“Leave No Trace”: When American Transcendentalism Leads to Wilderness Preservation

Photo taken north of Damascus, VA

Having hiked over 500 miles of the Appalachian Trail this summer, dutifully carrying a copy of Thoreau’s writings with me, there are certain habits I’ve cultivated with a now-ingrained daily routine that I’ll take with me off the trail. The “Leave No Trace” policy of American hiker culture is what keeps the Appalachian Trail special for everyone because the wilderness can’t sustain a massive hiker population each summer — waste just doesn’t decompose that quickly — especially on a trail so frequented it stretches like a hiker’s highway from Georgia to Maine, supporting thousands each year. It might seem strange to nature-lovers now but there was a time before national parks, shelters with outhouses, and the “Leave No Trace” rules when hikers would defaecate on the trail, leave garbage everywhere, and feed wild animals (unfortunately some still do). The trail, once popularized, did expose more Americans to wild nature and small agrarian towns, but it also began to stink and show signs of excessive use, nearly ruining the intended experience entirely. The Wilderness Preservation Movement first protected the wilderness from deforestation, dams, and urbanization, and then later established common practices to protect the wilderness from the burden of supporting large numbers of nature-loving hikers themselves. Before I get into the connection I see between literature and trail, let me quickly summarize what “Leave No Trace” means (if you’re familiar with it, skip ahead to the next section).

Photo taken at Mountaineer Shelter, TN

Leave No Trace Behind

#1. Pack it in, pack it out! Whatever food or gear you bring to the trail, you must bring out. Many hikers keep a plastic Ziploc bag for wrappers and other trash, unloading them whenever a parking lot has a trash can or when they get into town. My friend Flick used the same bag for trash all the way from Georgia to Maine. While not everyone follows this policy, it is meant to include everything: pits, nut and seed shells, bottles and cans, tissues, matches, used Band-Aids, and Q-tips…everything.

#2. That said, people try to burn their trash so they don’t have to carry it but you shouldn’t burn things that aren’t burnable. The plastic remains warped in the fire pit, so there are clear traces left behind, not to mention the chemicals being released into the fresh mountain air.

Sunset and campfire at Beauty Spot, TN

#3. Bury human waste. Some campsites and shelters have “toilet areas” that quickly become mine fields if human waste isn’t properly buried. It stinks, and even a privy without duff (the partly decomposed soil and leaves on the ground mixed in with a compostable privy) can be smelled from 100 yards away at a shelter. 

#4. A fed bear is a dead bear. Bears know that people have food, and this June was particularly difficult because the acorns were bad this year and due to the warm weather bears came out of hibernation early. Waiting for the berries to ripen, bears in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia have been walking into campsites, shaking trees where food is hung, tearing into tents (one hiker wearing coconut-scented lotion was bitten by a bear in his tent in the Smokies), and even stealing packs left unattended (one bear den was found with over 20 backpacks). Hikers should cook away from camp, and either hang their food, waste and scented things in a bear bag (mice will eat through a sleeping bag to get to a wrapper) or use bear canisters. Never bury the food you don’t eat (see #1 above), especially when the invasive species of wild boar in NC and TN will come dig it up. 

Woods south of Wapiti Shelter in Virginia

The Lasting Influence of Henry David Thoreau & Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Through John Muir and his leadership in wilderness preservation, the influence of Thoreau and Emerson has continued on in the hearts of hikers across the country whether they have read the American Transcendentalists (as John Muir had) or not. As I’ve told my students, you don’t have to be a hiker or “outdoors-y” to spend an hour in nature and feel somewhat different. It’s a transcendental experience; after all, Emerson equated nature with ecstasy. This was a feeling Muir wanted more people to experience for themselves so they would understand that the wilderness is something worth preserving. That’s why John Muir took President Teddy Roosevelt into the wilderness to turn that feeling into legal action (and apparently the President would disappear for days on end to go hunt those wild boar in North Carolina, according to the locals I met near Fontana Dam). 

Laurel Falls near Hampton, TN

More people on the trail, it seems, are familiar with John Muir than Thoreau or Emerson because of the PCT, also called the “John Muir Trail,” on the West Coast. The trail was featured in the recent film Wild (2014), starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed. John Muir was influenced by Thoreau and Emerson, as Roderick Nash has shown in Wilderness and the American Mind, inspired by a similar love of nature. Thoreau, years before Muir, trekked into the New England wilderness for weeks at a time to get away from society and commune with nature. However, he and Emerson were never really that far from civilization…and neither are we today, something Muir anticipated. 

Campsite on the Osgood Trail in New Hampshire, 2015

On the one hand, the wilderness was already disappearing in Thoreau’s time. Even on a hike off path he would eventually cross into someone’s property. On the other hand, both Thoreau and Emerson advocated for democracy, personal accountability, and self-reliant participation in society once one had discovered one’s inner voice (most likely to be found through experience, often in nature). While Thoreau and Emerson advocated for a balance between wild and civilian life, Muir was more likely to go off the grid for months at a time, deeper into the wilderness, fully embracing the religion of rocks and mountains, cherishing the wild landscape over civilization. But when I think about “Leave No Trace” and the Appalachian Trail, it all starts with Thoreau and Emerson for me because I see hikers sharing transcendental experiences everywhere, talking about the views of a lifetime, the “trail magic” they found, and “trail angels” they’ve met along the way. That, I think, was the original reason — the good feeling — Muir wanted more people to share. 

Overmountain Shelter, a converted barn near Roan Mt. in Tennessee

Society in Nature

On my last night on the trail (at least for now), I woke up to find a friendly resident bat in the Laurel Creek Shelter eating all of the bugs for me. As Thoreau writes in Walden, there is much society to be found in nature, from the embrace of a rain storm to the songs of birds. But Thoreau also heard the clang of farm equipment, the rolling wheels of a cart in the distance, and the trains enormous wall of sound that disturbed him even in his remove from human society at Walden Pond. As I wrote in my last post, it’s hard to feel that far removed when the sounds of cars and planes encroach on the natural soundscape. However, there was a point (after 35 days in the wilderness and about 5 days, or 83 miles, of hiking solo) at which my attitude about human society changed. I began writing in my journal questions about whether what I was doing was selfish, and concerns about the world and the people in it when news would reach me three days late about a recent tragedy.

Bird on top of Mt. Pierce in New Hampshire, 2015

While I loved waking up to the sounds of birds, spotting a fox, a skunk, a doe, or two cub bears climbing a tree, there are such beautiful sights and experiences in that 83 miles of backcountry that would have been even lovelier and even more magical if I had been able to share them with another human. I had been hiking in small groups but the hiker season in Virginia ends in June (and for good reason–it has rained at least twice on me every day and been unforgivably hot and humid), so I’ve had some time to reflect, in solitude, why I came out here in the first place. I felt ready to come home and spend time with my friends and family, ready to go back to work and excited to implement new ideas for my fall syllabus, and even eager to return to New York City and the vibrant and diverse urban life again (never thought I’d say that–never!). So the pull to do something now that I feel re-centered has brought me closer in thinking to the emphasis on activity in Emerson’s writing, especially his frequent metaphorical use of polarity (like the pull and push between nature and society that I’m still trying to navigate) and I feel drawn again to William James’s pragmatic method. 

Teaching American Transcendentalism, Pragmatism & Environment

Thoreau’s lasting impression on wilderness preservation balanced with his emphasis on civil disobedience has brought this hiker back to civilization in a Muir-like fashion, ready to teach inner city students about the crucial role environment has played in American identity formation and to show them (through a nature walk experience) why it is worth preserving.

Open ridge south of Chestnut Knob Shelter in Virginia

The natural landscape of this country shaped American identity, which at its very center has always had a religious strain. The common denominator, regardless of denomination or variety of atheism, is that nature brings us some inner peace as well as a sense of connection with the world around us. It is the two together that link American Transcendentalism to Pragmatism: transcending the noise and discovering one’s inner voice and ambitions leads to activism if one follows through and listens to that inner voice. Spending time in nature has the potential to cultivate not selfishness but a renewed energy and enthusiasm for action and participation that grows out of a centered individual’s foundation or inner truth. It is a romantic, optimistic notion but I think we could use some hope and renewed energy. So take a saunter, and listen to what you think.

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