As I Am/As We Are

Image: Adam Geffen

Tomorrow I begin a new job at a conservation non-profit, an opportunity to blend my interest in and love of the natural world with my career in non-profit communications. In preparation, I read for the first time Aldo Leopold’s 1949 classic, A Sand County Almanac. (It’s a wonder that I hadn’t picked it up before.) Leopold, who worked for the forest service before becoming a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, proposes a land ethic that recognizes man as part of a larger ecological community, rather than as master for whom nature is valued only in economic terms.

It’s fascinating to read Leopold’s mid-century take on the successes and challenges of the National Parks, particularly regarding wilderness. In the late 1940s, the vast Alaskan parks did not yet exist, wolves were only just crossing to Isle Royale and had been exterminated from Yellowstone, and naturally-occurring wildfires were still suppressed as a matter of policy. Since his time, of course, wolves have been reintroduced to Yellowstone, and throughout the system a greater understanding has developed of how the parks interact with their larger regional ecosystems, natural phenomena, and conservation best practices.

However, the use of the parks, which Leopold both touches on explicitly and also references in a greater discussion of the public’s experience of nature and wilderness, has only increased over the six decades since the book was published. Thus, I can’t read A Sand County Almanac without thinking about the effects, however seemingly small, my visiting the parks may have on them. When Leopold refers to wilderness tourists, I’m aware that he’s talking about me. Even before reading Leopold, I had found myself becoming much more alert to coverage of the National Parks in the media. As I’ve learned about each of the parks I’ve visited, I’ve become more tuned in to the issues surrounding that park. Consequently, I’ve begun to think more actively about the ways in which I will experience the National Parks over the course of this project. Not just how they are to me, but how I am to them.

The approach of summer, no less than the photo on my computer’s desktop, makes me long for Isle Royale. I’ve joked since last August that it will be hard to journey to all the parks when my heart’s desire is to return to Isle Royale. Right now. My longing to return to the island is a product of how I experienced it, at leisure in the backcountry. The other two parks Sean and I have visited in the past year were seen via auto tour and short hikes. It is an experience of the parks that is in its own way classic, certainly Stephen Mather, the Park Service’s first great director, marketer, and publicist would have approved. But for all the weird beauty of Joshua Tree and spectacular grandeur of Olympic, a survey of their offerings is perhaps something less than the intimate knowledge of a small portion of the wilderness of Isle Royale.

And so the close of my first year of actively traveling to the parks, along with a moment of personal and professional transition, has allowed me to do some active thinking about how to proceed with the project. For instance, the week and a half of free time between leaving my old position and starting my new one would have seemed the perfect time to get in another park. For a while it seemed unimaginable that we wouldn’t have awakened this Sunday morning in a tent. We considered Mammoth Cave and Cuyahoga Valley. My heart longed for Theodore Roosevelt. But in the end we decided to stay home in Chicago, both because of Sean’s professional obligations, and also because we want to plan less circumstantially and more proactively for the next group of parks.

Certainly we will continue to make side trips to parks during other travel, but we want to contemplate the range of ways to visit the parks: day trips, weeks-long adventures, long weekends, and also the people with whom we will see them. Despite Leopold, at some parks it feels appropriate to stay in the grand lodges of the early golden age of “rustic” National Park tourism. At others, tents are the only option. I hope that sometime in 2013 I will be able to wrangle together a big extended family trip to Yellowstone because there’s something appropriate about seeing Old Faithful with a generational throng. But I would only want to experience a park like, say, Great Basin with a tiny cohort of adventurous friends who love to hike.

To that end, I intend to begin reaching out to friends who have explicitly said that they would love to accompany Sean and me to a National Park, in order to begin some long-term planning about how and with whom to attack this project. The people who journey with us will also color our experiences of the various parks, which is as it should be.

As I continue to read and think about the parks, I’m excited and curious to see how my new position will shape my thinking about the parks, wilderness, and the natural world.

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