Earth Matters: Leaving a positive trace on the land

  • Monya Relles balances in a tree pose on top of Mount Mansfield in Vermont. CONTRIBUTED/MONYA RELLES

For the Gazette
Monday, September 13, 2021

Over a long weekend in August, my parents and I met in Vermont to hike Mount Mansfield, the highest mountain in the state. The section we walked, struggled and scrambled up is a steep path, part of Vermont’s Long Trail, and the summit offers breathtaking views of the sloping Green Mountains.

The ridge is a delicate alpine zone and “Leave No Trace” principles — which focus on minimum impact while enjoying the outdoors — are posted all along the hike, beginning to end. A Green Mountain land steward at the top told me that in 2004 the mountaintop was practically bare rock. In contrast, the weekend I climbed it, it was awash with life: from petite mountain sandwort flowers to an abundance of low-bush blueberries to a pretty house finch perched near the summit. But I just couldn’t help thinking: Can’t we do even better than this?

I am a Leave No Trace certified trainer. I have all seven steps to zero-impact hiking memorized. But the more I think about climate justice and stopping climate change, the less patience I have for the do-no-harm ideology espoused by Leave No Trace.

The issue with Leave No Trace, and the idea of humans being harmful to nature as a general rule, is that not all humans are harmful to the environment. Leave No Trace is a movement started in the early 1990s to protect the overused National Park System in the western United States. At the time, many national parks were littered with garbage and human waste, and off-trail travel was destroying delicate ecosystems.

However, the parks were not used equally by everyone. The National Park System has been and continues to be less accessible and less welcoming to anyone who isn’t white, who doesn’t have the wealth to own a car, who doesn’t have the privilege to travel through rural spaces without the fear of harassment or violence.

Green spaces have been an exclusive club for a long time, and the harm and degradation done to them falls most heavily on the shoulders of an extremely privileged group of people.

In contrast, Indigenous people have been stewarding the land, which these parks now occupy, for over 10,000 years. While every tribe indigenous to North America is unique, many Indigenous peoples have left and still leave positive traces on the land in all kinds of ways.

New England was, in many places, a cultivated food forest of cattails, sap- and nut-bearing trees, elderberries, grapes and more. Forests and fields were maintained with fire and selective planting. In the far West, where John Muir “discovered” wilderness, Indigenous practices of controlled burns had long cleared undergrowth and kept forests healthy.

All that “pristine wilderness” was not only occupied but shaped and managed by many tribes. Even today, Indigenous tribes protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity. The best global stewards do not seek to leave no trace, but rather to leave a positive trace and let the earth leave a positive trace on them in return.

Of course, I probably won’t set a small controlled burn on the side of Mount Mansfield or even plant an extra spruce tree as I hike. So what, then, does leaving a positive trace look like?

Maybe I can teach my family the names and uses of plants as we hike, or the language of birds whistling through the trees. Maybe I can inspire stewardship in them through my own love of the forest. Maybe at the beginning of the hike, I could log into iNaturalist and keep track of what plants are blooming or fruiting.

Maybe I could give money to the Western Abenaki and Mohican tribes. Maybe I could lobby Vermont politicians for policies that further protect the Green Mountains.

Leaving a positive trace requires more intimacy with the land than a simple “leave no trace” mentality. Rather than just using a blanket philosophy of picking up my trash wherever I go, leaving a positive trace requires me to know the names of the plants and animals and how they interact. It calls for a close-up view and a bird’s-eye view of an ecosystem. It calls for research on the history of the land and its people.

It may not be easy, but the thought is exciting to me. How much more beautiful would Mount Manfield be if every visitor left it a little better than when they found it? How could I hold myself accountable to leaving a hike better than I found it? What about my friends, my parents, my peers? What would cities look like if we sought to make them a force of positive change?

I dream of huge green spaces open to everyone and growing food for all who want it, and of trees on every city block to make the air rich with oxygen and a water-catchment system that waters pollinator gardens while stopping floods. I dream of leaving a positive trace.

Monya Relles is an educator at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment with a passion for environmental justice. In their free time they can be found hiking, dancing, or playing off-key ukulele at the Connecticut River, much to the mortification of people who pass by. For a list of references used in preparing this essay, visit hitchccockcenter.org and click on this article’s title. Scroll to end to find the link to the references.

Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for more than 12 years. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Hitchcock Center has adapted its programming and has a sliding-scale fee structure for families facing financial challenges. To help the Hitchcock Center survive this difficult time, consider a donation at hitchcockcenter.org.