Public Lands: the Thread that Binds us Together
Anna Groover is a communications fellow at the National Wildlife Federation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught me that there are at least two types of uncertainty, one more desirable than the other: the anxiety-inducing, pull-out-your-hair uncertainty of a global pandemic, and the mesmerizing, calming uncertainty of staring into the darkness of a cave. In Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky, I escaped the former — if but for a few moments — to find the latter.
My friend Kelli and I had just reached the cave and the river that flows from it at the midpoint of our out-and-back hike, and before turning back, we decided to peek inside the mouth of the cave. After turning on my phone’s flashlight, I realized the cave’s interior would be impossible to discern. I couldn’t make out shapes, or even the dimensions of the cave farther than a few feet.
For me, this unknowability proved soothing. Hypnotizing, even, as I stared into the depths of something primordial and entirely of a different time scale than the one I’m accustomed to thinking in. It reflected a larger truth — that most things, and especially the future, are always uncertain and opaque, but as we go about our lives, we like to pretend that they aren’t.
My home state of Indiana is too-often deemed flyover country by its own citizens. We’ve tricked ourselves into thinking that the flatness of most of our state translates to a dullness of character and that better, grander views are better sought elsewhere — the West, the coasts.
Indiana’s public lands serve as a corrective to this idea. In northwestern Indiana, sandhill cranes rest in marshes during their fall migration. When I visited the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area for the first time last fall, my mom and I heard the cranes’ cacophonous, stuttering calls long before we saw the stunning swoop of them massed on the ground and in the sky. I couldn’t help but wonder about their umwelt — their lived, sensory experience of the world and cognition that surely differs from yours and mine — and how they make sense of these specific wetlands that they return to year after year. In other words: What stories and feelings do they associate with this land? In a generational, non-human sense, these wetlands are special. They hold intrinsic value of their own.
On a clear day in northern Indiana, you can make out the Chicago skyline from the shores of Lake Michigan in the newly minted Indiana Dunes National Park. From north to south, geological time reveals itself; you can discern where Ice Age glaciers stopped their trek as the flat plains of the north give way to the limestone ridges and hills of the south. In McCormick’s Creek State Park and Brown County State Park, the rich, hilly forests are the stuff of paintings. (Really: T. C. Steele, the most famous of Indiana’s impressionist painters, loved Brown County.)
I think of public lands, too, as the thread that binds the social fabric of my life together. I rarely visit parks by myself — instead, it’s always an occasion to catch up with a friend or family member. I find catharsis in taking to an hours-long trail and talking to no one but my companion and the trees, in finding a rhythm in putting one foot in front of the other, again and again. Places like Mounds State Park or Brown County State Park serve as punctuation marks, the spaces in between work, school, and other obligations. In other words: They give meaning to everything else.
So many of our country’s parks and public lands written about in these love notes would not exist but for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). This important conservation program was permanently funded when Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act earlier this summer. You can learn more about the Land and Water Conservation Fund here.
Would you like to write about public lands that you cherish? Please email Mary Jo Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org for guidelines.