Life was better in the good old days. I spent last Friday night dog sitting for my parents, and that led to looking through old photo albums. Maybe that’s what led to me writing this, but those photos really pushed me to get into my head and sort through a lot of things that were floating around in there. Obviously, it’s easy to view the past through rose-colored lenses. It’s a cliché that childhood was a happier time, which of course, isn’t true for everyone. But children are innocent, and that’s a pretty good reason for them to be filled with joy. They don’t have to worry about who they’re voting for, or when their rent is due. When I was a child, my biggest concern was whether or not I would win a goldfish when the fair came to town. (Don’t worry, five-year-old me. You’ll win one and name him Swimmer.)
Cliches and carnival goldfishes aside, old photos have a way of making you reminisce. One that particularly stuck with me was taken at my hometown’s Thanksgiving parade, the year that I was in kindergarten. It was a photo of the final float in the parade, Santa’s sleigh, as it came down the main street in the town’s shopping district. Compared to Detroit’s nationally-televised parade, my hometown’s parade was far from glamorous. In the city, Santa’s sleigh was glitzy, and the realistic reindeer looked like they were flying down Woodward Avenue. The float was the perfect ambassador to welcome Christmas back to the Motor City. On the other hand, the sleigh float in my hometown was plain. Nothing about the reindeer seemed magical. They were straight-legged, literally just standing there like the whitetail deer we were so used to seeing in Michigan. But that was part of the appeal of the parade. We loved seeing those deer, because they were ours. Detroit could keep their fancy reindeer, because we had a fleet of our own.
However, right around the time when I moved out, our little parade got a brand-new sleigh float. The new reindeer were sleek. They were in action, zooming along the road, ushering in the Christmas season. I’m pretty sure Rudolph’s nose even lights up. And even though such updates always deem themselves necessary, those old, stiff reindeer were historic. They were an homage to the past. In my eyes, the fancy new reindeer are just an example of how different society is now than when I was growing up.
I get it. Change is part of life, and if a culture didn’t advance, it would get left behind. A newer, stronger society would take its place. But I believe in honoring tradition, and looking to history as a way of learning from our mistakes. I believe in valuing the humanity of those around me, and I think that’s becoming an increasingly rare trait these days. But now more than ever is when we need it.
Our society is rapidly advancing. Our technology makes us feel connected and tuned in to a culture that is, slowly but surely, promoting a sense of detachment from one another. We constantly feel rushed, like we must hurry to accomplish all of our tasks for the day, only to face insomnia at night. We want to have connections, but only on a superficial level. We shy away from depth and meaning in our relationships. We want to take the easy way out. We don’t want to be left alone with our own thoughts, so we retreat to a comfortable mindset, which is usually scrolling through Facebook, tuning out the world around us. We make excuses for ourselves. We make plans, and we cancel them. We want to be coddled and told that we are appreciated, when in reality, we have all but lost respect for one another. We don’t challenge ourselves, and we find little joy in life.
We need space. As the saying goes, “The human spirit needs places where nature has not been rearranged by the hand of man.” But we are eating up the land at an alarming rate. Maybe it’s because people are living longer, or more people are wanting their own space, or just because there are too many people, but we are sacrificing land for the sake of blacktop and sidewalk. We are developing areas that were previously uninhabited, while we continue to pour into areas that are already overcrowded. We are more disconnected from the land than we have ever been in the past. So what’s the solution?
Get out into the land we have left. Maybe part of the reason that we’ve forgotten the concept of humanity is because we are constantly overloaded by humans. We have lost respect for each other, because we are always surrounded with each other. It is said that when you get away from something, you learn how much you really appreciate it. I think that saying can refer to both people and land.
Land teaches respect. Over spring break, my roommate and I hiked rim-to-rim at the Grand Canyon. It was a doozy, to say the least, but it was also a thrill, and certainly an item off my bucket list. The views, the people we met along the way, and the mental and physical discipline made it one of the most memorable experiences of my life. But I think, the most meaningful part, the thing that really made the experience sink in for me, was turning around at the trailhead after my last steps out of the canyon. I saw the entire canyon open up before me, and I realized that I had been to the bottom of it. One of the rangers we met, Marty, told us that the average visitor only stays from 3 to 5 hours, which is time enough to see the view from the rim, which is absolutely breathtaking. People wait a lifetime to see it.
But, we are shaped by everything that we do, and we allow our experiences to become a part of what we see. For me, that view, looking back on one of the seven natural wonders of the world, had a whole new meaning. It was no longer just an incredible view, it was also something to which I became attached. A part of me became the Grand Canyon, and the Grand Canyon became a part of me.
I think some people, after hiking rim-to-rim, would look back on it with a sense of accomplishment and pride in the fact that they had “conquered” the Canyon. Maybe that’s how I would have felt, even just a few months before. But, when I tried to take in that vastness that words literally can’t describe, I looked at the canyon with a deep, quiet respect. I think if there’s anything the land can teach you, especially wilderness like deserts and mountains, it’s that we are nothing. We are so small compared to it, and we have no power over it. Certainly no staying power. We have to work with it in order to survive, and that accounts both for our own survival, and the land’s survival in the form of conservation and protection.
We have to pass that sense of awe and appreciation and respect on to future generations, because respect for the land can lead to respect in a lot of other areas in life. The empowerment you feel by experiencing nature and wilderness leads to self-respect, because you know you can do things for yourself. The appreciation you gain from the land, and the things it teaches you, leads to respect for and the ability to learn from others. And land will always give you a greater respect for nature itself, as well as the desire to get back out there.
It’s amazing how something that covers only 20 percent of the Earth’s surface can teach you so much about what the world lacks. And since there’s so little land and so little respect in the world, it’s so important to experience as much as you can, as often as you can, and spread that news wherever you go. Get others out there with you. Motivate them to go on their own. Give people just a taste of the natural world, and help them get back to their roots. More often than not, great things will come of it.
President Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “If future generations are to remember us more with gratitude than sorrow, we must achieve more than just the miracles of technology. We must also leave them a glimpse of the world as it was created, not just as it looked when we got through with it.” Let’s take this chance to look back on history and honor tradition. Let’s put our phones down and get back outside. Let’s learn from the land, and let’s start a revolution of respect in this world.
(“Momma once told me, you’re already home where you feel loved. I am lost in my mind. I get lost in my mind.” – The Head and the Heart)
(“Being brought to the end of oneself is the terrifying (and enthralling) possibility that the desert enjoins. Here it is that we enter an interior wilderness more fearful and promising than anything charted on terrestrial maps. The wildest, most dangerous trails are always the ones within.” – Belden C. Lane)
(“The wilderness will lead you to your heart, where I will speak.”)