When I was nine or ten years old, my family moved to rural Montana. There are not a lot of people in Montana; the population has yet to reach a million, and it’s the fourth largest state. That was a major bone of contention for me, as a kid; I wanted to live somewhere with lots of people and a wide array of cultural diversity. It took awhile for me to stop being pissed off at my parents for moving us to the middle of nowhere, and I can tell you exactly what caused the shift.
The acreage my parents bought bordered on Forest Service land. I was told, as a kid, that these were some of the many acres set aside for the people. Long ago, the government designated certain areas as public land. They said it belonged to the people, and promised that it always would. It was part of the appeal in buying that particular chunk of property, for my parents; no one could buy that adjoining land, and build on it. Ever.
I would jump the barbed wire fence that marked our property line, back in those days, and land on public soil. I made it almost every time; but I still have the scar on my leg from that time I didn’t. Even that time, I wrapped the cut in a handkerchief and got on with my business. See, I had discovered something special in those woods; and it would take more than a mild flesh wound to keep me from discovering it again that day.
Hiking those woods made me a different person. There’s just no other way to say it. I’d walk around for hours almost every day, jumping that old barbed wire fence like I was leaping through a doorway to another world. And I was, too; there were different rules in the woods, and I knew it. I had trouble living with the restrictions of the public school curriculum, and the rules as made up by my parents didn’t always make sense to me. Nature, on the other hand, made sense to me right away.
Wrapping a net of words around the benefits I got from spending time in the woods was of no interest to me back then. Even now I know this would turn into an awful long post if I tried to list them all; like a literary hydra, the heads would just keep popping up. What mattered then is what matters now: I knew right away that something inside me was being fed by that time spent, so I kept going back. I knew someday I would look back and be grateful for those experiences, and it turns out I was actually right about something.
I can get all teary-eyed, reminiscing about those days. I can get even more nostalgic, and well up with gratitude for the opportunities I had growing up. But I’ll do that on my own time. We’re here to talk about thoughts that hurt to think, and this one has been clanging around in my head ever since I first learned there was such a thing as public lands.
Out in the woods, I may have been a peaceful adventurer; in the classroom, I was a certified smart ass. This was another one of those things someone said that didn’t sit right with me immediately. When I first heard a teacher extolling the benefits of these preserved spots, I pointed out that the public doesn’t own those lands; the government does. I had been to Yellowstone, and Glacier National Park; I knew about the fees we had to pay to go there, and that we weren’t getting checks in the mail from all those other fees being collected. Even then, it was clear that the people in charge were the ones with the actual deed on this land.
Of course, those fees go to conservation, and to pay the people to collect the fees…which is exactly the kind of business I’d run if I had millions of acres of wildlife I could charge people just to look at. Rather than let nature take its course, and burn out old forest growth with fires, I’d clearcut select areas and sell the timber. Oh, wait. They’re doing that too. Honestly, if that land belonged to me I’d probably be doing much of the same clever stuff they’re doing to preserve it and make money from it.
What I wouldn’t do is sell it.
If they’re not making money on this land, they’re not managing it very well. If they are making money on it, they should be loath to kill the goose while it’s still laying golden eggs. No, wait; we’re not talking about killing it; we’re talking about selling it. That’s different, in a way worse way. Either foreign interests move in to literally own large swaths of our country, or Americans end up buying land that was supposedly theirs all along. None of that bodes well for anyone but the people making the most money for doing the least work, and even they lose in the long run. They lose that land that actually belongs to them.
Even though this is a timely post, it’s not a political one in the sense that I’m pointing fingers at any one guy. Plenty of the people who actually own this land have considered selling off chunks of it before, and some of this land has been recategorized recently as belonging distinctly to the federal government. The current administration appears to be undoing some of the damage done by the last one, when it comes to matters of this regard. Without any prompting from the people, gads of public lands fell into federal jurisdiction under decrees that were passed without a vote; that restricts public use of those lands, and prevents the people from using it for the very purpose it was set aside for.
I mean, it’s already clear that you own it.
Do you have to be so blatant about it?
The only thing that bums me out about futuristic stories is that they commonly point out how unlikely it is for future generations to have the kind of opportunity I had growing up. Cities encroach on forests more every day, and the likelihood of wandering in the woods for hours without encountering another human being only goes down as the number of humans on our planet goes up. As angry as I was at my parents for making me live in the country, I’m equally grateful for it now.
When your physical survival depends on you not making dumb choices, like it did in those woods of Montana from time to time, you get an opportunity to take a whole new view on life. It was in those woods that I used to wonder what life would be like when I was an adult, and when I would consider myself a man. It wasn’t until much later that I wished there had been some clear path laid out for me by some kind of meaningful ritual. I saw how many cultures addressed this with great gravity, while ours seemed to ignore the need altogether. When I first learned what this ritual was called, I started making a big deal about how we seemed to be missing out on something vital to personal growth in our country. Now, I’m still making a big deal about it. Why?
‘Rites of passage are important!’
We’ll talk about that, next week.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,