'Leave No Trace' vs. Traditional Ecological Knowledge
“The rich knowledge of how nature works and how to judiciously harvest and steward its plants and animals without destroying them was hard-earned; it was the product of keen observation, patience, experimentation, and long-term relationships with plants and animals. It was a knowledge built on a history, gained through many generations of learning passed down by elders about practical as well as spiritual practices. This knowledge today is commonly called ‘traditional ecological knowledge.’”
-M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild
The Fallacy of Leaving No Trace
As Westerners, we are taught from a very early age that there are two kinds of places in the world: “people places” and “wild places.”
The people places are the cities and towns where we live and operate. The wild places are the parks and forest preserves outside of town where we occasionally visit for recreation.
In our cities we observe herds of people, trash in the streets, smoke and fumes emanating from exhaust pipes, smells of human and industrial waste, and grids constructed of concrete, metal and glass that confuse and disorient us.
It makes sense that we would want to keep all of that separate from the “wilderness,” right? To preserve those wild places in their “natural” state; to “take only pictures, and leave only footprints.”
The “Leave No Trace” ethos is what logically follows from this line of thinking. LNT is a set of principles that help people to understand how to minimize their impact in outdoor recreational spaces, and on the surface this is obviously a good thing: nobody wants to see more trash, more graffiti, or more damaging campfires in the backcountry.
Unfortunately, this concept is built around two major conceptual flaws: that outdoor recreational spaces are “natural, pristine wilderness,” and that there is no connection between these “wild places” and the “people places” that surround them.
What difference does one left-behind beer can make to a creek that’s polluted with heavy metals from a coal-burning power plant nearby?
The late Stephen M. Meyer, in his book The End of the Wild, summarily rejects this idea of pristine wilderness:
“Fundamental is the notion of a landscape where the handprint of humanity is invisible—and specifically where the forces of natural selection smother those of human selection. The problem is that there is virtually no place left on Earth that fits this definition. From the most remote corners of the frozen Arctic to the darkest interiors of the Amazon’s tropical rainforests, the impact of humanity now drives biological systems. What separates the Brazilian rainforest from New York’s Adirondack Forest Preserve from Manhattan’s Central Park is only a matter of degree.”
I appreciate the good intentions of “Leave No Trace,” but I feel that it is misguided at best, and leads to a fundamentally flawed view of nature at worst. There is no place on Earth that does not feel the impact of modern human exploitation. We have already “left our traces” everywhere.
Of course, I am not arguing that we ought to go out into national parks and forest preserves and wreck them the way that we wreck human-dominated spaces. But our current “hands-off” approach (ignoring fire suppression and rampant herbicide application) to wild land management only damages and degrades those spaces in ways that we Westerners don’t recognize. At the same time, we implicitly give ourselves permission to trash our built environments, reasoning that they are not “natural” anyway, so who cares?
Apart From Nature, Or a Part of Nature?
Indigenous peoples of North America don’t generally differentiate between “wild” and human-dominated spaces, because they know that this is a false dichotomy: humans live in nature—where else would we go?
When we choose not to interact with the landscapes outside of built human spaces, we are ignoring our unique ecological role as judicious stewards, passed down to us by our ancestors over the course of hundreds of thousands of years.
“Interestingly, contemporary Indians often use the word wilderness as a negative label for land that has not been taken care of by humans for a long time,” Anderson tells us in Tending The Wild.
“A common sentiment among California Indians is that a hands-off approach to nature has promoted feral landscapes that are inhospitable to life. ‘The white man sure ruined this country,’ said James Rust, a Southern Sierra Miwok elder. ‘It’s turned back to wilderness.’”
Ecologically speaking, we human animals are defined by our generalist feeding habits, our advanced tool culture, and our capacity for significant ecosystem disruption. We are what’s known as “ecosystem engineers,” manipulators of physical spaces not unlike beavers with their dams or prairie dogs with their tunnels.
We sharpen rocks, shape metal, and hunt anything that moves; we slash understories, we till bare ground, we divert rivers and streams; we make fires and build shelters and shrines wherever we go. These are the chief talents that we exploited to suppress and outcompete the world’s lesser apex predators, and these same tendencies now threaten to cause the collapse of the entire biosphere as we know it.
We alone have the capacity to fundamentally reshape the landscapes that we inhabit, and for the last several millennia we’ve been doing this on a global scale, with results varying from “more or less sustainable” to “utterly catastrophic.” Where does our modern culture land on that sliding scale, would you say?
Exploitation vs. Stewardship
In 2014, the United Nations reported that if soil degradation and erosion continues on its current trajectory, our planet’s agricultural lands will no longer be able to produce food in 60 years. In other words, humans will have to figure out some other way to acquire food by 2075, because we won’t be able to grow it anymore—at least not the way we currently do it, and not anywhere near the same volume of production.
There are ways of managing and working with land that allow us humans to receive what we need while leaving room for nature’s ability to recover, regenerate, and replenish; in fact, when we do an especially good job as stewards we can actually enhance biodiversity while still providing for our own needs in abundance.
As Anderson points out, many indigenous peoples believe that when humans are gone from an area for too long, they lose the knowledge of how to work with that space, and the plants and animals spiritually retreat or hide from us.
What this alludes to is the fact that careful human stewardship can allow an ecosystem to flourish, and that to leave that same space untouched causes it to revert back to “wilderness” that is inhospitable to both humans and the diversity of life that we nurture when we’re at our best.
Those cultures who’ve done this better than us were successful on the merits of their hard-earned “traditional ecological knowledge” that was passed down and improved upon across countless generations. Our ability to “store” survival skills in the forms of rituals, traditions, and stories is one of our greatest assets, but only when handled intentionally and in good faith.
The culture we see around us today, whose proximate origins you might trace back to the European Enlightenment most recently, is one that has spiraled out of control as a result of its flat rejection of cultural traditions and “received wisdom.” There’s no doubt that this led to a flourishing of independent and critical thought on a scale that the world had never seen before; but at what cost?
At what point did we adopt the cultural meme of nature as an inanimate object to be manipulated, controlled, suppressed, and exploited? When did we cease to view the natural world as the source of all that sustains, to be revered and respectfully cared for? It’s worth considering, but probably impossible to pin down.
In any case, the fact is that if a meme, like a gene, leads to greater survival and reproduction success for the current generation, then it is more likely to be passed on. Long-term consequences do not come in to play, because cultural innovations, by necessity, are adaptations to the current climate; they would not be relevant or useful if they only appealed to generations who haven’t been born yet.
So it makes sense that our myopic game of ecocidal resource extraction would spread through human populations if it meant that those groups were more successful today than their counterparts who maintain traditional ecological practices of moderation and a spiritual reverence for the natural world.
You might think of the environmental crises we face today as the tax man coming to collect the money that we owe on behalf of all the generations before us who never paid up. Our inherited ecological debt is unfathomably large, and it’s going to require a long-term, multigenerational solution if it can be resolved.
Tending the End of the Wild
Recognizing that we are not apart from nature, we must be intentional about how we leave our traces on the landscape so that future generations might also be able to sustain themselves. We can tend the wild and leave it better than we found it, if we are willing to learn from the examples set by indigenous peoples around the world.
We Westerners are only now, in recent years, becoming aware of the extent to which the landscapes of the “New World” were intentionally shaped by the native peoples over thousands of years to produce an abundance of resources while promoting maximum biodiversity, century after century.
The traditional ecological knowledge of how to tend the wild in this way has been all but eradicated along with those people and the ecosystems they fostered – but it has not been lost yet. It is up to us to learn from the examples set by indigenous people from our specific bioregions, or else their ways are at risk of being swallowed up and eliminated by the dominant culture in the near future.
Of course I don’t hold any notion that it’s my “responsibility” as a white male to preserve someone else’s culture, but I do believe that it is imperative for us to learn from their practices in order to transition our culture away from the impending collapse on the horizon.
I am not concerned with questions of “cultural appropriation” because I do not advocate adopting anyone else’s culture wholesale, or picking and choosing customs or traditions for aesthetic reasons – this is a matter of survival. I’m also not arguing in favor of “returning” to any past iteration of human culture, because much of what worked in the past will not work today, and we’ll need novel solutions to meet the problems of tomorrow.
We need to be pragmatic in learning from those people who know how to work with the land more sustainably than us, then take what we’ve learned and integrate it into our current modality. This is one of the first steps our generation needs to take to move forward in the transitional culture that we are fostering for our descendants.
Our success will be measured by how much we improve the quality of our lives today while simultaneously minimizing our impact and regenerating degraded landscapes for the sake of our children. We will not see the world we wish to create, but we can take the necessary steps forward, leaving behind traces of beauty and abundance to be carefully nurtured wherever we go.
Reading from the book of traditional ecological knowledge, we can begin to write the next chapter of our culture that reintroduces nature as central to our lives, and re-casts us in our role as careful yet integral stewards of our surroundings.
The wilderness is gone. Long live the wilderness!
About the Author
Sam Sycamore is a writer and homesteader located in Simpsonville, Kentucky. He helps tend to a small-scale market garden alongside his wife Brooke, while propagating edible perennials and raising chickens in their backyard. To learn more about Sam and Brooke's story, click here. Contact Sam here, and keep up with his daily adventures on Instagram @doityoursammy.