The wilderness is full of misanthropes

On crowds and nature writing

It’s no coincidence that Kathryn Schulz’s recent New Yorker article on nature writing and the Misanthropocene was published just days after a New York Times photo essay on crowding at national parks. I mean, in one sense it was a coincidence in that the magazine was printed before—and the contents formalized long-before—the New York Times story went up. On the other hand, this genre of hand-wringing (which I am not immune to) about crowds in public parks has become so common every summer that Schulz’s essay was almost certainly bound to coincide with one of them.

Schulz’s writing prompt is the recent release of the English translation of Sylvain Tesson’s The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet, which she puts in conversation with that other classic nature tome, Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, which I must confess I’ve never read. No matter, her real subject is nature writing as a whole, and in particular, the strain that treats other humans as objects of disgust, and “wilderness” and “nature” as better off without them. Schulz compellingly argues that this tendency towards “eco-grumpiness” is not only vulnerable to hypocrisy—do as I say not as I do, or as Schulz puts it, get off my mountain—but also at odds with any hope of “saving” wilderness, nature, and the earth from/for humanity. As Schulz reminds us, “in my experience environmental concerns have relatively little to do with the dismay that nature lovers feel at the presence of other people in the wilderness.”

That’s not to say that crowding can’t be a problem—just that disdain, disgust, and hatred of your fellow public lands visitors isn’t a productive way of dealing with it.

I also heard noises online that the overcrowding narrative could be exaggerated or overblown. I followed up with Douglas Scott, a writer and co-host of the podcast A Life Outside who lives near Yellowstone, to ask him more about one of his recent Instagram stories.

Scott writes (shared here with permission):

The entire narrative of crowds in parks needs to be told differently. Some places are packed, others are not.

It is also a message to people in the same town as me near the park who are telling everyone that it routinely takes two hours to get into the park because of lines and traffic. It is crowded for sure, but not consistently, which is what everybody seems to say it is.

I go every week so I am working to try and tell people what I see. I think it is easy to lump in parks with high visitation together, but Yellowstone is different. There are five entrances and multiple roads in the park. Only one area, the Madison Junction near West Yellowstone, is experiencing long jams. Everywhere else feels like a normal, busy summer.

This is really important context. Many if not all of the places photographed for the Times piece are viewing platforms or other pieces of infrastructure designed to attract and funnel visitors to and from specific places—they’re for crowds.1 Visitor beware, if you’re hoping for peace, or even occasional bouts of solitude, go elsewhere!


Reading list

On the subject of crowding, visitors to famed swimming spot Peekamoose Blue Hole in the Catskills now have to pay $10 for a parking permit seven days a week (which also applies to hikers hoping to scale Peekamoose and Table mountains) [Christopher Cicchiello for the Times Union]. A bikepacker camping behind a post office in Montana2 was mauled and killed by a grizzly bear, a gruesome reminder that grizzly territory doesn’t end at park boundaries and to never keep food in your tent [Amy Beth Hanson and Matthew Brown for the AP]. In the UK, polluting the ocean with raw sewage and the toothless fines that follow is just the cost of doing business [George Monbiot for The Guardian]. Dispatch from the apocalypse: Low tide and high temperatures conspired to cook millions of mussels, clams, oysters, sand dollars, barnacles, sea stars, moon snails, and other tideland creatures alive on the beaches of Puget Sound [John Ryan for KUOW]. Finally, another installment in the Barry Diller / Little Island debate asking who these new green spaces are for [Aaron Mok for Sierra].

An invitation

Finally, I’m chuffed to invite New Yorkers (or anyone who will be in the city next week) to the Mappy Hour Return-to-IRL Party next Wednesday at 7pm at the SoHo Arc'teryx Soho. The eve will commence with Mappy Hour founder (and Pinch of Dirt reader!!) Sarah Knapp sharing her favorite adventure spots in the five boroughs, and afterwards I’ll be at a table (an “Adventure Corner”) talking about hiking in the city! Come say hi! This is a ticketed event ($10) and attendance is capped at 50 but it’s sponsored by Sierra Nevada beer which I think is free. Learn more and sign up here.


That said, one photo of Joshua Tree in particular gives me hives—I’ve never been but it doesn’t look like people are supposed to get off that platform at Keys View. Readers, can anyone confirm or deny in the comments?


Correction: The bikepacker was mauled in Montana, not California, as an earlier version of the newsletter erroneously stated. (The woman was from California.)