Preston Hopkins: Fording the streams of optimism

"                               "The beading sweat from my forehead drips salty reality onto my lips. Fertilizing thoughts of brisk water that rushes my mind faster then the current wrapped around my feet. My shoulders are heavy, the weight of the pack sits on my raw clavicles. My mind focused on the task at hand. Adrenaline courses through my veins like lightning. One wrong step and the group tumbles into the rapids. Step by step, the slippery initiative is complete. Together, we burdened the weight of the packs and the swiftness of the current, relying on the shoulders and efforts of our classmates to continue on our journey. Fording the South Badger Creek in the Lewis and Clark National Forest is no minute task. It does not come with instructions or bridges, it requires an understanding of the river. A reciprocal relationship that acknowledges its strength and beauty. Same is true with our relationship with the land. The task of repairing our broken relationship is arduous, but it can be accomplished. As human populations rise, urban sprawls expand, and limited parcels of wilderness become dampened by regulations, and resource extraction, our relationship with the land is diminishing, and it needs drastic healing. Restoring this broken relationship does not happen overnight. However, with the collective efforts of many individuals, we can bandage the wounds of this earth.

One place to start is with our relationship with the land. This relationship can be constructed through a concept known as “ecological embeddedness.” Ecological embeddedness, as defined by Gail Whitman and William Cooper, is the extent to which a person is rooted in the land by personally identifying with the land; adhering to the beliefs of ecological respect, reciprocity, and care-taking;  actively gathering ecological information; and being physically rooted in the ecosystem. An example of ecological embeddedness is the relationship Blackfeet Indians have with the Badger-Two Medicine area in Northwest Montana. They are deeply connected to the physical landscape, which is apparent in their hunting and fishing traditions. They must become well versed with their landscape in order to know where to hunt and fish. These attributes, combined with a strong spiritual and ecological understanding of the area, make the Blackfeet ecologically embedded with the area. So rare is it in our society today to be grounded in one home for a long duration of time. By creating this ecological embeddedness we are creating a personal relationship with the land–even if only while we’re passing through, and are able to watch the growth and adaptations of a certain place. Through this grounded-ness, we develop a sense of place and reciprocity with the land.

Through ecological embeddedness lies another key factor to mending our relationship with the land. This factor is played out through reciprocity. A reciprocal relationship with the land is prevalent in the bull trout restoration efforts on the Flathead Indian Reservation. By providing habitat for the bull trout, and by enhancing the local ecosystem, humans in turn are reciprocated by excellent fishing. More so, this helps foster a healthy relationship for both humans and the land. This reciprocal relationship differs from the man vs. nature relationship that is prominent throughout the United States. The relationship that exists most often with nature is one of humans conquering and exploiting the landscape, and depleting ecosystems and resources, and giving nothing in return. By having this reciprocal relationship with the land, we gain a better understanding of what the land offers ourselves, and what we can give back. Often humans are filled with a sense of guilt for  environmental degradation. Through reciprocity, there is a chance for humans to make a positive difference, and give back to the land and heal themselves.

Only when individuals develop a personal reciprocal relationship with the land, and develop a sense of personal ecological embeddedness can we, as a collective human species, begin to work together to strive towards progressive initiatives that make positive change. Reconstruction of personal land ethics must be made before moving forward as a whole. Our relationship with the land has diminished over the years, however, we must not wade in the pools of doubt, rather, we must ford the streams of optimism. And only then, with the collective efforts of many individuals, may we bandage the wounds, and heal our broken earth. As Wallace Stegner eloquently stated; “The wounds men make in the earth do not quickly heal. Still, they are only wounds; they aren’t absolutely mortal.” Just as my classmates and I relied on each other to ford the South Badger River, we as individuals, communities, states, and nations, must rely on each other as well, to collaborate and mend our deteriorating land ethic. And through this collaboration, true hope can be found.

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