Where are you from? Sounds like a simple question, right? It is one that I get asked on a daily basis, and likewise one that I ask regularly of most visitors here at Arches National Park, out of genuine curiosity, as we get an extraordinary array of guests from every state and international location possible, and I love the way that these diverse perspectives interplay into the guided walks that I get to lead several times a week.
My topic is human history, so the majority of our stops focus on the ways in which people survived here historically by using the surprisingly vast resources available in this harsh desert environment. We talk about hunting and hold the remains of a real arrowhead made of Chert that was discovered in the park, we touch and smell the shavings of a Yucca that the Natives would have used for soap or shampoo, we put our hands on the red rock and talk about the Petroglyphs that the people engraved here as a distinct connection to their surroundings… but every now and again, I am struck by a sense of oddity during these walks. For in the midst of all these moments that give the slightest hint of a renewed connection with the true essence of this place where people lived in harmony with this land, I find myself (like many before me) thinking okay, lets speed this up so we can get back to our air-conditioned cars.
The question “where are you from?” has gotten so incredibly complex. We live in this bizarre and recent era where we possess the ability to project ourselves into the sky in massive metal machines and strategically pick the point of re-entry virtually anywhere on the globe. In addition to the fact that our clothes and food are mass-produced, manufactured and processed in multiple locations from multiple products around the world, I live in a national park and I can’t even run on a natural surface without driving to it or running two miles on blacktop first. Consider the difference between the chemical makeup of our bodies today and that of the natives that lived off the land here only 200 years ago. They hunted and harvested their food entirely from the small portion of the earth that they walked on. Today, we barely walk on actual land at all, and our processed food comes from just about everywhere. Suddenly “where are you from?” is no longer an all-encompassing question, for where were live and what are bodies are physically composed of have two very different meanings.
What does this have to do with conservation? I believe it all boils down to impact. The Native Americans that walked this land had a reciprocal relationship with it, and they used only what they needed to survive. This came with a sense of respect, even reverence for the plants and animals that provided for them. But as this land-people interaction rapidly changes, will the people that walk this land two hundred years from now be able to say the same about us? I continue to enjoy the diversity of my daily interactions as a guide at Arches. But with this comes the realization that the ease with which we can interact with people and places from all over the globe these days inadvertently diminishes that diversity, especially in regards to our personal relationships with the actual land that we come from. So maybe the question is not so much where are we from, but where are we headed, and how can we improve that destination?