Does inheriting something from the past require us to pass it on to the future in its pristine form? That's a question that bugs those of us who work in natural and cultural heritage preservation. I am not sure I have the answer, but I do have some thoughts on the subject.
I recently scheduled a retreat day for myself. With three small kids, solitude is hard to find. It must be scheduled in. Part of the day was spent hiking at a nature center associated with a small Adirondack college. I picked a trail I was already familiar with, the gentle path one I knew could be completed quickly as darkness neared. The woods were lightly snow-covered, the paths quiet, the woods serene. Just what I wanted.
It didn't take long to notice the trail had changed a bit since I was last there. Interactive elements had been added, changing the experience a bit. The path had always had human elements - wooden bridges to carry you over a stream, a viewpoint tower, some benches scattered about. It had always been kept clear enough to maintain its wheelchair accessibility (which also means stroller-accessibility, important in this season of my life). The new human-added elements were different. Marketed as a “Journal Walk,” informational signs has been placed along the route, signs that shared Teddy Roosevelt's trip to those woods and his work documenting local bird species. The content was part history and part wilderness education, as they taught today’s visitors about the birds and other natural elements they would encounter, alongside Roosevelt's activities documenting them in historical journal entries. The sign at the beginning even gave an estimated time to complete your experience on the trail.
As I walked along, mostly ignoring the small, relatively unobtrusive signs (I was there to think and relax, rather than learn), I discovered another addition. Near a beautiful stream, I happened upon what appeared to be a very large megaphone. Turns out it was, in fact, a very large megaphone (so said the sign asking if I was wondering about the very large megaphone). Stationed right next to the trail's picturesque brook, was this large, clearly man-made installation.
Reading on, I discovered it’s installers wanted to give hikers the chance to ‘amplify the sounds of nature.’ I was instructed to climb inside and listen. So I did. Inside the giant megaphone, the sounds of the brook were stronger, clearer. I could hear how the water slowed in some areas, burdened by ice. I could hear other sections still flowed freely. It smelled good inside the megaphone too, the recognizable scent of cut wood sharp in my nose. So that sense was activated as well, and I often link the smell of wood with the outdoors (even though human-altered lumbar is not necessarily ‘nature’). So, while my sense of sight was a bit disturbed, my experience with hearing (and smelling) was elevated by this strange installation.
Interestingly, when I started my trek, hearing the sounds of nature was one thing I really wanted. But as I walked, the sound of my own footsteps crunching on snow took over. The winter woods were pretty quiet, and my own presence was covering up what faint noises may have been present. I had been a bit disappointed by this. Then I happened upon the megaphone, which provided the sounds of wilderness I craved. Still, here in the beautiful, serene nature, was a somewhat ugly object, clearly man-made and imposed. I was pretty torn how I felt about it.
This experience provoked thoughts on heritage and modification. Should places of heritage be kept pristine or should we allow modifications that better help humans connect with them? Is the answer different with cultural heritage - clearly human-produced to begin with - than with natural heritage? Should places associated with nature be carried forth into the future with minimal changes, prioritizing the well-being of non-human species rather than human visitors?
My first instinct was to answer YES! We need to leave nature bloody-well alone. If we have managed to inherit a pristine place from the past, then we have a duty to pass it forward as such. But then I thought about it more. Are these places really all that pristine to begin with? Certainly not a set of hiking trails associated with a college, including the wheel-chair accessible one I was on. And will leaving it alone actually allow us to pass on these places intact? Or have we reached a point where human impacts on nature are so ubiquitous, we have no choice but to intervene on behalf of non-human species everywhere. Do the benefits of small additions to nature outweigh what they detract? Are there significant enough benefits to using alterations to get people to appreciate nature more, drawing them back with new attractions (like a journal walk they can read) or a chance to hear in the winter woods what their ears might otherwise miss (like the megaphone)? Do we need heritage modified to ensure heritage at all?
I haven't even touched upon modifications necessary to the immediate survival of a species or landscape. Perhaps those have a more obvious justification, as opposed to modifications that prioritize reconnecting or improving the experience of human visitors. Although even these have complex considerations. In some way, we need to ask the question of whether all heritage needs modifications necessary for survival in the somewhat immediate future. It may seem like we are prioritizing humans over other species...but do we even have the option not to, when it is humans who will do the most damage if not educated, encouraged, and guided towards a path of respecting heritage? Is there any heritage - natural or cultural - that is not endangered right now?
If we decide heritage modified is the path we must take, we have a lot to consider. How much modification is too much? Who are the ideal professionals to determine which modifications are appropriate for humans and non-humans alike? How much 'unnecessary' modifications (like a sound-amplifying device) do we want? And what about when modifications attract a lot of people…perhaps too many people? Overtourism is a very real and growing problem in many places. Engaging people is important but engaging too many people could be a disaster.
And is it possible to prioritize both - heritage modified and heritage pristine? The lovely Adirondack Park, right in my backyard, may be a good example. While there are plenty of heritage modified places here, there is also a huge part of the park deemed 'forever wild'. The Adirondack Park is the largest, publicly protected area in the contiguous United States. There are 6 million acres of forest preserve, but the park is actually a patchwork of private-owned land surrounded by 'forever wild' public land. If you don't want to look at a giant megaphone in your nature, you don’t have to go far to hit a stretch of forever wild forest. Of course, the booming popularity of places like Lake Placid could easily spread without proper containment. Some of that forever wild land could slowly transform heritage pristine into heritage modified (or heritage lost).
As you can see, I have more questions than answers. But those in these fields need to have some Big Conversations in the future (and continue conversations already started). I will end with a quote from a book by Adam Grant, something I think is important to stress. In his book Hidden Potential, Grant states:
"It is more important to be good ancestors than dutiful descendants. Too many people spend their lives being custodians of the past instead of stewards of the future. We worry about making our parents proud when we should be focused on making our kids proud. The responsibility of each generation is not to please our predecessors - its to improve conditions for our successors.”
A bit blasphemous coming from an archaeologist?