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What are we leaving behind?

Published 11:56am Friday, March 1, 2013

Archaeologists spend their lives searching for and recovering precious artifacts from lost civilizations.

These artifacts can help historians paint a vivid picture of how these ancient people lived and what they valued.

A few minutes prior to beginning this column, I had a phone conversation with John Thompson. What began as an interview for a story on a cleanup event planned for this weekend soon turned into a mutual espousing of our passion for the environment.

John shared a story with me about a friend of his who often searches the shorelines of Lake Martin for arrowheads.  The discoveries of pristine Native American arrowhead are few and far between – as John explained, his friend more often ends his days with a collection of Mountain Dew cans than with a sack full of historic hunting tools.

Backpackers and environmentalist may know the phrase Leave No Trace. Though the name really says it all, the heart of Leave No Trace Ethics lies in its tagline “Take nothing but pictures, leaving nothing but footprints.”

There is nothing more disheartening than hiking 10 miles out into the wilderness only to find the dirty laundry of the civilization you walked so far to escape.

I have seen some beautiful vistas. I have sat beside breathtaking waterfalls, brackish still pools and meandering streams.

There, amidst the leaves and underbrush, in the crevices of bald cliffs and along the banks of any body of water I have ever known, you will find at least one piece of trash.

A broken beer bottle. A charred tin can of pork and beans (no, these will not burn). An empty pack of cigarettes.

The person that left any of these items behind probably didn’t think anything about it.

But to me, they might as well have jabbed a knife into Picasso’s Guernica.

4.5 billion years of wind, rain, life and decay have shaped the Earth into a masterpiece no artist could best.

It needs no additions. That beer can is now a big, glaring blemish – an unnecessary element that only serves to cheapen the wilderness experience for the next passerby.

So while the great civilizations of the past left us arrowheads and unique artifacts crafted from natural stones and fibers, what are we leaving for future generations?

What is a person going to think about how we lived when all they find are plastic bottles, empty snuff cans and rotting rubber tires?

This weekend, there will be a cleanup effort at Wind Creek State Park. I will be in attendance, and I hope to see a lot of you out there as well.

But while this cleanup is a great idea, we need to foster a more proactive and not reactive approach to keeping our natural resources clean and pure.

“Boat it in, boat it out,” John said.

And he is absolutely right. For trail explorers, this means pack it in, pack it out.

My hope, however, is that more people will start taking this one step further. Don’t just complain about the trash you see, pick it up and take some of it with you. Surely there is enough room in your cooler or backpack for an aluminum can or a few plastic bottles.

It has been said, though the origin of this saying is disputed, “We don’t inherit the Earth from our ancestors – we borrow it from our children.”

Let’s give it back in good condition.

Nelson is news editor for The Outlook.

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