people strolling through Yosemite visiting wild places

Dome Stroll in Yosemite. Photo by Patrick Bremser

Being a Good Steward of Nature

How do we balance spending time in nature for personal wellness and simultaneously steward and support the places we visit? We do this by bringing mindfulness to our practices of visiting wild places.

For many, March, 2021 marks the one year anniversary of shut-downs, home isolation, and a new online Zoom culture associated with the Covid-19 global pandemic. We have collectively spent a LOT of time indoors in the past 12 months. As the long-term effects of the pandemic continue, people are eager to get outside, enjoy nature, move their bodies and breathe clean air in beautiful places. There is also an increase in the number of people seeking out mindfulness practices to help manage daily stresses, pandemic-related pressures, and a myriad of new challenges.

Balanced Rock and Responsibly Visiting Wild Places

For over 20 years, I have worked for Balanced Rock, a nonprofit organization in Yosemite National Park with a mission of inspiring health and well-being through deep connection to nature and spirit. The core of Balanced Rock is to use both time in nature and mindfulness practices to foster physical and mental health, wellness, healing and resiliency. At Balanced Rock, we feel education in how to responsibly visit wild places is a critical piece to keeping outdoor spaces healthy and to allow for future use by many generations.

Throughout the pandemic, groups and individuals have sought out Balanced Rock for classes or guidance to relieve stress caused by the feelings of isolation during shelter in place mandates. Offerings have included outdoor and online yoga and meditation classes, custom guided outdoor experiences for individuals and small (Covid recommendation-sized) groups, suicide awareness discussions, community forums for physical and mental health, a robust Community Wellness Program, and an eight-month, online, 200-hr Yoga Teacher Training.

“Balanced Rock has been a grounding tether for me during the pandemic. Thank you for offering online wellness classes!
-2020 Community Wellness program participant

“I can’t tell you how incredible it is to be out here in this beauty…. To be talking with someone other than my pod-mate. This feels SO healing and so simple yet profound given this past year. Spending time in nature is true medicine.”
-2020 custom hike participant (When BR was able to safely start guiding small groups in Fall 2020.)

Balanced Rock diligently balances bringing individuals and groups into wild settings with the responsibility to “do no harm” and be respectful of the natural world.

person looking out at the view at Balanced Rock

Taking in the View. Photo by Fred Pompemeyer

The Dangers of Overuse of Wild Places

In Yosemite, we have seen first-hand what a place looks like before and after a big weekend or event in a popular tourist destination. Examples of overuse can include the following. Bags of trash left behind, dirty diapers in sacred creeks, accidentally dropped masks or other clothing items dotting the ground like leaf litter. Too many cars causing some to park in eco-sensitive areas or idle while sitting in traffic jams. At times, new trails get formed by people walking in the same place through sensitive areas like meadows, wetlands, or high elevation vegetation while trying to take a photo, get a view, or relieve themselves leaving used toilet paper behind (Yuk!).

With a little local education and a mindfulness practice of paying attention, many of these examples of mis-treating a space can be remedied. So what does it mean to visit a place mindfully? One definition of mindfulness is: To be mindful of something simply means to bring awareness and attention to it. If we can bring more awareness to our behavior and actions in wild places, and share this with others, we can better take care of the places that take care of us!

Mindful and Respectful Ways to Spend Time in Nature:

  1. Research and follow the Leave No Trace suggestions for the area you intend to visit.
  2. Try and visit really popular areas during off times or off hours. Avoid peak seasons and peak times.
  3. Resist the temptation to reveal a little-known or little-used place on social media. This may be one of the biggest changes I’ve seen in visitor use in my relatively short time on this planet. One Instagram post can literally change the nature of a place forever. Consider the tags used and the intention of the post.
  4. Keep yourself safe to avoid injury or getting lost so you don’t burden an already stressed First Responder system.
  5. Consider the visual and audio impact a group or individual can have on a place.
  6. Consider hiring a local guide to become educated of the local cultural norms and etiquette, and learn ways to appropriately and safely travel in a region.

Questions for Reflecting on Relationships with the Earth

As we emerge back into the world to receive the great health benefits and abundance of wild places on this earth, let’s encourage one another to pause and reflect on the places we go to seek solace and take time to ask questions with mindfulness, awareness and love.

  • What are ways my being here could harm this place?
  • Am I treading lightly on the land?
  • Am I knowingly or possibly unknowingly harming any creatures, plants, soils, insects, humans?

Taking time to question, plan, prepare and reflect is mindfulness in action and can really make a difference to the health and well-being of the places we love and ultimately to ourselves. If we view our time in nature as a reciprocal relationship, we receive the health benefits that nature affords and in turn we are treating the earth in a way that allows future generations to be able to experience these same benefits. Visiting wild places with mindfulness has an impact that lasts far more than the moment we spend in a place.

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