As I began thinking about this post there was one thing that has been stuck in the forefront of my mind: Cronon’s belief in tearing down the false division between man and nature. During our last class I was on the Potomac team, and although I didn’t believe what we were arguing for, we did a great job trying to prove the Potomac was a superior choice to the James for a National Natural Landmark. However, the one argument that I could never counter was Kenta’s constant references to Cronon’s article and how the James serves as a perfect example of nature and human interconnectivity. Now, perhaps I am stuck on this argument because I hate losing, but I don’t think that’s the only reason. I entered Earth Lodge with the intention of learning more about the intersection of humans and nature, particularly in an urban setting. Richmond and the James River serve as a perfect example of efforts to bring natural elements into an urban setting and allow people to have a “wilderness” right in their backyards.
As I have commented several times before, Richmond and the James River Park System does a fantastic job of reminding us that there is no division between humans and nature. We are a part of nature; we can try to keep it out and pretend we are separate, or we can embrace it. Ralph White and the James River Parks System’s approach to park management is the one of the biggest steps in creating that ethos within the city. The “natural” areas of the park system are dotted with old bridges, buildings, and other infrastructure; they turned a pipeline into a trail! The presence of these human elements in the parks confronts the notion that wilderness and nature somehow equals “untouched” and “natural”. This might not be a conscious confrontation to most people, but if the natural areas they experience are right in their backyards they begin to care about nature more.
This brings me into the idea of Dan Forsyth’s research that the more people know about watersheds they more they care about them. Likewise, the more people experience and learn about nature the more likely they are to care about it. Ralph White has not only created an amazing system of parks, but he has also served as the city’s primary environmental educator through the Parks System. This year I attended a Brown Bag discussion by the lady who runs Blue Sky Fund, an organization that gets children with little exposure to nature out for hiking and backpacking trips. The program has a fantastic mission of raising the exposure level to untouched “wilderness” which is very important; however there is also so much that can be experienced within the City of Richmond itself. I think that by getting kids their first taste of nature the goal is that they will want to experience it more, and therefore will be more inclined to take advantage of the parks and natural areas within our city as well. Many of us joined Earth Lodge because we are active hikers, campers, backpackers, climbers, kayakers, cyclers, etc, but we had yet to really embrace the James River Parks System beyond Pony Pasture. We thought of nature as something we went outside of the city to experience, now we know better.
I realized how special the James was when I was on my SEEDS Louisiana trip. I wanted to see how people living in the bayou and in New Orleans felt about the Mississippi River in comparison to how Richmonders felt about the James. The people in the bayou were very tied to the natural landscape, and were especially concerned about loss of wetlands (as I have detailed in an earlier post). However, in New Orleans I heard almost nothing about the river, besides efforts to control it with levees and locks. One day we went down to the river bank in the Lower 9th Ward and looked up towards the city to see this view:
I was shocked by the lack of trees. At first I said it as a joke to Jenni, commenting on the lack of a riparian buffer zone and how it was probably bad for the river. Even though I said it as a joke it was the first thing that stuck out to me about the view. Yes it was a pretty view of the city skyline, but I couldn’t get over the lack of trees. Contrast this with this picture I took of the Richmond from Hollywood Cemetery a week before, and I missed the fusion of city and biota that makes Richmond so beautiful.
(Ok so maybe the pictures don’t illuminate it as well as my memories do, but humor me here)
So this brings me to the question of “what can I take away from the class?” Yes, I can recognize when a river has a buffer zone in 2 seconds flat and identify potential issues associated with it, but what else? What have I learned that can help me change attitudes towards nature? My final project group has started answering this question by seeking to educate our own campus community with a series of signs around the lake (see earlier post for more information). If we can get the community to become more aware of the geography, hydrography, and ecology of the lake and our campus then hopefully they will become more aware that our campus is a “natural” area even though we humans have such a large presence on the land. If they understand we live in a watershed and that “wilderness” is right outside their window hopefully they will be more inclined to explore and value it. Hopefully we can be part of the process of turning our campus back into a “wilderness” by changing how people perceive wilderness now and wherever they live.