“Nowadays almost all man’s improvements, so called, as the building of houses, and the cutting down of the forest and of all the large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap. A people who would begin by burning the fences and let the forest stand! I saw the fences half consumed, their ends lost in the middle of the prairie, and some worldly miser with a surveyor looking after his bounds, while heaven had taken place around him, and he did not see the angels going to and fro, but was looking for an old post-hole in the midst of paradise. I looked again, and saw him standing in the middle of a boggy, stygian fen, surrounded by devils, and he had found his bounds without a doubt, three little stones, where a stake had been driven, and looking nearer, I saw that the Prince of Darkness was his surveyor”– Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”
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Emerging from the protective vessel that is my four-wheel drive crossover, I am immediately greeted by the crisp, cool morning air: a reprieve from the harsh temperatures of summer. The inviting smell of the many juniper trees that reside in this landscape engulfs my nose. It is a familiar scent that reminds me of the trips my family and I used to take up to Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire when we were still living on the east coast of this country and I was still a young girl. Now, in the western state of Utah, I am engaging in a different kind of forestry. Instead of the paper birches, the sugar maples, and the blue spruces of New Hampshire, I encounter lodge-pole pines, rocky mountain junipers, and the abundant quaking aspen during my explorations of the Wasatch Mountain range.
The Wasatch has become my new home. The first time I visited these mountains I was only 8 years old. My family and I had come here on a vacation in the month of February. My mother had recently decided that we, as a family, were all going to learn how to ski. We had been skiing only twice before, at King Pine Mountain in New Hampshire. We were inexperienced. My dad was a particular eye sore on the hill with his decision to wear a pair of L.L.Bean flannel-lined jeans the first day on the slopes. We probably looked like the stereotypical East Coast family that decided to come to one of the steepest ski areas in the United States to learn how to ski. I am thankful though, despite how embarrassing we looked, that we did, because this place grew on me and eventually became a special one, embedding its charm deep into the recesses of my mind.
On this particular September morning the aspens seem like confetti, their many leaves shaking and flowing with the cold breeze, a million pieces of green, yellow, and even crimson red paper flying through the air, a clear sign that the season is in a state of transition, the warm summer sun fading into autumn, the trees mimicking this fade. A feeling of joy wells up inside me upon realizing this change, for I know that it won’t be long until I am on a chairlift again. I picture myself slowing moving up the mountain in unbearable anticipation of immediately going down again—on my own accord, sliding across the snow and hearing the comforting crunch under my skis. However, I can’t help but think that this change is premature. I am used to the mountains waiting until the end of the month of September to start undergoing this yearly transition. So I think to myself, why now?
Of course this is just an example of myself wanting to exert my own level of control over something much greater than I. The earth will change when it wants to, when it needs to, despite my being ready for it or not. I am unable to control this change in the earth, just like I am unable to control that change within myself. I too, have begun to change recently. I have changed from a frightened college freshman into a confident and unwavering young woman. I have begun to heal, to shed, to fling off all of the unnecessary worries and concerns I once had as a new college student. I don’t care if I have no idea what I’m doing anymore, I will find my way eventually.
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Silver Lake, the area I chose for this early morning excursion, is a medium-sized lake in Big Cottonwood Canyon along the Wasatch Front, only 45 minutes from downtown Salt Lake City. I walk along the boardwalk, towards the body of water, thinking it’s strange that someone would place a boardwalk in such a beautiful area. The wooden bridges look artificial, implanted into the natural scenery.
I decided to come here on this particular day due to a recommendation of a friend. We were talking the night before in her little underground apartment, both of us curled up like cats on her couch, about the notion of healing. We talked about how crucial it is for us as women to heal continually throughout our lives—that the world may be a bit harder for us to navigate through because of our assigned gender and that we must care for ourselves during this particularly difficult time. A misogynist was in the White House. My friend recounted to me how she felt the day after election night— how she felt like there were hands clasped around her throat, squeezing and tightening very slowly throughout the entire day. She cried in the bathroom of her work a few times that day. “Walking in the woods is the only thing that makes me feel better,” she told me.
A few days ago, while I was walking in this same spot, I came upon a man and woman dressed in their wedding attire, taking pictures, I assume, for their wedding invitations. I was careful to not disturb their pictures but quickly found that I could not pass by because the woman’s long train on her dress covered the entire wooden walkway. The stark image of the white, lacy, delicate fabric of her dress against the rustic and scratched wooden walkway appeared strange. It looked so deeply out of place. The woman even seemed angry when I asked them if they would mind moving it, shooting me a glare of disdain. Nevertheless I pressed on, thinking to myself, “It’s bad luck for him to see you in it before the big day.”
Why must we fulfill our desire as curious human beings to place a boardwalk in the middle of these wetlands? Why not instead create a walkway along the edge of the lake on a trail? Doesn’t this wooden construction disturb the organisms that live in this place? All these questions begin to fill my mind. And it was then that I began to think that we crave satisfaction—that it is an innate desire for us to have instant gratification, that our needs trump the needs of the other living things on this planet, and that altering the land is just one of the ways in which we feed this need. I realized that we are acting as if we have authority over this land, the land that we imagine as “untouched.”
I realized that we are not unlike, Thoreau’s devilish surveyors.
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The Oxford English Dictionary defines a surveyor as “one who has the oversight or superintendence of a person or thing; an overseer, a supervisor.” But this definition has ignored a crucial implication of the word. As Henry David Thoreau implies, a surveyor may have a formidable and even frightening nature. A surveyor is intimidating. A surveyor has a level of power that one might equate to that of a god. They can exercise their will over the thing they supervise, deciding upon a whim, what that thing will and will not do. A surveyor has authority.
Human beings commonly act as surveyors. We behave in an authoritarian way with nature, as Thoreau so starkly describes above, especially when trying to maintain bounds of private land. This aggressive behavior, this relationship with the land is seen as negative to ecologists and conservationists, and notably to Thoreau himself. The phrase, “the Prince of Darkness was his surveyor,” is an intriguing one, for Thoreau is equating the act of surveying to the Devil himself. He sees surveying as ignorance of the benefits of the beauty of untouched land. The imagery of the “angels going to and fro,” “that heaven had taken place around him” in the natural landscape, shows how Thoreau views human’s acting as surveyors. He believes that this lack of awareness that he attributes to his fellows is cause for concern. We are disrupting the Wild. This behavior must change.
Thoreau’s concept of Wild is nothing unprecedented, although for his time it might have been. He notes that the Wild, over time, is increasingly at stake. He believes “the building of houses, and the cutting down of the forest and of all the large trees” is what is causing the Wild to decline. He adds that this alteration only “makes [the Wild] more and more tame and cheap,” insinuating that land’s value is only monetary.
Historically, human beings have desired to conquer much of this earth. Land acquisition was highly valued and the worth of a person was determined by how much land you owned and whether or not you could own land at all. The first Europeans to settle the New World came because land was abundant and ready for the taking—of course, Native Americans were wrongfully ignored and their claim was viewed as nonexistent. Native Americans’ relationship with the earth is something to strive for. They respected Mother Nature in ways the Europeans thought was savage. The irony is almost too much to comprehend.
The Europeans undoubtedly took it upon themselves to be the surveyors of this New World. Disregarding all creatures that had been here, they dug postholes, built fences, built houses, cut down trees, and eventually created concrete cities. Humans are the self-proclaimed surveyors of any and all “untouched” land that has ever existed. They measure out the bounds and measure out the value of this land and then sell it accordingly. There is no such thing as private property. Every piece of “private” property belongs to the state, that is, the respective country whose own bounds just so happen to include that piece of land.
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However, during this particular walk on this particular September morning, I realize that these creatures, the organisms and the life that lives in the “untouched” parts of this country, act as surveyors as well.
I approach a small cove on the south end of the lake and begin to hear some motion in the water to my side. Upon my inquiry, I see that groups of ducks—mallards to be exact—are nibbling on some vegetation at the surface of the water. Breakfast, I think to myself. They appear to be undeterred by my presence, not wasting an ounce of energy to meet my gaze. Too engulfed in their morning meal, the mallards make little progress in their movements in an effort, I imagine, to get every little piece of nutrient from the plume of algae. They are surveyors, sifting through the vegetation, picking apart the pieces, and taking the beneficial bites for themselves. However, their efforts are not in vain, for their meal seems to clean the top of the water, clearing it of the algae and allowing the sun to provide light for plants beneath the surface. In my head, I can hear the voice of a particularly influential science teacher from my years in high school at Rowland Hall, saying, “here we have an example of the ducks providing themselves with nutrients while also benefitting the larger vegetation community, a symbiosis of sorts.” That word—symbiosis—causes my mind to feel full, a signal that the action I am witnessing is more important than one would initially think. Moving on with my excursion, I listen carefully in search of other animals to observe, of other examples of symbiosis.
I pick up on a faint buzzing sound near a densely packed area of wildflowers. The last of the season, I think to myself. Their fat, round bodies bobbing up and down from the tops of the buds. I wonder how the delicate stalks of the flowers can hold such a seemingly dense insect without failure. Some of the buds seem wilted to me, but the bees pay no mind to these differences, their only motive to transfer pollen from one to another. Funny how the bees have no prejudices towards the flowers, pay no mind to the fact that some look less attractive than the others. This activity never ceases to amaze me, the capacity for busyness of such a small organism. How do they move with such determination? Their movement almost appears to be mindless, as they are concerned only with their life having meaning in the task of keeping the ecosystem in check. I come to learn after some research that many of these bees are in fact solitary, living on their own instead of in colonies, but still managing to work together to accomplish this task. I am reminded of one of my favorite novels, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. When I was younger, I used to pretend I was the main character Lilly. I related to her in a special way. I felt like the loss she felt from not having a mother was something I felt at times as well, since my mother was absent periodically through my childhood.
One of the largest themes throughout the book is the notion of freedom and confinement. There is a spectrum, I believe, with these concepts—absolute freedom and autonomy on one side and absolute confinement and entrapment on the other. The Boatwright sisters all symbolize different places on the spectrum, sometime their positions moving from one end to the other. I think bees symbolize a mix of the two concepts; for they are free in the sense that they seem as if they could fly wherever they wish but are also confined in their loyalties to the pollen from flowers. I used to be deathly afraid of bees when I was little. I thought their only aim was to sting any person they came across, even if they didn’t necessarily want to. I thought they’d just buzz along and sting, sting, sting, because God gave them stingers. As I grew older, I got over that fear, but I think I had this idea of them because bees symbolized to me what I thought of myself: that I was a little person who went through life stinging others and not really understanding why. I’ve come to love the plump little creatures. So much so that I’ve even considered getting a tattoo of a bee on my arm to symbolize my own stinging personality at times.
These bees are surveyors, taking inventory of the flowers that they come upon and changing their pathway to be most effective in making their rounds. However, this form of symbiosis with the land merits this surveying because both bee and flower benefit from the action. I remember the example of bee and flower being on a test in the 4th grade for symbiotic relationships.
Moving on with my walk, I begin to make my way away from the lake, following the trail south into a dense patch of woods. The tart and earthy smell of the algae keeps me connected to the lake on this digression into the trees. I begin to walk at a steadier pace because the shade of the trees made the air even chillier than it was by the water. My light puffy sweater isn’t doing its job, and my faster movement is in an effort to keep my comfort at a certain level—understanding that comfort is often a relative term when being in the Wild.
As I continue through the denser forestry, I began to focus my gaze on the gaps between the many aspen trees. These gaps looked like small slivers of space, not readily noticed if you weren’t entirely looking at them. The trees stood together so closely, I recalled a moment in class when someone made a remark about how aspens are indeed one unit, deeply rooted and all connected in an underground root system. Suddenly, this thought was disrupted by the faint sound of rustling in the patch of dense brush to my right, uphill. I stopped to listen closer. To my enjoyment I spotted the culprit of this rustling: a mother deer and her fawn who was no bigger than a dog and about as tall as a Labrador retriever. They were foraging through the brush, surveying the vegetation, all the while nibbling on branches of tiny berries. I stood, motionless, savoring this moment. The soft, golden light from the morning sun was ever so slightly pouring down through the trees above. Here was an instance where “heaven had taken place” and I could “see the angels going to and fro,” dancing around these delicate creatures in an effort to preserve every ounce of divinity that their vessels held. Every crane of their necks to nibble the plump, blush-red berries from the stalks of the bushes had an intimacy that I can only describe as being otherworldly. Here, in this secluded area of forest, only yards away from the man-made wooden boardwalk, was an instance of pure Wild.
I stood there a long while, watching these godly creatures make their rounds on the morning berry bushes. Then, as I dared to step closer, I stepped on a piece of dry wood, which made a particularly dull noise that nevertheless reached their ears. They stopped, their previously flowing movements, looked at me with a gaze that could stop every motion in the whole world, and darted faster than I had ever known possible into the greater abyss of green. I continued to stand in my place for a bit longer, in the unrealistic hopes that they might return.
Finally understanding that moments end as quickly as they begin, I pressed on through the landscape. I was nearing the end of this forest portion of my walk when I realized that large nuts were dropping heavily from the trees above. I knew then that I had stepped into the realm of a group of chipmunks, interrupting their morning gathering of nuts. The heavy objects were plopping on the dense ground that was still damp from the morning dew. I chuckled to myself, as these creatures tend to have a humorous effect on us. The business of these small rodents, the fast movements, leaping from tree to tree, branch to branch, filled me with such pleasure that I had not known I had—another wondrous example of surveyors in the Wild. My capacity to understand this landscape was widening with every step I took, for I am but a visitor in this space.
~ ~ ~
When my family and I first moved to Salt Lake City from Baltimore, we were astonished to behold the amount of Wild land we thought Utah had to offer. I remember sitting on the plane looking down on the picturesque landscape as we approached. The land, there was so much of it! Miles and miles it seemed, of untouched mountainous land—a drastic difference from the familiar scenery of the East coast, where people seemed to take up every last inch of free space. “People live on top of one another,” my mother would often say and it did indeed feel that way. That feeling only amplified when we realized how much free space we saw that Utah was hiding, almost as if we had been cheated all those years.
The land struck me as dangerous, though, at first. It intimidated me to think that there was so much distance between cities, between towns. The gaps of untouched wilderness seemed to be larger than what was comfortable for my small, naive mind—especially down in southern Utah. My discomfort was a result of my realization just how small and insignificant I truly was in comparison to the world. There was so much land, so many organisms that lived in it, and I was just one simple girl. My problems, my actions, and my life were meaningless. Why should I ever worry about anything at all?
When I realized after living in the Salt Lake area for a few years that people actually venture out into this wilderness quite often, I was astonished. I could not believe that people willingly put their lives, their safety, on hold while they experienced what the Wild had to offer. Soon I began to understand that they didn’t put their lives on hold when they did this but actually were living a great deal more when they were outdoors. My mind began to open to the idea that the Wild is nothing to fear—that in fact, it is something to revere, to experience wholeheartedly, and to live.
However, I also began to learn through my Wild excursions that there is a code, a set of ethical rules that should be followed when crossing the threshold between civilization and Wild. And not everyone adheres to these rules.
~ ~ ~
On my walk, I witnessed examples of this negative behavior we humans have with the land—the boardwalk and the wedding couple only being a few. I did come across, however, another group of people who were exhibiting ways in which we disrupt this sense of Wild.
Towards the end of this walk, I began to pick up on sounds of a group of about four to five people—the exact number I do not know—coming up behind me. They were laughing, shrieking almost, about nothing in particular. The sounds were most likely caused by enjoyment of one another’s company and I did not initially feel contempt towards them. However, as time passed and my strides became faster and faster, I realized that I was unconsciously trying to gain distance on them in the hopes that their shrieks would cease to disturb the silence I experienced earlier in my walk.
They were indeed sullying my experience of the Wild in that moment, thus in a sense robbing me of my reason for walking in the first place. I had not come to this spot to be rushed in my movements. I had come seeking silence, seeking solitude. These individuals, unknowingly of course, had ruined it. Here is an instance in which my own authority, my own dominating personality comes to the forefront of my being. I myself, do not own this portion of land. It is not my private property. So why should I feel this arrogance and superiority towards others who may be enjoying it?
As I approached my car, the vessel that transports me to and from inside spaces, for these are mostly the only spaces in which I exist, I came upon a singular sign that read the following phrase: “Please stay on the trail, switchback shortcutting destroys the vegetation.” I couldn’t help but feel upset and noticed that I had audibly scoffed, for the idea that returned to my mind was the one that had entered it at the beginning of my walk, “Well what about the fucking wooden walkway?” That thing is no trail. It is an eyesore in the middle of heaven.
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