Dear Johnny Lake: A Land Ethic

Jeriah Bowser

How shall we relate to the biosphere? What is our relationship with the land? How should we treat that which is “other”? Should our relationship be one of domineering coercion or mutual connection? A reciprocal exchange or a division of power? Is the land sacred and priceless or a profane commodity?

These questions are at the heart of the many conservation codes, land ethics, and environmental theories which make up the fields of science known as Ecology and Environmental Studies. There is no shortage of answers to these important questions, either, with people like Aldo Leopold, Gifford Pinchot, John Muir, Edward Abbey, Arne Naess, Rachel Carson, Vandana Shiva, and Henry Thoreau offering their ideas and experiences to us. Some of these ideas, those which most closely echo our cultural myths, have become reified and codified into environmental policy, and make up the basis for how our species relates to our biosphere.

As a wilderness therapy guide, I have the incredible privilege and responsibility of facilitating wilderness experiences for the marginalized and disenchanted byproducts of our culture: young women and men who are looking for meaning in their lives. These young wanderers spend months at a time in an area of wilderness, experiencing deep connection and intimacy with themselves, other humans, nonhuman life and the land itself. Their experiences in the woods vary, but are almost universally life-changing and healing on a deep, primal level. The young woman who wrote this letter spent several months living in an area of the Pacific Northwest that had very recently (within 40 years) been devastated by commercial logging, leaving the land torn open, wounded, violated, and only barely beginning to heal. My client had also very recently experienced being torn open, wounded, and violated. After many months of intense work, dramatic self-exploration, and powerful healing, she penned this letter on her final night in the woods:

“Dear Johnny Lake field area,

Thank you. Words cannot describe how grateful I am for you. Some people may not understand how I can love a piece of land so much. To me, it’s simple. What’s hard for me to understand is how you can keep loving us even after how mean we’ve been to you.

I’ve been through so much with you since the day I entered. Swearing at your snow, your bushes, your trees, your temperature. I was angry at you, although deep down I was mostly angry with myself. All I wanted was to leave, to escape you. I was planning on it, too. Thank god I didn’t, because staying and being around your beauty was the one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

I’ve used your sticks to scratch my skin. I’ve hit my head against your trees, kicked you, screamed at you, and have been restrained on you. And you just stood there, held your ground, and supported me with your love.

It took me awhile to start appreciating you, and even longer to listen to you. But when I did, it was amazing. I start hugging your trees; they always hugged back. When I talked, they listened. It was such an amazing feeling to feel the love of your land, and see the beauty.

This is the place where I started to become me. I didn’t care what anyone else thought. I was able to be the confident, bubbly, compassionate, weird, funny, and loving person I am. No judgment. This is the place I’ve done some of the hardest work in my life. My mom’s car accident, sexual abuse, and my coma, things I thought I could never work through. And I did, I did it with you by my side.

I’m going to miss you, miss you a lot more than I ever thought I would. One day I’m going to come back to visit, when I’m doing better and I can hug your trees again and listen to your wisdom, beauty, and love. I will always be your friend.”

Ethics are unnecessary in the context of relationship. Policies are superfluous when you are in love. Laws are irrelevant when you are hugging an old friend.

Has this young woman, working through the pain of her own traumas and struggling to find meaning and happiness in this strange and sick world of ours, discovered a way of being with the land which not only heals the world around us, but also heals us?

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