Owning and Letting Go
Walking composition (final free one!)
“Going outside is highly overrated.” ―Ready Player One, Ernest Cline
Last weekend I was on the edge of the Great Bear Wilderness, close to 290,000 acres (around 1,160 square kilometers) the comprises part of Montana’s 1.5-million-acre (6,070 square kilometers) Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. For years I’ve wanted to participate in the volunteer trail crews organized by the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation—I seem to be incapable of enjoying a vacation that doesn’t involve outdoor labor—and this was the first year my kids were old enough and my spouse home enough for me to even think of signing up. I got off the waitlist for the easiest, least-backcountry project a week before, and since it was close to home I managed to pour gas into our very thirsty ’79 Chevy truck and head off with a tent, bear spray, and work gloves on short notice. (Totally an aside, but I swear I could physically see the gas needle sink toward empty as I pushed Rusty up Marias Pass. We don’t usually take the truck out of the Flathead Valley.)
It was satisfying, in exactly the ways I expected. We had a lot of strenuous hiking miles and two days of sawing, clipping, and pulling, on a trailhead that doesn’t seem to get a ton of use but still had plenty of elk droppings, ripe huckleberries, and horse tracks.
And yet . . . not. It’s beautiful up there. The Bob, as we call the Bob Marshall Wilderness, is one of the most beautiful protected regions of the United States. It’s an important thing that, while wilderness legislation lasts, it is off-limits to heavily extractive, for-profit industry. But why could the U.S. declare it wilderness in the first place? Why did it have to be protected, and whose needs, interests, and prior claims were ignored in that process?
Dina Gilio-Whitaker, author of As Long As the Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock, had a strong essay in July’s High Country News on the issues of #landback, sovereignty, and the ecological consequences of ignoring Indigenous rights and knowledge for centuries:
“Land return does not mean that everyone who is not Indigenous to what is today called the United States is expected to pack up and go back to their ancestral places on other continents. It does mean that American Indian people regain control and jurisdiction over lands they have successfully stewarded for millennia. This includes the return of public lands.”
The more I read about these histories and issues, and the more time I spend in the lands around my home, lands I love and feel attached to in ways I can’t fully express, the more I think about what it means not just for people to be torn from their land, but for the land to lose its people.
One of the interesting things about conservation has been, in many cases, a resistance to the idea of returning land to Indigenous . . . I don’t want to say “ownership,” but that’s what it would be, since that is the system we live in, the paradigm under which rights are recognized. To control, even to steward or care for, necessitates owning. It doesn’t have to. Ownership is not a law of nature. It’s simply currently what the dominant culture recognizes as a vehicle for rights.
In the context of conservation, I’ve been thinking a lot about the emotion behind owning. A reader (thanks, Tait!) recommended a podcast episode last year (I think it was 99% Invisible?) with the authors of Mine! How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives, and I just got to reading it this week. The two law professor authors have a fun approach, starting out with situations that many people can relate to, like battles over reclining seats on airplanes: Who owns the space behind the seat, the person reclining, or the person who wants to keep their knees intact?
What I’m enjoying about it is that Heller and Salzman don’t pretend that the answer to this question is either vague or loftily philosophical. It’s framed by specifics: 1) the airline has sold the same space to two different people and lets them battle over who uses it, and 2) how the results play out depend on which kind of ownership story you believe in. What does ownership mean to us? And why does it have such a powerful psychological hold, even if you don’t even own the thing yet? Just handling objects while shopping, for example, provokes a sense of ownership:
“All [these studies] show the same basic psychology: As soon as you physically possess something, it becomes more valuable than it was the moment before. Your attachment transforms its value, and you demand more to give it up than you would have paid in the first place.”
(This is, they write, why Apple sets their stores up the way they do—encouraging people to use and play with expensive devices encourages a sense of ownership; people will more readily pay a lot of money for something they already feel is “mine.”)
How could acknowledging the emotions behind ownership help us understand, and perhaps unravel, the fierce possessiveness of settler colonialism over land? The almost frantic insistence of homesteader-descended families in the West that they’ve earned an unquestioned right to stolen land through their labor, care, and physical attachment? How could it help those who wish to conserve said land in the public interest let go of a need for control?
Scarcity plays into all of it. Airlines might sell the same space twice, but a culture that worships private property sells a scarcity of dreams that most of us will never realize.
I sawed down innumerable young fir trees last weekend. The trail work is done not just for hikers but also—maybe even mostly—for trains of pack mules, who need a wide clearance on both sides to meander up and down the mountains. My group talked a bit as we worked about the guilt of taking these trees down, which felt so different from sawing up larger trees that had already fallen down and were blocking the trail.
It reminds me of working in the garden: when I started out, my feelings toward the thistles and knapweed were driven more by control, for a need to uproot the invasives that made our life difficult or unpleasant. I’ve noticed a shift, a sense of responsibility. I still pull the knapweed and spot-spray the thistles with high-concentrate vinegar, but there’s a stronger sense of responsibility. I’m asking these living things for a trade-off, but what do they get in return? I don’t have an answer.
With the trail work, the question is even stronger. Among all the kin in those woods, whom is that labor benefiting? What’s the trade-off?
People stewarded these lands for thousands of years before any ancestors of mine landed on this continent. With all the love and labor and care that goes into conserving the wildness near my home, does any of us actually know what we’re doing? What could prompt us to cede control to those who do?
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Bonus photo: No matter what I’m doing in the woods, my feet are always grateful for an ice-cold creek at the end of the day. Thank you, water.
Some stuff to read or listen to:
Botanist and writer Erin Zimmerman’s occasional “Feast for the Curious” newsletter with delightful behind-the-book-scenes research on the racy 18th-century poetry written by Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus: “Once he reached the classes with higher numbers of stamens and pistils, the old boy just couldn’t seem to keep a handle on himself, describing ‘Each wanton beauty . . . in gay undress,’ a ‘glittering throng’ of ‘beaux and belles’, and ‘a hundred virgins’ joining one hundred young suitors. Erasmus Darwin did not lack for imagination.”
Nick Hanauer writing in The American Prospect on the U.S.’s geographical divide, and what kinds of policies and input might truly help rural communities. There’s a lot in here, but I recommend spending the time if it’s a topic you’re interested in: “Making their economies more vibrant and viable is a national imperative that taxpayers should be willing to help realize in the service of narrowing geographic inequality and toxic political divisions. And whether public or private, any investment in bringing good jobs to rural communities must be matched with investments in affordable housing, transportation, schools, and other critical infrastructure so that incumbent residents are not disadvantaged or displaced by the inflow of new wealth.”
I really enjoyed this interview with Rue Mapp, founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, on the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Podcast & Blast: “It’s all of that working together to create what we now understand as generational shift. . . . We’re now seeing a new reality where now it’s more normal to see people who look like me.” (I never thought about tailgating at sports events as outdoor activity and loved how Mapp talked about what “being in the outdoors” can look like: “They’re using all the same stuff.”)
Todd Litman in Planetizen breaking down a variety of inequities in rural areas, how planning often misses the mark in identifying contributing factors, and how both planners and rural residents and decision makers can shift perspective: “Urban and rural residents both value community but in somewhat different ways. Rural areas tend to be more exclusive, placing a higher value on multi-generational families, traditions and conformity. Urban communities tend to be more inclusive, more accepting of diversity and change. Neither is better or worse, all should be treated with respect, and there are often exceptions.”
IEEE Spectrum (the magazine of the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers) has a rather head-spinning article on the “real-estate boom” in the metaverse. I have read far, far too much about the metaverse and its pals NFTs and Web3 and I still haven’t seen a there-there. As in this article, comparisons tend to boil down to “look at how popular Roblox is!” but first of all Roblox already exists and serves a metaverse-ish purpose (as do, I think, Fortnite and Minecraft), and secondly I’m still not seeing how you’re getting from visions of drab virtual meeting spaces or shopping to the kinds of lucrative and fun VR depicted in, say, Ready Player One. Also, as most often happens, few are truly weighing the energy footprint of these systems and whose ecosystems they damage. Who benefits?
A fun one for me: A few weeks ago I got to interview Sherri Spelic, a PE teacher and writer in Austria whom I personally admire a great deal. As a whole ice cream sundae of “eek!” Anne Helen Petersen accepted it as part of the new guest interview feature on Culture Study. Sherri’s ideas are so full of depth, insight, humor, and compassion: “You cannot learn if you are fearful, if you are full of dread. There’s just no way that you can pay attention to what is supposed to be happening if you are already horrified at the idea that people are going to see you.” (I wrote a short companion piece about gym class for Medium, and wow do people carry a lot of horrible memories about PE.)
More research on the effects of tire residue on fish, this time in freshwater rainbow and brook trout. As a reminder, the problem comes from the chemical 6PPD-quinone, which seems to make it difficult for the fish to absorb oxygen in the water. (Yet another reason that self-driving and/or electric vehicles are not a solution to environmental degradation.)
In High Country News, a beautiful photoessay by Terry Tempest Williams and photographer Emmett Gowin on the legacy of nuclear testing in Nevada: “A part of me was still naïve enough to believe our government would not do such a thing. . . . Days later, Emmet shared with me that the gravity and weight of what he had seen had settled into the shadowed territory of a violent truth.”
Astrophysicist Paul M. Sutter in Nautilus on the importance of studying nothing: “Cosmic voids are cosmology at its purest. They are simple. The complications of star formation and black holes don’t impact them because they don’t have any stars or black holes. They are basically big fossils from the earliest days of the universe and their shapes encode the evolution of the universe as a whole.”