“Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
I count myself among the luckiest of the lucky to have spent two summer seasons living and working nearly a hundred miles deep into one of the wildest lands in North America- Denali National Park. Waking up each morning to Denali (the name a slight adaptation from Koyukon Athabaskan Deenaalee, meaning “the High One”), standing tall and tempestuous, is a remarkable perk of the isolation that comes with knowing it’s a full day’s trip down a dusty dirt road to the nearest town.
My first summer there, I didn’t leave the Park boundary for four months. I sunbathed on riverbanks under midnight sun, I wrestled porcupines, I hiked through bruise-inducing hailstorms, hid from dry lightning, and missed by inches a head-on collision with a caribou while biking downhill. I drank every day from a lilting spring surrounded by dogwood flowers and fireweed, and actively worked to educate myself on the Park’s biology, ecology, and natural history.
When you spend a lot of time in one place, especially outdoors, you form a relationship with the land and with the beings who call it home. As interactions become more meaningful, the landscape becomes a part of you – Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in her novel Braiding Sweetgrass, an exploration of relationships between Indigenous wisdom and modern science, that in order to truly love, appreciate, and belong to a place “…we must learn to speak its language.”
To learn the language of a place, we must study, love, and respect the intricacies of its unique biome and conscientiously participate in its stewardship and preservation.
With every breath I’ve taken of crowberry and Labrador tea-scented tundra, with every windswept blossom I’ve identified from my battered Verna Pratt field guide, and with every path I’ve taken across rivers and glaciers and forests and scree, I’ve felt one step closer to speaking the language of Denali. All this, after only a humble few months of being there; the Koyukon, Tanana, and Dena’ina peoples have inhabited surrounding lands for thousands of years, and I can only imagine the power that comes with lifetimes and generations of conscious connection.
This connection does not suggest a sense of ownership, but rather of belonging. When language is no longer a barrier, a deep and true two-way relationship can form; the earth is loved and so too are you. From this mutual respect come crags and blueberries and sweet-water springs, fostering in turn a deep sense of care and responsibility for the land and life around. My sense of closeness to Denali has led to countless hours devoted to research on human impact on wildlife, of active participation in conversations regarding land management and long-term conservation plans, and to continuous self-education on environmental crises worldwide. There can be no true environmental change if there is no love for the natural world, and there cannot be love for the natural world without this sense of connection.
Certainly, this relationship to land is not confined to areas of dedicated Wilderness. Though it’s easy to feel detached from the place where you live, especially as a transient college student (since beginning school I have moved seven times between two countries, three states, and four cities), all it takes is a bit of conscientious outdoors-time to reignite a connection between you and the land around.
So- don’t take the natural world for granted! It exists for so much more than for our entertainment. Take a moment to understand the past and to listen to the land around you. Take a moment to consider the rock you’re climbing, or the river you’re running, or the soil that feeds the plant on your windowsill – what stories do 14er summits whisper? Which flowers, birds, and mushrooms are your neighbors? What can you learn from the non-human beings around you? How can you give back to the land that lends us life? If we each continue to ask ourselves these questions, I truly believe we will all be better for it.
No conversation of land appreciation in North America is complete without acknowledgement of stolen lands, the complicated relationship between public and Indigenous spaces, and the wounds continuously inflicted by colonialism. Though our history is blood-stained, and our present isn’t much better, we must not choose easy ignorance and instead continue to educate ourselves on past genocides and current systemic injustices, and to fight to heal.
Recommended sources for learning about Denali, natural history, and the history of colonialism:
- Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer
- Fool’s Crow, James Welch
- Rhythm of the Wild, Kim Heacox
- The Ground Beneath Us, Paul Bogard
Websites and Articles
- Stolen lands and living stories: A photographer reimagines reality https://native-land.ca/