During my last spring break as an undergraduate student, I hiked the Appalachian Trail. A week of constant exercise wasn’t as easy as lounging on a beach, but it strengthened my understanding of our cultural and environmental reality.
Over the course of a week, my group and I hiked at least a dozen miles a day. Each step bore the weight of every object sustaining me for the trip: clothing, sleeping bag, tent, food. Though I was heavy with baggage, my mind was free. Without the social pressures one normally is confined to on a day to day basis, the trail grants one the opportunity to truly think.
On a clear, sunny day, we marched across the crest of the Appalachian Mountains just north of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Even in the hearth of America’s “natural” lands, the effects of deforestation are present. In the United States, only 4 percent of native forests still stand. Forest buffers between highways were so sparse that sometimes we hiked entire lengths with motor vehicles in plain earshot and vision.
To the east lay cattle farms and to the west flowed the Potomac River. Deemed “the nation’s river” because it runs through Washington D.C., it has also been reduced to a polluted waterway. As the source of drinking water for five million people, the river is purified by a multimillion dollar water treatment plant paid for by taxes. This expense is duly paid, however, because citizens also lose their sovereign right to clean, safe water. The land cleared for cattle grazing, as well as cities, mines and transportation, have further contributed to toxic runoff into the Potomac River. Had more forests been present, much of the pollutants would have never made it past the biological buffers.
It is a wonder that with the dwindling amount of natural resources in the U.S., Americans are still able to live consumptive lifestyles. According to the World Resources Institute, the average person living in the U.S. uses 300 shopping bags worth of raw material every week — the weight of a large luxury car. That would be far too much weight to carry. My backpack held only a fraction of my life’s possessions, yet it was too heavy to be comfortable.
The majority of the resources Americans use now come from overseas. We spend vast capital to exploit other countries’ forests, waterways, fossil fuels and rare earth metals, all of which ultimately contaminate their land. Natives, unable to sustain themselves after the resources are spent, are forced to move to cities.
As our hiking group pushed onward into Pennsylvania, our packs grew lighter from eating food and the forests became fuller. The sound of traffic drowned out in the distance. We wandered deeper into woods. These were what I had been waiting to see. Though much of the Pennsylvania Appalachian trees are young and narrow, they are slowly growing into a more mature forest.
The trail led us up to Pine Grove Furnace State Park. The free ride for the weight on my back was nearing its end. Though just a sack of stuff, the importance of my backpack carried a new meaning. It contained only the things I needed, and they were the things that meant everything. When you bear the weight of everything you own, suddenly you care to carry much less.
I carried the weight of all that I needed; it was more than enough. I saw the devastating effects of an economy that demands more and more wanton consumption. Though one-third of this planet’s natural resources have been depleted in the past three decades alone, such as the sparse forests of the Appalachian Trail, they are going to need lots of time to repair, or one day, there will be nothing left.