Through brand marketing and sponsorship of professional athletes, outdoor retailers promote their gear and merchandise through the extraordinary talents and lives of the few in order to sell to the many. The people who accomplish such phenomenal athletic feats and live adventurous lives are thrilling to watch by any standard, but the advertising is targeted at the lay, amateur, or hobbiest adventurer hoping to add more adventure to their life – and the brand ambassadors do indeed sell.
But the subliminal message at the core of such advertising instills disappointment in the common life where none may have been before and where none need be. For the masses who were not born with extraordinary athletic ability or who do not have the financial luxury to live lives of travel, leisure, and adventure, to be peddled messages suggesting that a fulfilling lifestyle is one of unending adventure ultimately delivers disillusion and disappointment in an ordinary life by comparison. The ads feed off the hopes and dreams of a new life, a life not one’s own, lived in the virtual reality of the mind and realized more often than not, through shallow consumption.
While the end goal of a business is ultimately profit, the ends do not need to justify the means. For what is lacking in promoting highlights and snapshots of the world’s greatest athletic ability is the depth of personhood. What is absent is the nobility of character and depth that comes from the day-to-day struggles and growth that come with the endeavor to live a good life – of which even athletes must contend when they are not putting up a first ascent or catching a wave.
While the elite life of a professional athlete captured in moments of brilliance is phenomenal, it does not provide a good example of right living. Because the message sets the bar at a level out of reach for most it is like selling a shooting star: something beautiful and out of reach, distant and spectacular, to be observed from afar.
The noble life, on the other hand, is one that anyone can have. It is a life of the common, day-to-day struggles that everyone faces, but is only gained through perseverance, inner strength, and the determination to build the character that comes with playing the long game. It is the life-long devotion and perseverance to unglamorous actions that develop into stewardship for that which lies before us in daily life. As Wendell Berry said, “It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife for 50 years.”
The noble life, unlike the athletic ideal, is at once worthy, honorable, and decent – both for the common man and woman, and the elite athlete as well. There is no biological barrier, no contingencies on net worth, and no in-bred disappointment, except that which comes from the endeavor to overcome failure in one’s pursuit of fine personal qualities born from upholding high moral principles and ideals.
This is not to say that there is something wrong with athletic ability, or promoting activities in the outdoors, for those are good and necessary and foster love and appreciation for the landscape, but caring for the earth requires so much more than using it for play, at least if that care is meant to translate into action.
Sustaining recreational lands requires knowledge, maintenance, care, and labor. If we do not understand what the earth offers us and requires of us, then we will continue to destroy it. For no matter how much one may love the earth, one can only live fully in it by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. You cannot save the land apart from the people or the people apart from the land (Wendell Berry).
The noble life has been ignored, I think, because it’s not a shiny object; it does not end in a spectacular singular event. It is not a candle burning at both ends. It has the unfortunate commodity of being personal and slow, built on values not easily measurable or even visible. The noble life unfurls behind the man or woman living it where understanding requires knowing the story, seeing with different eyes, and valuing the slow and steady march of time, for that is what it takes to grow into such a life.
To promote such a lifestyle, a company would be dealing with the common man and woman, the laborers, the advocates, the volunteers, the safe-keepers and people who not only play and develop themselves in the outdoors, but who work and care and try to restore the outdoors. To do this, a company would have to watch, and listen, and capture what amounts to a life fueled by spiritual and community values not quantifiable or easy; at certain points it may even deal with mysteries and unknowns, for the actions are but a hope and dream engineered in the mind of an individual brave enough to put those ideas into action. What they would find is that these undefinable and often unseen rules such people have chosen to live by have results, among others, that are economic – and probably profitable as well.
To promote such a life would add depth to the message of the company while giving people the space to love where they are, to rejoice in what they have, and to be comfortable in their own skin, knowing that it is the person wearing the clothes or using the gear that gives such things value, rather than the other way around. In short, the person adds value to the company because they feel valued and proud of their own life and their life’s work and the brand becomes a part of it.
For, if we have a common purpose, which is to value our lands, to promote a clean and healthy environment, and to sustain outdoor recreation for generations to come, how successful do we hope to be by peddling dissatisfaction that leaves people unhappy with their own lives and hence will not invest in their home community because they are consumed with living a different life elsewhere?
If one does not find value in the day-to-day investment in the place in which they live, no amount of moral messages or theoretical ethics from a business will change anything. To echo what Wendell Berry suggested, issues on a landscape or world scale cannot be solved until it is understood and dealt with by local people as a multitude of local problems hinging on the relationship between them and the local ecology, community, and culture.
I love the cool blue light of the morning in the summer when the world is sleepy and peaceful – or at least seemingly so. Before the dazzling sun shoots its rays over the horizon and casts everything in golden light the bluish hues make the green of my yard greener, it makes the red of the peaches bundled on the tree deeper, and the colors tug at the lid of my heart, prying open the chamber where hope is found.
A new dew-covered day awaits. Between sips of coffee I inspect the progress that the work of my hands have begun and look for pests trying to undo it. My garden harkens back to memories of my childhood where the garden was a place of wonder my mother invited us in to. The earthy smell, the deep, rich soil, and the sweet flavor of the food our hands helped grow implanted the taste of a kind of pleasure found nowhere else. The sight of small plants pushing through the soil still thrill me and I watch them grow with eager anticipation like a child on Christmas Eve.
I drag a hose across my yard; the zig-zagging pattern that takes me from the garden on one side to the grapes on the other is now set in habit. My feet count out cadence across the cool, wet grass as I inspect the lawn, the sunflowers, the fruit trees, the pumpkin and zucchini, and even the ponderosas. I scan the ground for snails, my tiny nemesis. Only one snail today but its maddening presence sends me into a tizzy. Where do they come from?
I notice, to my chagrin that the weeds are back, springing up as fast as I can pull them and my mind wrestles with the allure of using pesticides. But there is something cathartic in pulling weeds, in feeling the roots struggling to hang on to the soil slowly break free in your fingertips, and know that the precious water and minerals will surely go to the vegetables inching their way toward the sky. The pride and joy that comes from toiling in my garden is a strange thing. It is a fierce protective feeling that translates into a deep love for this little patch of earth I call my own.
My world has been reduced down to a small acre lot that takes constant care and upkeep. It is a full-time job. I think about all the money spent on plants and seeds and water, and all the hours spent watering, fertilizing, and weeding and then marvel at the nagging politicians and citizens calling for less spending on our public lands.
I think of the millions of acres managed by a small cadre of range technicians, soil conservationists, physical scientists, and law enforcement officers, among others, whose thankless job it is to do the job of an army, with the budget of a non-governmental organization. I think about the money I have spent on my one little acre and multiply it by millions and gawk at the pittance national land managers are given to manage the Nation’s gardens. The scale is hard to wrap my head around.
Wendell Berry said of the Peruvian fields tended by Andean peasants in The Gift of Good Land, “It is in lingering over this contrast between the panoramic and the intimate that one begins to see how farming and farmland have survived in the Andes for so long. For those fields hold their soil on those slopes, first of all, by being little. By being little, they protect themselves against erosion, but their smallness also permits attention to be focused accurately and competently on details. This is a way of farming that has obviously had to proceed by small considerations. It has had to consider dirt by the handful. Every seed and stem and stone has been subjected to the consideration of touch – picked up, weighed in the hand, and laid down. The prime characteristic of the native, pre-Spanish agriculture was its concentration on each individual plant, which accounts in large part for the great varietal diversity of the native crops.”
As my mind ping-pongs between the panoramic and intimate my yard lights up with the first touch of the sun, long strands of light stretch across the yard, glowing against the parts still cast in shadow. For one sweet hour nothing existed but my labor, the words I dug out of my limited vocabulary to capture my thoughts, and the solid land under my feet.
These days I measure my life not only with coffee spoons but in cool mornings and sultry evenings with my hands in soft, warm dirt. I measure my life in handfuls. Though I wish my days were filled with travel to exotic places, mountain tops, crags, and beaches, like so many I see, the earth I work anchors me to this place. As much as I long to put my feet on our Nation’s lands and taste again the wild solitude and peace they provoke, the work I do at home translates to an appreciation for the work so needed, done by so few and with such meager resources and support on our public lands.
Wes Jackson said, “…the cause of waste is alienation from the land: where there is alienation, stewardship has no chance.” We love what we invest in, what we pour ourselves into, what we give in time, sweat, and work – whether it is a career, volunteering, parenting, gardening, tending relationships, or investment in the land. When we give in this way our love bubbles over into a fierce, protective love.
As we consider our values and haggle over the economy, we would be wise to remember the origin of the word economy which is the order of households and that economic health should be judged by the health of households, both individual and communal, both on a small scale and a large scale, both personal and national, and that we have a part to play in it. E pluribus unum; out of many, one. By being little and aware of the details of our own individual lives we begin to grasp and understand the complexities of the large-scale and see how our small yet significant place in it, working in concert with our neighbors, communities, and citizenry, intricately shapes the fabric our society.
There is a gross misconception flying around about public land and it is this: that public land equates to ownership, the same way private land is owned. That belief is false. Our public lands, contrary to loud voices like the Bundy’s, are not ours. Public equates to use and access. It is a legal principle stipulating that certain natural and cultural resources are preserved for public use by the government whose job it is to protect and maintain them for that use.
Unlike private property that can be closed off to the public, public lands are owned and held in trust by the government as a guarantee to the citizens of this country, both present and future. The Public Trust Doctrine is the philosophy underpinning and guiding this principle. Though this idea was popularized by President Teddy Roosevelt who believed it was unethical to use up all of the Nation’s land and natural resources by current residents, it has roots in ancient Rome and the Magna Carta, which was carried forth and became a part of common law here in the United States. It is a conservation ethic that is still enforced by land management agencies today, whose job it is to manage those lands with the future in mind.
“No one user has the right to abuse or dispose of the property. Any dealing with the property has to take into account the entitlements of others. Besides, users of common property share rights to the resource and are subject to rules and restrictions governing the use of those resources (1).”
That is why the stunt to wrestle public lands from the Federal Government by Utah and other Western states is so egregious, insidious, and unethical. They are not only trying to steal our access to the land, but the access of future generations. Furthermore, they are trying to destroy a centuries old tradition that has connected public rights to natural resources that include water, air, minerals, animals, and the land. The only way individual western states can manage such huge swaths of land is by selling it to private enterprise and business, and once it is private, that access will be gone.
So no, it is not our land. It is not there for us to use whenever and however we see fit because we pay taxes to the government to manage it. It is there for your use and for the use of your children, their children, and each succeeding generation after them – at least, so long as we do not let greedy politicians steal it from us. This is why it is so imperative that we act as individual stewards of this trust, not only when we use the land, but when we vote and hold our elected officials accountable. If we are not careful, politicians will sell our birthright to corporations.
For an example of what could be in store for us if Utah politicians and others like them get their way, one need only look to Montana. From a New York Time’s news service report in 1993, Montana’s Sky and Its Hopes Are Left Bare After Logging:
“Throughout the 1980’s, the Champion International Corporation went on a tree-cutting spree in Montana, leveling entire forests at a rate that had not been seen since the cut-and-run logging days of the last century.”
“Now the hangover has arrived. After liquidating much of its valuable timber in the Big Sky country, Champion is pulling out of Montana, leaving behind hundreds of unemployed mill workers, towns staggered by despair and more than a thousand square miles of heavily logged land.”
“The deal has revived a century-old complaint about large, distant corporations exploiting Montana for its natural resources and then leaving after the land is exhausted.”
“Champion came in here promising they would be here forever, and then just overcut all the trees and left,” said Dr. Thomas Power, chairman of the economics department at the University of Montana in Missoula. “We are left paying the piper.”
“For Champion to leave has been very difficult, and we are very sympathetic to those people and very sad,” said Tucker Hill, a spokesman for the company. “But I don’t think you can hold a company’s feet to the fire for everything they did over the last 20 years (2).”
And therein lies the problem. Companies cannot really be held accountable. Contrary to popular belief, a company is not a person. Just try getting one sentenced to prison. In response to my suggestion that we err on the side of caution when discussing proposed uranium mining at the Grand Canyon, a county commissioner told me that there were laws in place to make companies clean up or pay for their contamination after they leave. He is right, there is a law, CERCLA, but one needs only look up superfund sites and who is paying to clean them up to see that the law is not working. See the Fox River Litigation, Orphan Mine Grand Canyon, or the Atlas Uranium Mine Moab for some examples. The problem is that most companies either fight paying for it in court or just file bankruptcy. Either way, they leave the bill to the tax payer. So not only do we end up with contaminated and polluted land, we get to pay to restore and heal it too.
As Wendell Berry said, “…the great, centralized economic entities of our time do not come into rural places in order to improve them by creating jobs. They come to take as much of value as they can take, as cheaply and as quickly as they can take it. They are interested in job creation only so long as the jobs can be done more cheaply by humans than by machines. To put the bounty and health of our land, our only commonwealth, into the hands of people who do not live on it and share its fate will always be an error (3).”
So when we talk about “our” public lands, we are referring to the treasure trove of National lands that we have access to, and we are talking about lands held in trust for our children. All the adventures, the memories, the moments of awe, quiet, and stillness, will be preserved in each succeeding generation that enjoys them and who will carry forth the enduring idea that keeping some things open and unfettered has value. We have a vested interest in protecting these lands, caring for them, and ensuring that they remain public – as stewards or trustees, not owners.
In ancient Rome the Roman Emperor Justinian held that the sea, the shores of the sea, the air and running water was common to everyone and could not be appropriated for private use. In England, the Magna Carta made this principle law when nobles made the case that obstructing free access to rivers infringed on their rights. And in the United States the court held that common law public trust doctrine prevented the government from alienating the public right to the lands under navigable waters, or the soil and water, animals and minerals, over those public trust lands. We have a rich legal and ethical tradition of ensuring public rights to our public lands. We should safeguard them as trustees and ensure that their legacy lives on as living proof of one of the greatest ideas implemented by the United States of America.
The most fundamental duty that a trustee has is the duty of loyalty and an obligation
to act solely in the interest of the beneficiaries.
(1) Patricia Kameri-Mbote, Law Environment and Development Journal: http://www.lead-journal.org/content/07195.pdf
(2) Timothy Egan, The New York Times, Archives: http://www.nytimes.com/1993/10/19/us/montana-s-sky-and-its-hopes-are-left-bare-after-logging.html
(3) Wendell Berry, Another Turn of the Crank