Footprints on the Trail

I used to go into the woods and imagine that I was the first to walk on a piece of ground and my footprints were the first to leave their mark. I was drawn to the idea of pristine wilderness.

My imagination was romanced by the possibility that I was the first human to walk or paddle a place. I would see footprints from a past hiker and feel somehow disappointed or cheated and even less satisfied by my experience.

I now find a sense of comfort in old footprints on the trail and am captivated by the stories they contain.

There is certainly something unmistakably idealistic in the thought that we might be walking a piece of ground for the first time, the first to see a landscape from a particular perspective, experiencing it in a state not yet muddled by human interactions.

Rethinking Ideals

Many of us grow up longing for wilderness, our imaginations fueled by visions of what goes on in a truly wild place untouched by humans and the chance to experience that first hand.

The reality is that we live in a world of altered landscapes. There are few places on the planet unaffected by human beings. Those that are left are rapidly and irreversibly disappearing. Of course, this version of the world is somewhat less romantically ideal.

I think we miss something just as wonderful and perhaps even more powerful when we are singularly focused on finding some idealistic pristine wilderness. What we miss is an opportunity to connect with both people and landscapes.

In recent years I have found a sense of affection for other people’s footprints on a trail. Instead of feeling protective over my own experience in a place, I now find a sense of calm in the feeling of camaraderie with someone who has been in a place before me and the opportunity to walk in their footprints.

Concepts of Nature

Part of the reason for my shifting perspective about what it means to encounter evidence of other people on the landscape might have something to do with my own cultural concept of nature.

Ideas of nature vary across cultures. The idea of a pristine wilderness untouched by humans is rooted in a particular cultural understanding of the world. There is a lively debate and set of literature around the distinction between nature and culture.

There’s an important distinction to make here. Of course, this is not to deny the existence of wild things in nature. A pronghorn is a wild animal that has evolved over millions of years. The critical relationship between bears and salmon and their role in transferring nutrients throughout entire ecosystems is nothing short of ancient, natural, and wild.

Rather, focusing on the relationship between culture and nature examines how we understand the place and role of humans in these wild places. Are humans separate from nature, each existing as one end of a spectrum between wild and civilized?

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Or, are humans a part of nature, inextricably intertwined in its processes, history, and evolution as one cultural-ecological system?


“You can only hunt so long before you start getting curious about the ways of hunters before you.”

– Steven Rinella

It is important to realize that cultures do not all share one uniform concept of nature. Cultures all over the world consider humans and nature as intimately connected. The proposition that humans can be separated from nature would seem incompatible with the worldview of many cultures. Yet, in North America, our modern conservation movement is built on precisely this nature-culture construct.

Pristine Nature

There are some deeply ingrained cultural reasons many of us find ourselves drawn to a search for untouched and wild nature.

The definition of wilderness embraced by the conservation movement that took root in the late 19th century saw nature as something to be protected from humans and their influence. This approach also became the foundation for the modern hunter-conservationist movement.

Charles Darwin, one of the early thinkers behind the theory of evolution by natural selection. An exciting and revolutionary theory, it is important to also recognize that natural selection has roots in a worldview that sees humans nature as inherently distinct entities.

Humans, by definition, were a destructive force on nature. Therefore, conservation measures such as national parks, which began in North America with Yellowstone National Park in 1872, worked to mitigate the negative impact that humans could have on nature through an exclusionary approach.

An understanding of the world as an untouched wilderness is rooted in European colonialism and the era of exploration and expansion. Colonial thinking presented a certain aesthetic of nature that enabled Europeans to colonize both the lands and people in their paths. When Europeans arrived in new places, they saw them in what Darwin termed a “state of nature”.

Nature-Culture Dualism

Yrjö Haila, Professor of environmental policy, explains what is referred to as the nature-culture dualism. In this way of thinking, “‘Culture’ is often equated with all human artifact, and ‘nature’ with the external environment, that is, culture and nature are distinguished from each other as if they were two separate realms of reality”.

Presenting nature and people as distinct and oppositional allowed Europeans colonists and explorers to do two things. First, it allowed them to conceptually and physically separate people from their lands without considering the cultural connections people have to places. This belief would later go on to support an exclusionary approach to nature protection commonly referred to as the preservationist approach.

Second, by creating a view of nature as wild and humans as civilized, this allowed early European colonizers to see Indigenous cultures as another element of wild nature that needed to be taken under European control.

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The idea that people and nature are separate is not an expression of nature shared by all cultures around the world. Thus, the nature-culture dualism had both ecological and cultural implications.

The End of Nature?

Modern environmentalism and conservation arose on a foundation that saw a need to defend nature from humans. Human actions and development were seen as directly and inherently harmful to wildlife and wilderness. Therefore, to protect nature, humans needed to be excluded and human actions mitigated through management and policy.

At this point, humans have had a direct or indirect impact on virtually every part of the globe. We have impacted the earth’s systems and functioning at every scale, altering natural systems from the flow of nutrients to the rate of extinction of species, which is not up to 1,000 times the natural rate.

Environmental scholars have discussed “the end of nature”, an idea that examines our changing concept of the meaning of nature. This line of thinking reconsiders the philosophical idealism of pristine wilderness and identifies it as a social construct.

The idea of nature as a social construct recognizes, as Paul Wapner, Professor of environmental politics, points out that “One cannot draw an empirical line between the human and nonhuman spheres with any sort of certainty”. Further, since the relationship between humans and nature is understood differently across cultures, the meaning of nature “changes across time and space. In this sense, one cannot consider (let alone defend) nature independent of human experience”.

The idea that nature is a social construct is not to reject the physical existence of wildlife, trees, rivers, mountains, or their fundamental wild interactions and process. Nor is it simply philosophical idealism. Rather, the way we think about nature and, most importantly, our relationship to it, has implications for our approach to conservation.

Stories in the Ground

We all want to make memories. We share our memories through stories about the trials and tribulations of past hunts and experiences with people we cherish. As humans, we are also often drawn to other people’s hunting stories.

And I think there is a reason that we find ourselves drawn to stories. We enrich our own experiences when we connect with the experiences of others. Humans are a social species, and when we find common experiences in others, it builds a sense of community.

These moments of connection have been absolutely vital to our species’ history and survival.

When we have a moving experience in a landscape, it can feel like we have simultaneously taken some intangible piece of that landscape with us and left a piece of ourselves there.

The footprints we leave behind are a symbol of the piece of ourselves that remains on the landscape. Those footprints become an expression of what our experience meant to us and our contribution to the story of that landscape. It is our chance to state quietly and unobtrusively that we were there.

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When we come across someone else’s footprints, consider for a moment the unique nature of the experience. Two people, potentially living completely different lives, have intersected because of some like-minded motivation.

As different as you may be day-to-day, you have quite likely shared certain opinions and feelings if only for a short time. In an age defined by radical political divisiveness and fierce in-group mentalities, we can all benefit from feelings of connection with other people.

Conclusions

I often quote Steven Rinella, a favourite author of mine, and I find a place for some of his thoughts here too. Reflecting on signs of past hunters, he suggests that “We have in us as hunters a tendency to want to know what it was like to have walked in someone’s shoes from the past”.

Now, when I hike a new spot and happen on the footprints of another person or a worn footpath in the land, I’m drawn to imagining who was there before me. I find comfort in the thought that some other like-minded person enjoyed the landscape and hopefully took away their own stories from it, just as I do.

So the point is not to throw our hands into the air and despair that we will never find a patch of truly wild nature to discover for the first time. Nor is the point to seek farther and deeper in search of this idealism, bound to be disappointed when we don’t find it.

Rather, the point is to appreciate the nature and wildness that we have and to revel in the understanding that there are others out there who care about it as we do. Just like us, many others look for opportunities to experience the natural world. Instead of avoiding these people, connect with them. Instead of force-fitting a concept of nature onto our experiences, appreciate the connections between nature and culture that have always existed. It is these connections that will continue to convince people to care about the natural world and conservation.

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