Being something of a history buff, I’ve always been intrigued by the change in Americans’ relationship to nature and wild places. It wasn’t that long ago that wilderness was something to be conquered, tamed, plowed under and bent to our will. Many a pioneer and homesteader would have scratched their head in consternation at our wildlife refuges and national parks. And our nation's efforts to protect endangered species like grizzly bears…well, that would have left our ancestors downright flummoxed.
But things do change, and more and more we are realizing that nature isn’t something to push back but something to embrace. John Muir, an early example of what we now call an environmentalist, wrote eloquently of this innate need: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountain is going home; that wildness is necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” I love that quote.
This need to connect with nature has not only been a part of my personal life, but has guided my career. I have the distinct and unique pleasure of coming to my office every day and working to create wildlife-viewing opportunities for small groups of travelers. I’m employed by the National Wildlife Federation (www.nwf.org) and organize what we call our Expeditions Travel Program. The idea behind Expeditions is simple—if people get out in the natural world, if they experience the howl of the wolf or the migration of the crane or the raw beauty of the rainforest, then they will be renewed and changed and rewarded in ways that can defy description.
“I’ll leave advice for deep backcountry campsites to others. I’m here to generate ideas and suggestions on connecting with nature without disconnecting from everything else.”
I’ve spent nearly 15 years developing travel programs like the one I oversee for NWF. Over that stretch of time my own views about travel, wildlife and connecting with nature have grown and evolved and been challenged and then evolved yet again. So it is with a full embrace of my biases and opinions that I write this column. I hope to offer travelers a chance to discover wildlife and wild places for themselves, but in a way that is appropriate, meaningful, and mindful that our children (and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren) need to have these same opportunities. I won’t bandy about terms like “ecotourism” or “green travel” because they’ve been so overused in glossy brochures and slick advertisements that they’ve lost their resonance. What I advocate is a respectful and thoughtful approach to wildlife travel. Nobody I’ve encountered has ever regretted spending a little more time learning about the natural world instead of just passing through it.
Lest you think I’m a dried-fruit-crunching, tent-toting, hot-shower-foregoing traveler (with all due respect to my traveling brethren who rightfully embrace all these things) I’ll be honest about another set of biases. I hate camping. I hate sleeping on the ground and I hate lugging gear on my back. I am a nature-lover who at the end of each day wants to go back to a lodge for a nice meal, a good glass of wine and an oh-so-comfy bed. I’m not alone, as it turns out. There is a wide and varied audience out there of people who feel the same way. (If you are reading this magazine, you are probably one of them—it is a pleasure to meet you!) So I’ll leave advice for deep backcountry campsites and the perfect five-day kayaks to those more qualified than I. Instead, I’m here to generate ideas and suggestions that straddle both sides of the fence—connecting with nature without disconnecting from everything else.
Nature, of course, is huge. And I’m an advocate of its many, many manifestations and forms. We all instinctively recognize that inherent rush that comes from seeing a grizzly bear framed by mountains, or a herd of elephants at play along a riverbank. The travel world is a plethora of opportunities that highlight what many guides and naturalists call (tongue-in-cheek) Charismatic Megafauna—big, cuddly animals with big, expressive eyes. It is perhaps no surprise that offering chances to see bears and wolves and lions first-hand is a major component of what I do. But here’s a more eclectic philosophy: Challenging yourself to embrace a wider definition of nature yields infinite surprises—birds and bugs and snakes and fish and wildflowers and…well, you get the idea. And accepting that all wild landscapes are worthy of our attention is equally revealing. Go out and discover not only the mountains and forests but the deserts and tundra and marshes. I remember recently reading an opinion column that implied the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska didn’t deserve the moniker of “pristine” because trees don’t grow up there. Nature isn’t just trees and flowers and animation-ready fluffy animals. Connect with everything around you when you travel and come to appreciate all the guises that inspiration can take.
Each month this space will be devoted to these ideas and more. Every day people connect with nature by traveling to see wildlife and wild places. It is an amazing process to which I proudly claim a tiny piece. Maybe your next trip will be about connecting with nature as well…you and I might see each other out there in those pockets of wilderness that are still “fountains of life.” You can nod and smile and share an appreciation of the wildlife that surrounds us. And when you head back to the lodge after the sun goes down, I’ll see you there and we can raise a toast to those who protect wildlife and wild places for future generations. Cheers!