MULTIPLE CULTURAL DIMENSIONS OF THE NATIONAL TRAILS SYSTEM
As with many of its other aspects, the cultural realm of the National Trails System is a complex matrix of multiple interrelated dimensions. We intend to explore four of these cultural dimensions in this and subsequent PATHWAYS Across America. We begin, in this issue, with the most immediately tangible dimension – providing some examples of how contemporary artists are telling the stories of the trails, portraying the landscapes through which they pass, and expressing their experience of them. Our national scenic and historic trails are inspiring a remarkable outpouring of artistic expression in just about any medium imaginable.
The four cultural dimensions we intend to explore inter-relate like the layers of an onion. Peeling away the layer of contemporary artistic response exposes the layer of the contemporary culture of each trail and of the National Trails System. This is the realm we all inhabit and work within. Like the air we breathe, we are so immersed in this cultural realm that we mostly do not notice it. Yet, each of the federal agencies involved with the National Trails System has its own cherished culture. Differences in these agency cultures frequently present obstacles to the seamless collaboration we all know is necessary for these vast trail endeavors to succeed. Similarly there are sometimes subtle and not so subtle qualities that make the contemporary cultures of each of the trails distinct. While they share many similarities, the cultures of the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails are distinct, as are the cultures of the Lewis & Clark and Overmountain Victory Trails, and all of the others. We should also recognize that the culture of public/private partnership and the reliance on citizen stewardship of national heritage resources that infuses the National Trails System is quite special and unparalleled in public resource management.
Peeling away the layer of our trail cultures exposes the layer of the historic cultures of the native peoples through whose lands our national scenic and historic trails pass. Indeed, many of these trails were first developed and used for centuries by Native Americans. Exploring these cultures reveals ways of understanding and living within the land that are much different than the way our dominant contemporary culture relates to the land we inhabit. The national scenic and historic trails provide many opportunities to deepen our understanding of the mosaic of cultures that comprise our American nation, while we also better appreciate the cultural context in which these trails were developed and used. This deeper understanding can lead to a more complete and accurate telling of our trails’ stories.
Peeling away the layer of historic native cultures brings us to perhaps the least well understood cultural dimension: the land – the bedrock, soil, and water where our national scenic and historic trails are physically located. Our dominant western culture prompts most of us to make sharp distinctions between human landscapes and “natural landscapes” that most indigenous people do not make. We tend to think that much of the length of our trails passes through these “natural landscapes” while, just as we all live within human cultural landscapes, we are beginning to understand that most of the length of all of our trails passes through cultural landscapes, as well. Better understanding of the dynamics of this cultural dimension should lead to better management of the lands and waters through which our trails pass.
Just as all its layers are needed to form an onion, these four cultural dimensions of the National Trails System inextricably support and nourish each other. Each dimension draws sustenance from the underlying dimensions and, in turn, helps to reshape them in a dynamic way – for, unlike the onion, the culture of the National Trails System is not static, but is continually evolving. There is much to learn from each of these dimensions and from their dynamic interplay. We will explore this intriguing, complex cultural aspect of the National Trails System during the 14th Biennial Conference on National Scenic and Historic Trails in Tucson this November and in future PATHWAYS.
Executive Director, Partnership for the National Trails System