National Public Lands Day: The Psychology of Preservation

When floating in a small, inflatable boat on a paradisiacal pond along the Snake River in Wyoming, my four-year-old nephew (my passenger), turned and said: "It's like we went into a painting. But where does the painting end?"

Yes, this illuminates that my nephew is amazing. But it also gets at the heart of what rests on my mind as we delve into "National Public Lands Day"--what exactly is the "end" of a public land in nature? How do we define "natural"? And how do human beings psychologically differentiate such boundaries? Where does the painting end?

In 2006, my brother and I created a company to engage kids with nature and the environment. As a promotional effort, at the end of last year we conducted a writing contest called "My Land, Your Land: 2009 public lands writing contest for children and young adults." We wanted to know how local, state, national parks, wilderness preserves or seashores influenced kids' lives. (We excluded national monuments for our purposes.)

We received submissions about Bryce Canyon, The Delaware River, Lake George, and the Midwestern Sand Dunes. But what was most fascinating to me was that we also received submissions about family trips to water-slide parks and staying at outdoor hotels in the Bahamas. During classroom visits, I discovered similar answers from kids between 1st and 7th grade when asked about experience in the natural world. The distinction between what was "natural" and what was man-made was not obvious to them.

This could mean a number of things. It could mean that they simply hadn't experienced enough of the outdoors to make such a distinction. It could mean they associate nature with vacation or something out of the ordinary. It may also simply be a more basic distinction between "inside" (human realm) and "outside" (nature). Or even more deeply, I wondered if, perhaps, there wasn't such a clear distinction between the "natural" or the "unnatural" for children at all.

My question isn't about environmental psychology in terms of how our surrounding world affects our behavior (although that is interesting and ultimately plays a role in how we emotionally or viscerally connect to nature as a "space") it's more about how we, as humans, actually perceive the natural world.

My friend Bill Cohen, M.D., who is a former wilderness therapy instructor and a psychiatry resident at Albert Einstein Medical Center, theorized that based on Piaget's Classifications of cognitive development, a basic understanding of "nature" probably emerges during the "The Concrete Operational Stage," which occurs around ages 7-11. Kids at that age learn to be less egocentric, more logical, and can start to grasp the idea of conservation. But the answer to the question is, they may not have the intellectual constructs to make the distinction between "natural" and "unnatural" in the way that us environmentally conscious adults would like them to. It's still developing. How interesting, then, to try and teach ideas of nature conservation, even before those boundaries are clearly set.

But even in the adult world, our own definition of natural is like trying to hit a moving target. In the late 19th century, for example, people moved from thinking of nature as scary or needing to be conquered into imagining it as a recreational area (as eloquently articulated in Roderick Nash's Wilderness & the American Mind). Most of us are familiar with the contrast to Native American practices of land ownership or migratory movement on the land. As an aside, to further illuminate the bizarre connection of humans to the environment (and racism), early proponents of national parks suggested that Native Americans just reside in the parks as part of the natural landscape! (Although frankly, "reservations" conjures up a whole other discussion of the equally strange allotment of land.)

If we can't define what is natural, then our interaction with the environment becomes quite confusing. Can I take a walk in that park? Can I mine for coal? Can I touch that tree? What happens when millions of people want to touch the same rock? Is that rock any less natural?

On National Public Lands Day, thousands of volunteers convene across the country to plant trees, remove invasive species, and pick up trash. But some of these seemingly simple, positive volunteer efforts, however, remain controversial, precisely because of this inability to define the natural. Invasive species are species not "native" to a habitat that basically come in and take over an area--like the whitebark pine beetle decimating trees in Yellowstone, or pythons literally eating alligators in the Florida Everglades. (Europeans taking over North America?) We designate these things as terrible--and they are. But are they unnatural? There is also a heightened focus on raising awareness about climate change and its affects on the national parks. Surely, whether human caused or not, won't the climate on earth at some point change, thereby affecting the landscape?

What, exactly, are we preserving?

At a certain point, these natural sanctuaries (unless it's a "wilderness area") aren't actually "natural" anymore. We, as humans, have largely designated them as public lands because, well, we think they're kinda pretty. As Richard Sellars points out in his book Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History, most of the public lands were not created with environmental interests in mind at all--it was for tourism, plain and simple.

All this maintenance sometimes feels like an old lady getting too much botox in order to maintain what is "natural"--yes, plump lips were once natural, but as you age, they are not. By doing all this maintenance, we are preventing the earth from aging gracefully, or even more accurately, we are just trying to keep nature frozen--looking just like how we want it in that specific area, because we've managed to basically destroy so many other beautiful sections of the planet.

We are preserving our own perception of what is natural, not nature itself. We're imposing our own, human, value judgment on the natural world--and that's not necessarily bad--it's just human (and therefore unnatural? Or hypernatural? You see the conundrum)! The sheer diversity of the organizations we have managing these public lands, and the degree to which humans are allowed to meddle in them, is revealing. Some we can barely touch but are highly developed (NPS), and some are quite open but not developed (Bureau of Land Management).
And, sadly, that is why public lands are so important. We've come to recognize that we can't define nature and we do not understand the boundaries of the painting, even as adults. That's why we've artificially created them, to force ourselves from over-consumption. We don't know how to deal with the passage of time, with the shifting of the world, with the unpredictable. We want to control it and use it. Creating these places delineates what's special in a way that only our human minds can grasp. Preserving our perception of nature is, perhaps, just as important as nature itself.

Winners of the 2009 "My Land Your Land" writing contest (unaffiliated with National Public Lands Day or the National Environmental Education Foundation):

Nicole Kazakevich (Grade 7, Staten Island) "Southern Magnolia."
Elizabeth Skelton (Grade 9, Virginia) "Nature Sanctuary Near the Nation's Capital."

Nadia Vieira Chekan (Grade 4, New Jersey) "Pyramid Mountain Experiences, Montville, New Jersey."
Matthew Tommasi (Grade 7, Staten Island) "EcoSeekers Essay/Parrot Island."