“I am an old woman now. The buffalo and black tail deer are gone, and our Indian ways are almost gone. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I ever lived them. We no longer live in an earth lodge or teepee, but in a house with chimneys; and my son’s wife cooks by a stove. Often I rise at daybreak and steal out to the cornfields. As I hoe the corn I sing to it as I did when I was young. No one cares for our corn song now. Sometimes at evening I sit, looking out over the river. The sun sets, and dusk steals over the water. In the shadows, I seem again to see our Indian village, with smoke curling upward from the lodges. But it is an old woman’s dream. Our Indian way of life, I know, is gone forever.” —Buffalo Bird Woman, Hidatsa (taken from a National Forest plaque at the Medicine Wheel)
You may have heard the word “yoga” before. “Meditation,” too. Maybe “chakra” even, if you’ve participated in any of the two aforementioned words. In the past ten years or so, Westerners have become enthralled with connecting more intimately with their bodies and the world around them. They do this by tapping into Eastern practices, which have been around for at least 5,000 years, maybe since the dawn of civilization.
To neatly summarize: We, white people, took something that’s been around for approximately forever and used it to enrich our lives.
Not many cultures and/or religions have experienced this contemporary renaissance quite like Hinduism and Buddhism have.
Take, for example, Native American practices.
Placed 9,642 feet high on a flattened mountain top in the Bighorn Range is the Medicine Wheel. It’s 80 feet in diameter with 28 spokes, and specific cairns for astrological alignment. It was constructed 300-800 years ago and is still used today by over 80 native tribes.
The sky was an expressive gray when my sister and I visited, threatening rain in a far off, jeering sort of way, as if it knew we had left our rain jackets in the car and wanted to test our resolute. There were two other groups visiting, but we heard nothing but the wind and the quiet small talk of two Forest Service employees nearby. Mountains rippled into the distance, mirroring the bumps on our skin.
Standing in the stark and barren landscape, I too felt bare. As if the sky knew what I kept hidden in my bones. As if this mountain top was a platter and I was offering myself up to be judged, to be held, to stand at the mercy of the Earth in all my human smallness.
Such are the effects of the sacred.
I’ve experience parallel feelings in cathedrals and temples, and although none of these religions are mine, you don’t have to be part of something to appreciate it. Divinity can be experienced even if you don’t believe in the divine. All it requires is an open, wanting heart and a taste for wonder.
Beneath the watching sky, I thought about how the Native tribes know something we don’t. They lived in America for 12,000 years, a nearly unfathomable period of time, and then in just over 150 years, we took it all away from them. We gave them Jesus, and European names, and the promise of safety and fairness, and told them that what we were doing was a gift, that this was the best and only way to live life.
I don’t need to tell you how that worked out.
In recent years, we’ve turned back to the earth with a blistering ferocity. Organic farming, CSA programs, vanlife, and yes, meditation and yoga. We seek the simplicity of lifestyles that we gutted and dressed in our own cotton dresses, calling it “civilized” because we didn’t understand beauty other than our own.
It seems that the Native Americans knew what they were doing all those 12,000 years.
I don’t think we should adopt Native American traditions or commercialize them the way we have for Hinduism or Buddhism—we’ve taken too much already—but I think we have a lot to learn from them.
Imagine learning without taking, without wanting a piece for ourselves. To leave an idea, a culture, intact with all its swirling nuances. Imagine if we realized that not everything was meant for us but it’s worthwhile anyway.
Maybe things would be different if we had listened more.
I never wanted to live in Pennsylvania. The cities weren’t big enough and the land wasn’t wild enough. To me, Pennsylvania was the Liberty Bell on one end and the Steelers’ stadium on the other, with the strange groundhog that rivets the nation for one lone day in February somewhere in between. Everything about it felt unremarkable in scope, which is saying something since I hail from Suburbia, NY.
But I did call it home for five and a half years. And when you call a place home, a strange thing happens: the place begins to unfold. A bakery here. A quiet park bench there. Things you took for granted and overlooked suddenly glow. The place needed you to love it first and then, only then, would it show you all it had to offer.
The Great Outdoors probably isn’t the first thing you think of when you think of Pennsylvania, but I always had great access to parks when I lived there. I never lived more than a mile from a public green space, under seven miles to the closest park bigger than 400 acres. Pennsylvania taught me the importance of accessible green spaces. Yes, we need National Parks, but we need smaller, local parks too, parks people can visit on their way home from work or early on a Saturday morning with their kids.
When I started this blog, I wanted to focus primarily on the National Parks and Monuments since those were some of the most visibly at risk. But so much of the important ground work happens at the local level. We don’t need geysers and moose to appreciate and experience nature, although, hey, I’ll take a good geyser and moose sighting any day. So much happens right outside your window, down the block, in the square you pass every single day. Pennsylvania opened my eyes to all that, and it’s something I want to continue to explore in this blog.
For now, the road and my 2012 Ford Escape with hit-or-miss AC are home. Farewell, Pennsylvania. Thanks for everything. It was a lovely five and a half years.
“We’ve been opposed to the PennEast Pipeline that’s bringing natural gas through here, but the problem is it’s almost impossible to fight. It’s an interstate pipeline and interstate pipelines are approved by a federal agency called the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It was set up in 2005 by a bunch of secret meetings that Dick Cheney ran at which only energy executives were at, no environmentalists. And they got Congress to pass this thing, FERC as it’s called, and it’s never turned down a pipeline. So it’s very hard to fight.” —Don Miles, Executive Committee member, Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club
If you’re involved in the outdoors in any capacity, you’ve heard of the Sierra Club before. Headquartered in Oakland, California, and founded in 1892 by environmentalist and outdoorsman John Muir, the organization boasts three million supporters, making them the undisputed king of grassroots environmentalism.
I met with Executive Committee member of the Pennsylvania Chapter Don Miles after a screening of “From the Ashes,” a documentary about America’s coal industry. The film screening was busy, but not packed, and at 24, I was on the younger side of attendees.
The attendee demographic wasn’t surprising. I see far more of my peers at events like the Banff Mountain Film Festival tour than I do at environmentalism events. Who wants to hear about how U.S. coal plants are responsible for more than half of human-caused mercury emissions when you could watch Angel Collinson ski unbelievable lines in Alaska? Adventure trumps activism. Or so it seems.
So who is strapping on their Tevas and taking up the environmental banner (a sustainably produced banner, of course)?
Well, not the people who showed up to the public hearing on wind turbines in the Lehigh Valley region that Don attended.
“[There were] 300 people there. All screaming and yelling, and all full of misinformation,” said Don. One man stood up and expressed concern about the danger turbines posed to deer, bear, and mountain lions. Don informed him that the eastern cougar (mountain lion) has been extinct for nearly 70 years, the last one formally registered as killed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission in 1874. “There’s a certain sort of person who knows what they know and doesn’t want to hear any facts. And you can’t argue with them,” he told me.
When people do show up to public forums, Don pointed out that they’re not usually supporters: “My experience in practicing law for 40 years is the vast majority of people who show up to meetings are against what’s going on, not in favor of it. If people are in favor of something, they just think it’s going to happen. It’s the people that are against something that turn up.”
I’ve never been to a public forum before. Prior to 2017, I’d never called or emailed a government representative. But apathy is a luxury I can no longer afford. The cost of inaction is too high.
There are different degrees of activism, and any type of participation is helpful. But how do we motivate people to go from hashtags to public forums? How do we cultivate passion for things we so often take for granted? How do we make films about coal just as enticing, just as attention-grabbing as films about skiing?
I don’t have many answers. But this blog, for me, is a start.
“We hope the community sees us as a resource. . . .We’re not here to tell people, ‘Don’t do that.’ We’re not pointing our finger and saying, ‘You can’t do that with your land.’ We’re helping people who want to protect what they have, who have this beautiful land and they want to say that it’ll still be a farm, it’ll still be a forest, whoever owns it. So we really help people meet their goals for their land, which benefits us all.” —Bethany Keene, Outreach & Development Team Lead
“I often get emails and phone calls saying, ‘I have this on my property, and I don’t know what to do about it.’ The latest one was about bees. ‘I’ve got all these bees, and I don’t know what to do with them.’ And while we didn’t know what to do in staff, we knew where to point them. If they don’t know what to do, they know we can send them to someone who can help.” —Jason Zarnowski, Outreach and GIS Coordinator
If Pennsylvania does one thing well, it’s waterways. From the Delaware River in the east to the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela in the west, what Pennsylvania lacks in mountains it makes up for in rivers and waterfalls galore (fun fact: Ricketts Glen State Park has 22 waterfalls alone).
Water was a running theme (see what I did there?) in my talk with Bethany Keene and Jason Zarnowski from the Delaware Highlands Conservancy. They have a variety of community programs—everything from teaching women landowners on how to best steward their land, to running eagle viewing sites in the winter—but one of their primary focuses is land protection, which, in turn, protects water quality.
“Whatever you do to the land, you do to the water,” said Bethany. “So if you want to have clean drinking water, it’s based on what you’re doing on your land. If you’re dropping fertilizer, if you’re mowing right up to the edge of a lake or stream, everything you do on your land affects the water. And that’s why we work so hard to protect the farms and forests here because that’s really what’s helping to keep the water clean.”
Two numbers from our conversation really stuck with me: seven and 15 million. Seven is the number of Conservancy employees, and 15 million is the number of people who rely on clean water from the Upper Delaware River region, which is the area the Conservancy works within.
Seven people helping to preserve water quality for 15 million people.
Of course, the Conservancy is not alone. There are other organizations and agencies helping to regulate water quality, but we, the consumers, trust a very small body of people to control something as essential as water. Like so many other things, a luxury of living in a first-world country is that water quality is something we don’t think about until something goes wrong. We assume it’s a given.
Which is why education is such an important part of the Conservancy’s mission: If we learn how our actions affect our water sources, if we all contribute in big and small ways to conserve and protect, then the ripple effect lessens and the ratio increases. It’s not just seven people safeguarding drinking water, it’s 100, 10,000, 10 million.
Want to take the first step in protecting local water sources? Bethany and Jason directed me to Clear Choices Clean Water, where you can learn easy ways to conserve water and take a pledge to make a difference. Check it out!
It can be difficult to love rock. Bioerosion, glauconite, miogeosyncline, they aren’t words that inspire. Even cleavage becomes a sigh when it’s all slate and dust.
But build it a backbone, give it a story, and that piece of sandstone that remembers the weight of dinosaurs 150 million years ago—as well as Jenny + Sean 4eva from 2014—suddenly has meaning. We care about it. We’ll protect it.
You’re a part of the story, too.
At some point, known or unknown, you gave a piece of yourself to the wilderness and never asked for it back. While walking through the woods, an elm branch brushed your arm and suddenly a piece of you went missing. You were watching the sun set on your friend’s rooftop, a beer in one hand and your uncertain future in the other, and a part of you flew away and painted itself into the sky. Once, when you stepped into a ray of sunlight, you felt lighter than you did just moments ago.
Empathy is easiest through a window. Backyards, sidewalks, neighborhood pines. It’s easier to care when we see it, when it’s our own lawns turning brown and brittle in the summer drought. We take care of us and our own. The mountains will be there when we want them, when we have time for them.
Like everything, rock changes, too. Foundations crumble, canyon walls erode, entire tectonic plates shift. They symbolize what many think of nature as—everlasting and enduring, changing slowly and naturally over the course of time. But that isn’t true. Not always. Not anymore. Nature lasts because we think it’s valuable and because we’re willing to fight for it. It survives because we protect it.
In 2017, change in the outdoors seems quicker than ever. There are no guarantees on what will survive the year. It’s happening across America. You can’t see it all from your window.
This blog is a place to give a voice to the American wilderness and the people who support it. As journalist Katherine Boo wrote:
“I don’t try to fool myself that the stories of individuals are themselves arguments. I just believe that better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about ordinary lives.”
This is our land, and these are its stories.