Evolving Views

With bumps on the road, hopefully each year we grow more enlightened in our view of nature and our relationship with it. But there is a side-effect to this progress in attitudes. Each generation comes to believe its own hype and this can lead to hubris.

Mary Schäffer was an American-Canadian traveller and naturalist who ventured into the Canadian Rocky Mountains on horseback. She wrote original and entertaining accounts of her pioneering experiences at the turn of the 18th/19th centuries.

Mary was one of the first non-Native women to travel into the heart of these mountainous lands. As a writer she had a greater interest in horses than people and her books are essential reading for anyone who travels with horses to this day.

I have enjoyed joining Mary on her travels by reading ‘Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies‘, first published in 1911 and recently brought back into print by Rocky Mountain Books. Like all good travel literature, there are moments when we feel the saddle sores and hear the cascading water that threatened to carry the horses away.

From the perspective of a lover of outdoor clues and signs there is much to enjoy too. A hovering hawk swoops and betrays the location of a furtive fox; the wind direction changes and carries away the flies that had been plaguing the travellers. A carpet of moss reveals the the long deserted fireplace of an ‘Indian hunting party’.

Mary Schäffer was ahead of her times in so many ways, not least in her appreciation of landscapes and the delicacy of nature. But her words also shine a light on our inevitable fallibility in this area. Those today who claim to have the perfect recipe for our relationship with the environment might find these words of interest:

“Parker, besides being beautifully located, is a very popular camp, as horse-feed is to be had there in unlimited quantities. But alas for the soullessness of the average camper! When he has drained the last drop from the condensed milk can, has finished the maple syrup, or cleaned up the honey jar, he drops the useless vessel on the spot, and Camp Parker has consequently developed into a rubbish heap. But from long experience I realize that it is useless to ask the rubbish-maker to place a stone in his empty cans and toss them in the river or into a hole, and the other average camper will go on to the end of time tripping over the objectionable stuff.”

From Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies, by Mary Schaffer, 1911.

We shouldn’t be discouraged from trying to do better than the last generation, but whenever we’re tempted into lecturing others how to behave outdoors we can think of Mary’s words. I find them helpful and humbling.


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