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Giving Thanks for the Wild Lands that Sustain Us

blue creek edged in ice, with mountains in the distance

On this national day of reflection and gratitude, what do people sitting around a Thanksgiving feast usually give thanks for?  Family, friends, the gifts of good fortune or the rewards of hard work.  Bounty and abundance of food or material possessions.  Those going through hard times will express gratitude for the lessons they’ve learned in endurance or the emotional closeness they’ve achieved with loved ones.

How many gatherings of families and friends will voice appreciation for the land itself?

We all should.  The land is our ultimate source of sustenance—physical, emotional, and spiritual.  Mountain snowpack supplies our drinking water, expansive forests clean our air, deep-rooted prairie grasses hold our soil together, coastal mangroves offer protection from hurricanes.  Fertile lands allow us to produce the food we eat.  The earth’s mineral resources supply what we need to make vehicles, smartphones, the fine china dishes pulled out of the display cupboard for special occasions.

I write this on a computer sitting atop a wooden desk, referring to notes I have scribbled on paper, while sitting in a wood-framed building: trees provide the wood that gives shape to our lives.

Time spent in nature allows us to reflect on ourselves and our values.  It refreshes us, relieves stress, and allows us to create lasting memories of adventure and joy.  Time spent in nature can give us courage to make needed changes in our lives and fortitude to bear the things we cannot change.

This has been especially true for me this year.  2013 has been full of challenges and big changes in my personal life.  After months of emotional struggle, I recently decided to walk away from a stable job and return to the unpredictable life of a seasonal park ranger.  My choice may well appear an irresponsible one, especially from a financial perspective: I am taking a pay cut, giving up my health insurance and retirement benefits, and losing any certainty of where I will work or live more than a few months in the future.  Despite this, I know I made the right decision for my health and my happiness.

I needed to leave a place that had brought me stress and loneliness in favor of a place that I love.  In returning home to Yellowstone National Park, I restore a feeling of belonging.  I fit into a vibrant community—not just a constructed human world, but a place where people and a full assemblage of native plants and animals coexist.  In addition to the meaningful friendships I have found here among the caring, committed workforce of the park, I have nourished my soul by living in the largest intact temperate-zone ecosystem remaining in the Northern Hemisphere: a place where large mammals like wolves, grizzly bears, mountain lions, wolverines, bison, moose, and elk still roam free.

Am I purely a part of this ecosystem, and this ecosystem only? Of course not.  I still drive a car powered by fossil fuels shipped halfway around the world.  I eat foods grown in milder climes.  Like most of the other seven billion-plus people alive on the planet today, I am part of a global community.  As such, I believe it is my responsibility to consider how my actions affect the larger world.

To my sorrow, the land and the diverse community of living things found on it are now suffering because of human actions.  We are living in an age of mass extinction.  Species vanish from the earth at terrifying rates that we can only estimate as somewhere in the range of 1,000 – 10,000 times what would occur naturally.  In other words, dozens of species go extinct every single day.

We all share responsibility in this crisis.  We, collectively and as individuals, need to face up to the consequences of our lifestyles.  From our most quotidian choices about what to eat or how much to drive, to the very structure of the societies we collaboratively construct—these things have far-reaching impacts on the land that we have a moral obligation to consider.

I use the word “land” here in the broad sense best articulated by Aldo Leopold:

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.… That land is a community is a basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics…. A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of a material conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land.

This Thanksgiving Day—every day—I am filled with gratitude for the wild lands that sustain us.  Yes, of course I am grateful for friends and family, for the freedoms and opportunities I have had.  But it is the land that supplies all these things, directly or indirectly.

And so, I give thanks today for the simplest things that lie at the heart of our human experience, the things that remind us we are but one small part of a much larger world: the bright sunlight coruscating on snow, the quorking of a raven outside the window, the clear air and shining waters.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Barbra & Jack Donachy #

    Thanks for the thought provoking post. We think that, unfortunately, there is very little humans can do in terms of lifestyle that will bring this crisis to an end as long as the human population is 7 billion and growing. There are simply too many people, and every aspect of our natural world is feeling it. Still, we do our level best to use, to reuse, to recycle and to be mindful of our impact as we journey through this life – including keeping our own family size very small.

    November 28, 2013
    • I agree completely. I feel fortunate to live in a time and place where family size is a lifestyle choice. I have chosen not to have children for just this reason.

      November 28, 2013
  2. Beauty Along the Road #

    So glad that you followed your heart’s desire and chose the work that is calling you. There is so much soul-killing work out there. Thank you for so actively speaking out for our Earth and working so hard to help protect it.

    November 30, 2013
    • Thank you. I do what I do because I love it and I believe it’s important. I can’t imagine my life any other way. That said, it’s always nice to get outside affirmation, so thanks for taking the time to comment! :-)

      December 1, 2013
  3. Angela #

    Thank you for reminding us of our connection to the natural world and of our responsibility to care for it….I am happy you are able to be in a place you can truly call home. Many in this society feel that financial stability is the most important thing to have. It takes courage to walk a different path to a place where you can truly find peace. All the best to you.

    December 1, 2013
    • That’s kind of you, Angela. Thank you. I have to say, though, that this decision felt so obviously right that I can’t even begin to construe it as brave. It was just what I needed to do.

      December 1, 2013
  4. Mike Howe #

    This is a great post Cathy, I was reminded of Leopold whilst reading it, and then I came to the great quote and that made sense. I can see where some of your inspiration comes from. Congratulations on the career change, I did something similar myself 2 years ago and it was the best thing. Keep up the good work, as Edward Abbey said “The idea of conserving wild places needs no defense, only more defenders” :)

    December 2, 2013
    • I love that quote from Ed Abbey. And I love his writing, too, as well as Leopold’s. I don’t always agree with Abbey, but that man had a passion, and he consistently makes me think about my values and what I believe in.

      I’m glad that you too have followed a path of happiness. I just took a look at your blog and look forward to seeing more!

      December 2, 2013
      • Mike Howe #

        Thanks Cathy, I am so looking forward to seeing more of your fab work, and it’s always nice, and quire rare, to meet someone who even knows who Leopold and Abbey are. You are carrying on their work and I am very glad that you are. All the best :)

        December 2, 2013
  5. FeyGirl #

    Thanks for this beautiful reminder on how we all share this beautiful space — and on our immediate responsibilities.

    And, much luck to you on your recent move and changes! Yellowstone’s land and inhabitants are very lucky to have you (and from what I’ve been reading, *really* need help).

    December 2, 2013
    • Thanks so much, on both counts. I’m glad to be back here, but I really do worry about this place. The forests have been visibly affected by insects and disease just since I started working here in 2006. It’s harrowing to see the effects of climate change unfolding right before your eyes like that.

      And of course it isn’t just Yellowstone that’s in trouble, as you know. In fact, in some ways, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has the potential to be more resilient than many other areas, simply due to its vastness.

      December 2, 2013

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  1. Land Preservation and a Brief Introduction to Environmental Ethics | PhilosEcolAnt

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