One Step at a Time
In the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, the month of January is always a dreaded one. Notorious for its bleak and harsh weather conditions, it is not only the area’s coldest month, but also its most precipitous, according to US Climate Data. As a consequence of these frigid—and often snowy—conditions, the vast majority of its 31 days are typically spent with cement or aluminum walls on either side; trapped in the confined, heated comfort of residential homes, office buildings, and motor vehicles. In fact, the immobilizing cold weather, in conjunction with the abbreviated amount of daylight, places inhabitants of the Mid-Atlantic at a greater risk for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), said Jeffrey Spielberg, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Delaware. But as I stood there, shedding my outer layer in the parking lot of White Clay Creek State Park, something was amiss.
Instead of the bitter, uninviting conditions that have become characteristic of this time of year, I was faced with an afternoon of unexpected, unseasonable warmth. 63-degree weather in the middle of January? In the dead of winter, temperatures like these, as it turns out, are only typical of two cities in the entire country: Tampa and Orlando, Florida. Climate scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—for the third year in a row— predicted the arrival of a “warmer-than-average” winter. And while the jury is still out on whether this trend, which began with the warmest winter on record in 2015, is a result of climate variability or climate change, it’s days like these that make you more concerned about the latter, to say the least.
With the sun already closing in on the tree line, I took a quick sip of water, slung my bag over my shoulder, shut my trunk with a deliberate thud, and set off into the woods. This was not my first time braving the outdoors, and my fraying, well-worn hiking boots provided incontrovertible proof. It was, however, the first time I had come to a park simply for the sake of being in one. In all of the time I’ve spent in the Gunks in upstate New York, or Red River Gorge in northeastern Kentucky, or even Yosemite National Park in central California, as a climber, my priorities always lied in the prize of the destination rather than the struggle of the journey. The approach to the crag was not so much about immersing yourself in the sights, smells, and sounds of the wilderness as it was about collecting your thoughts before leading up an X-rated, 60-foot pitch. A pity, I would soon find.
With the melted snow soaked deep into the soil, every step on the trail was followed by a fervent and inexorable squash, each louder than the next. For this very reason, the hills on the path provided a very particular and—only in hindsight—hilarious kind of pitfall. Nevertheless, after finally settling into a casual, ambling pace, I started to take notice of things; things that, as I quickly realized, were all too easy to miss if your attention was being spent elsewhere. Surveilling my surroundings, I could see blue jays, plump for the winter, hopping from tree branch to tree branch. I could hear woodpeckers, high in the sky, drumming against hollowed out wooden trunks. I could smell, between modest gusts of wind, the damp woodland air as it snuck between the tree-lined passages. And somewhere along the way, the visitor mindset that I always carried along trails like these was lost, and—if only for a moment—I felt member to the living, changing habitat around me.
With each hard-pressed step, I drew more custody in the experience, becoming more attentive and more aware of the complex ecological intricacies that comprised and created these lands. The leaves that littered the park grounds were beginning to decay, breaking apart into trace minerals that would supply the soil and the insects and bacteria living within it with nutrients necessary for survival. Then, later in the spring, the deciduous oak and maple trees, providers of cover and refuge for the forest’s wildlife, will harvest these recycled nutrients from the ground and eventually sprout leaves, only to be shed again come autumn. And there I was, smack dab in the middle of all of these symbiotic, life-sustaining relationships, slipping and sliding in the mud.
My suspicion is that experiences like these—ones that encourage feelings of environmental connectedness—have the capacity to reverse a deliberately-devised culture of ecological detachment. The implications of this mindset are many, but the dangers of it are simple: the less individuals know about their environment, the less they tend to care about its preservation. Take Bears Ears National Monument, for example. The 550,00-hectar preserve, which was established by President Barack Obama back in December of 2016, saw an 85% reduction in land size just last month, and it happened barely without a fight. Unfortunately, due to the continued course of this culture, this indifference runs deep, even touching facets of our life as intimate as the food we put in our mouths, and large food corporations have capitalized on this opportunity.
Ask a room full of Americans where their dinners came from and tell me what you find. In our push to industrialize food production, we have centralized the nation’s farms and have allowed a select group of wealthy multinational companies to control what we eat. As a consequence, we’ve lost touch with the people who grow our food and the methods they use to grow them.
In truth, the large food corporations that stock the shelves of local supermarkets do their best to hide this information, and they’ve fought ruthlessly to preserve our ignorance. They have engaged in countless court battles and have financed government representation, all while sacrificing billions of dollars, just to keep it this way. They keep their consumers in the dark for the same reason they run experimental crop dusting trials outside of their own states: peace of mind. They understand that enforcing this mental separation between the products we pull from the shelves and the animals and procedures that went into producing them keeps questions about food safety and sustainability at bay.
Fortunately, however, the reason for all this backroom deception trails back to a single, deep-seated insecurity. These corporations understand that all of their influence and wherewithal teeters on one thing: consumer trust. Once these assurances are worn thin, consumers will find safer, local alternative to invest their money. But until then, the fight against industrial farming and the unintended environmental consequences they bring about will have to be fought one step at a time.