Leave no trace

Are humans part of the ‘natural’ environment as well?

It is common practice among those who take wilderness excursions to seek as far as possible to leave behind no footprint, no trace of their activity or presence. What is packed in is packed out, or so goes the mantra.

We are supposed to leave behind no food wrappers or containers of any sort. We are encouraged to take the peelings of our fruits and vegetables back to civilization, despite the fact that they readily decompose. If we make a campfire it is considered proper camping etiquette to disperse the stones used to girdle the flames, as well as the ashes left by the burning. Many even go equipped with small digging instruments so that they can bury their poo. All such traces of human beings are considered blemishes on the natural environment. By not removing them we are thought to be spoiling nature and making it less enjoyable for those who come after us.

This seems to me a strange way of behaving. Do squirrels feel the need to clean up the discarded bits of spruce and fir cone that they leave behind after extracting the edible bits? Who among us has not marvelled at the sight of a mound of moose poo, or thought “how cute” upon seeing a pile of rabbit buttons? For how many generations have human beings built fires for warmth, food preparation, and simple enjoyment? And what could be more natural?

Human natural, human unnatural

The extremes to which the “leave no trace” approach to camping are prone seem to suggest that human beings are unnatural creatures whose activities are intrinsically harmful to nature and whose forays into the wilderness are virtual intrusions upon the natural world. Indeed our collective consciousness is imbued by a dichotomy that pits humanity against nature. How so many have come to believe in this dichotomy may have something to do with our extraordinary capacities. Our big brains and prehensile hands allow us unique ways of adapting and surviving. We create languages, forms of social organization, and tools with which we manipulate and change the world. But where could these abilities have come from if not from nature itself? It seems implausible to think that these talents are beyond nature, or that there is something beyond nature that has made us what we are and given our species its special abilities. It seems more plausible that these talents are entirely natural, that there is nothing but nature, and that humanity, having been born out of nature, is thoroughly natural. Therefore, I am loathe to think that my presence in nature – a presence that entails activities like eating, shitting, and burning fuel for heat – is somehow inherently dirty and harmful.

But let’s not get carried away. This way of thinking may lead to some rather strange conclusions. If human beings are all-natural, if we are nothing but nature, then might we not say that all human activities are natural and therefore good in some way? Toxic waste, oil spills, mass deforestation, smog, and the destruction of entire species would be seen in a new – and much less critical – light if we considered these to be the outcomes of natural processes. These could be understood as the results of our natural compulsion to adapt to the environment and survive in it as best we can. And who could blame us for being so successful that we drive other species to extinction? Does this not show our natural superiority? And if our activities eventually lead to the extinction of the human species, then perhaps this too is good and natural.

Such a view seems to me extreme. It is an extremity which is the opposite of that with which I began. Whereas I started with the dubious notion that all human activity is unnatural and therefore bad, I have come around to the equally dubious notion that all human activity is natural and therefore good. Both of these perspectives are oversimplified and impoverished. The perspective that will allow us to deal most effectively with our camping conundrums lies somewhere beyond these extremes.

Alien to nature

It is ultimately a neurotic and deluded society that would seek to remove, to as great an extent as possible, all traces of human activity from those areas that lie beyond its dwelling and working places. It is obsessive-compulsive to insist that things human belong only over here, while things non-human belong only over there. I would not want to suggest that our wildernesses be opened up to unrestrained industrial development. However, when we go into the wilds to experience a different kind of nature – the kind that has more trees and bushes than buildings, cars, and concrete – we need not treat it like a museum. To do so only alienates us from the world and perpetuates a pernicious conceptual divide between humanity and nature. To reclaim our world and make it capable of sustaining life in all its diversity we would do well to realize that its well-being and our well-being are not two separate things. Our footprints, our fire pits, our bits of discarded food, our excrement need not be signs of abuse and neglect. These can be signs of care and enjoyment, signs that at least some of us are acquainted with the worlds beyond the overpasses. Here we find evidence to suggest that we are not yet alienated from our power to walk great distances, nor from that most ancient of traditions – the building of a fire. Let us hold fast to the notion that human beings are natural creatures. At the same time, there is no reason to think that what is natural is automatically good. We owe it to ourselves and the world to determine the worth of our actions with greater subtlety than that.

Judging traces

I suppose we all have our limits in the woods. For my part, I cannot stand to see that people have left behind plastic wrappings, plastic bottles, toilet paper, and aluminium cans (for some reason tin cans are not so disgusting to me). In these cases I can only appeal to aesthetics to explain my disgust. When I go to the woods I want to forget about our dependence on disposable commodities. I want certain traces of the modern world to be out of sight and out of mind. But that doesn’t mean I desire to completely forget about human beings and the beauty and vibrancy of nature that is expressed by at least some of the things we do.

I will conclude with an anecdote. A few years ago, two friends and I were heading into the Avalon Wilderness Reserve for a four day hike from Salmonier to Bread and Cheese Hill and Cape Broyle. We were all standing on Prescott Street testing the weight of our bags before loading our vehicle. A friend of ours stood by, observing our final preparations, and remarked on our staves. Paul, the most experienced outdoorsman of our group and one who is ultra-enthusiastic about adapting to life in the woods, explained that carrying a staff makes one an instant tripod with far more stability than a biped made top-heavy by a bursting-at-the-seams rucksack. Our bystander friend agreed on the advantages of being a tripod and wondered why nature hadn’t managed to produce it. Most animals, it would seem, have evenly numbered locomotive limbs.

What he didn’t see was that nature had created tripods, and that it had accomplished this by way of human beings.

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