Why are People Trashing Our National Parks?: A Wilderness Therapist’s Theory

While the government closure goes on into it’s 4th week, the once protected National Parks are left vulnerable without rangers, volunteers, and respectful citizens to protect them.  Like many of my Facebook friends, I’ve been both angrily and sadly watching my feed with updates on more news of parks getting trashed, human waste building up, and even trees being cut down.  Why, why is this happening?  What would make a human so lazy as not pack out their trash, or be so motivated to take a saw into the park and cut down it’s historic trees?

Over the past few years, I’ve been observing and studying what I have dubbed “Mother Nature Attachment Theory.”  This is based on human attachment theory that, in short,  states our earliest relationships to our caregivers affects how we attach, securely or insecurely, in our other relationships throughout life.  In other words, if you have a negative relationship with your mother, or maybe she was never there, or sometimes there, or was always there looking at you for comfort rather than vice versa, then as adult you might either embody these same characteristics or go overboard in the opposite direction.  The underlying feeling left is often one of fear or distrust. (That’s just a brief summary of attachment theory).

(Cuyahoga Valley National Park)

In my own Mother Nature Attachment Theory, I see this in a similar way.  If a child doesn’t grow up spending time outside, climbing trees, building forts with sticks, then the child didn’t grow up with an attachment to Nature.  Or, maybe the child was told “don’t get dirty”, “it’s not safe out there”, and handed an iPad to keep busy, then the child grew up without trusting Nature, and an insecurity to it.  Then, there might be the child who was given a dirt bike before ever taking a hike in the woods, never recycled, or grew up with the perspective from parents that we must dominate Nature.  Again, this kind of relationship creates another form of insecurity.  These types of attachment to Mother Nature create not only a fear but both a disconnection to the land and to the self, for all of us who have grown up with a secure attachment to Nature knows that we are all connected.

If you didn’t grow up with the view that nature is an abstract object, then leaving a wrapper behind is no big deal.  If you grew up fearing nature or with the a privileged view of separate equals better than, than the damage of cutting down a tree might not be worth a second thought.  Actually, those acts might be your way of trying to cope from that missing connection with the Earth.  Temporarily, it might make you feel better.

The sad thing is for the people who grew up with an insecure attachment to Mother Nature is that their outward destruction usually reflects their own inward pain.  While I’ve only been interning as a therapist at a substance abuse center for 6 months now, I’ve clearly witnessed the turmoil many of our clients face from growing up with an insecure attachment to their early caregivers.  Most of them self-destruct with drugs and alcohol, don’t trust others, and don’t trust the world.  It’s a tough, unbearable way to live.  While I’m still angry at the people trashing our National Parks, I can find a little sympathy and sadness for them because I have a sense of what they’re lacking.  Having lived several year’s by Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park and now next to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Parks, I have re-gained a sense of wonder and awe, felt at home, found my Higher Power, and cried in the beauty mountain shadows.  Just thinking of my life without Nature leaves me feeling like I have void centered in my chest.

Rocky Mountain National Park

If your feeling sad or angry about the state of our National Parks, that is actually a positive feeling.   It shows your love and secure attachment to Mother Nature, and a justifiable angst that She is not being respected or taken care of.  These feelings can either eat at us, or motivate us to do something.  What can we do?  For those of us who don’t live by National Parks* and can’t inform visitors or trail or park etiquette at this time (which may be dangerous and I don’t necessarily suggest) or clean up like this little boy, we can support our National Parks with donations, visit them the next time we are on vacation, and speak with our actions by recycling and trying to reduce of consumption of heavily packed products.  We can also get to the heart of the matter by encouraging others to have a secure attachment with Mother Nature.  If we have or work with children it’s a bit easier.  We can encourage kids to get dirty, to sit outside when they need to calm down or had a bad day, or make comparisons like “wow, that flower needs food and water just like I do!”.  It’s a bit trickier with adults, and we already know preaching usually doesn’t work, but we can sneak in comments, maybe at work, such as “Whew! I had a really tough day.  I need to make sure I get outside for a run today.” or “I had a great weekend hiking with my family.  I feel so much more energized now.”  We can also use our actions like recycling or bringing in re-usable silverware to eat lunch with.  If you have time, I suggest volunteering for your local or National Park a few times a year too.

I’m also going to keep praying to my Higher Power, Mother Nature, that the parks re-open ASAP.  And when they do, profusely thank the rangers for all that they do.  I’m going to count my lucky stars (which, by the way, are amazing living right next to a National Park) that I”m blessed enough to live in the mountains and that I grew up with parents who allowed me to play in the mud and build tree forts.  Last, I’n going to try to send a little love to those who haven’t been as blessed, as angry as I am by their actions, because I know what they are doing on the outside is a mirror of what is going on inside.

*While I live right next to Rocky Mountain National Park, I’m very fortunate to not have witnessed any damage from my outings, which may speak to the community of Estes Park whose residents see themselves as the parks caregivers.

**I have to add this Rich Roll podcast with Zach Bush, MD of Food Independence & Planetary Revolution because it is relevant, both from a scientific and spiritual standpoint.

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