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Thoughts From the Road

As you have by now learned, I am this week’s featured writer and I am excited to share with you all a bit about where my passion for the environment comes from. I wrote this piece last October for a different blog I created with two friends while on a three month road trip around the United States. This was my attempt to capture my thoughts and feelings after about a month of camping, hiking and self reflection. If this portrays even a portion of the emotions I was experiencing at the time, then I’d consider it a job well done. I hope that through this, I can let you all into my world and show you what drove me and continues to inspire me to help ClimateRoots reach the height of its potential. All that follows is my largely unedited and almost entirely copy and pasted piece from last Autumn.

“In his well known publication Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote "I went to the woods ... to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." My environmental experience has been the opposite. I learned about these so-called woods in the classroom, before going out to truly discover what all the fuss was about. Whether you think Thoreau was a genius, a fraud or an elitist (or all three), you have to admit he was an awe inspiring writer and champion for the early environmental movement. However, what I had not totally grasped from the works of Thoreau, Muir, Abbey or Leopold until recently was 'why bother?' Why bother to write about all this, why bother to put yourself out there, why bother to share with the world? Well, sometimes, there's just no other way to express your thoughts, feelings or experiences than to write.

While being able to enjoy the great outdoors is hard to beat no matter where you are, our stop in Wyoming at Bighorn Canyon was the first place that truly garnered my emotional attention. As my friends Toad and the Lt.* strode back to the car, I stayed behind, engulfed in the awe that accompanied standing on the rim of the massive canyon. Hundreds of feet below the sheer drop meandered the seemingly lazy Bighorn River. You could practically see the years it took the river to carve the canyon plastered on the vertical walls that loomed as far as you could see in any direction. The sight was truly breathtaking. So here I stood, utterly insignificant in juxtaposition to the incredible forces of nature at work all around me, wondering how such a peaceful, slow moving river could contain the power to gouge a canyon of such proportion into the Earth.

The answer (or answers, rather) lay several miles upriver and several miles downriver. On both sides of the canyon there is a dam that holds back the power of the river, impeding its steady progress towards the ocean and turning the once mighty river into a peaceful lake. So the conclusion to my question is that, simply put, this peaceful, slow moving river doesn't contain the power to continue carving out the canyon. In the span of a few months, humanity took control of the Bighorn River. For me, it is almost incomprehensible that after thousands of years at work, the Bighorn River will never again continue to paint the Wyoming landscape with the awesome canyon. That for the rest of our time on Earth, the Bighorn Canyon will cease to grow any grander simply because we decided it should be so. The scene had me thinking of the documentary Damnation and the book Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. I highly recommend both to anybody interested in these concepts.

I did not have to wait very long for the second time on our trip that I was rendered speechless and contemplative by the landscape around us. It was later that day and we were towards the end of a driving tour around Yellowstone National Park. As we came up on one of the many grassland plains that are scattered throughout the park, we noticed a host of cars pulled off to the side; a sign we had come to know meant that there was wildlife afoot. As the rolling hills made way before us, we were met with the incredible sight of wild buffalo grazing in the field, under the watchful eye of the mountains in the background. Never before had I come across so many wild animals and I was quick to imagine that this was the picture of wilderness I had so often read about in class. However, it is impossible to see a sight like this without reminding oneself of the fact that these animals were all but wiped to extinction in the late 1800's as American pioneers moved westward. An estimated 500,000 buffalo are in the wild today, up from the several hundred that remained at the end of the slaughtering. Even this number pales in comparison to the tens of millions that used to roam these plains. What, then, would this scene at Yellowstone have looked like 200 years ago?

The picture becomes even more grim when you discover the reasons for bringing the peaceful animals to the brink of extinction. Chief among them is the fact that Native Americans relied on wild buffalo as a source of food, clothing and tools. So, it went to reason that with the buffalo gone, the Native Americans would also begin to disappear. Two genocides for the price of one was obviously too tempting for us Americans to pass up. While this sight will continue to imprint itself in my head as the defining image of wilderness, I'm sure that only those who had the luck to witness this scene a couple centuries ago truly understand what it was like to walk among these herds.

As we continued our journey westward, we were constantly hearing about the fires devastating the West Coast from family, friends and various news sources. Coming from the East Coast, we have had minimal dealings with Smokey the Bear but as the smoke rolled in and blocked all but the jagged outline of the Teton Range it became obvious that this was a serious issue. The smoke followed us as we travelled North to Missoula and eventually to Glacier before a light rain storm allowed us to see the blue skies once again. During the thick of it, even back home in Massachusetts, there was evidence of the fires via the smoke that carried on the Jet Stream. That's thousands of miles; truly insane how far the smoke travelled.** There was also plenty of evidence of past fires throughout all our park visits and forest drives. I can't recall a single hike where there weren't burnt tree remains. The truly sad part, however, is how long it takes these ecosystems to recover. One fire patch in Yellowstone from 1980 is just now starting to grow saplings that are about six feet tall. That fire was forty years ago and the forest still has a long way to go to recover.

Even the Mountain Goats weren’t happy about the smoke that accompanied us on our backpacking trip in Glacier National Park.

Forest fires are a natural part of these ecosystems, and can even be healthy for a forest in some aspects. In fact, Native Americans used controlled burns all the time to encourage new plant growth and reduce wildfire risk. As was the trend, when us westerners arrived we assumed we knew better and abandoned the practice. Knowing that there is a solution that could greatly reduce the risk of wildfires that has gone largely ignored has left me frustrated, especially when I see Smokey pointing his finger at me and claiming that only I can prevent forest fires. While it is often the case that the spark for a fire is from an ignorant camper (or gender reveal, apparently), there are many that ignite from sources outside an individual's control, such as lightning or power lines. So, I have begun to ask, who can prevent forest fires if not me? I'm inclined to say those who write the rules and manage our forests. The fires this year are also being fueled by an ever warming and drying climate. While individual action is important in this fight, it is once again those who hold power who can see to achieving large amounts of positive change. So, I'll ask the question again and hopefully the answer is clear; who can really prevent forest fires?

The last place I want to write about for the moment was during our backpacking trip in Glacier National Park. As Toad and Lt. Suckdown set themselves to an enjoyable afternoon hiking pace, I forged ahead to the campsite to quickly deposit my pack. From here I trekked up, and up, and up to Sperry Glacier. This out and back detour about doubled the mileage of hiking for the day, but I was confident my efforts would be rewarded. As I ascended switchback after switchback and walked along trails carved out of sheer cliffs, the beauty of the place encompassed me. There were about a dozen waterfalls all connecting the alpine ponds that resembled a staircase set above each new cliff I hiked over. Just when I was reaching the top of the last cliff, I could no longer see how in the world I was supposed to get over it, when a staircase carved through the cliff appeared around a corner. Quickly taking the uneven stairs, I emerged onto a glacial wonderland. I wasted no time exploring the glacier, filling up my camelback straight from the melting snow and climbing towards the top. Utterly alone at the top, I was once again filled with the insane size and power of nature and how my presence there was such a small thing.

While this experience was one of the coolest of my life, there was an overhanging sense of melancholy to the whole thing. While Sperry Glacier is still quite the sight, it was obvious to me how much larger it once was. The rate at which the glaciers in the park are shrinking is quite alarming. Only 26 of the park's glaciers are still categorized as active glaciers, while dozens of others that existed at the founding of the park have been reduced to little more than seasonal snow fields. While the cause of the retreating glaciers is Climate Change, standing amongst them reminded me just how permanent the change is. It is too late now to save the glaciers in the park, regardless of the action humanity takes in the next decade. So as I stood and walked around in this landscape, I was literally watching and experiencing Sperry Glacier on its deathbed. What will happen to the vegetation that relies on the meltwater as its only source of water once the glacier has disappeared? Despite all of nature's power and resilience, it can be reduced to a fragile existence when neglected, never to return to the way we found it.

I know this is a longer post, so if you're still reading I hope that you either found it interesting or that you were super bored with nothing else to do. I don't write these thoughts to add my voice to those complaining about the state of the world. While all is not perfect, it never has been. Not all dams are bad, many offer a great alternative to fossil fuels; forest fires are, at their surface level, natural, and these forests will recover in their own time; buffalo populations have now been stable or increasing for a long time and there are still plenty of other glaciers elsewhere in the world that we do have time to save. So, rather than writing this from a sense of doom, I've found myself gathering hope, resolve and, above all else, appreciation as I've been writing. We are among the last generations that can appreciate the nature of old that inspired so many and that is a truly, truly incredible thing. I have hope that the situation we find ourselves in today will be ameliorated and I have the resolve that I will be a part of this solution, no matter what role I play.”

* Trail names for my trip companions.

** I wrote this last year, the smoke in MA is actually much much worse this year. More about that in our headline section!

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