There have been a lot of things in my life that have not worked out, but writing is the one attempt of mine which has always gotten the "green light". From family, friends, coworkers, and professors, I have received nothing but praise for my writing, which somehow leads me to believe that writing is a talent that is destined to be part of my life-- in other words, writing is "my thing". So, I'm just going to roll with this and see where it takes me, and try to learn as much as possible along the way. It is my hope that the articles I post on this blog will be entertaining, educational, thought-provoking, and inspire others to enjoy the natural world around them and develop an ethic of conservation that our environment so desperately needs right now.
I'm going to go easy on myself starting out, and post a few things that I wrote in college, as well as articles that I wrote for the Examiner website. In this post, I'd like to share a paper that I wrote for my Environmental Writing class: our assignment was to go out and have a "nature experience" and then write about it in the context of the literature that we'd been studying in class. When I received my graded paper back from my professor, scrawled across it were the words: "My dear, where did you learn to WRITE?". Best. Compliment. Ever. Enjoy...
June 7th, 2010
As I made a left-hand turn, the two-lane highway lined with strip malls and espresso stands gave way to a quieter street lined with tall trees and green foliage. Minutes later, I climbed out of my car in the nearly empty parking lot at St. Edward State Park. The imposing form of the vacant brick seminary building loomed before me, with 300 acres of forest spread around it, like a rich green robe draped from the shoulders of a king. My sister Kirstin and I strapped on our backpacks, picked up our cameras, and headed off in search of the hiking trail. I had coerced my older sister into accompanying me on a hike in the wooded park surrounded on three sides by suburbia, and Lake Washington on the other. However, the Lake was appropriated by speedboats and jet-skis for recreational purposes, so couldn’t that be considered an extension of suburbia as well? Nevertheless, we were going to spend time hiking and enjoying the scenery, and being in nature.
“We’re going to have a nature experience” I explained, when I informed Kirstin that she was going hiking with me. At that time, I did not realize how much our “nature experience” would be influenced by human culture imposed upon the Park and its trails.
My sister and I started off on the Seminary Trail. The sign said it was .62 miles, and the difficulty level was “easy”. We started hiking down the trail, which sloped gently down through the forest to the shore of Lake Washington. The trail was wide, the footing a compacted mix of gravel and dried- out mud. The thick forest vegetation was kept well back from the edges of the trail, as though it had been purposely cut to allow a wide berth for hikers to travel past on the path, without having to worry about brushing against the lush green foliage. Douglas fir trees in the forest grew impressively tall and straight—so tall in fact, that their trunks were all that was visible at eye level. To see their dark green branches, you had to lift your eyes upward and squint into the blue sky. The spaces between the fir trees were packed with massive maple trees, their numerous trunks and branches providing a verdant canopy that filtered the warm sunshine and cast a soft, cool light on the ground below.
Continuing down the trail, we passed a bench perched along the edge of the path, a silent question. “Do you need a rest?” Who would need a rest after walking for two-tenths of a mile, downhill? I asked Kirstin if she needed to take a break. She laughed and said she was good. The influence of human culture permeated the forest, punctuated by the appearance of a random bench, or the sound of an airplane flying overhead, or a piece of litter lying along the trail. In some places, people had left the trail to cut through the forest, making their own path to avoid having to walk an extra twenty feet around a switchback in the trail. What was the point of hiking, I wondered, if you are going to take shortcuts all the time? How much nature are you missing out on when you avoid going the long way around?
As we hiked down the trail, I kept looking back and forth, probing the forest with my eyes. I had hiked this same trail on a field trip with one of my classes last spring, and remembered my instructor pointing out stumps in various places alongside the trail, their weathered and rotting flesh scarred with very precise rectangular holes. These holes were made by loggers who clear-cut the forest earlier in the 20th century. When they cut the massive old-growth trees down, they inserted a plank into the base of the tree, so it formed a springboard type of platform for them to stand on as they chopped the tree down. The holes in the tree stumps were evidence of an historical human influence on the forest, a reminder that the congregation of majestic trees which now graced the landscape were in fact, a second-growth forest. The only tree stumps that remain are those of cedar trees. Cedars naturally produce a chemical that allows them to resist decay. These tree stumps had outlasted the men who cut them down. Sometimes nature defies the destructive influence of humans after all. I explained all of this to Kirstin as we hiked and photographed our way down the trail.
About halfway down, the trail hugs the side of a steeply sloping hill facing Lake Washington, and the empty spaces between the trunks of Douglas fir and maple trees were filled with glimmers of the lake’s water. Along with visual cues indicating the presence of the lake, there were auditory ones as well. “The sound of that motorboat on the lake is ruining my nature experience.” Kirstin complained. She took a quick video of the scene, letting the distant noise of the motorboat background the tranquil scene of a sunlit forest with hints of the lake breaking through the foreground greenery.
We passed yet another bench, another question, another reminder that we were not in the wilderness, but rather a park that had not escaped human influence. I jokingly asked Kirstin if she needed to take a break now. She snorted and ignored my question. Two squirrels on the left-hand side of the trail rustled in the detritus on the forest floor, stuffing their cheeks with seeds.
The environment around us brightened as the trees thinned and the water of Lake Washington came into view. Douglas firs and maples of the hillside forest were replaced with towering cottonwoods along the shoreline. We passed two bathrooms, one on either side of the trail. Yet another silent question: “Do you need to use the restroom? This is your last chance before you hike back up the hill to the park”. It was almost like a nagging mother, hounding her children to use the restroom before taking a trip in the car. Why weren’t the outhouses on the same side of the trail? Was it more of an impressive effect to emerge from the woods between a gateway formed by two identical outhouses?
Kirstin and I arrived on the beach and admired the wide expanse of water in front of us. The lake was choppy and dotted with curling whitecaps today, reflecting the mood of the sky which, sometime during our sojourn in the forest, had changed from a cloudless warm blue to a stormy, moody grey. Approaching the shoreline, I stopped to pick up the lid of a garbage can, which had been cast onto the ground. I replaced the lid, setting it on top because it wouldn’t shut securely on the warped mouth of the can. I joined Kirstin, who was already standing next to the edge of the lake, camera in hand.
“Go stand on the rocks out there, and I’ll take your picture!” Kirstin said.
I handed my camera off to her and stepped carefully onto the rock that lay half-submerged in the water, which conveniently had a flat top, and held onto a tree branch, which happened to conveniently hang at just the right height for the average person to hold onto. I wondered if this setup had been contrived just for the purpose which we were using it for now: photo- ops. I began to resent the fact that I was giving in to the subversive plots of whoever was responsible for designing the trails and amenities in this park—altering and perverting nature to suit the needs of humans: benches, outhouses, garbage cans, setups for photo-ops. After posing for two photos of myself on the rocks—reminiscent of cheesy senior portraits—I hopped back down onto the beach.
A female duck clambered onto the shore and waddled purposefully toward us. She stopped at our feet and stood in a very posed, deliberate, duck-like stance, as if she were attempting to fulfill our expectations of what a duck should look and act like. Not only had the human influence permeated the park, but it appeared to be affecting the wildlife as well. I took a picture of the duck, and then Kirstin and I turned back toward the forest to find the more difficult trail back up to the park. I looked back and saw the duck was following us. We sped up our footsteps, and left the duck behind. She seemed disappointed that we hadn’t brought the crumbs of a bag of Wonderbread for her.
The path into the woods forked into two separate trails: the South Canyon trail to the left (“more difficult”) and the South Ridge trail to the right (“most difficult”). I glanced at Kirstin, and we silently agreed to take the “more difficult” South Canyon trail. The difference between this trail and the Seminary Trail was immediately apparent. This trail was narrow, with plants encroaching on both sides, reaching their green leaves and tendrils to brush against you as you walk by—nature certainly felt more intimate, and human influence more distant, on the South Canyon trail. In several places, Kirstin and I had to twist sideways and contort ourselves to ensure that we gave a respectful berth to the stinging nettles that staunchly held their ground on either side of the trail, just daring someone to try to take them out with a machete. Several times during the course of our hike on this trail, we heard snapping branches and rustling in the underbrush, but were unable to locate the creature responsible for making the sound. The mysterious sounds—the suggestion that animals were lurking in the bushes, but not readily visible, as on the Seminary Trail—contributed to the more “authentic” nature experience of the South Canyon Trail.
This trail felt much more natural, more like wilderness. Aside from the encroaching vegetation on both sides of the trail, there was also a conspicuous lack of benches—ironic when you consider the fact that this trail was appreciably more difficult to hike than the Seminary Trail, and a person might actually consider sitting on a bench and taking a rest when hiking this trail. Perhaps that was a consequence of choosing to take the more difficult path: if you are hiking this trail, you are on your own, and you had better be able to cope with a benchless half-mile uphill climb.
Evidence of human activity and alterations to the landscape were more difficult to notice on this trail, although I was still searching through the trees, trying to find more cedar stumps with rectangular holes in them. I was able to spot two of them, though they were nearly hidden in the profuse growth of ferns, devil’s club, and nettles that crowded everything at ground-level. We hiked along the side of a canyon; the two sides of which were covered thickly with towering Douglas fir and maple trees, sloping steeply downward toward a ravine with a clear, trickling creek. Kirstin and I crossed the creek over a tidy wooden plank bridge—the only human construct we had yet encountered on this trail. As I crossed the bridge, I felt cool raindrops splashing on my arms. Those stormy-looking clouds had finally reached us and were beginning to unload their burden of precipitation. The thick canopy of maple leaves above us acted like a giant umbrella, shielding us from the rain and keeping us mostly dry, except for the few intrepid raindrops that managed to find their way through the leaves and splatter onto the forest floor.
After crossing the creek, we began hiking back up the other side of the ravine. At this point, the trail was muddy and slippery—definitely a change from the manicured and graveled Seminary Trail. Our boots slipped in the mud, and we had to use tree roots poking out of the path to anchor our feet as we made our way up the incline. The storm had now arrived in earnest: the pattering and tapping of raindrops on the leaves above us filled our ears in between the rustles and roars of the wind. As we hiked, I heard a loud cracking sound on the trail ahead of us, and a sizeable tree branch snapped off an old maple, crashing through the canopy and landing with a thud on the sloping side of the canyon. This trail certainly was more wild, I thought. It wasn’t afraid to try and take out human intruders with tree branches.
It did not take us long after that to hike out of the canyon and reach the homestretch: a level, pleasant trail leading out of the woods and into the open grassy fields around the seminary. So subtle that many people might not even notice it; the trail changed from its wild, rough appearance back to the manicured, human-constructed “nature trail”. Along this stretch, the trail gradually widened and the footing smoothed out, and the foliage began to recede from the edge of the path. The ferns and other native plants were crowded out by invasive ivy plants that covered the ground and wound through the branches of the stunted trees along the trail. Although we could not see the seminary or park yet, our surroundings clearly indicated that we were getting close.
We emerged from the forest soaking wet, and made our way to the asphalt path that led back to the parking lot. As we walked past the playground area, I heard a mother call to her young son as he ran through the soggy, wet grass toward the forest: “Don’t go in the woods! You can run around out here, but stay out of the woods!” That comment resounded in my mind. What was there to fear about the woods? If anything, the forest should be afraid of us, with all of the destruction this 300-acre patch of forest had suffered at the hands of humans, both historically with clearcutting, and presently with manicured trails, benches, outhouses, and invasive plant species. Rain was still spilling from the clouds overhead, and the wind bent the tops of the trees, rustling their branches and shaking the raindrops from them. The child stopped in front of the forest, paused for a moment, then turned and ran back toward the playground.
As I completed this hike, I was thinking much more about my surroundings and the small details of the environment around me, in light of the readings we completed in our Environmental Literature class. I know that had I not read Thoreau or Cronon, I would not have noticed any difference at all between the two trails my sister and I hiked. In fact, I took the exact same hike with one of my classes a year ago, and I definitely did not pay attention to any of the small details and differences that caught my eye this time.
While my sister and I had stopped in our tracks at hearing the sound of a motorboat on the Lake, its droning hum reaching us through the thick forest, I remembered a quote from Thoreau in regard to the sound of the railroad: “The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard” (109). The sound of a motorboat on Lake Washington had “penetrated” the woods that we were hiking in, invading our “nature experience”. Just as the sound of a train reminded Thoreau that he was still close to human civilization, the sound of the motorboat reminded me that I was on a hiking trail, in a park, and that human civilization was all around me. Even when we feel as though we are all alone, secluded in nature, the influence of humans is still omnipresent.
After completing the hike, there was one quote from Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness” that stuck in my mind: “If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not” (11). The forest in St. Edward State Park could be seen as a place where “nature is not,” because of the obvious human influence there. However, I do not agree with the point of view that Cronon outlines in this quote. Even though the Seminary Trail did not feel as “wild” as the South Canyon Trail, it was still “nature” to me. The benches, outhouses, and other evidence of a human presence do not eliminate nature. The entire forest had been clear-cut earlier in the 20th century, and had regrown into the thick, diverse forest that is there today. That is a clear example of nature’s resilience and ability to regenerate despite the destruction caused by humans. “Nature” still exists—it just takes some time to re-emerge from the clear-cut landscape in the form of trees and other vegetation. This is not something that is going to be destroyed by the presence of a few manicured trails, benches, and hikers looking for a nature experience.
Although I had the ideas of these authors, as well as others we read in class, running through my mind throughout the hike, I do not feel as though it detracted from the experience. If anything, having these readings in the back of my mind made me more aware of my surroundings, and allowed me to see the forest and the trails within a context of a nature altered by humans. Instead of looking at a tree, or plant, or spectacular view of the lake, and thinking “oh, that’s pretty!” I was able to think “How amazing is it that these plants, and this landscape, is able to exist despite what humans have done? Nature is amazing!” Rather than looking at a maple tree and seeing just a maple tree, I was able to see a tree that had re-grown in a clear-cut forest, reassembling itself from the decayed parts of its ancestors (a concept Annie Dillard discusses throughout Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) and grow into a tall, impressive tree that sheltered the forest below. After reading this account of my own experience hiking in nature, I hope that other people will be inspired to open their eyes and see nature in light of its resilience and triumph over the hands of those who attempt to tame it, and realize the futility of the attitude of domination over nature that is so prevalent throughout the world today.
We depend upon nature for our survival, and when we devastate nature, we destroy the basis of our own existence. Just as the forest in St. Edward State Park demonstrated, nature takes time to regenerate. If humans continue destroying nature at the rate and in the manner we are now, we will threaten our own survival, and the resiliency and ability of the natural world to return to its former state.