What We Leave Behind

I grew up in and around the small town of Maryville, Tennessee.  In one direction lay the big city of Knoxville.  In the other lay the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  I preferred the mountains to big cities, and still do.  So I spent more time in the park than in Knoxville.

Adirondack Shelter

The park lies astride two lines on the map: the Tennessee/North Carolina state line and the Appalachian Trail.  The trail held the most interest to me.  Along the trail there were camp sites with rustic Adirondack Shelters like the one pictured here.  They were made of logs and very solid.  They were open on one side and that’s where you built your fire and did the cooking.  A good spring was always nearby with cold, running water.  If I could add up all the nights I spent in these shelters it would be measured in months.

As boys, our scoutmaster taught us that staying in these shelters was both a privilege and a responsibility.  He said that the next hikers behind us might get in late or arrive in the rain.  We must leave some good dry wood and kindling.  We must leave the place clean.  And some left-over canned food would be a good idea too.  We must think of those who would come after us, and we must leave things for them as we would like to find them for ourselves.

Being a serious and thoughtful young man, I took these instructions to heart.  I felt satisfaction when I left a shelter in good order.  I felt guilt if I did not.  I rarely failed to leave things the best I possibly could.

I have hiked in and found shelters exactly as I would have left them, and I have found them trashed and without a stick of dry wood.  On those occasions I would wonder what kind of people had left things in such a mess.  Had no one ever told them about their responsibility?  I supposed they must have been from somewhere far away.  People who had not been raised right.

We pulled into such a shelter late one day in a solid downpour.  We were tired and soaked and cold and looking forward to a warm fire.  As my buddies huddled and rested, I went back out in the rain with my double-bit axe.  Across on the ridge I found a dead chestnut tree.  I knew there was dry wood inside.  I chopped and chopped and brought back logs to split under the shelter.  After considerable effort I got a hot blaze going.  The next party would find a nice stack of that wood all ready to go.

Why do I think back on this and feel that same kind of guilt as crude oil floods the Gulf of Mexico from an exploded oil well off the coast?  The fact that we are drilling for oil a mile deep and far out to sea highlights the fact that we have already plundered all of the underground oil that is easily within our reach.  We are going for the last of it, no matter the cost or the consequences.  For those who come down the trail behind us there will be none left, but who cares?

I once pulled into an Appalachian Trail shelter and found that people needing firewood and unwilling to climb the nearby ridge and fell a dead tree had taken apart and burned the entire outhouse, excluding the seat.  The seat sat oddly by itself in full view of the world.  Like the mountains in West Virginia that are stripped off to get the last of the coal and then left behind as so much waste.

Waste is the word for it.  The land, the trees and plants, the air and water, the buried resources, the wild living things that fly and run and burrow–we are wasting it all.  Those who come after us will surely wonder what sort of people could have done this.

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