Reverence, Respect, Reciprocity: A Sustainable Future for Recreation
Recreate [ rek-ree-eyt ]: verb: to give new life or freshness to, refresh. To restore physically or mentally.
On a trip across the North Cascades Highway this past autumn I witnessed something that I’d never seen before in my lifetime: 700 cars parked at Rainy Pass. The perfect fall day drew larch lovers from near and far to the Rainy/Maple Pass Loop. This trailhead holds maybe 80 cars at best, so where were the rest? Lining the highway. The speed limit on this highway is 50 MPH and with car doors being flung open on either side of the road, the situation felt perilous at best. I burst into tears at the spectacle, sobbing something along the lines of there isn’t enough room for all these people in the forest.
Through my sobbing I imagined people lined head to tail in a line like cows waiting to be milked, or worse. Aside from whether anyone was wearing a mask or not, the image was dire. We’ve been telling people for a decade now to GET OUTSIDE. Put down yours screens and GO OUTSIDE. So finally, all at once it felt like people had heard the call. Ironically, my heart wasn’t filled with gratitude for the multitude of potential supporters of public lands. Instead I felt grief.
I grieve for the loss of solitude that I seek in the wilds. I grieve for the animals that used to call these wilds their home. I grieve for the secret places that are no longer secret as internet trip reports and social media posts have become ubiquitous. Once hard-to-find sacred places cherished by Indigenous Peoples are now on Instagram.
And yet in my sorrow I conceded that, yes, we need people supporting public lands. The recent video produced by Patagonia, Public Trust: The Fight for America’s Public Lands offers an evocative example of what happens to our public lands when no one is watching, when no one cares. They disappear. Wild lands need wild voices. We two-leggeds must be their voices.
My daughter, displaying her astute three-year old intelligence, responded to me that day in the car: “Yes there is enough room, momma” (as she’s hucking stuffies at me from the back seat to try and cheer me up). “Look,” she says, “there are lots of trees.” I couldn’t deny her claim. “Yes,” I said. “There is a lot of forest out there, I’m just not sure we should all be in the forest at the same time. Where would the bear nap?”
There are a lot of humans on this planet right now. David Attenborough’s A Life On Our Planet highlights precisely and terrifyingly what we humans are capable of when it comes to ignoring the vulnerability of our home. And I’m worried that we’ve asked humans to go outside without sharing with them the responsibility inherent in doing so and the tools with which to do it.
Recreation comes with an enormous responsibility—to your own body, the bodies around you (human and more than human), and the landscapes you recreate on. Historically, the ‘Leave No Trace’ ethos has been the gold standard for how to interact with the land. ‘Leave No Trace’ is great, but it’s only a baseline and should be implied. ‘Leave No Trace’ falls short in a number of ways.
The Three R’s
Reverence, respect, and reciprocity. To me, these are the gold standards for responsible and sustainable recreation.
We are all stunned by beautiful places and moments. Yosemite, Yellowstone, Mt. Rainier, the alpenglow at sunset, the contrast of the yellow larches against fall’s first snow, the bugle of the elk. Each of these stirs us in profound ways—perhaps even to reverence.
I’d urge us to go a step further and really tune in and ask what is it about these places and moments that makes your heart sing—or cry out? What is it about these places and moments that connects you with your soul and the soul of the Earth? Perhaps in those places and moments we might, for a fleeting moment, feel that our own souls are not so different after all. The reverence we feel witnessing our child’s first breath of air might be the same reverence we feel when the sun’s first rays hit our cold winter-kissed face. That’s the kind of reverence we need to really come into relationship with the where, why, and how we’re recreating.
Once you really truly feel the depth and magnitude of the place you’re recreating, respecting how you’re doing it comes much more easily. Would you want someone playing a loud boombox at your child’s birth? Likely not. Would you want someone walking carelessly across your well-tended garden? Likely not. Respect isn’t just about packing out your poop and garbage. Respect is about considering the people you’re recreating with or near, all the flora and fauna, and the entire landscape as a whole.
These lands are sacred. This likely feels like a huge responsibility. You might ask yourself, how can I do all of that? I just want to go for a run, a bike ride, a climb, a ski —whatever—and forget all the cursedness of my “other” life—as if your other life is separate from the space that you’re recreating in. The responsibility of recreation is that it isn’t just about our needs, it’s about the needs of the entire system you’re inhabiting. To recreate is to renew yourself. It is important that this renewal does not come at the expense of the ecosystem on which this renewal (and for that matter, life itself) depends.
Your attitude—what you bring to the land—matters. How are you showing up? Are you gossiping about your neighbor? Complaining about your job? Or are you offering yourself as completely as possible to the place and the moment?
Now that we’re utterly awestruck by the places we’re recreating in and can be present in those places with deep respect for ourselves, the humans and more than humans around us, and the entire landscape, we’re ready to ask the most important question of all. What can I give back? What does this place need from me? What do I have to offer this place in this moment? We all have something to give back. We all have something we can offer. It might be a simple gesture, a silent (or not silent) prayer or blessing, a song —or even just a simple thank you. But I challenge each of you to not be silent.
The 3 R’s of recreation seemed reasonable enough, but a friend of mine reminded me of a fourth: Resonance. Resonance is the capacity of the moment to reverberate in your life long after the moment has passed. Resonance is the shift in our consciousness that moves us down the road toward self-awareness. Resonance literally changes our lives. It draws us in and helps us understand the much, much bigger picture (of which we are a part) that transcends our parochial egos.
Resonance is what keeps up going back to certain places. It’s why I make a pilgrimage to the desert southwest every fall. That land speaks to me in a way that no other land does. It makes me come alive. It fills me with a creative fire that burns all winter. Resonance is what motivates us two-leggeds to be the wild voices for the ones without voices.
So find the places that resonate with you and protect them. Honor them. Grieve their loss. Grieve your loss. Leave them gifts of your heart. And keep going back.
The ability to recreate is a gift. The opportunity to recreate on wild lands is nothing short of a miracle. We must make the time to toss our hair into the wind and let go of our day-to-day worries to just play. But, friends, play gently and thoughtfully. Give more than you take. Be aware that the balance is delicate and our footfalls can be heavy. If you have extra time or money, donate it to an organization that protects the places you love.
At a minimum, donate your reverence, respect, and reciprocity so that seven generations from now, these special places might still be the wild places that make your descendant’s hearts sing out in awe and wonder.