A few weeks ago on Earth Day, our family started a new weekly ritual: Saturday morning hikes.
I didn’t grow up doing a lot of recreational hiking or camping. I’ve never embraced the REI outdoor recreational ethos of the Northwest, and I’ve always shied away from thinking of myself as an environmentalist.
My parents grew up relying on the land for their livelihood. My grandparents were farmers, custom cutters and ranchers on the plains of Montana and the Blackfoot Indian Reservation. Neither my parents nor my grandparents would have identified with the term environmentalist, but they had a deep connection to and respect for the land.
For people who grow up in the city or suburbs with parents who have white-collar jobs, being in nature is more of a novelty and a privilege. When you don’t spend 50 to 60 hours a week doing backbreaking labor outdoors, your relationship to nature is different.
While I grew up mostly in town, I did my share of labor on my grandmother’s ranch. The beauty of nature was not lost on us, but our relationship to it wasn’t foremost one of pleasure and recreation, but of trying to harness or minimize the terrible power of it in order to make a living.
What that upbringing produced in me was a desire to make my living and life in a different way. I became a city person — a true urban dweller — often to the chagrin of my grandmother, who couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to inherit the ranch.
I left the wide-open spaces of my ancestors for a different kind of untamed place called the city. I traded my blue collar for a white one. I traded tools, tractors, livestock and work boots for books, computers, an apron, a house with a small yard and some nice leather dress shoes.
However, in these last several years, I have felt the wide-open spaces calling me back.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not leaving the city. I have learned to love and appreciate the urban experience. It is in my blood, but so are the land, the rain, the wind and the streams.
As a community development and nonprofit consultant working mostly in urban contexts, I am increasingly concerned and aware of the environmental effects of cities and the need in urban design not to minimize or harm nature but to use and support it.
Recently, I’ve had the privilege of working with the Puyallup Watershed Initiative. The PWI is a collective impact model launched and incubated by the Russell Family Foundation. It brings together residents, organizations, businesses and government agencies to increase community stewardship, develop leadership, and promote equity and inclusion to support improved water quality in the region.
One goal of PWI is increasing community stewardship; I’ve been thinking a lot about what that means.
We don’t think much about stewardship in our society, because we are too busy thinking about ownership. Our ideas are delusional, silly at best, downright arrogant at worst.
I am often reminded that if anyone “owns” the land we live on, it is the native people who inhabited it when our ancestors arrived. Furthermore, the traditional native understanding of “ownership” doesn’t approximate our white eurocentric conceptions of it. Their understanding would be more akin to what we understand as stewardship.
The land is on loan to all of us — or as the native people understand it, the land is part of us and we are part of it, existing in a mutually reinforcing relationship where our actions always affect the other.
I encourage us all to join the movement that PWI is building, to spend less time thinking about ownership and more time thinking about stewardship. Our well-being and that of the environment are tied together in a delicate balance that neither can escape.
These Saturday morning hikes, besides being great exercise and quality time with my family, are a small way of cultivating this relationship with the ecosystem. They serve as a weekly reminder of how much we need each other.
Tad Monroe of Tacoma is a consultant, storyteller and creative entrepreneur. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org