Land Where People Belong: Land&People

The American environmental tradition holds some peculiar notions about land and people, which I had never questioned until an unsettling episode jolted me into a new perspective. Since then I have thought a great deal about the hazards of chasing Edens. Through this thinking, I have made my way home from the wilderness and, along the way, have discovered new stories to tell. They are stories of love and joy in an imperfect world. Stories about choice and hope rather than tales of elusive paradise and loss.

My encounter took place several years ago on a perfect autumn day. I had come to the mountains of Virginia for a gathering of leaders in conservation biology, recipients of the prestigious Pew Fellowship who had been honored for their commitment, accomplishment, and promise. I was the invited journalist, assigned the task of helping the fellows, most of whom were scientists, understand media culture and communicate more effectively. The meeting included a day of field trips, and, like most of the fellows, I had signed up for the hike in a nearby national forest.

Our guide for the day, a local botanist, met us at the head of the trail. Because of my interest in plants, I fell into step right behind him as we set out along the bank of a shady stream. The chorus of discontent began as soon as we set foot on the trail. The cars in the parking lot left no doubt that the trail was a popular one; due to its heavy use, the Forest Service had hardened vulnerable sections with paving stones. I hadn't really noticed this bit of trail work–probably because I was looking upward, awed by the soaring hardwoods in this Appalachian forest, which seemed larger and more imposing than similar forests in my native New England. The voices behind me, however, were focused downward. They judged the trail too "developed" and insufficiently "wild."

And so it went. Someone in our group dismissed the forest as merely "second growth" and somehow less worthy of attention. The botanist carried on, stopping now and again to point out things that were interesting or beautiful. Once he paused to admire an expanse of native rosebay rhododendron–massive specimens that poured down a steep hillside and leaned out over the stream to catch dancing splashes of sunlight with their deep green, foot-long leaves. Their grace and lush exuberance were breathtaking. Behind me, I heard someone muttering about too many trees and no vistas. The chorus kept measuring this quiet and lovely Appalachian woodland against some Ansel Adams ideal of pristine wilderness or original nature, only to find it wanting.

The trail climbed steadily upward. Shortly after reaching a plateau, it moved from deep shade into sunshine at a spot where the stream tumbled over steep ledges to form a waterfall and a broad, deep pool. Children were exploring along the edge, splashing in the water and scrambling over the rocks as their parents watched and basked in the autumn sun. The waterfall was a favorite destination for family hikes, and perhaps a dozen families had come on this exceptional day. I can remember hearing the sound of laughter rising for a moment above the constant mumble of the waterfall. Joy seemed to overflow and pour down as easily as the water. I was lost in the scene by the time the chorus caught up and gathered to pass its judgment–an idyllic spot "ruined by too many people." The comment broke the mood like a hammer.

I whirled around. The first thing out of my mouth was, "What's wrong with you guys?" My protest began on a practical note. These kids might be future constituents for environmental efforts. Once I got started, my tirade gathered steam. I demanded to know how these parents and kids enjoying a beautiful afternoon in the woods were "ruining" anything. And what was the alternative? Would it be better if the parents had spent the day with their kids at the mall? The response to my spontaneous indignation was uncomfortable silence. I turned away.

In truth, these questions were a challenge to myself as much as to anyone else. Why hadn't I ever questioned the idea that people are inevitably "intruders" in wild places, threats to the land, enemies of nature? And why meet the world like a disappointed lover? When forced to confront this notion, my protest had been simple and visceral. I did not feel like an intruder. The people celebrating this glorious day belonged in this beautiful place as much as the trees, the rocks, and the water did. No ecologist or environmental philosopher was going to convince me we didn't belong. I knew the truth in my bones. What strange distorting lens made celebration seem like desecration?

With this step I began to discover the truth of an observation by the late Paul Feyerabend, an iconoclastic philosopher of science. "What is found," he noted, "does not exist in itself, but depends on the approach taken." I gradually stopped measuring the life I encountered against the Romantic/ecological ideal of wilderness, and the land where I live my life became something more than "not wilderness." I began to question the dogma of the environmental church. Was nature a place for escape? Was it a church where the best worship required a congregation of one? Was solitude overrated? What notions and assumptions do I carry into the woods along with my daypack? We speak of conservation, preservation, and salvation. Saving it for what and from what?

I don't think I realized how far I had moved beyond the environmental tradition until I decided to reread Walden, a book I know very well and had assigned while teaching. This sacred text of the environmental tradition still impresses me as a literary work. Without question, when Thoreau gets rolling, he is a wicked good writer. And even after a century and a half, his pronouncements as a moral philosopher still sound surprisingly fresh and worthy of quotation. "I have learned that the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot"–wiser words than ever for a world hurtling onward at warp speed. Or how about this observation for lives cluttered by PDAs, cell phones, and other electronic gadgets: "Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to unimproved ends."

But in this latest reading, Thoreau also struck me as often silly, self-absorbed, adolescent, intolerant, and hopelessly male in his perspective. For all the wisdom in Walden, the book contains an equal measure of humbug. His time in the woods was an inward-bound adventure, and I now found that I couldn't even buy into the book's fundamental assumption–that one might best confront the "essential facts of life" by living alone on a pond. Why was this more real and true than the "essential facts of life" encountered in our families and the human community? How could one expect to "suck out all the marrow of life" without deep and enduring human relationships? Other than Thoreau's often quoted assertion that "we need the tonic of wildness" to ensure the health of our villages, I found little to suggest how we live in the world after coming home from Walden.

To be honest, this question had never occurred to me before. Dreams of Walden are about simplicity and escape; they always stop short of the return home.

I find a bracing tonic these days along a stretch of the Charles River near my home just outside Boston, but its ingredients are more complex than Thoreau's prescribed "wildness." In an old industrial zone, a public path now winds along both banks of the river past inviting bowers, launching spots to put in a kayak, and boardwalks that lead to half a dozen viewing decks built out over the water. It is a soothing place filled with birdsong and green peace.

I was a novice environmental journalist when I first encountered this area more than 30 years ago. In those heady times after the first Earth Day, I reported on the landfills, primitive sewage treatment plants, and industries that poured disgusting waste into a befouled river. The Charles in those days was a place to take power, grab private profit, and dump waste cheaply. This business as usual had been going on for centuries. It had never rated as news until new values and an energetic activism emerged to challenge the status quo. I chronicled the efforts of the fledgling Charles River Watershed Association as it battled the Army Corps of Engineers over the best method of flood control–protection of the river's wetlands versus a dam. In a victory of great precedent, the wetlands and the watershed association eventually beat out the dam, giving public recognition to the fact that these extensive wetlands protect and sustain the human community as well as the wild one.

Some years ago on a hot summer evening, I celebrated the ongoing redemption of the river with my first swim in its cool, lazy, tea-colored waters, brewed to this rich hue in their meandering passage through the wetlands upstream. As the river has become once again a place to swim and fish and boat, public action to reclaim the riverbanks from junkyards, used-car lots, warehouses, and old factories gained momentum. The walkway near the Watertown dam, which I have come to love, is a choice the community has made about how to inhabit the land and live with the river.

We have chosen to make this ribbon of land a common ground for life–human and otherwise–and, in the act, the river has become both wilder and more civilized. And so have we. In a society suffocating from too much private property, profit, efficiency, and utility, this path asserts the value of our common wealth–an abundance that embraces black-crowned night herons and young mothers pushing baby carriages. It isn't so much that we have "conserved" or "saved" anything. Those words seem too static. It is rather that we have made common cause with the restless, dynamic, transforming force we call life. The path calls us to beauty, connection, and solidarity rather than to escape and solitude.

If anything, my life as an independent writer has too much solitude. I get itchy to go to the river for encounter, not escape. The river walk, where the scent of swamp azalea and sweet fern waft in the air on a summer day, is a crossroads of connection where I can renew the ties of solidarity and share the fullness of life. Now that I have come home from the wilderness, I don't find ruin in the presence of people. Like Chinese nature painters, I am convinced that a human figure can complete the landscape. The sight of an old couple holding hands and watching a sunset over the river increases its beauty. Kids dancing on the riverbank at the sight of a sunning turtle only multiply the joy. I love the physical grace of the young Latin immigrants diving and leaping on the soccer field along the path as much as that of the tree swallows feeding over the river. I don't even mind catching a glimpse of used cars and asphalt beyond the pines planted for a screen. The contrast between the path and the parking lot is a testimony to change and choice. It is a hope that draws us onward to the future.

Dianne Dumanoski, an advisor to TPL's Center for Land and People, has been reporting on environmental issues since Earth Day 1970. She is co-author of Our Stolen Future, which describes the impact of the proliferation of manmade chemicals on humans and animals.