I, like many of you, have been connecting more than ever via social media in order to fill the void left by lack of real interaction. But some of the things I read make me wonder if we have already forgotten how to civilly interact with people we don’t know.
On Facebook, I am a member of a large (60,000+ followers) women’s hiking and backpacking group. Recently, one woman expressed her distress about how a rise in visitation at her favorite local park had led to an increase in graffiti, vandalism and littering. She wondered what we could do to improve this situation. Instead, hundreds of comments ensued with a barrage of women voicing frustrations and a decision that people are stupid, morons, inconsiderate, etc.
I am no saint, for sure. But my mind was boggled by the bandwagon of assumption. The assumption was that recreationists were intentionally trying to ruin the day for everyone else. OK, that could certainly be true in some cases, but let me tell you some of the things I have experienced.
A major problem, seriously, is that some people are raised without a sense of how to treat nature. When was the last time you engaged in a constructive conversation with someone abusing nature to ask them why they are doing this? Growing up in central New York state, I knew people whose parents had raised them to think that it is perfectly fine to throw their trash out the car window. If you are born thinking that littering is fine, why would you stop just because a privileged outdoor enthusiast yells at you about it? We need to have real conversations that take us somewhere besides anger.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: A couple years ago, I was blissfully collecting water samples in a high alpine basin at the end of a 4x4 road. All the flowers were in bloom and small waterfalls cascaded down the multicolored rocks of the volcanically created peaks. From a few hundred feet away, I watched in horror as a bright yellow Jeep-looking thing drove off the road and parked with one of the front wheels propped upon a boulder for a glamour shot. A photo shoot ensued. In the middle of it all, a guy on a dirt bike rolled up. I could tell he was infuriated by the lead-in to the conversation. He walked up to the yellow vehicle’s driver and started with, “Hey, d-----bag!” I could tell that my peaceful day of water sampling had come to an end.
I marched through the marshy meadows of fresh flowers toward the big yellow rig hoping he wouldn’t leave before I got there. The dirt biker had handled things poorly – really poorly – and I didn’t think that the man in the yellow truck would respond positively to it and suddenly follow all the regulations. I didn’t have a script, but I had an idea.
“Hi!” I called out as soon as I wasn’t at an awkwardly far-off distance. I approached the yellow monstrosity. “My name is MK, and I work for the San Juan Mountains Association. I’m sorry that guy was such a jerk to you”.
He introduced himself, and we had an intelligent conversation. He hadn’t understood just how fragile the alpine tundra is. He had no idea that it could take plants so long to regenerate. Where he was from, if you rallied through a field today, it would grow back by next week. He was from a humid and nearly tropical climate. But once I explained things – civilly – to him, he understood and felt bad for what he’d done. He just honestly didn’t know.
Yes, there were two or three big signs posted along the road with the regulations, but he was too excited to stop and read them. But now he knew. He was camping with seven other out-of-staters and he would gladly tell them not just what the regulations were but why. He would explain to them the fragile nature of the plants, the high-use and why they should all stay on designated roads and never, ever drive off. We were both grateful for the conversation.
So the next time you see someone disregarding nature, stop and think and then go talk to them. Ask them why they are doing this. Kindly explain to them how their actions might permanently damage nature. Remind them that we must protect these places for future generations. You don’t have to be their new best friend, but at least at the end of the day, there will be two less knuckleheads in the world.
MK Gunn works for the San Juan Mountains Association. Email her at MK@sjma.org.