversity throughout the United States. The act defined wilderness as a place “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. This definition overlooks the fact that diverse Native American cultures historically lived in these wilderness areas for hundreds of years before being driven off their land by American settlers.
I first realized the extent to which Native Americans historically shaped the landscape, the summer I interned in the Morton Arboretum's Forest Ecology Lab. I was investigating whether thinning the canopy by selectively removing trees was an effective way to regenerate oak seedlings. Oaks play a crucial role in maintaining forest biodiversity. They provide food and shelter for deer, migratory bird species, squirrels, and other animals. Oaks also provide important ecosystem services to people by sequestering carbon. Native Americans maintained the historical dominance of oak species by regularly burning large patches of forests. The oak seedlings are better able to resprout after fire than other tree species. Fire suppression post-European settlement contributed to the decline of oaks.
The goal of oak regeneration research was to restore the forest to a healthier, more natural state, yet these oak forests were originally maintained by people. The relationship between Native Americans and oak forests suggests that people and nature are intertwined with humans playing an integral role in the health of the ecosystems, we call wilderness. In Savage Dreams, writer and activist Rebecca Solnit describes a similar relationship in Yosemite National Park. The Miwok and Awahneechee peoples regularly burned portions of Yosemite and used horticultural practices to maintain a biodiverse mix of meadows, oak forests, and conifers in Yosemite valley. They relied on a variety of plants for food, shelter, and cultural reasons.
The vast expanses of incense cedars that currently fill Yosemite Valley resulted from European fire suppression practices. Hiking through Yosemite, the towering incense cedars gave me the deceptive impression of having stood for thousands of years without human influence. I walked past the sheer cliffs and roaring waterfalls. Ravens soared overhead, and the air tasted sweet with pine. As the steep granite switchbacks obscured other hikers from view, I couldn’t help but imagine Yosemite as remote and beyond human influence. This was an illusion, a mirage as shimmery as the foam from the waterfalls I passed by. Campgrounds, roads, trails, educational signs, streams full of nonnative trout, exoitc grasses, prescribed burns to regenerate oaks and sequoias, and efforts to reintroduce Bighorn sheep to Yosemite tell of an evolving relationship between people and land.
Asserting that wilderness is distant and separate from our daily lives comes at cost. We forget the importance of taking care of the land we live on. We forget how we are a part of the ecosystem, intertwined to the physical landscape and other organisms through complex relationships. Randolph Haluza-Delay, an environmental education researcher, conducted a study in which he took teenagers on a wilderness trip to investigate how the trip influenced their willingness to care for nature in their urban home. The teenagers enjoyed camping in the mountains of Banff National Park. They woke each morning to fresh cedar air and birdsong. At night, they watched the sky fill with stars instead of city lights. The experience gave them a sense of freedom and relaxation. The twelve day backpacking experience, however, did not inspire the teenagers to take environmental action at home, largely because they viewed the nature they experienced on the trip as being entirely separate from their home environment.
Conceptualizing wilderness as somewhere remote from our society disconnects people from engaging in conservation action. The Trump administration’s policy platform threatens the continued existence of diverse National Monuments that support a rich variety of ecosystems. Connecting people to wilderness is crucial to establishing continued support for these monuments and other wild places. Wilderness is not a place “untrammeled” by people. Wilderness is a home, a refuge, a place where land and people intersect. A place of exploration and inspiration.
Haluza-Delay, Randolph. "Nothing here to care about: Participant constructions of nature following a 12-day wilderness program." The Journal of Environmental Education 32.4 (2001): 43-48.
Solnit, Rebecca. Savage dreams: A journey into the hidden wars of the American West. Univ of California Press, 2014.
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This is a forum for students to share their writing on intersectional environmental topics, curated by Students for a Sustainable Stanford. Writers of all backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives are welcome.