The Importance of Fighting to Preserve Wilderness

by Mark Miles

Whether we realize it or not, wilderness is essential to all of our lives. A short list of the major ecological services provided by wilderness includes the following: 1) regulating climate by sequestering carbon, 2) retaining topsoil through expansion of root networks, 3) preserving biodiversity by providing habitat and food sources for endemic species, 4) filtering watersheds through microorganismal and vegetal communities, 5) purifying air through respiration and storage of pollutants, and 6) supporting indigenous communities who depend on the land for the necessities of life. And best of all, these essential services are provided to us free of charge.

By contrast, if tech industries were to attempt to fulfill the same ecological services provided for free by wilderness, the cost could very easily surpass the national deficit on a monthly basis. In short, wilderness is doing all of us a favor merely by existing. Needless to say, that should be enough for our leaders to preserve wilderness at all costs. Such is not the case however.

As you may have heard, there were some sobering statistics released not long ago in the scientific journal Current Biology regarding the state of wilderness globally. The bottom line, as with so many issues relating to planetary health, is horrifying and obscene. Over a period of two decades, ten percent of all wilderness (3.3 million square kilometers or the equivalent land area of two Alaskas) was annihilated to feed the engine of industrialization. This may not seem to be much on the surface, but it is when you consider two things: 1) only twenty percent of Earth’s land area is still wilderness, and 2) the rate of global deforestation is only increasing due to the growing appetite for resources of China, Brazil, Russia, and Indonesia. Whether because of construction, manufacturing, mining, forestry, or agriculture, the result is the same: wilderness pays the price while the wealthy who run the global economy walk away with the bank. It’s the very definition of unsustainable, unjust, and unforgivably wrong.

Which is why we should be doing everything we can to protect and support wilderness wherever we are. For my part I do this by raising awareness through my blog, gardening organically, reducing my consumption, buying as little as possible, and encouraging others to do the same. But the reality is that none of these actions will stop the bulldozers, the pipelines, the paramilitary troops, or the endless waves of industrialization that are eviscerating our planet. What we need is an organized, mobilized, and uncompromisingly dedicated army of concerned citizens who want to save the planet and their children’s future before it’s too late.

And one focal point for mobilizing should be our national and state parks. These are bastions of nature, freedom, wildlife, and health which are frequently within driving distance from where we live and which are doing their best to ensure that the little of wilderness that’s left has a fighting chance for the future. To that end I’ve compiled some of my latest photography from three parks in my area of central North Carolina to demonstrate exactly what it is that all of us should be fighting for.

The trails at Eno River State Park are so extensive that even after exploring them on a monthly basis for the past year and a half, I haven’t covered all of them. The park includes 4,200 acres of land and preserves nine miles of riparian habitat along the banks of the Eno River, where I found this bubbling brook nestled amidst a bucolic valley that could’ve come straight out of a fairy tale. There are so many places in Eno River State Park that are equally beautiful and worthy of preservation, but the only guarantee we have that they will continue to exist in the future is our own efforts to fight on their behalf in the present.

The trails at Eno River State Park preserve not only opportunities for hiking but also opportunities for fishing and swimming. Though no one was swimming at Bobbitt Hole when I took the following photo, there was at least one person fishing with his girlfriend on the rocks around it. It may seem trivial to some people to preserve an opportunity for fishing when so few of us depend on the work of our own hands to survive, but it’s a reminder to all of us that our human lives are directly tied to and dependent upon the health of the land, which provides food to all of us along with beauty and recreation.

The Eno Riverwalk in Hillsborough, North Carolina is a stretch of riparian habitat that includes 1.8 miles of trails which border downtown and run through several neighborhoods in the area. It’s one of the most beautiful stretches of riverfront that I’ve ever seen and demonstrates that it is indeed possible to combine some degree of human habitation with wilderness, though obviously there are limits. Even in the quaint and historic town of Hillsborough, however, there is an increasing push to construct ever more housing that will inevitably erode the health of the river and the surrounding land.

Another feature of the Eno Riverwalk is the gradual reconstruction of a traditional Occaneechi roundhouse, which sits just southeast of the courthouse in downtown Hillsborough. The Occaneechi Indians lived in this area through the eighteenth century but were forcibly displaced by European colonization at the end of that century, only beginning to re-emerge from the shadows of history in the last quarter of the twentieth century. They’ve become active in historical recreation and have demonstrated some of their traditional habitation in this roundhouse. This place then is a testament to the importance not only of preserving wilderness but also of preserving cultures that have historically revered wilderness and sought to live in harmony with nature rather than in dominion over it.

The State Natural Area of Occoneechee Mountain is another wilderness area where I go hiking frequently. It covers 190 acres of beautiful terrain and straddles the Eno River along its northern and western borders; it was also part of the traditional territory of the Occaneechi Indians before they were forcibly displaced by European colonization. My understanding is that they regarded the mountain as a holy place where they could commune with their ancestors and the spirits of nature. It’s easy to understand how they could have come to that conclusion when you see for yourself the awe-inspiring beauty of the view from the Overlook, where I took this photo.

Sadly there is also mining for pyrophyllite and andalusite in the area surrounding Occoneechee Mountain, though you would never be able to tell from the view provided by the Overlook. Fortunately Occoneechee Mountain remains protected from the deforestation and contamination which are the inevitable byproducts of mining, but there’s no guarantee for the future. If Occoneechee Mountain were ever to be sold by the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation in order to ameliorate budgetary shortfalls, the fate of Occoneechee Mountain would be the same as that of most mining sites: it would be turned into a hollow and lifeless shell of its former self, never to be the same again.

So while there are many stretches of wilderness in my own area of central North Carolina, any or all of them could be clear-cut, bulldozed, mined, or turned into an industrial wasteland at the drop of a politician’s hat. And that is neither ethical nor acceptable to anyone with half an ounce of sense or concern for the future. If we want to live on a planet that continues to be habitable for humans as well as every other species, we need to take action now to preserve wilderness anywhere and everywhere we can, starting with the wilderness in our own backyards. Organizing, mobilizing, and acting decisively to defend wilderness while it still exists is not only our responsibility as inhabitants of this planet, it’s the best way of ensuring our survival as a species.

References:

Eno River State Park,” Wikipedia, accessed Nov. 29th, 2017.

Fraggoso, Alejandro Davila, “The planet is going through a ‘catastrophic’ wilderness loss, study says,” Think Progress, accessed Nov. 28th, 2017.

Harvey, Chelsea, “The world has lost a tenth of all its wilderness in the past two decades,” Washington Post, accessed Nov. 28th, 2017.

Occoneechee Mountain — Active Mine,” Eno River Geology, accessed Nov. 30th, 2017.

Riverwalk,” Town of Hillsborough, accessed Nov. 30th, 2017.

Watson, James E. M., Danielle F. Shanahan, Moreno di Marco, James Allan, William F. Laurance, Eric W. Sanderson, Brendan Mackey, Oscar Venter, “Catastrophic Declines in Wilderness Areas Undermine Global Environment Targets,” Current Biology, accessed Dec. 1st, 2017.

Grappling with Colonialism at Thanksgiving

by Mark Miles

Thanksgiving used to be one of my favorite holidays. The reasons for this are numerous and obvious: there’s good food in abundance, there’s time to laugh and visit with family, there are exceptional movies being released in anticipation of awards season, and there’s pecan pie. Needless to say, any holiday with pecan pie has a special place in my heart. In addition I’m an avid aficionado of history and I love the Baroque era, during which the first recognized celebration of Thanksgiving took place at Plymouth Colony.

But all of that belies the fact that Thanksgiving is also a celebration of genocide, which took place hundreds of years ago and which is still taking place today. This genocide is the ugly side of Thanksgiving and is frequently ignored by our culture for any number of reasons. These reasons are numerous but not so obvious, and they are rooted in events that took place hundreds of years ago and spanned thousands of miles. I can only begin to illustrate the depth of this history in one brief article, but I’ll do my best to condense the story and make it easily understood.

The time was the early seventeenth century. Europe had been wracked by religious conflict for decades, revolving around the emergence of Protestantism and the resistance of Catholicism to any potential competitor for spiritual supremacy. These religious differences were primarily superficial but provided a thinly-veiled rationalization for the expansionism and colonialism of European monarchs who were quite frankly besotted with their own deification. James I of England was one of these monarchs and never flinched from using his authority to persecute those whom he perceived to be religious dissidents. Separatists who wished for independence from the Anglican church formed one of these groups of dissidents, and it was persecution at the hands of James I that led them to emigrate from England.

Portrait of James I (Jon de Critz, 1606)

In 1609 these Separatists–who would later come to be known as Pilgrims–emigrated to the Netherlands. They were however unfamiliar with the culture in which they found themselves and became worried about the prospect of losing their identity in the fray of the rapidly industrializing city of Leiden. Events went from bad to worse when English authorities came to Leiden to arrest one of their number for writing comments critical of James I, and by 1619 these displaced Separatists were actively planning to emigrate once again. In this case, the Netherlands wasn’t far enough to escape James I. Only the distance provided by the Atlantic Ocean would satisfy their desire to be free of religious persecution at the hands of their own king.

After a hazardous passage over forbidding seas, the Separatists landed on this continent in 1620 and established relations with local Native American peoples, including the Wampanoags and their chief Massasoit. There had previously been a wave of epidemics in the area, precipitated by the intrusion of European colonizers who were quick to exploit the rapid depopulation of entire communities. Some estimates indicate that as many as two-thirds of native people in the region of what is now New England died from infectious diseases introduced by Europeans. In any case the Separatists were not responsible for this, and Massasoit made no attempt to blame them for other people’s misdeeds. Consequently a peace treaty was signed in 1621, and there was a level of trust between the colonists and natives for a short time to come.

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (Jennie Brownscombe, 1914)

Decades passed, and with time the number of Plymouth colonists increased. In 1621, the number of colonists was fifty. By 1630, the number had climbed to three hundred. By 1643, the number had skyrocketed to two thousand. Combined with the fact that colonists continued to acquire Wampanoag land at an alarming rate, there came to be increasing hostility between the natives and colonists. The Wampanoags had kept their end of the peace treaty of 1621, but increasingly the Separatists of Plymouth Colony were reneging on their end of the bargain. In the peace treaty, there had been an implicit understanding that the colonists would limit their numbers and would respect Wampanoag territorial sovereignty. This, however, was clearly not the case.

By the 1660s, tension between colonists and natives was thick enough to cut with a knife. Massasoit had died in 1661, and his son Wamsutta succeeded to the position of supreme leader of the Wampanoags. Wamsutta had witnessed the collapse of the fur trade–by which his people had previously made a living–and had begun to resort to selling his people’s land to the Plymouth colonists. Doing commerce with the Wampanoags had by this time been made illegal, and Wamsutta was arrested by the governor of Plymouth Colony. After being administered a “portion of working physic,” Wamsutta was released from custody and died within three days. Proof was circumstantial, but it nonetheless pointed to the conclusion that the governor had ordered the poisoning of Wamsutta.

Wamsutta’s brother Metacom–who came to be known by the title of King Philip–then succeeded to the position of supreme leader of the Wampanoags. From the events of recent decades, Metacom had learned that the colonists were untrustworthy. They continued to encroach on Wampanoag lands and continued to deal with the Wampanoags unjustly. After a Christianized Indian had died under circumstances that may have been suicidal, three Wampanoags were hauled before a court in Plymouth colony, convicted on scant evidence, and promptly executed by hanging. The date of this hanging was June 8th, 1675. By June 20th, 1675, the Wampanoags were at war with Plymouth Colony.

Philip, King of Mount Hope (Paul Revere, 1772)

This war has been named Metacom’s War, though it could just as easily have been named the War of Territorial Acquisition or the War of Colonial Belligerence. In any case, it was a devastating event in Wampanoag history and resulted in the further decimation of their numbers. By 1676 the Wampanoags numbered no more than a thousand, while colonists in the whole of New England numbered eighty thousand. By the end of Metacom’s War, forty percent of the Wampanoag people had been killed. Of those few who remained, a great number were sold into slavery. By the early 1700s, the Wampanoag people had effectively been wiped out.

This story would be awful in and of itself. It’s made worse, however, by the fact that what happened in the seventeenth century is still happening in the twenty-first century. Only now in place of a colonialist government seeking to steal native land, there’s a neocolonialist corporation seeking to despoil native land. Specifically Dakota Access, LLC, is in the process of desecrating land sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux of North Dakota. To make matters worse, Dakota Access is doing this for the express purpose of enlarging their own corporate profit margins, regardless of the consequences to anyone living downstream from the projected path of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

This is bad for a few reasons: 1) the projected pipeline will be crossing the Missouri River, which is a major source of drinking water for many Midwestern states; 2) every pipeline has a significant risk of leakage; 3) the crude oil which will be transported is highly flammable and toxic; and 4) the Missouri then feeds into the Mississippi River. From this, you can see that the effect of the pipeline could be devastating for millions of people whose drinking water could easily be contaminated by fossil fuels in the near future. If there’s any consolation in all of this, it’s the fact that the Standing Rock Sioux have done their best to defend their land against this desecration by blocking access to certain projected construction sites for the pipeline; how long they’ll be able to continue this, however, is uncertain due to the persecution they’ve experienced at the hands of private security forces and law enforcement.

Standing with Standing Rock (Pax Ahimsa Gethen, 2016)

So this is why I have mixed feelings about Thanksgiving. As much as I love the prospect of eating lots of delicious food with friends and family who enrich my life on a daily basis, I’m nonetheless torn by the realization that this entire celebration is built on the blood and pain wrought by centuries of genocide perpetrated against native peoples. It’s not a pleasant thought, and it doesn’t bring me any kind of happiness to dwell on it. Quite honestly there are times when I wish I could bury my head in the sand and forget about it. But that wouldn’t change the reality of what has happened and what is happening. On the contrary, it would be a betrayal of all that’s worth fighting for in this life. And if there’s one thing worth fighting for in this life, it’s the land we love.