Lincoln: Into the Woods

Appreciation for New Hampshire's wilderness is not enough

by Rachel Lincoln | 6/22/18 2:30am

Remember when those WOODS shirts exploded across campus last year? Suddenly, half of the student body started wearing the shirts like they were the newest Vineyard Vines release. Or what about the Patagonia shirts that fit seamlessly into Dartmouth’s unofficial uniform of school merchandise and outdoorsy clothes? Their popularity, and even the idea to produce them in the first place, is the product of students who romanticize Dartmouth’s place in the wilderness.

I must confess that I too romanticize nature. In my middle school French class, I declared my unwavering intent to be a poissonnier — a fishmonger — only because I liked the word. I thought I was joking, but seven years later I signed up for the fly fishing physical education class. In the broader American context, venturing out into nature has been an endeavor of curiosity, a protective reflex and a creative respite. Wilderness continues to inspire near-religious devotion and awe. Dartmouth in particular fosters a romanticization of nature with a borderline commercial fervor, as seen in the alma mater’s emphasis on granite, the “Big Green” and the “Lone Pine.”

While programs like DOC Trips create a connection between students and Dartmouth’s natural environment, it is damaging to the broader goals of environmentalism. Prizing untouched, wooded wilderness over natural environments poses several contradictions to the environmentalist stance. For instance, viewing forests as the “purest” form of nature, whether consciously or unconsciously, devalues other regions like grasslands and deserts, distracting us from the problems and climate stressors facing those places.

Thus, we must value nature’s diversity. Until we value all forms of nature equally, we will continue parceling off the “boring” parts for our trash and dirty work. For example, the outrage over government encroachment into national parks for industrial exploitation is more than warranted, but we also need to examine local practices of land and water management. Cattle farming can destroy swathes of scrubland by razing the plants until the soil erodes. Even choosing to landscape our homes with indigenous plants helps reduce the need for irrigation and the risk of introducing invasive species.

The romanticization of wilderness also leads to the simpler effect of people becoming ignorant of the beauty in the land around them because it is not part of the monolithic, “capital-W” wilderness. If we convince ourselves that the wilderness near our homes is uninspiring and plain, then we are less inclined to take responsibility and care for our environment. In particular, the false distinction between urban and natural environments de-incentivizes us to keep cities clean and morally excuses dirty corporate practices, since it’s not deemed “natural” in the first place.

Our superficial appreciation of nature manifests in superficial protection. Dartmouth composts and hands out reusable (Green2Go) containers, but still maintains endowment holdings in fossil fuel companies, which contradicts its supposed commitment to the environment. As Divest Dartmouth members Megan Larkin ’19 and Jared Solomon ’19 wrote in the Dartmouth Political Times, our investment in fossil fuels is also a direct affront to our ties to the Native American communities that Dartmouth claims to support.

Clearly, much of Dartmouth’s institutional and cultural identity takes root in the surrounding land. Many people chose this school because of their interest in protecting and enjoying the environment that makes the college beautiful. But our idealization and reverence for New Hampshire’s wilderness should not be our sole focus. While there is nothing wrong with enjoying New Hampshire’s particular brand of nature, we must not let our exaltation of the untamed wild push the rest of the world out of the picture.

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