Musings of a Trail Ambassador

by Melissa Petrich, Friends of the Inyo Trail Ambassador.

As I patrolled the Horton Creek Trail I was reminded of a statement a friend made a few years back: “Environmentalists are the most selfish people.” At the time, this statement took me aback. Confused, I decided not to think about it too much, but here I am years later with that comment still in the back of my mind. His statement was quickly followed with, “Environmentalists are not trying to conserve the earth for the earth’s sake, but for the sake of humans. We are conserving it for ourselves and for our future generations. That makes us selfish.” By trying to slow the impacts of climate change, by preserving areas of wilderness, by trying to protect our waters, and by all the efforts I have always supported, we are trying to keep the earth hospitable for ourselves. I had never before thought of myself or any environmentalists as selfish humans, but on this day on the Horton Creek Trail I felt unsure.

Melissa leads visitors on an interpretive hike about water history in the Sierra. Photo by Erich Warkentine.

Selfish, I thought, wasn’t the right term. Selfishness is a lack of consideration for others. Others? To me, “others” refers to other humans, but who says it does not encompass plants, animals, or even the earth itself? From a pessimistic viewpoint, the earth does not want us here anymore. By not letting the earth destroy our species for the greater good, I guess we might be lacking consideration for that broad definition of “others.” As I walked up the old mining road, I couldn’t help but see that the earth was trying so hard to take back this path up the treacherous eastern slope of the Sierra. This trail was not commonly hiked, and in my time on it I saw no other humans, but I did see more “others” in this section of the Inyo National Forest than anywhere else. More wildflowers, birds, bees, crickets, marmots, and squirrels were on this trail than on any other trail I had been on this summer. The old mining road was grown over with aspens and wildflowers, so much so that I felt like I didn’t belong. Rarely in the outdoors do I get an irksome feeling that I shouldn’t be somewhere, but here below Mount Tom I felt it was a space that neither I nor any other humans belonged in.

Nature trying to reclaim the Horton Creek Trail. Photo by Melissa Petrich.

Was cutting back brush on this trail selfish just because I was doing it for myself and for my fellow humans? I was maintaining the trail to let other people enjoy the beauty, to let other people fall in love with the Sierra, and to allow people access to some of the most beautiful lands I have had the privilege of walking upon. Bet yet keeping the earth from taking back what once belonged to it seemed wrong, maybe even selfish.

A few days after this quarter-life crisis, something happened that made me realize that what I was doing was good, even if it was selfish. As we were leading a youth volunteer group in picking up trash around Convict Lake, my coworker Lauren and I found a truly serendipitous message: a fortune cookie fortune lying on the trail. At that moment I decided that if what I am doing is selfish, than selfish is exactly what I am and exactly what I am proud to be.

Photo by Melissa Petrich.

Comments (1)

Hello Julia:

“Environmentalists” are not all of the same stripe.

One cannot say, accurately, that “environmentalists” are any one particular thing. Some environmentalists seek to save the natural world “for future generations.” Some for “others species.” Some environmentalists, such as myself and my wife, seek to save the natural world from destruction by humans “for itself.” This means that humans are part of the natural world, the same as, and not more than, all other species. We work to preserve and conserve the natural world to maintain the natural biosphere for itself.

The earth does not do “want.” Only humans feel and express want. The earth is, just as are all species, processes and cycles that are a part of the Universe. The earth does not destroy a species “for the greater good.” The earth doesn’t do anything for any reason. The earth doesn’t “take back” a trail, nor does the trail belong to the earth. The earth is just as it is.

Only humans have purpose and intent. Only humans take and have ownership.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” ~Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

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