I arrived in Bozeman, Montana the third week in May more than ten years ago. The lawns of the university campus were mowed into a tidy green cross-hatch and I remember flicking off my sandals and having lunch under a blossoming crabapple tree. The sun-warmed grass was soft under my feet. It was my first spring in the Rockies and I did not yet understand that winter had only retreated a few weeks before and that it could return at any moment.
For four days I had driven across the northern states starting out on Highway 84 west in Connecticut. I drove over the Hudson River into the southern sliver of New York. I hardly had time to take New York in before I crossed into Pennsylvania — a deceptively large eastern state whose width can only be appreciated on a solo journey west. I would not have known the difference between these artificial boundaries if it weren’t for the green or blue state highway signs welcoming me across the border. The hardwood forests stretched on regardless. Although thicker than 100 years ago, eastern hardwood forests are still youthful. Walking through them you will find the remains of stone walls that once bordered open fields, and crumbling foundations with caved in hearths partially hidden by maples and poplar. It will be a century or longer before beech and hemlock reclaim these forests and they become old again, although there are pockets tucked away here and there.
My road trip sprang open when I reached the prairies of Minnesota. There were no trees save for those planted purposefully around homesteads. It seemed strange to me to see trees so obviously placed in an otherwise open landscape, but then the wind would be strong across the prairie and the homestead would need a break. South Dakota was altogether different — dry, stark, limitless. I drove through the badlands and regret not making the time to explore their story told in layers of rock. I can’t remember when I first saw the Rockies, probably somewhere in eastern Montana. Their broken tops pierced the bright blue sky. When I arrived in Bozeman I was told to watch out for “that 19th street.” I happened to be on 19th street at the time and as I looked out across the four lanes of traffic – two in either direction— I wondered what all the fuss was about. But my guide had obviously seen something I hadn’t — a time before there were four lanes of traffic, or at least a time before there was so much traffic. He wasn’t an ancient old timer of Bozeman. Just someone who had seen a shift imperceptible to those without memory of anything else.
Change sometimes happens all at once like an unexpected thunderstorm erupting overhead. Severe in it’s abruptness. Other changes happen over millennia like the erosion of the Appalachian Mountains to mere hills. But somewhere in between are the changes in the environment that occur over generations. Perceptible by those still living but forgotten by those who come after. Not forgotten so much as erased from our collective memory. There’s a term for this and it’s called environmental generational amnesia coined by psychologist Peter H. Kahn. Environmental generational amnesia refers to how each generation perceives environmental degradation based on the condition of the environment they experienced as a child. In other words, our childhood serves as the baseline for which to measure future change. The problem is that our baseline is often already degraded.
In a series of studies Kahn asked children growing up in Houston about the environment they lived in. Most agreed that air pollution was a bad thing, but when asked about whether they thought that air pollution was bad in their own city, many of the children did not believe they lived in a polluted environment, even though Houston remains one of the most polluted cities in the U.S.
I just finished reading a book entitled The End of Night by Paul Bogard. This is where I first heard of environmental generational amnesia. Bogard writes about the loss of dark night skies throughout the world — not just the developed world, but almost everywhere. Sky glow from cities scatters and penetrates even the most remote places on earth. We have lit up the night so that we don’t have to face the beast in the shadows. But over time what began with gas lamps has become gas stations lit so brightly that it hurts to look at them. Bright lights such as these, and even the ones we put up to light our driveways, cast so far and wide that it is the earth seen from a distance that looks like the night sky. It’s hard to believe, but there are children who have never seen a starry night and would be afraid to sit in darkness lit only by the glow of their light. It is even harder to believe there are adults who’ve never seen a starry night except that painted by van Gogh. This is how our baseline shifts.
Even within a lifetime we experience amnesia. I am alarmed at how many details of my own life I’ve forgotten. I can’t remember the name of my third grade teacher nor do I have any concrete memories of my great grandfather. Only a still-frame picture in my mind. This is why I write. I write to remember plucking periwinkles off rocks in tidal pools on a Maine beach, then holding them to the rock again until they reattach. I write to remember walking the Marginal Way along Maine’s southern coast with my parents, sister and grandparents then getting chocolate-and-vanilla swirl soft serve ice cream in a cake cone at the end. I write because there is something deep within myself that has been forgotten and is dying to be remembered.
After a brief stay in Bozeman, I drive the 75 miles south to Yellowstone National Park. I’ve never left – at least not permanently anyway. Yellowstone became a national park in 1872 — the first of its kind and predating the National Park Service by 44 years. To live here is to be given the chance to remember something that has been forgotten. I don’t know what Bozeman was like 100 years ago, but by comparison to Paradise Valley, which is mostly open agricultural land that is slowly being invaded by ranchettes, and by comparison to Yellowstone, which is much like it was 100 or even 300 or 400 years ago, I begin to reach back in time through space.
E.O. Wilson coined the term biophilia in 1984, which he defines as the innate need for each one of us to connect with the natural world. He argues that this desire is part of our genetic make-up and is therefore, inescapable. By visiting as wild a place we can find, and as often as we can find it, we may begin to rebuild our collective memory and recover from our amnesia.