Sunday, August 3, 2008

On the consumption of wilderness

Last year in my seminar course for fourth-year environmental studies students, a colleague from the Anthropology department at uOttawa gave a wonderful guest lecture on "the meaning of wilderness". He began with a reading from William Cronon's The Trouble With Wilderness (my 2nd-favourite piece of writing by Cronon, the first being  his 1984 book Changes in the Land) and went on to discuss a variety of ways in which "wilderness" has been represented in fiction and non-fiction over time. In a nutshell, the view western society takes of wild places has changed 180 degrees over time. Compare the portrayal of wild places in Grimm's fairy tales (where they are populated by wicked wolves and child-eating witches) to how the wild is represented in Group of Seven paintings, Ansel Adams photographs, the LL Bean catalogue and motion pictures like A River Runs Through It

In present-day North America, some wild places (i.e. places where there is little visible evidence of human activity) have been elevated to the status of secular temples. Even if we have never visited them, we know the names of such places, and can readily conjure up mental images of what they must be like: Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Algonquin Park, Banff, Yellowstone. Of course these places have become such popular destinations for summer tourists, it's often hard to see the trees for the forest of RVs, and the last place you will find enough solitude to commune with nature will be on the more accessible footpaths, hiking trails or canoe routes. It's often the same thing at our lesser known parks and conservation areas in the summer: crowds of people trying to spend a little time in the Great Outdoors, even if that translates to little more than having a few beers around a campfire or swimming in a lake instead of a chlorinated pool.

I do not begrudge the fact that many of our most famous wild places can be especially crowded with tourists. The fact that the trailhead parking lot at Mount Washington overflows on a July Saturday (as it was last weekend) is, to me, a good thing. The fact that the trailhead parking lot is smaller than the lot at any strip mall is a bad thing. Traffic jams at the entrance to national, state and provincial parks are beautiful things that I wish would happen more often than just summer long weekends. I do not have much time for those who moan about how the most beautiful wild places are becoming overrun and therefore spoiled by large numbers of visitors. You know the type of person I am talking about - every stitch of their clothing is Mountain Hardwear or North Face, and they can't simply hike the slopes of Mount Rainier, but have to summit it at the fastest pace possible.

Yes, large numbers of tourists are invariably accompanied by litter, tailpipe emissions, noise pollution, soil erosion, etc, etc., things that make city-life disagreeable and which seem particularly out of place in the company of mountains, rivers and forests. However, I would like to think that out of every busload of package tourists who set eyes on the Columbia Icefields for the first time, there will be among them a few who will have an epiphany - an epiphany that will make them rethink their lifestyle and patterns of consumption when they return home.

For in the end, the greatest threats to our wild places are not the stray candy-bar wrappers and stray walkers who leave the trail and damage the wildflowers. The greatest threats come from our unbelievably greedy levels of frivolous consumption, our unrestrained use of fossil fuels, and the incessantly growing mountains of plastic refuse our society produces. These behaviours drive the clearance of forests around the world, create massive dead-zones in the oceans and modify atmospheric chemistry. I would gladly choose more litter at the base of the trees in Redwood National Forest if it meant a little less carbon dioxide and methane in the air at their crowns.

Finally, anyone who has visited a popular park in the off-season knows that the wild is always there. The deer retreat a little farther back into the woods on a July long weekend, but in mid-September they will be back browsing the shoulders of park roads. You can't hear the birds for the voices and radios on May 24 weekend, but you can't miss them on Thanksgiving weekend. We do far less harm to the wild going for a walk in the woods on a summer weekend than we do sitting in our homes with the A/C cranked and the TV bleating in the background. 

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