Editor’s Letter: Leave What You Find

This one principle of Leave No Trace ethics can be a guide to how we live a better life and leave a better planet behind us.

My big introduction to a life and career in the outdoors came on a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) trip kayaking down the Sea of Cortez in Baja, Mexico. Alongside learning how to roll a sea kayak (not easy), read the wind at dawn and identify sea birds, we practiced the basic, beautiful principles of Leave No Trace. This ethic, of being as soft as possible on the land and wildlife and ecosystems, resonated with me.

I admit I was horrified at first by the idea of using smooth stones instead of toilet paper (hey, don’t knock it unit you try it). But other important lessons stuck with me. You plan ahead so you don’t make a mess or end up damaging the environment. You travel and camp light. You don’t need a bonfire in the backcoutnry. You are considerate of wildlife and of other people enjoying the rare chance to be out and away in the quickly shrinking wild. You leave what you find. All these ethics go beyond camping and climbing: Follow the respect and restraint inherent in them, and you can navigate a path through the world that ensures the world itself thrives.

I must confess, I was a bit cavalier about leaving what I found. I had always been a collector of treasures I found on the beach where I grew up: nautilus shells, blue beach glass, antique bottlecaps. In the woods, I would pick up rocks that spoke to me and the occassional arrowhead. Later, when I became a wilderness ranger and a teacher of Leave No Trace, I continued to justify my collecting, even if it went against that principle.

Then one day, I was working for the Forest Service and hiking in the deep backcountry of Montana’s Gravelly Range with two co-workers, and something sitting there in the grass along the side of the trail caught my eye. I grabbed it, looked at it: It was a long, perfect spear point, the most beautiful artifact I had ever found. I shoved it in my pocket, hiding it from Chris and Tim. Slowly, it ate at me. Why did I act with such greed?

When we stopped for lunch I showed it to them—my treasure (later I would learn it was, in fact, a 10,000-year-old Clovis point)—embarassed that I had hidden it. I told them I didn’t think I could keep it. Instead of agreeing with me, they immediately asked if they could have it. Tim eventually argued it should be in a museum. Chris, after warning me about the bad karma of keeping it, said that, well, he would take it if I didn’t want it.

No. No. It did not belong to us, or even to the glass and dust of a museum. We take so much from the wild. Our culture has taken so much from those who once lived in these mountains that I don’t even know the peaks by their true names. Chris and Tim agreed. No. I took the spearhead and threw it far away. It had already given me so much.

That lesson is one we all need to learn—in the wild and beyond. We don’t have to keep taking. We can live with wilderness, with better ethics. We can leave what we find.

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