Reclaiming our place in nature

I spent this spring break enjoying the natural beauty of Oregon’s national forests. From sojourns through old growth temperate rain forests of cedar, alder and hemlock on the coast to the majestic woods of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine in the the Cascade Range. I picked oyster mushrooms and fiddleheads (immature ferns) to supplement my meals, and spent hours on end identifying all the plants I could with my handy “Plants of the Northwest” I.D. book.

I tested my limits with long hikes and rejoiced in the romanticism of “roughing it.” In short, I found respite from the winter term’s grueling hours of class and homework in the wilderness, and came back to civilization rejuvenated.

In Oregon, the perception of the wilderness as a place of escape is widespread. Outdoor recreation could be said to be our state’s primary pastime, and is hailed as therapeutic and restorative. But in the last week the ethical ramifications of recreation and even of “wilderness” have been brought to my attention, and I can’t help but ask myself, what have others had to sacrifice for me to be able to enjoy such a privilege, and what does this mentality of “escape” implicate?

First, we have to talk about the formation of national forests in Oregon, and the people who lived in them before they were settled by European descendents. There were at least 24 different tribes in Oregon that subsisted on resources found throughout the territory. Today, there are nine federally recognized tribes with reservation land totalling around 1,318.6 square miles in Oregon according to Wikipedia estimations. That is roughly 1.34 percent of the state’s landmass, all of which used to be occupied by those indigenous peoples.

National forests, which supplied Native Americans with resources for thousands of years, were appropriated for the needs of the U.S. and its citizens’ privilege of recreation. Now, while so many Native Americans in Oregon live below the poverty line, I can enjoy hiking, camping, hunting and other activities in these pristine forests that once made those First Nations citizens wealthy while, according to a Pew Research survey, more than one in four indigenous Americans are living in poverty.

The modern connotation of wilderness is not an ancient one, but rather originated in the 19th century in the midst of romanticism and transcendentalism. It was a direct response to the pollution and environmental degradation in cities and suburbs caused by the Industrial Revolution, and inverted previous western values to place the spiritual and ethical value in the preservation of “wilderness.” Highly regarded naturalist authors of the time such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau glorified the natural world and helped to propel this paradigm onto the world stage.

This idealization of the natural functions as an escape from the degradation of the environment that Westerners partake in everyday when living within the bounds of civilization. The perpetuation of the duality between man and nature, and the idea that wherever man settles, the natural world is degraded, is an insidious concept.

As William Cronon says in his essay The Trouble with Wilderness, “people should always be conscious that they are part of the natural world, inextricably tied to the ecological systems that sustain their lives.” With every new technology that is invented, the conceptual chasm between man and the natural is widened and this consciousness of our place in the biotic web is becoming more remote.

In writing this article, I am not suggesting that recreation in Oregon’s wild places is inherently bad. If anything I am writing it to encourage my readers to spend more time outside. But I believe to fully appreciate that time and to truly be an advocate for the environment, we must consider the history of these places, and our role as stewards, not only for the most beautiful woods but for all of life.