by Alix Schoback // 2019 Wilderness Volunteers intern
“So you’re paying an organization to go do manual labor for a week? Shouldn’t they be paying you?”
The words of my grandpa, who had been fairly confused about my summer internship with Wilderness Volunteers, echoed in my head. I sat on a rock beside the trail we were working on in the Sawtooth Wilderness; we were three miles from our destination of the wilderness boundary, and 5 miles from our camp at McGown Lakes. I looked out at the mountainside across from me, littered with dead trees — some strewn across the ground, some still upright — from a ten-year-old burn. My tool of choice for the day, a grubhoe, lay at my feet.
It was the fourth day of our project, and I had already hiked nearly forty miles. In all honesty, I was exhausted. Consequently, I was frustrated with myself. This was supposed to be what I loved, what I cared about — work I considered to be of the utmost importance. Still, for a second, my grandpa’s words resonated with me. I felt the slightest sense of injustice, then shame for allowing the emotion to even enter my head.
I ate a handful of almonds, gulped down some water from my Nalgene, and proceeded down the trail with my grubhoe. For the next mile, I chopped at exposed roots with the hoe’s corner and scraped out drainages with its flat edge, reflecting all the while. I recalled how I had responded to my grandpa’s veiled criticism of this effort I cared about so deeply when he had first made the comment back in June. I silently reminded myself of every reason I was standing on the side of an Idaho mountain, hundreds of miles from home, my face smeared with dirt, hair unwashed, arms sunburnt and mosquito-bitten.
It came down to a necessity not my own.
Compared to the fields many of my peers are entering into — business, medicine, etc. — there is not much money to be found in conservation work. Federal and state departments entrusted with the protection of the public lands we love are severely underfunded, as our government remains preoccupied with domestic issues and international conflicts deemed more pressing. For this reason, nonprofits like Wilderness Volunteers exist. After applying to the organization’s internship, I had pored over its entire website, both impressed and humbled to learn that it functioned with only two paid employees and a dedicated group of volunteers. In the money- dominated world we live in, it was beautiful to see an effort toward bettering the planet driven by compassion instead of cash.
Still, the failure of both government and private industry to adequately incentivize the safeguarding of natural resources presents a global dilemma. While altruism in the name of
conservation is something I find inspiring, its reliance on human morality and compassion renders it flimsy. Human beings are fundamentally self-serving; the removedness from the outdoors that many of us experience as a byproduct of development thereby stymies most impetuses for wilderness stewardship. Put simply, it’s difficult to realize how important these spaces are until you fully experience them. How can we expect someone to care about climate change and pollution until they’ve seen its effects firsthand? How can we expect people to make an effort until they’ve seen a once kelly green forest devastated by wildfire, or learned about rare bird species dying of avian malaria?
How can you connect deeply to an issue without knowing what’s at stake?
If the industrial revolution, westward expansion, and numerous other historical moments are any indication of Americans’ moral compass regarding conservation, morality alone is insufficient. We need systemic incentives for conservation. This is, in no uncertain terms, a tall order.
In this seeming impossibility, how do we still make progress? While striving for structural change, we must simultaneously shoulder the environmental morality that many of us are so estranged from. We recognize the importance of taking care of our homes — we tend to our gardens, do our dishes, dust, sweep, and vacuum. In the same way, we must normalize the care-taking of our home — maintaining trails, out-planting native species, assisting pollinators, reducing our carbon footprints, and creating less waste are just a few examples. In the adversity of achieving structural change, we must at least strive to normalize best practices until they are taken by all as givens.
And, just as with household chores, we must do them for no reason other than that they must be done. While it may not always be found in the practice, the joy of it all lies in the purpose.
“And that’s why I’m here,” I thought. On this trail, on this mountain, in this state, in this country, on this inimitable planet Earth.
I had not vocalized this thought process with such eloquence to my grandfather. I had stuttered and stumbled over my words — partly frustrated by the implication of his question, partly cognizant that my hope would likely be interpreted as naiveté.
But in that moment in the Sawtooths, I was entirely sure of myself.
I lifted my grubhoe, and aimed its sharp corner at the next root.
Alix is a senior at U.C. Berkeley where she is studying political science and environmental econonics and policy. Stay tuned for more blog posts about her summer internship experiences with Wilderness Volunteers!