Saturday, 30 April 2011

Being Out There

Standing in an ‘empty’ lot

What’s ‘scrub’?  What’s ‘bush’, or ‘wasteland’?

We have many names for certain lands that we see from a distance, drive past, or have no attachment to. Land that’s far from our homes might be referred to as ‘the boonies.’ Municipal property with no building on it is referred to as a ‘vacant’ or ‘empty’ lot. In truth, that lot is only empty if it’s been completely paved over. Otherwise, even the plainest piece of dirt is filled with populations and activity.

Hunters and some professionals who work in natural areas sometimes refer to wild land as
‘The Resource’. It’s one of many phrases that neutralize our biological and emotional associations with natural areas. Some builders and developers who intend to alter natural land that’s never been built on before refer to the process they’re contemplating as ‘greenfield development’.

There’s great meaning in certain words. The seemingly casual words people choose to describe land they care about can influence the opinions of others. Humans care about land for very different reasons. The way some people label certain properties can reveal which values they’re placing on certain sections.

When land is labelled as ‘scrub,’ there’s an implication that it’s next to worthless in its current state. People use that name when they want others to agree the land isn’t being used as it should be, when they wish to convince others that its current use, whether natural or disturbed, is a mistake. The term ‘wasteland’ carries a similar, stronger message.

Over recent decades, human attachments to our own inventions have been forged so strongly, people have fewer reasons to feel any emotion over  ‘unused’ land.  Not only have most of us failed to learn how to fish, make a shelter or light a fire, but many have also forgotten to visit the natural landscape long or often enough to form any kind of meaningful relationship.

I know I’m not alone in revering a section of land that has a life of its own. There are many of us. We are people who long during the work-week to stand on ridges, walk among tall trees, hike across flower-strewn meadows.

There are many people who do stop and listen at the edge of a creek, who savour both the sound and the visual treat of sunlight sparkling over the swirling water. Some of us are curious about the sights we’ll see around the next turn in the trail. Others simply need to be away from home for awhile, to walk into places where they can escape pavement and thousands of cars, where they’ll hear birds or frogs more often than machines.

There are many who know that truly ‘barren’ land is a rarity, usually a result of human interference with that land through contamination, erosion, intense use or artificial excavations.
To the uninitiated eye, a stretch of desert can appear to be dead, dry and too quiet. The truth is, desert land is rich and busy, populated by specially adapted creatures and plants that aren’t always easy to see. The truth is, most ‘vacant’ lots, even in the deepest inner city, are anything but unoccupied.

Many children know this: almost every square metre of the earth’s crust that doesn’t have part of a building standing on it is home to a bug- or a community of bugs - as well as a few squigglies. Rocks often have lichens and moss living on them. There are minute plants and flowers that poke their way through cement, gravel and asphalt. Trees support a wide variety of fungi, birds, bats, bugs and even other trees- friend or foe peers who may shelter them from storms on one hand, compete for sunlight and nutrition on the other.

If more people went less often into shopping malls or their media rooms and more often into the ‘boonies’, if more of us walked on our own two feet into building-free zones, maybe we’d enjoy the natural places more. And maybe we’d be more likely to ask politicians to ensure there’s enough of our natural heritage left for every neighbourhood to be able to access and enjoy.

Though it’s hard for some people to consider exploration, contemplation and watching birds and animals moving in and out of the dappled light as worthwhile occupations, we have to take the time to go away from buildings, roads and traffic..

For me, being on the trail is an alternative form of prayer and meditation. I spend roughly the same amount of time outside in a month as others spend exercising on metal gym equipment. I pay little – a bit of fuel if I drive to the trailhead, the long-term depreciation on footwear and jackets -  to go out onto the trails.

Other than my respect, when I’m outside I give the land nothing. The Resource, however, is generous: the meadows, ridges and forest share their aural and visual riches in scent, sound, texture and movement.

I’ve watched coyotes floating through the trees, and spotted a regal moose disguising herself among the shrubs. I’ve seen a company of young deer, single-filing through a copse of white-barked Aspens, and traced the subtle tracks of a lynx over the snow. I’ve admired the liquid, lovely eyes of a snowshoe hare, stilling himself as my dog went sniffing by. I’ve heard the cry of the Red-tailed Hawk, watched Osprey soaring over the lake, and laughed at turtles stacked up in the reeds. 

Book yourself some time for your own natural escape, and you too can enjoy a little eco-savouring experience.


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