“Earthers . . . look past that light, past that blue sky. They see the stars and they think, ‘Mine.’” —The Expanse, Season 1, Episode 5
I keep hearing chickadees trilling their “cheeeese-burger” sound near our house and walking around town. It feels like a spring sound—are you meant to hear chickadees in January? This archival recording from 1977 tells me it’s a territorial sound, so are they warning off magpies or crows or maybe people? Cornell’s Ornithology Lab page says it’s a song that males start chirping out in mid-January; maybe I’ve just never heard it this early before, or never paid attention. Thankfully other people do pay attention and can tell me if I remember to ask.
An environmental lawyer friend and I have been talking a lot about ski resorts over the last couple of years. We’ve both been skiers since we were little, and despite the joy it brings—and skiing brings me a lot of joy—we both struggle with the impacts of space and resource use. Increasing numbers of luxury vacation houses and condominiums around the ski mountain where I live feel like a burden that neither the land nor the community (nor the water sources) can handle.
But has skiing in its modern iteration ever been something that the land can handle? The activity has been around much longer than quad chairlifts and toxic, bioaccumulative ski wax—Sigrid Unset’s novel Kristen Lavransdotter, set in 14th-century Norway, has quite a bit of skiing as transportation but also as something akin to joyful leisure. It’s a far cry from the elite or elite-adjacent activity it is today; even the fifty-dollar season passes and family run resort I learned on as a kid feel like a different world.
My parents first put me on skis at Bridger Bowl when I was two years old. I fell and got a bloody nose and hated it. I’ve been skiing off and on ever since and there are honestly few activities that make me happy quite as quickly. But I do it knowing that the swathes of tree-free mountainside, the electricity to run the lifts, the materials that go into the equipment (the skis, poles, helmets, snow pants and coats, iron-filled hand warmer packets, . . . .), the parking lots and roads—none of it is truly sustainable. And that’s without throwing in the million- and multi-million-dollar properties that get built up around desirable resorts.
So my friend was wondering about those properties and how real estate fits into the National Forest Ski Area Permit process (in the U.S., most ski areas are built on National Forest land; that is, public land), in particular the requirement to “harmonize with the natural environment” and questions of equitable access. How, my friend asked, is the development of million-dollar condominiums at the base of the ski hill much different from the plans that Disney once had to build a gargantuan ski resort in Sequoia National Park? Even if the real estate itself is on private land, how does a resort that promotes its development qualify for a permit that is meant to promote outdoor activities for all?
Which led us back, as it often does in our conversations, to whether ski resorts should or can continue to exist in the first place. In a way we both know the answer. Maybe we’re just looking for a way to keep something we love without sacrificing everything else.
Land ownership and rights of use are a core of the commons we all depend upon. If we view land as a commons (which it is in fact no matter how we want to view it), how it is used and what it is used for must be a question posed to an entire community. That’s not even getting into the fact that all of this land, from the scrappiest one-lift family resort to the exclusive privately-owned Yellowstone Club, was stolen in the first place.
A few years ago I took up skinning, where you stick fuzzy strips to the bottom of your skis that allow you to walk uphill, foregoing the chairlift. It takes me forever—I’ve never been an athlete of any kind—but I’ve grown to love it. The quiet, the space to let my thoughts spool out instead of being trapped inside my body all the time, the physical strain. I’m not sure the environmental impact varies that much from regular skiing, as you’re using a lot of the same equipment, but at least I give more attention to the world around me. Squirrels and crows, an occasional bald eagle, the never-failing beauty of snow on the pine trees, the light and gray that shift and enchant. The terrain that looks so different when I’m up that same mountain picking huckleberries in August. Reminding myself of the people who established this resort in the first place, full of love for skiing and wanting to share with anyone who wanted to learn.
While talking of skiing, I was reminded of the end of one of Anne Helen Petersen’s interviews in her Culture Study newsletter. It was about the pyramid scheme LuLa Roe, and while I know very little about multi-level marketing schemes, her interviewee’s point toward the end of the conversation has stuck with me: “America is a pyramid scheme. It relies on people buying into the American Dream and then working hard to get to the top. But of course - almost no one does. Beneath each successful person in America is a downline of unpaid and underpaid labor.”
What choices do I make, does each of us make, does our community or society make, that rely on the heaviest burdens being placed not just on other people, but on all other forms of life?
I will probably always be a ski bum. But it doesn’t have to look like what I’m used to seeing. It is possible to find joy differently.
Some stuff to read, watch, or listen to:
Kurt Vonnegut’s methods for dealing with trauma, on the Psychoscapes blog: “Vonnegut’s bedrock assumptions about the world being a safe place where good things happen to good people were shattered. Also typical for trauma survivors, his memories of these distressing events were fragmentary. He labored for more than 20 years, attempting to piece them together, trying to find a language to express what had happened to him but, still, the missing pieces remained too radioactive.” (Reading this gave me the urge to read Vonnegut again, which I don’t think I’ve done since I was in my late teens.)
Dan Falk writing in Nautilus on a little-known book of astronomy for children, Know the Stars, by H.A. Rey, the author of the Curious George books. Rey, evidently, was passionate about astronomy and used to host informal stargazing sessions at a local golf course for anyone who wanted to join him.
Mark Trahant writing in Indian Country Today on Vine Deloris Jr. and the fifty-year “long-distance run” for Native American rights and sovereignty.
An absolutely fantastic piece in High Country News by Kathleen McLaughlin on rural gentrification, Butte’s toxic Berkeley Pit and extractive art: “The initial decision to skirt around Butte made it easier to talk about the place and its problems from the outside, rather than engaging the community that actually lives with the mess. It’s cultural extraction in action — taking away bits of history and community without providing any context for it.”
This trailer of the film Moving Upstream: Ganga from the Veditum India Foundation looks awesome. There is not a single story, not matter what form (oral, written, documentary) of a long-distance walk that hasn’t reminded me of the profound compassion and connectedness at the center of humanity. I never get tired of them.
Financial journalist Tom Bergin writing in Aeon of economists’ slow journey to forming models based on real human behavior rather than trying to force behavior into handy and unrealistic formulas: “Until the early 1990s, the accepted orthodoxy among liberal and conservative economists was that the minimum wage killed jobs. . . . Card and his colleague Alan Krueger conducted studies that found, in a number of cases, that meaningful increases in the minimum wage had not led to lower employment in fast-food restaurants – the type of business commonly affected by the measure. The research received a lot of publicity, and near total rejection by some of the most eminent economists, . . . who likened colleagues who accepted Card’s work to ‘camp-following whores’.”
I prefer cross-country skiing to downhill because I can listen to nature and feel part of us, rather than using it as a backdrop for my activities. Good post!
Thank you for mentioning Kristin Lavransdatter! I'd forgotten I read that many years ago.
I didn't grow up with skiing--learned as an adult when I dated someone who was on the ski patrol at Silver Mountain in Kellogg, Idaho. I remember standing at the top of a run on an absolutely sparkling blue-sky day and saying, "Thank you for giving me this gift." I didn't keep up with it as an activity but I remember that moment and that feeling.
Although I would have told you I'd been environmentally concerned for most of my life, at that moment I absolutely wasn't calculating all the costs inherent in me being there on top of a mountain and my choice not to continue wasn't environmentally motivated. I reflect on some of my choices and decisions and realize it takes conscious thought to center values I claim to have and then to pause and recognize in a specific moment that I'll have to make sacrifices if I really mean them. There's also the 360-degree calculation--am I selfish or thoughtless with 100% of my actions or do I do just this one thing that's not fully aligned but have my own personal "offset" based on how I live the rest of my life, and is all of this the result of conscious reflection? Your pieces remind me to reflect on a much bigger view and context.
If I were going to ski now it would be cross-country skiing, getting myself through the woods or across a clearing under my own power. At one point I investigated snowshoes and it felt incredibly complicated, involving having to determine what type of snow I was most likely to encounter (and it's only going to be a few days a year where I currently live anyway), with information that seemed calculated to make me think I needed to buy a lot of gear and own 6 different types of snowshoes or I would be doing it wrong. Capitalism has resulted in this mushrooming of too many options and variables across so many things that could be simple, enjoyable, and not as damaging to the earth as they are now.
Another element to outdoor gear in general: military research and development in disciplines like materials science later showing up in civilian gear, not that any of us can stop that directly and at least we get some peaceful applications of the knowledge.