Culture, conservation and Zion: Reflecting on a little more than a walk in the park

Like the polychromatic vibrancy of a stained glass window, my memory is a lens colored by the wild of my youth. Who would I, Kiki Serantes, be today if not for those Alaskan winters and Washington springs, those mountains, waterways and coniferous trees?

I wouldn’t be who I am today if not for the countless hours spent in the great outdoors of the Pacific Northwest. But, considering the vast diversity in America’s wilds, it’s essential to explore that variety if we are to glean the fullness of our culture.

We often forget the crucial impact that nature and our wilderness areas have on molding our social and self identities. Culture and natural landscapes — the wild — work to define each other in a symbiotic relationship. As Zion’s Cultural Resources intern with the Student Conservation Association and the National Park Service Academy, I’ve come to recognize how essential it is for humankind to remember this forgotten relationship. Only in rekindling our connection with nature may we hope to create a conservation future enjoyable by all walks of life.

To prepare for unabridged conservation of our outdoors spaces, I came to Zion to experience the diversity that defines our National Parks and glean a fuller understanding of the diverse wilds that have made us who we are. I wanted to gain conservation experience in a wild uncommon to me. In advocacy journalism, one is supposed to be ‘the voice for the voiceless.’ In our time, the entity with the quietest voice is our Earth. As an aspiring environmental journalist, I hope to give platform for Earth justice through providing a platform for the Earth’s voice. Being Zion’s Cultural Resources intern has showed me that the effort to give voice to the Earth is one that must be holistic and collaborative, and that I can contribute by fostering a connection between our modern culture and the landscapes that gave it birth.

The Beginning: We’re not in Kansas anymore

Having never been — let alone lived — in a desert before, I didn’t really know what to expect when I came to Zion in May. I had this image of a desert being some barren wasteland with no trees. But what Zion gave me instead was both unexpected and awe-inspiring. With palatial cliffs dwarfing all in the canyon below and a magnificent river cutting its way through seven layers of sandstone on its trek toward the ocean, it’s an understatement to say that Zion’s beauty had me taken aback. Is it even possible to live somewhere so amazing? Like the Pacific Northwest, Zion offers numerous opportunities for solace with unforgettable landscapes, but that’s pretty much where the similarities stop. Experiencing such different wilderness areas instilled in me a drive to be more holistic in conservation, understanding the differences which make our landscapes so unique and magnificent.
Although it was difficult, at first, to live so far away from most everything I’d ever known, sights like the great Watchman mountain — who comforted me from my desk everyday— served as a constant reminder of why I was here and as a source of inspiration to continue on. Unlike anything I’d ever experienced, Zion showed me just how much of a bubble I was shrouded in when it came to thinking about wilderness and conservation. The same earth that gave birth to the snow-capped mountains of the Pacific Northwest sculpted the jagged teeth-like cliff faces of the desert. How can we create a holistic conservation effort representative and inclusive of this diversity? Zion kept this question constant in my mind over the 12-week internship.

A Living Landscape

My role as the Cultural Resources intern here at Zion National Park homes in on the unique correlation between the region’s cultural past and present. This is an essential aspect to conservation that is often overlooked: The fact that the way our ancestors learned and grew from the land developed our culture as it is today. Although there may be an imbalance in cultural cohesiveness today, it doesn’t change that fact. It was only through my introduction to the world of Zion’s archaeology that I truly experienced and realized the paradox between the rather ephemeral physical existence of a given society and its people’s lasting impact on the earth.
The landscape is a living, growing experience of which humans contribute to and — for better or worse — sculpt. Archaeology, the conservation and study of the cultures of history’s past, helps us understand our traditional role in that sculpting so that we may mend our ways and embody a mood more conscious of our own impact. My main task over the 3-month program was to redact sensitive information from our historical documents so that we may publish them via NPSfocus. It’s essential to make public our parks’ past if we are to create a personal connection between the community and the land — if we are to ensure long-term conservation efforts.
“I kind of have this theory that people don’t care about what they don’t know about,” Russ Cash, the project leader, said. “If we can get people to understand what’s here and what we protect, then they may end up caring about it a little bit more and actually be more proactive in helping protect these areas.”
Studying the cultures of the past are essential in understanding the relationship between our current culture and the lands in which we inhabit. But just as essential is active conservation in the present. Like many Park Rangers here at Zion, I cleaned vandalism and graffiti threatening to damage many an archaeological site. Considering the sheer amount of graffiti we found and cleaned throughout the course of the program, it became abundantly clear that humans have lost sight of the park’s context. In its place is a selfish desire to make a materialistic impression on a wild millions of years in the making. This suggests an even greater need to remind our neighbors of the unique and important role our outdoors spaces have in curating our culture: We must rekindle a personal connection to our lands. Read more about how “Battling Graffiti in Zion’s Famous Canyons” shaped my conservation experience here.

The Story Unfolding

Almost ironically, spending the summer living and learning in Zion National Park showed me that it’s going to take much more than “a walk in the park” to conserve our parks, wilderness areas and outdoors spaces. In learning basic archaeological skills — involving site stabilization, documentation and mapping — I experienced firsthand the inextricably intertwined nature between the land and who we are. Not only that, but I experienced and worked with the lasting impact that humans have on the land itself.
We are not done being sculpted by our lands, just as we are apparently not done sculpting the land. The story between our culture and our wild areas is still unfolding. One of the greatest challenges I faced was understanding how my own culture could contribute to Zion’s identity and how Zion contributes to my own. As a woman with a past characterized by overcoming social challenges, how can I contribute in a positive way to Zion and the Park Service? What may have traditionally been a “man’s world” no longer is; our parks are becoming more accessible and integral to all walks of life. In being here and sharing my experiences, I can be a change agent for fostering wider diversity in our parks today. Although it may be a bit of a climb, I’m confident that we, as a society, can foster a connection with the land for everyone in the fight for conservation.

The Fight Continues

My experiences in Southern Utah solidified the drive to bring others on board the conservation boat. While it may seem like we’re on our own in this fight, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Moving forward, community is essential in cultivating a more balanced, environment-driven future.

To get our community caring about our parks and wilderness areas, we must provide ample opportunity to experience said spaces. But, with visitation increasing, so too increases the potential for damage to those areas, such as through vandalism and graffiti. This solidifies, for me, the necessity in banding together as a society for conservation efforts. It may take one person to ruin something like a rock art panel through graffiti, but it also only takes one person to tell them to stop and prevent the damage. Conserving our parks is a responsibility belonging to each and every one of us. In the future, I hope to continue rekindling the connection found in culture, nature and identity. Whether I’m using my degree in Political Science and Journalism to advocate from inside the legislative system and to the public, or I’m writing about and sharing my wilderness experiences to instill a personal connection with the land in my friends and family, this internship has shown me that conservation will definitely continue to be a part of my life.