Leo Schwartz writes for Buzzfeed News about his romanticized notion of spending a summer in the Oregon backcountry. A fresh graduate, complete with an air of self-importance, he set off from New York for the grandeur of the American West for a period of introspection. Schwartz wanted to use the wilderness to satisfy something within himself: it was a place to be used for his own purpose, an attitude prevalent in American society.
American conservation has a complicated past, rooted in the seizure of indigenous land for its administration by wealthy urbanites. Yosemite Valley, for example, lies next to the (formerly) equally stunning Hetch Hetchy valley, which was dammed, flooded, and converted into a reservoir in the early 20th century to serve the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Both valleys were inhabited by Native Americans before they were respectively turned into a playground and a wellspring.
Those who have access to the resources of federally owned forest land, both for recreational and agricultural purposes, are overwhelmingly white, and conflicts between government officials and land users — like the Bundys — are constant.
For his time of reflection, Schwartz settled on a four-month volunteer program with the AmeriCorps.
…never mind the fact that my only real backpacking experience had involved puncturing several blisters borne of Walmart boots with a dull Swiss Army knife. I finally skimmed Walden. Now, I thought, the only thing separating me from bucolic bliss was high-quality footwear.
During the months of grueling labor, the wilderness began to take on a whole new meaning. No longer a place to find himself, it became instead somewhere to be respected, and, to be left alone.
The people of the Forest Service do this work not just because of a spiritual connection with nature, but because our world is burning. To begin to confront the impending end of the natural world, we have to redefine our relationship with land — and understand that it does not only exist for our own needs.
The United States has always viewed nature as a resource to be consumed or conserved. Wilderness, though, is not for us. Its purpose is to exist outside of our selfish motives. That summer, I was a steward for the wilderness of the Deschutes National Forest, but I was a visitor. It was not mine.