Appreciating Space In National Parks

Jane Wong
National Parks Traveler
Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Jane Wong discovered that working in the field with the SCA gave her a great appreciation for the outdoors.

Editor’s note: There are worries that a majority of today’s younger generations are not interested in spending much time outdoors in natural areas. The Student Conservation Association exists to help nurture and immerse these generations in places such as national parks and national forests. Jane Wong discovered that working in the field with the SCA gave her a great appreciation for the outdoors. This is her story.

Growing up in San Francisco, where space is tight, I’ve always felt the intensity and compactness of urban life. Open space was something to look out on, gazing across the Bay or at the Pacific Ocean - not something to experience first-hand.

It wasn’t until I volunteered in a national park with the Student Conservation Association that I learned to truly appreciate the personal advantages of space - and its value even in compressed settings like cities or college campuses, including Humboldt State University where I’m a sophomore.

I’ve spent three summers now volunteering with the Student Conservation Association, the national leader in youth service and stewardship.

I spent the first summer in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore along Lake Superior on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Looking across the lake to Ontario reminded me of the expanses of water around San Francisco, but being part of Pictured Rocks was another story entirely. The national lakeshore stretches for 42 miles and includes an extraordinary variety of natural features - rock archways, waterfalls, and sand dunes - that are just breathtaking.

I soon discovered that the work involved in maintaining that gorgeous setting is breathtaking, too. We had to haul lumber uphill to our campsite, for example. Each person had to do his or her share, and I carried up 20 large pieces of lumber by myself. I’m not big or strong, and it was exhausting. I found the strength by focusing only on what I was doing - getting in a zone, not talking to anyone, just thinking and repeating, “I can do this.”

Another year, I spent two weeks in the Chattahoochee National Recreational Area in Georgia, maintaining trails through landscaping techniques called back sloping, which keeps water flowing down the side of pathways rather than pooling in the center, and vertical camouflaging, using twigs and fallen trees to close or hide routes so vegetation can re-grow.

The recreational area contains 48 miles of the Chattahoochee River as it hurtles through Atlanta into more bucolic locales. Once again, protecting this vital landscape was hard but rewarding work.

This past summer, I was an SCA intern member at the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Shirley, New York. The complex consists of nine wildlife refuges and a wildlife management area or other areas covering 6,500 acres of land that provide wildlife oases for migratory birds, threatened and endangered species, and other wildlife. Their Long Island location makes them an important nesting, wintering and migratory stop for hundreds of species of birds.

During all my summer experiences, I came to appreciate the importance of space as a crucial element not only in land management and environmental preservation but in personal matters as well - in reflecting on one’s accomplishments, in stepping back from the day’s annoyances, in gaining the drive to tackle whatever’s ahead.

During my summers in Michigan and Georgia, that sense of space was further enhanced by the fact that the crew leaders collected and secured the interns’ cell phones. I wondered at first how I’d survive without my smart phone, but it was refreshing to unplug. It enabled me to be that much more present in my approach to my surroundings and colleagues.

Now that I’ve returned to college, I’m annoyed at how much I’m on my phone. If I ever lost it, I don’t think I’d get another one at all. Working with the Student Conservation Association on those public lands taught me that space is a commodity and a tool that enables us to navigate life more thoughtfully and effectively.

Having space - being able to remove oneself from the intensity of life at key moments - lets us put problems in perspective. Whether it means putting down the cell phone or physically removing oneself from a potential conflict, that space can be refreshing, replenishing, and refocusing.

When you’re camping for weeks on end and one of your colleagues gets on your nerves, you can’t let the problem escalate; you have to deal with it, because you’re there together, your success depends on working together, and neither of you is leaving anytime soon. So you have to physically move away - give yourself and your colleague some space; take a breather, and then come back with a more relaxed approach, a new perspective, and a renewed determination to achieve your shared goals in shared space.

In Michigan we gathered each evening after a hard day’s work for a communal dinner and afterwards had a rollicking time, if you can believe it, washing dishes. Even a task that seems like it would be annoying could be fun, because we had learned to work together, we had had some time before dinner to relax separately - to have some personal space - and then we had regrouped to enjoy our success together.

Solitude, I discovered, can happen even when you’re among others. Now that I’m back at college, I take advantage of the outdoors regularly. Whenever I get a chance to venture outside, I take it.

This year I’m living off-campus, and instead of driving or taking a bus to class, I walk to school every day. I listen to music and think about life and enjoy the scenery. It takes about 20 minutes each way, which isn’t a lot of time, but it gives me all the space I need.

Jane Wong is a sophomore at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California.