The Trouble with “Leave No Trace”

Perhaps, you will absorb something of the land. What you absorb will eventually change you. This change is the only real measure of a place.”–Paul Gruchow

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We are taught to “leave no trace” when we visit a natural area, such as the prairie. Pack out our trash. Stay on the path. Respect what we find. Yet, there is another side to this simple saying.

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Hike the prairie early in the new year. Look carefully. In the shady hollows, there are transitory marvels. Rock candy sticks of ice linger until the sun strikes. Then…vanish.

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The old is finished.

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The past months melt away.

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There are lingering signs of the life of the prairie to come.

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To hike a prairie is to be prompted to want to know more about it. Paying attention is one way to grow more deeply in understanding the tallgrass. Helping restore it with others is another.

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When we care for a place, we are more “careful” of that place. But familiarity sometimes breeds carelessness. So… How do we break out of the same patterns of thinking?

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How do we become less rigid in the ways of “knowing?”

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How do we open ourselves to seeing and thinking about prairie in new ways?

Come with me, and surf the grasses; ride the waves of the prairie in January. Admire the tweediness of the grass colors, bleached and burnished.

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Follow a path not taken before; explore in all directions. Who knows where you’ll end up? What might be found on the other side?

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It might not all be softness and light. The prairie can be harsh, unforgiving.

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No surprise. It’s a landscape that must be burned again and again to become strong.

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Through beauty and terror–and even, the ordinary–the prairie imprints itself on the heart.

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It reminds us of our insignificance in the big scheme of things.

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And yet.

It also whispers: “One person who lives intentionally can make a difference in the bigger life of a community.” Even if only a trace.

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Yes, if you’re careful and pay attention–stick to the trails, carry out your trash, speak softly, admire the blooms but don’t pick them– you may “leave no trace” in the tallgrass. If you give back to the prairie–learn the names of its community members, help gather its seeds, pull weeds —you may leave traces on it of the best kind.

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But be warned. The trouble with “leave no trace” is that the prairie does not follow the same principles you do. It will cause you to think more deeply. To care more fully. To pay attention more intently.

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The prairie will leave its traces on you. And you will be forever changed by the encounter.

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The opening quote in this essay is by Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) from Journal of a Prairie Year (Milkweed Editions). Gruchow suffered from severe depression; for many years he found solace in the outdoors and on the prairie. Among his other works are Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; The Necessity of Empty Places; Travels in Canoe Country;  and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home.  His writing is observational, wryly humorous, attentive to detail, and reflective. If you haven’t read Gruchow, let this be the year that you do.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): snow on the tallgrass, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; ice crystals on the path, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; pale purple coneflower seed head (Echinacea pallida), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; snow pocket melting in the sun, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; removing invasives, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; ice, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; grasses in January, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; prairie road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL;  hiking on New Year’s day, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; working to restore bison, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; snowy road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tracks through frost, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL. 

11 responses to “The Trouble with “Leave No Trace”

  1. So absolutely true. When I paint, my mission is to get people to see the nature outside their door and connect with it in a deep and care-full way. When a person has marveled at a ladies tresses spiraling along the trail, hopefully it will be harder for them to toss a drink cup there. When they have learned the life challenges of a Blandings turtle, perhaps they will hesitate before letting their dog off-leash.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so grateful that you use your talents for painting in this way! Keep sharing the outdoors… Thank you for reading.

    Like

  3. A beautiful way of stimulating “caring” about the prairie in the bleak days of January. Well Done.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Amazing images. And thank you for introduction to Paul Gruchow. Happy New Year and happy explorations on the prairies!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Absorbing these interesting and artistic notes; keep em coming! Almost as good as a winter prairie hike.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. keithskreations15

    Awesome post! Totally agree with what you’re saying. We like to leave trampled grass trails at our place. Doing so gets us off the usual paths and into areas we haven’t been to, or haven’t been to in a while.

    We also like to leave “disturbances.” Shredding areas, or tearing up the ground, brings new growth. Birds LOVE the shredded areas, as it makes it easier for them to get to seeds and stuff.

    We’ve also put out feeders and guzzlers. No, they don’t blend in with the surrounding environment, but they benefit the wildlife.

    Looking forward to burning some of our place. It’s a scary though, but exciting too.

    Hope you’re having a good start to 2017.

    All the best!

    Keith, the K at The SnK
    http://www.thesnkwildlifereserve.org/

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m with you, Keith — I love having bird feeders! Let me know how your prescribed burn goes — very exciting. Thanks for sharing about your experiences, and thank you for reading. Happy New Year!

      Like

  7. Selena Schindler

    Awesome post, I’m looking forward to your new book!

    Selena S.

    Like

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