Leave No Trace

It's the most iconic footprint in the history of the human race, and every time I look at it, I think about how permanent a scar has been left on a pristine landscape. Left behind in 1969, that footprint is almost certainly still there, nearly identical to its original impression. There is erosion on the Moon, but it exists on a millennial scale, as solar wind and meteoroid bombardment slowly smooth away such imperfections. Barring impact with a huge meteor, this footprint, and the many hundreds more like it, not to mention the tire tracks left by the lunar rover, will still be there long after humankind has forgotten who put them there.

If you've had anything to do with Scouting lately, or visited a National Park, or even been to Burning Man, you've encountered the words "Leave no trace." It's an ethical approach to outdoor recreation that has its roots in the environmental movement of the 1960s. I didn't hear the words until about 2003, when I was training to be a Scout leader, but my earliest Scout camping trips employed the idea, even if it lacked the title: every camping experience, wherever it had been, concluded with "policing the area," removing every sign of human presence, including whatever had been left behind by previous campers. In the Idaho State Parks favored by my troop, this usually meant collecting handfuls of cigarette butts. It didn't matter that those nasty bits of paper, plastic, and tobacco had been left by some other group, one that clearly did not adhere to the high standards of Scouting; our goal was to "leave it better than we found it."

It made a deep impression, one that I carried over into my early camping experiences as an adult, first alone, then with a wife and, ultimately, children. I generalized it to other aspects of my life, as well, picking up fast food cups, bags, and wrappers as I was walking through urban environments, becoming obsessive about turning off lights whenever exiting a now empty room, regardless of whether I was home or not. The point at which it really came home, though, was the first time I visited Arches National Park, in December, 1999. I'd long understood the principle of staying on trails to minimize erosion, but there were times when I wandered. But December 31, 1999, as I stepped onto the Park Avenue Trail, I read an interpretive sign that talked about cryptobiotic soil, and suddenly I became painfully aware of how much damage I'd done in my first trip to Utah, four years earlier, when I roamed freely in the Fisher Towers region.

Cryptobiosis is a phenomenon found in the high desert, where a symbiotic community of algae, lichens, fungi, and moss slowly transform sand and dust into soil capable of supporting vegetation. It's a painfully slow process, taking decades to accomplish its work, and the transitional soil is incredibly fragile. Stepping on it can set it back by a century. When I think about how much of that soil I likely disturbed in 1995 when I lost track of the trail, I squirm uncomfortably. When I think about the footprints I often see off-trail in the high desert or, worse, the tracks of ATVs crisscrossing designated areas, it breaks my heart.

Go to a protected desert area, and you can see this painstaking work: cacti, grasses, flowers, bushes taking root in places that see minuscule amounts of rain in a year. It's the biosphere's answer to the creep of geological evolution that turns sand dunes into rock formations, then whittles down those rocks into fins, then arches, then rubble, and finally back to sand, a process that can take hundreds of millions of years. Cryptobiosis is not nearly that slow--it's just a blink on the geological scale--but the patience of nature is still geometrically greater than that of the tourists who see nature as something to be used, abused, and discarded.

"Leave No Trace" takes this principle, so important to desert nature craft, and applies it to all aspects of recreation. Taking a short cut on a trail, even in a Pacific Northwestern rain forest, disrupts a small ecosystem. True, in this environment recovery may take just years, rather than decades or centuries, but it's still a case of nature having to heal a wound left by careless, selfish humans. There's not a biosphere that contains humans that couldn't benefit from those humans reducing their footprints.

I practice "Leave No Trace" principles whenever I hike, ski, snowshoe, camp, climb, run, bicycle--whenever I do any of the many activities I love which take me out into the natural world. I hold onto my own litter for hours, sometimes days, waiting for someplace to discard it. I stick to trails no matter how inviting and well-established are the shortcuts others have made. If there are instructions to use one trail hiking into a site, and a different one hiking back (as has been the case at Canyon Creek Meadow, at the foot of Three Fingered Jack in the Central Oregon Cascades, for at least 30 years), I do just that. I never cut wood for a fire, though I sometimes gather scraps for tinder. And anytime I need to step off the trail, for whatever reason, I am careful to ensure I am not disturbing some fragile life form just beginning to take root.

I do all these things because nature has become my church, a holy place where I am most in tune with whatever force moves and becomes the Cosmos. It would be blasphemy to, in the process of honoring this awesome beauty, deface it in any way. So I am cautious, meticulous in my outdoor manners. I still see the signs of others who have not been so careful, who seem not to care at all for the damage their boots and tires have done to an ancient landscape; but ultimately the only behavior I can really impact is my own, hoping that my example will cause others to rethink tossing that candy wrapper on the ground, removing that souvenir, skipping a switchbacking trail to glissade down a talus slope. The few times I have violated these principles, my passage has lift enormous scars on the landscape: bootprints, rockslides, insect colonies disrupted, vegetation crushed, the destiny of entire ecosystems thrown out of balance by my carelessness. I have forced those systems to grow on my terms, rather than their own.

That is the Prime Directive of Leave No Trace: nature should be free to evolve and grow on its own terms. Human terms can be hurtful, abusive, even rapacious. From the moment humans enter an ecosystem, it is permanently altered. The balance of wildlife is disrupted, waterways are rerouted, even the climate is changed. It is rare that we humans leave a place "better than we found it." We're far more likely to only leave a place when we have extracted the last viable vein of whatever metal or mineral we're seeking, or killed every last representative of a species we think looks fine mounted on our walls. And once we start building, once our homes extend out into what was once wilderness, we begin turning deer into vermin, suppressing natural processes that would thin both forests and herds, spending millions to defend ugly over-built homes against the very force the forest most needs to restore its health: fire. So the forests become ever more overgrown, until humans arrive with their bulldozers to make way for the next subdivision.

It is common in rural communities for farmers to bemoan the reintroduction of wolves and other predators to areas in which they have become extinct. The most common fear is that livestock will die in greater numbers, and this may very well be the case. It's the main reason the wolves were hunted to extinction in the first place. While I can feel some sympathy for livelihood endangered, I feel a deeper sense of frustration with this argument, built as it is upon the fantasy of ownership: long before humans had mastered the weapons they would eventually use to contend with and, ultimately, destroy other predators, those predators ruled the landscape unchecked for millions of years. There was a balance to nature, a rhythm that could seem cruel to sentimental humans that, nonetheless, kept the ecosystem on its feet, seasons cycling, species migrating, populations rising and falling but rarely overwhelming the system.

This is especially true in the Americas, the last part of the planet to be occupied by humans, and even more so of the enormous changes wrought on this landscape by white settlement. The ranchers and farmers whose pastures may be invaded by reintroduced wolves have owned this property for, at most, a few hundred years. It takes an enormous dose of hubris to imagine this blip on nature's calendar should trump the right of any other species to occupy this land.

And yet I have some sense how deeply they must feel the pain of having created something, having carved out their own artificial ecosystem, and having someone else come along and seek to restore it, even a tiny part of it, to what it was before they wrought their will upon it. I entered the pulpit as a student pastor after two years of seminary. I was crammed with learning: books, lectures, seminars, practicums, the accumulated wisdom of--well, two years in seminary. Like any student completing a sophomore year (though in seminary it was called "middler"), I was the epitome of that word, a Wise Fool. I knew more about the Bible than anyone in that first rural church in southern Illinois, and I was going to correct all the misinformation filling their poor hick heads, pouring into them instead my superior knowledge of the historical-critical method of Biblical interpretation.

It didn't take them long to set me right, to teach me a lesson I never forgot. Noel Ikemire, 67 years old and one of the few farmers in the congregation not yet retired, put it best when I went to visit him one afternoon. He was servicing a farm implement as we talked. At one point he paused, looked me in the eye, and drawled, "You know, Mark: preachers come and preachers go. Some I like, some I don't; most are all right. One of these days, one of 'em is going to bury me."

And there it was, a lesson far more profound than anything I had learned, or ever would learn, in seminary: I was a visitor here. Every pastor was. The church was the people. I was there to tend to them, but they would still be there when I left and another took my place, until, finally, this little ecosystem passed into oblivion. All my thoughts of turning things on their heads, converting my parishioners to my way of thinking, ground to a halt, and ever after, until the end of my career, I would work to gently shift the direction of a congregation, and if that proved impossible, to accept the way they themselves meant to go. While I would still be leaving a trace of my presence--how could I not, occupying the pulpit every Sunday, coming into their homes and hospitals rooms, baptizing their babies, marrying their adult children, and sending them on their way at the end of their lives?--I was through scarring their spiritual landscape with my aggressive presence. They knew far more than I ever would about living spiritually in that place, and if anything, I was the one who should be learning from them.

Since leaving ministry, I have sought to apply this principle to my life in other ways. I move through life being careful and intentional about my impact, sensitive of how my actions impinge upon the lives around me, sympathetic to their needs when their own actions interfere with my world, and whenever possible, minimizing my footprint on every system through which I pass, whether it is a biome or a suburb. I am not always of the mind that I should be leaving no trace at all; in fact, in the most socially important work I do, it is very much my task to leave as positive a trace as I can on the lives of the young people who pass through my classroom. But whenever possible, I seek to have that impact be gentle, subtle, nonviolent, in hopes that the soft answers I give, the example I set, the teachable moments I seize, the conversations I have with my students, may linger with them just as Noel Ikemire's lesson did with me. There is hardly ever a reason for me to raise my voice in anger, to trample underfoot the cryptobiosis at work in these young lives. My highest aspiration as a teacher, in fact, is that, decades from now, as one of my former students sits down at a piano to entertain others, he or she will be only marginally aware of the role I played in putting those fingers on that set of keys, one voice in the vast chorus of all those who have impelled that musician to have a voice of her or his own, and the talent and motivation to share it with others, inspiring them in turn to make their world a more beautiful, more musical place.


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