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We Need More Caretakers, Not Recreationists

We Need More Caretakers, Not Recreationists

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Being a steward of the land means more than enjoying activities on it; to truly connect with nature, one must be a caretaker

We need more people. 

Yeah, I know; millions of people flood to the mountains each year to recreate and there is certainly no shortage of people trying to buy homes in the Intermountain West. But if we have too many people, why then does the ecological role of humans on the land remain largely unoccupied?

We don’t have a shortage of people, but we do have a shortage of caretakers. Unfortunately, playing in the mountains does not automatically make one a steward of these landscapes. However, outdoor recreation can act as a gateway to a more holistic, human relationship to the places we know and love. 

Why it’s important to be a caretaker

People must develop a relationship with the land that goes beyond recreation to ensure the long-term health of the ecosystems in the Intermountain West. Of central importance to this process is bridging the human-nature divides that limit environmentalism and conservation efforts.

A central example is “Leave No Trace” (LNT), which has come to dominate conservation marketing and often stands alone as the principal ethic of outdoor recreation. While well-intentioned, LNT perpetuates a separation between humans and nature by envisioning a false reality where humans can truly avoid an impact on the land. While someone may travel to the region and practice LNT on their backpacking trip through Yellowstone or any other protected place, the reality is that their day-to-day life leaves a trace on these landscapes, at the very least through their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.

For this reason, it is far better to acknowledge that humans will always play a critical role in shaping ecosystems, as we are undeniably a part of them. Once this acknowledgement takes place, we can begin to think more critically about how we can potentially leave a broader, more beneficial trace on the land. In this way, we can go beyond “Leave No Trace” and move towards an ethic that centers on reciprocity (an equal or greater amount of give than take), restoration, and true accountability to the land and all of its creatures. 

The history of caretaking and the ethic of reciprocity

The ethic of reciprocity is as old as the land herself. The Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (aka North America) have and continue to exemplify a different way of relating to one another and to the land. While Indigenous cultures are immensely diverse and distinct, the concept of reciprocity is a common thread between them. In her best-selling Braiding Sweetgrass, Potowatomi Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer provides an eloquent display of what reciprocity looks like in action. 

The foraging of wild edible and medicinal plants can act as a pathway to developing a deeper, more authentic relationship to the land. Foraging requires one to learn not only the names of plants, but also how they taste, smell, look, and feel. In this way, it opens up a whole new world that is often overlooked when speeding by on a trail, destination in mind. At least partially relying on these plants for food places one in a position of vulnerability, where one’s fate is intimately tied to that of the plants. This process of relating to other beings in a deeply human way can fundamentally alter one’s values and actions.

The ethic of reciprocity demands that one gives back to the plants as much as they take, which requires an understanding of each plant’s unique ecology—its relationship to other plants, animals, insects, soil, rock, water, and the sun. With this understanding, one can support their continued abundance and well-being. The practice of actively caring for wild edible and medicinal plants is now commonly referred to as wildtending. This includes practices such as the collection and planting of native plant seed, low-intensity burning, pruning, transplanting, and a variety of other techniques to support plant populations (as Kat Anderson shows in her beautiful book Tending the Wild).

Indigenous people have been tending wild food gardens across the West for thousands of years. In some areas (particularly eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, and much of Idaho) these thoughtfully laid out gardens were—and at times still are—remarkably abundant. Important food plants such as common camas, biscuitroots, yampahs, wapato, wocus, and several berry varieties depend heavily on human harvest and tending. Additionally, these plants are not only calorically and nutritionally dense, they are also remarkably beautiful and delicious.

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Prior to colonization, these species were abundant beyond comprehension. Settlers, with philosophies deeply embedded in European language and culture, failed to recognize that the Indigenous people of this place were largely responsible for these divinely plentiful landscapes. As the United States and Canada violently removed Indigenous peoples from their homelands, they also removed the tending practices and love that these people gave to the land. Populations of many of the previously mentioned food plants have consequently declined across the West.

The ecological knowledge of these peoples, which allowed them to live sustainably on the land, was greatly diminished during the Indian boarding school eras in the United States and Canada. These are only a couple acts of genocide that occurred across the continent in order for settlers, like myself, to live and play in places like Bozeman. With this history in mind, everything done on the land should be aligned with the ethic of reciprocity and should show care for the land and its Indigenous peoples. 

How to be a caretaker of the land

A great way to give back to the land is by gathering, transporting, and sowing native seed into places within their historic or projected habitats where their populations are struggling. This practice, which Indigenous people have utilized for Millenia, falls into a regulatory grey-area on public lands. For this reason, wildtending remains a largely white occupied space due to the potential legal ramifications of these efforts for people who identify as Black, Indigenous, or a Person of Color. Advocating for the role of wildtending on the land is essential to making these practices more accessible to wider audiences, but for the time being, the grey-areas provide substantial opportunities for people to utilize white privilege in service of the land. 

Being a forager and wildtender requires one to strive to be an ecologist, which means that every action taken should be intentional and in service of the land. Most of the foraging literature provides incomplete guidelines for sustainable foraging. One rule-of-thumb is that you should only take one-third of what you see. This does not account for the plethora of ecological conditions that a wildtender may encounter. The best principle is to take the time to learn the plants you like to harvest, monitor the effects (both positive and negative) of your harvests, and always strive to be a caretaker. You’re going to make mistakes—as we all do—but this is far better than missing the opportunity to truly develop a relationship with another living being and enter into the joyous world of ecological knowledge. Books are helpful, but the plants are your teachers and they will show you things you’ll never see on paper. The earthy sweetness of yampah roots could never be captured in words. 

I invite my fellow outdoor enthusiasts to show that they truly love nature by seeking ways to play a positive ecological role within it. This process may involve feeling your way through the dark at times, especially if you are not Indigenous, but it can be immensely joyful as it ties you into the larger community of nature—ripe with complexity and beauty.

As settlers, coming into relationship with the land cannot be separated from healing and strengthening our relationships with the Indigenous peoples on whose homelands we live. Supporting efforts for Indigenous resurgence is essential, especially through the returning (rematriation) of land and resources (even when it is inconvenient). Take the time to learn about the culture and history of the Indigenous people of your area, listen to their requests, and actively support their sovereign initiatives.

Yes, we need more people; more people carrying out radical acts of love for the land and its people. 

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