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Why Wilderness?: A SAWS Testimonial

Ash Mack in the field

Ashley “Ash Mack” Perez served on SAWS' 2013 Yonkers Crew, a partnership program with Groundwork Hudson Valley. Ashley is a sophomore at SUNY Purchase College. She is studying Environmental Studies with minors in Biology and Visual Arts. She loves hiking, wildlife, and art. Someday, she wants to lead inner-city youth in outdoor adventure pursuits with the aim of teaching them why our public lands are so important. Specifically, she wants students to see the worth of public lands in relation to their interests, from science to art to recreation, or another focus altogether. Ashley wrote this journal entry about her SAWS experience last summer:

I once asked, “Why Wilderness? What was so special about it?” Now, after my experience with SAWS, I can answer that question myself.

Working in wilderness proved to be an even bigger challenge for me than trail work alone. The backpacking, the no showers, the no tech advanced tools, the work itself. There was beauty in all of this. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to spend a whole season doing trail work with SAWS, but the time I did get was an unforgettable experience. I was exposed to so many new things those couple of weeks that were originally out of my comfort zone, but the one thing I was immersed in that impacted me the most was this idea of wilderness. Now for me, coming from an urban environment, “wilderness” was where the 5 trees clustered at the end of a park were followed by a turf field. Luckily, through other organizations, I was exposed to forests and parks where volcanoes and rivers co-exist. I understood the concept of public lands and knew being a steward and activist in some way or another had to be a part of my life. This past summer, however, I was exposed to Wilderness, "The most intact, undisturbed wild natural areas left on our planet—those last truly wild places that humans do not control and have not developed with roads, pipelines or other industrial infrastructure". I didn’t know places like these existed or how different they could be. The idea of doing trail work like old school loggers was an unknown thought. I was accustomed to doing trail work with table saws, chainsaws, and most importantly, I never in a million years would have thought a wheelbarrow would be such a precious tool. However, after a week of getting used to smelling funky and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch every day, I took a close look at the bigger picture.

Yonkers Crew, First Session 2013

I looked around to see what this so-called wilderness was. It was a place where a person's sweat, tears, and hopefully no blood was required. A place where tradition was kept, from tools to skill. It was a place where heavy rain aftermath would call upon interesting fungi to peek at me. Where the canopy shaded me from the burning sun. Where strong tree trunks kept me dry. Where leaves handed me rainwater for cooking. Where lifting rocks and seeing small insects crawl away with discomfort brought me selfish joy. Where a flat rock was a valuable item that created a seat. Where a copperhead quizzically watched our every move, at least, that was my assumption. Where other snakes slithered away from our pick mattocks and axes. Where a falling tree made the most pure and unreal sounds. Where exposed roots loaned me a hand to get up the side of a hill. Where muddy grounds made for decent sculpting. Where owls interrupted my bathroom breaks. Where nights were so immensely cold and days so humid and hot. Where sleeping made your senses flare-up in hope and fear a bear will show. Where humans hadn't built their roads or their gift shops. Where the only gift you need to take away is memories. Where the shower at the end of the week didn’t match up to the week itself. Where friends, trust, and relationships were built. Where troubles evaporate and the soul is complete. Where the roots of humankind and sanity still exist.

Ashley and fellow Yonkers crew member, Melissa, take a break on the trail.

This untouched and pristine mixture of flora and fauna is mind-blowing. What, to my dismay, is even more baffling is the fact that other people my age, even older and expectedly wiser, don’t believe places like these are important or valuable. They don’t believe a wilderness serves no purpose to humankind. What kind of Americans would we be if we didn’t preserve a piece of our original self, a piece of history, maybe a piece of life-changing knowledge we will never discover about ourselves or science. My need and passion to help protect wilderness happened over a span of three weeks. According to the Huffington Post (which I don’t know how reliable that is but let’s be honest, I don’t think those numbers are that off), the average American spends almost 12 hours on a digital device (phone, t.v, internet). That’s a lot of time killing brain cells. If we took a solid week, maybe a week and a half to expose these ignorant minds to wild places, I can’t fathom what we could accomplish. I'm a true believer in that the simplest things can change a person’s life. My exposure to wilderness started with a hike up the White Mountains. My continuous motivation for advocacy has stayed strong through three weeks on a trail crew. The question of, "Why?" is the one I ask myself constantly. The responding question of, "How?" is one I will help take on, thanks to SAWS. SAWS provided the inspiration and a motivational push for me (and I'm certain my fellow companions) to care about public lands, not just parks and forests, but wilderness, a special gem in the land of growth and developmental corruption.

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