In Yellowstone National Park, it struck me that though the woods and meadows are vast, the hiking trails cut through them are modest – usually not much wider than a deer path.
Off-trail, little to nothing is done to the land or what grows on it. Trees die and fall, and are left where they are, becoming animal habitat and eventually returning to the soil.
This may look “messy” to eyes accustomed to groomed urban parks. (One Yellowstone ranger said he’d heard that complaint.) But this is one way the park maintains itself as some semblance of a complete ecosystem.
Walking such trails, I thought about man in nature. The hunter-gatherer’s path through the woods wasn’t much wider, if at all, than that of a deer, and his impact often indiscernible. Villagers might clear land for dwellings and cropland, but large areas in between went virtually untouched – used, but sustainably so, no more plant or animal matter taken out than could regenerate itself and remain in balance with the other life there.
Our distance from that ideal is plain. Industrial civilization’s way with woods is to level them. Or to ring them with pavement, chopping up habitat in ways that don’t allow animals to survive, including but not limited to the top predators necessary for a complete ecosystem. And the stink from the machines that make and travel the pavement fouls the air, and the rain that runs off the pavement pollutes the water.
Often the problems caused by this way of living seem insurmountable. We’ve made too big a mess. They might in fact be insurmountable.
But it helps me to imagine there is a way to live sustainably if I think of the path through the woods: Cut it no wider than you need. If a tree falls across the path, clear your way, but otherwise leave the woods alone.
You’ll still get where you are going, and you’ll leave the creatures who follow the same privilege.