I’ve invited my friend Sara to teach Leave No Trace principles to numerous groups of students and staff over the past three years.
Her engaging lessons and consistently fresh instruction methods impress me every time. Most recently, she concluded her session by posing a question — what is your personal land ethic and where did it come from? Each participant had a few minutes to reflect, then we all shared.
I was introduced to the concept of a land ethic by Chris Madson when I started reading Wyoming Wildlife. I assumed he had fashioned the term until I read “A Sand County Almanac.” Then I started reading Thoreau and discovered that although Leopold coined the phrase, his predecessors had been presenting the concept for generations.
Whether intuitively or through observance of elders, the activities of my childhood instilled in me not only a curious spirit, but also a sense of needing to care for land — picking up after myself and leaving as little impact as possible. Even still, it never occurred to me that I should or did have my own land ethic.
I moved to Bozeman at 22 and had been yearning to learn to fly fish for a few years prior. After a year in Montana, I conveniently started dating a fly fisherman. Unfortunately, the Summers School of Angling consisted of handing me a rod, making sure I was holding it right side up, sticking me in a smooth flowing section of the Madison, and walking up stream to his “secret” hole.
I’d cast a few times and spend 30 minutes either untying a knot, or tying on a new fly after having lost mine in tall grass or under a rock. This exercise in futility and frustration continued for hours. Suddenly a strike, and a fish! My first fish on a fly rod and I had no idea what to do. I tugged gently on the hook to no avail, so I pulled harder and twisted a bit, but still nothing. The heat of anxiety began building in my head and chest. Pull, pull, PULL — blood and more anxiety. Yank — I pulled most of the lower jaw clean off. What was I to do now? Obviously it was going to die! Not wanting to look at it anymore, I tossed it back into the river. I sat on the bank, devastated about the fish, frustrated with myself, and angry at my teacher.
To this point, living in Bozeman, I had been embracing many new outdoor activities. However, I was doing everything off the cuff — I’d just go with someone who kind of knew what they were doing, at least more than I did. This fishing encounter was the first time someone or something had been injured in the process. Suddenly, it seemed appurtenant that I evaluate my methodology.
I decided in that moment that I would gain as much knowledge as possible about activities I pursued. Moreover, I wanted to edify others to prevent similar experiences to the one I found myself in presently. Simultaneously, I stumbled upon a passion for outdoor education and my land ethic.
Before your next venture into the great outdoors, take a moment to consider your land ethic? Where did it come from? Does it make sense for you? How are you passing it on?
Julie Davidson is the Learn Outdoors coordinator at Sheridan College.