An Athlete’s Land Ethic

I waited way too long in life to read Aldo Leopold’s classic work A Sand County Almanac. Well, technically, I listened to it and interestingly did so during one of only two experiences I have had with real urban living.  Having spent nearly my whole life in Idaho and northeast Oregon I had taken a big leap and moved to the Bay Area for a great professional opportunity. I was working college coach hours, commuting from the North Bay into the city daily.  Like many San Francisco commutes, there were multiple legs to my journey.  Leg one each morning consisted of my wife Sora driving me from our place up on the Panoramic Highway down to the 101, where I would either get on the bus or meet my carpool ride.  It was on these early, dark, curving drives down the mountainside that we would take in this foundational text of North American conservation.  It was quite fitting really, listening to Leopold’s words on our misuse and abuse of the land while descending from the ridgetop overlooking Muir Woods into the wild urban sprawl of one of America’s largest metro areas.  You could see how development had steadily crawled out into what were some epic wild spaces.  There may not be a more illuminating meeting point of urbanization and natural landscape than the Bay Area.

I had long heard Leopold referenced and knew of his story and history.  But taking in his own words for just the first hour was essentially a quantum leap in my understanding of his work.  Central to A Sand County Almanac is this concept of a ‘land ethic.’  There could be an entire school of philosophy devoted to this idea, but essentially it refers to a way of thinking about applying the same sort of ethics we use to govern our interactions with humans to the way we interact with the land.  That is summing it up about as simply and crudely as possible, but for the purposes of this reflection should suffice.  We all have a land ethic of some degree.  There is obviously a wide spectrum at play there.  From those who think extraordinarily little of how their actions impact the land they live upon, to those who take such into consideration for every single human act they even entertain taking.  Most of us probably fall somewhere in the vast middle.  My examination here though is not centered on a level of ethics applied to the land, but rather what most formed my land ethic. 

I would stand in the river and fish until darkness, shivering, or my mother’s voice ended my pursuits.

I was interacting with the natural world early and often in my life.  I grew up in what we considered a suburban neighborhood of Boise, Idaho.  I phrase it that way because it was only relatively such.  All I had to do was walk across the dead-end road we lived on, about another fifty yards down an alley between two houses, and I was in a sprawling landscape of farmland, irrigation canals, and patches of native cottonwood trees and associated understory.  That was my playground.  Swimming in irrigation canals, building forts under cottonwoods, and playing hide and seek among cornfields were commonplace entertainment.  The area was still full of pheasants, quail, rabbits, skunks, and snakes.  In addition to that most of our family vacations were camping, hunting, or fishing trips.  I was in the mountains and on the rivers frequently from June through October.  My favorite summer destination being my Great Uncle and Aunt’s cabin on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, where I would stand in the river and fish until darkness, shivering, or my mother’s voice ended my pursuits.  October was for the annual deer hunting trip, the eve of which held more giddiness for me than even Christmas Eve.  The winter months were reserved for bird hunting on the outlying agricultural lands of the Treasure Valley.  I sat and listened to my grandfather tell hunting stories in his camp trailer before I was in grade school.  I watched my dad catch trout, field dress deer, and drop gamebirds from the sky before I was ever of age to take part in any of that myself.  I listened to my mom tell her story of helping my dad pack a couple deer off the mountain early in their marriage. Her glorious task being to bring the rifles out with hearts and livers hanging in bandannas from her belt.  I was fortunate to be born into a family that brought me into frequent contact with the natural world.  However, it was not those early experiences that most impacted my land ethic.  They were certainly formative and planted a seed that would grow and branch and blossom many years later.  Rather, it was something I found in my young adult years that most heavily informed my relationship with land. 

Once I hit junior high age, I was spending vastly more time playing sports than camping or hunting or fishing.  Basketball was my first love in sport and always will be my favorite game.  Eventually though, like many, I hit an age where there wasn’t a spot for short, skinny, very mediocre shooter in the highly competitive program at my high school.  I floundered a little after that.  I had a great experience in high school football from a coaching mentorship perspective, and while I found the game fascinating it really wasn’t for me to play.  I ran track my sophomore year and had reasonable success as a sprinter.  Junior year my coaches convinced me to try racing the 800m.  My first race was a classic 800m debut, I shot out to a massive lead and until about the 650m mark felt like I had found my ticket to athletic stardom.  Then that last 150m seemed to last about ten minutes, my body failed me, and I had to dig deeper into my reserves of strength and energy than I ever had just to cross the line.  I still won the race, but it wasn’t a glorious finish line moment.  I laid on the ground, I threw up, I wondered what had just happened out there.  I loved it.  This new athletic endeavor was insanely difficult, but it was simple, I seemed to have an aptitude for it, and it was highly in my control.  I knew then, I would run.

I laid on the ground, I threw up, I wondered what had just happened out there.  I loved it.

I learned to race smarter, had more success, and earned some attention from college coaches.  I decided to go run for Idaho State University, and when I got my summer training plan from Coach Brian Janssen, I immediately questioned my decision.  Coach Janssen was a phenomenal coach, who later would become one of my most influential mentors, but what I did for ‘training’ in high school and what he was asking of me were far enough apart it didn’t seem they could be associated with the same sport.  He wanted me to go out for runs, like just run for extended durations.  He also wanted me to do this often over hilly, varied terrain.  We had trails right behind our house so that summer I ventured out there for the first time in running shoes and shorts, and I began to run.  I was terrible at it, I started too fast, and often had to walk up the steeper hills.  Still, I labored on with my three and four-mile runs traversing the Boise foothills.  A couple years later I would consider a three-mile run a warmup, but at that point it was more than a significant training stress.  I gradually got better, I was soon starting a little slower and not walking up hills.  Moreover, I began to really enjoy these runs.  I enjoyed the challenge of them, I enjoyed the solitude of them, and I really enjoyed the landscape they took me through.

I ended up transferring to Eastern Oregon University, for reasons that had nothing to do with track, and had a solid collegiate athletic career there.  EOU sits in northeast Oregon, right at the base of the Blue Mountains.  It fit me well.  We trained on dirt roads and trails in the mountains all summer and as long the snow allowed into each fall.  Winter kept us in the valley, but we would be back out in the mountains for the tail end of each spring track season.  We put our miles in with deer and elk and game birds all around us.  I remember having a black bear sow and her cubs burst across the trail just a few yards in front of us during an interval workout.  None of us even broke stride, but that rep did end up being a little quicker than planned.  We were ever wary of crossing paths with mountain lions and occasionally one of us would catch a glimpse of one, knowing full well they caught ten-fold as many glimpses of us over the years.  My running started to overlap significantly with my childhood experiences with land and wildlife in those quiet drainages and upon the ridgelines of northeast Oregon.

I pursued competitive running for a handful of years after college.  A few months of that taking place in Portland, where I retreated to the trails of Forest Park at every opportunity to escape the urban noise.  The remainder of the time was back in northeast Oregon and Idaho, where under the guise of training to race I began to develop a unique relationship with the landscapes I traversed afoot.  Through this time, I was gradually returning to hunting to procure my dietary protein.  So, I would often be running up a drainage in the early morning or evening, feeling the grade change with my mechanics and effort, and all the while reading the ground for animal sign and peering up into side draws thinking about where I would expect to find deer, elk, grouse, or chukars.  I ran across wildlife often, and sometimes even stopped to obscure my presence from them for as long as possible, to drift from athlete in training to hunter if only for a few moments.  In those minutes I would feel that critical shift from observer to participant in the environment around me. 

There is an obvious piece to traversing land on foot that need only be stated to bring into this conversation a subsequent point.  Going uphill is hard on the engine but relatively easy on the body, going downhill is the opposite.  There is great balance in this, a sort of yin and yang of land travel afoot.  After those very early weeks struggling through Coach Janssen’s training plan on the Boise foothill trails, I took to climbing quickly and it has remained my preference since.  Later I would come to recognize the incredible training value in sustained uphill efforts, but long before I grasped that I just enjoyed them.  I loved the primal challenge of battling against gravity ascending a grade.  I was constantly asking myself if I could get up a certain pitch without walking or how fast I could make a particular summit.  I liked going up, and fittingly, I did not like going down.  Descending beat up my body and held no challenge for the engine, I found it annoying and still do now even at much lower speeds.  I’m a climber at heart, I choose to go up.

My relationship with the land began to be governed by what it gave me and what it sought to keep from me.

There was more to my affinity for going uphill and my disdain for coming back down than simple love of exertion and distaste for sore quads.  Sometimes grinding up a steep grade I would find myself talking to the hill, talking to the land.  At points my comments were profane, ‘come on you *#$%@….’ I would say to my adversary.  Really what I was saying was ‘bring it on buddy, I am going to get up this no matter what you throw at me.’  My relationship with the land began to be governed by what it gave me and what it sought to keep from me.  There were vistas and hidden basins and remote ridgelines that held magical solitude, but had to be hard earned, and these became my regular objectives.  Over time, such endeavors led to a much deeper understanding of these landscapes and the land itself.  Land here referring to the earth, the rock, the dirt, the plants growing on it, the water running through it, the bugs and creepy crawlies and animals living in it and upon it.  I have come to know all these things in greater depth because of the time I have spent moving through land on foot.  So many years ago, running in pursuit of athletic goals, now usually hunting or hiking to an alpine lake or snowshoeing or just jogging along.  It has all been afoot for me though, this is how I experience land, this is how I know it, and this is how I have come to value it.  Because I value it, I care for it.  My land ethic is most rooted in traversing landscapes using my own two legs that as of now are still in adequate working order.

….a back and forth between immersion in a task hopefully reaching a flow state, and alarm at the sheer physical distress you are under.

There is always challenge available traversing land on foot, there are even still firsts out there for me.  Though I’m further into middle age than I care to admit, this last fall I packed a deer out of the mountains in one load for the very first time.  I have packed countless bucks out on my back over the years but with my relatively slight build I have always opted to split the load and make two trips.  I can carry moderate weight for a long time, up steep grades, and at a strong pace, but I’m not exactly built for carrying a lot of weight at once.  Standing on a mountainside in the Frank Church Wilderness this September though, I looked down at my quarry and my gear and thought ‘I think I can do this.’  So, I gave it a shot.  It wasn’t particularly far or steep, but the load was going to be damn heavy and the route all uphill.  Those familiar with shouldering heavy packs will tell you that just getting to your feet with the load can be the most challenging part.  This is especially true when you are solo.  It requires some ingenuity, and everyone has their favorite technique.  I favor sitting on the ground to get the pack on my shoulders and buckle the waist and chest straps.  Then there is this awkward and delicate kind of rolling to hands and knees movement where things can really go awry.  Once there I tighten straps up quite a bit more, then carefully get one foot underneath me and with the help of poles or a tree branch pull myself to standing.  Usually then you can tighten straps even more before the inevitable thought hits you, ‘how the HELL am I going to carry this all the way out?!’ 

Interestingly carrying such a load is quite a bit easier than getting up off the ground with it, but it is grueling in its sustained nature.  You just start taking steps, carefully placing poles and feet on ground not designed for either.  I am very rarely on a trail on pack outs, never initially.  There would be no trail at any point on this one.  I was climbing up through an old burn.  A burned slope I had passed through a handful of times, but not yet with a full load on my back.  The eyes are much more affixed to the ground when packing such weight.  I was stepping over downed trees, avoiding root and rock where I could, and being particularly wary of loose soil on the steeper slopes.  While trying to avoid all these obstacles, you see everything.  The various grasses and other understory.  The moss and lichen and needles and pinecones.  Animal tracks and scat.  Rocks of all sizes, shapes, and finishes.  Charred remanence of the old forest and the burgeoning green of the new.  The subtle changes in grade you would otherwise never notice.  You get lost in all of it all, at least for a few moments at a time before your consciousness shifts back to the alarming level of physical distress upon you.  Shoulders screaming under the relentless pressure of the straps dug into them, heart rate near max, knees throbbing, hamstrings tightening, feet sometimes shaking in the brief moments they are off the ground.   It occurred to me on this pack out how similar this actually was to racing a middle distance or distance event.  Both are essentially a back and forth between immersion in a task hopefully reaching a flow state, and alarm at the sheer physical distress you are under.  The battle being to be more often in the former than the latter.  An hour or so later, when I caught the first glimpse of my pickup I swear I heard a bell ring signaling the final lap.  It felt incredible to drop the tailgate, set my pack upon its edge, and feel that weight come off my shoulders.  I stood there staring out over the vast wilderness, over the slope I had just ascended and now knew intimately.  I was drenched in sweat, my heart was pounding, my legs were quivering, and I felt like a good puke might just cap this effort off.  It all felt not too different than laying on the track after my first 800m race decades ago.  I was still and athlete, and I still loved it.

Of course, it does not matter where each of our land ethics is rooted, it only matters that we develop one.  I bet if I sat down with my best friend and pressed him on the foundation of his land ethic all his years rowing a raft down some of the West’s wildest river canyons would come into the conversation.  I have a feeling my brother’s land ethic stems strongly from hour upon hour in the saddle, moving through landscapes aboard an animal whose movements he knows almost like his own.  One of the athletes I coach seems to currently be finding her connection to land through mountaineering and technical climbing.  As much I shudder to say it, due to deep personal preference here, there are probably even some who develop a land ethic from places they’ve been able to see because their ATV or UTV got them there.  The motorized approach is certainly not for me, but if it gets people out there to experience our world and hence hopefully care for it more it ends up a sum positive for all of us.  I do of course recognize some people lack the physical capabilities to run or hike or climb or row a raft or ride a horse.  I am certainly glad motorized options exist to allow such folks to enjoy all that time in undeveloped landscapes offers. 

My athletic prime is far behind me.  My physical prime is behind me.  I am happy to slowly hike up grades I used to be able to run up without pause.  I am no longer out there with any pretense of training for a race, I am out there just to take in the space or to try to procure food for our table.  But I am out there, and I am still out there afoot.  There is still no greater-known solitude for me than only the sound of my own breath and earth under my feet.  I have traversed the land in this way.  I have come to know the land in this way.  And I value the land because of this.  I know full well there will come a day when I am not able to do what I now can.  A time will come when I can’t traverse these landscapes on foot.  I think about that day often.  It scares me.  It saddens me deeply.  However, I have come to realize that such a moment may just bring the pinnacle of my land ethic.  Sitting in a chair somewhere, staring up at a mountain I can no longer ascend, I will then likely know just how much I love this land.  Afterall, some things can only be fully known in their absence.

There is still no greater-known solitude for me than only the sound of my own breath and earth under my feet.