My conservative, right-wing household growing up considered environmentalism to be a great liberal conspiracy. Maybe it was an overreaction to living in Santa Cruz, California, the seat of so much environmental activism, research and dramatic policy development influenced by UCSC, the university located among the redwoods there. “Environmentalism” was said with a sneer, symbolized by the hated Al Gore and everything he stood for. Global warming? A conspiracy. The people who lived in the redwood trees to protest them being cut down? Nutty.
Despite living blocks from the Monterey Bay, my family didnt really spend very much time outside as a group. I personally spent hours and hours alone on the beach, which I realize now was done at least in part to escape the chaos of my large-homeschooling family and my 7 brothers and sisters, all younger than me. I pretended I was a treasure hunter in Treasure Island or Karana from the Island of the Blue Dolphins. I collected sea glass — a small jar of which sits on my desk today.
It never really occurred to me that sea glass is basically trash turned into something beautiful over time.
Today, more than 20 years later, climate change is a widely accepted concept. While still controversial in some circles, it no longer carries that mid-90s flavor of a vast left-wing conspiracy. And I’ve become someone who spends a lot of time outside.
When you spend a lot of time with something or someone, you might start to think of it as a relationship or, when it comes to a place, with a sense of ownership. And that’s how I feel these days about nature. You dont have to carry the label “environmentalist,” whatever that means, to care about your environment. You just have to spend time with it.
When you do that, you find carrying about the environment to be second nature. Of course you want to make sure it’s not covered with trash. When you spend time outside, of course you want to make sure wildfires don’t destroy your favorite spaces, or the ocean eats away more and more at the cliffs because it’s ever slightly higher than it used to be, or that the glaciers that you walk on are still around to enjoy later.
You start thinking about who you are in the great outdoors. You start thinking about how what you do there now impacts what you might do there later.
For some people caring about protecting nature is a selfless task. They want to make sure it’s around for other people later – generations to come. But to me, the gateway to getting there is a completely selfish one. You don’t think about those later people until you get through thinking about the now and yourself.
And that’s how I’ve come to really care about leave no trace or following best practices on trails, all of which are designed to reduce my impact in those spaces. Leave no trace isn’t just about not dropping trash on the trail. It’s about doing your best to both use the space and make it seem like you were never there. Any use has impact. But it doesn’t have to have a huge impact.
It’s a driving force behind wanting to buy used gear instead of only new things. Yes, they also happen to be more wallet-friendly. But when we reuse gear or buy-used, we put even a tiny limit on the number of things that must be produced.
And it’s reason to work as a collective group in society to leave things better than we found them. Can you spend 30 minutes of your outdoor time cleaning up trash in the park? Can you dedicate an hour to pulling invasive weeds? Can you volunteer your outdoor time to maintain some trails so humans can go outside and see these beautiful places, keeping their impact to the designated areas and the least impact possible?
In a recent episode of Humans Outside, Meg Carney, who focuses on minimalism in nature, discussed these practices with me. I’ve linked that episode in the show notes if you want some more ideas on how to build this into your normal life.
Here in Alaska spring break up, or the time where all the snow melts and ice goes away, comes hand in hand with trash cleanup projects around communities all over the state. In my area the wind blows and blows, which can carry trash and liter all around. A lot of this trash wasn’t dumped somewhere, but instead swept out of someone’s trash can during a storm. Our wind storms in January blew apart signs, carried off lawn furniture or padding and scattered items like you wouldn’t believe. And all of that is now trash revealed by the melting snow. The communities come together for clean-up sessions, picking up liter and making a visible and important impact on our communities. Each year my sons head out for a few hours cleaning up trash off the school property next door. It’s not just selfless community service. It’s providing a more pleasant experience for us as we walk through those areas. It can be both selfless and selfish at the same time.
I hope you take a little bit of your outdoor time this week to pick up trash in your community. Find a pair of gloves, grab a bag and make an impact on where you live that everyone can appreciate. I promise you won’t be sorry. Share a photo of your activity on Facebook or Instagram with #Humansoutside365.
Until next time, I’ll see you out there.