Monday, January 29, 2018

This Land Is Our Land: Haters Welcome

The jacket for my book, coming out April 10, 2018.
I have a hunch that This Land Is Our Land will be viciously attacked.

This hunch comes from two places: 1. A review of my book by National Parks Traveler, a website devoted to covering issues related to parks; and, 2. My Backpacker Magazine article on Scotland’s right to roam. The review was positive and I was happy with how the Backpacker article turned out, but it was in the Facebook comment sections for these articles where my ideas were angrily dismissed and I was personally attacked.

For the National Parks Traveler article, reader David Schultz says, “Ilgunas is having a wet dream. This will never happen nor should it. Apparently, he doesn’t understand the definition of private property.” Reader Brian Emch says “Right to roam my arse. The author is obviously just a libtard who wants to go anywhere he wants.”

The Backpacker audience didn’t concern themselves with the details of my wet dreams (which are about things far more exciting than the right to roam, believe me), but these readers weren’t any more enthusiastic about the right to roam:

Comments on my article on Backpacker's Facebook page. 
The somewhat alarming thing about these responses is that these people (people who love parks, the outdoors, and hiking) should be my base! They should be my supporters! Yet I’m getting loud and really cranky opposition from them. What’s it going to be like when libertarians, big landowners, and the far right hear of my idea or read my book? It’s not going to be pretty.    

You might think that I’m upset by all of this. Not one bit. I knew that my idea  that citizens should be able to responsibly access the great bulk of our nation’s lands and waters  would be controversial. And I realize how the enactment of a right to roam law, should it come to that, is a long way away. So I’m okay if my book doesn’t automatically lead to legislation. I’m okay if the right to roam doesn’t happen in my lifetime. I'm okay if a lot of people hate the idea at first. 

When it comes to saying something radical (but right and true and just), I like how the late British MP, Tony Benn, put it: “First they ignore you, then they say you're mad, then dangerous, then there's a pause and then you can't find anyone who disagrees with you.”

I know the right to roam is right the same way I know universal suffrage, universal healthcare, and democracy are right. I know the right to roam is the right policy for an advanced country devoted to equality, good health, and justice. So I’m not worried about being wrong. And I’m not worried about a few uninformed, if earnest, comments from Facebook users (who might not be so critical if they read my book because I do indeed address all of their most common concerns).

The only thing I’m worried about is step one in Benn’s progression: Getting ignored. I’d prefer that I skip ahead to steps two and three, when everyone can call me mad and dangerous.

Honestly, the best thing that could happen for the right to roam is for me and my book to get burnt at the (metaphorical) stake. We should die the heretic's death: that is, die loudly and symbolically, surrounded by naysayers chanting for blood. This way, the idea can go as far as it can. It can reach as many eyes as possible. Then, at a later date, once we’ve all calmed down, once the idea has had time to slowly and more gently seep in the collective consciousness, maybe we can begin an earnest debate about the right to roam.

First comes blood, then comes bills. 

Monday, January 22, 2018

New article in Backpacker Magazine

My piece in Backpacker Magazine ran last week. It's part of their "public lands" issue, so the article has as much to do with my Scottish hike as the public lands situation in America. 

The photos below are from my hike, from Inverie to Fort William.

Monday, January 15, 2018

I don’t know if I can watch football anymore

During the Bills-Jaguars playoff game last week, two Bills players went down with head injuries. When I watched football years ago, an injury timeout was a bathroom break. Now it's a lump in my throat.

Head injuries, and what we now know about head injuries, have changed the way I watch the game. Each time a running back gets stood up at the line, I see CTE. Each time a receiver goes up for a ball, I see CTE. Each time the ball is snapped, I see CTE.

CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is the brain disease that leads to depression, dementia, and early death among athletes who take repetitive hits to the head.

Ive watched football since I was a little boy. I played organized football from ages 11 to 18. It taught me discipline, toughness, teamwork. I knew the primal joy of driving your shoulder into a QBs ribs. I loved football. Part of me still loves the game.

It’s more than just the thrill of being on the field. Its a family conversation topica noncontroversial go-to that serves as a common interest between my dad and me. Since Ive moved away from Buffalo, I no longer pay attention to local news or politics, but I always keep tabs on the Billsone of the few things that tethers me to my hometown. Its a holiday ritual. Its a source of diversion and high entertainment. Its the reason Ive given more Sunday afternoon hugs and high-fives than I can count. I dont want to stop watching football. But I dont know if I can anymore.

While researchers have known about CTE occurring in NFL players since 2002, its only these past couple of years that fans like myself have become aware of the NFLs CTE problem. A spate of shocking CTE-related suicides have raised public awareness, most notably in 2012 when Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau shot himself in the chest, just three years after retiring. Seau had CTE, as have at least eight other former NFL players whove committed suicide in the past ten years. 

CTE sank in for me when, a few years ago, I found out that Pro Bowl linebacker and tackling-machine Darryl Talley, was suffering from CTE-like symptoms. As a boy, I remember watching Talley hunt down running backs in his trademark Spider-Man ski suits that hed wear under his Buffalo Bills uniform on the Billsearly 90s Super Bowl teams. Talley, who retired in 1996, has since suffered from depression, chronic injuries, and suicidal thoughts.

His mental issues have accelerated a lot in the last year,said Darryls wife, Janine Talley, to The Buffalo News. “I dont know what the future holds for either one of us. I dont know if in a few years dementia will set in. I dont know if Ill be able to care for him.

Before, I used to cheer whenever there was a big hit. Now I cringe. Before, when players got concussions, I figured they'd gotten their "bell rung" and would be back the following week. Now I imagine them suffering years later from a horrible brain disease. Before, I thought I was being entertained by rich and very lucky athletes. Now I think I'm watching human beings destroy their bodies. And for what? To entertain me?

Darryl Talley an amazing, unstoppable athlete is now likely up against a brain disease that he's totally defenseless against. And maybe it's partly my fault. It was I who cheered him on to make tough tackles, to play 204 straight games at one of the most punishing positions in the game, to sacrifice his body for his team and fans. Sure, it was Talleys decision to pursue a dangerous career path, but does he deserve all the blame for his condition? Have I not, with my money and my viewership, turned my thumb in approval? As a fan, am I not partly responsible for supporting a game that reloads onto the field one player after another whose body will be injured and sacrificed and eventually golf-carted away?

Societies have done away with gladiatorial combat, duels, and dog fighting because theyve deemed such activities barbaric and inhumane. When does a sport cross the line and become inhumane? What is an unacceptable percentage of NFL players doomed to be diagnosed with CTE? Dr. Ann McKee, a director of neuropathology at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Bedford, Mass, says researchers have an enormously high hit ratefor discovering CTE among deceased NFL players. The brains brought in for study have often been from players who suspected they had CTE, so the numbers are flawed but no less startling: Of the 111 brains of deceased NFL players that have been analyzed, 110 have tested positive for CTE, or 99 percent.

More alarmingly, research has shown that its not just the big-hit concussions that cause CTE, but the frequent subconcussive hits.Dr. Robert A. Stern, a co-founder of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, estimates that an NFL lineman experiences 1,000-1,500 hits over the course of a season. So on virtually every play we may be seeing CTE developing somewhere on the field. And despite new rules designed to prevent head injuries, there were 199 concussions in 2015, 77 more than the 2014 season’s total.

In 2015, promising Bills rookie Karlos Williams, a big and fast 230-pound running back, known for his downhill power running, experienced a concussion in Week 4 against the Giants. He was out for a month. For days, Williams had to sit in a dark room without light or sound.

Its not going to change the way I run the football,Williams told reporters. It hasnt changed the way I run the football. I run the football with an attitude. And I think thats what the coaches expect of me coming back.

A player like Williams got to where he is because of his running style. As a fifth round pick in a cutthroat league, Williams knew he couldnt let up. To remain in the NFL, he has to run with attitude,which is another way of saying that he has to continue to run without worrying about getting another concussion. Unlike the players in Talleys era, Williams probably knows of CTE, yet it didn’t slow down him or his fellow players. 

I squirmed whenever Williams got the ball. I want to just root for players to score. But now I root that they don’t get nailed in the head. With knowledge of CTE, the game no longer seems merely tough. Suddenly it feels grotesquely violent, savage, depraved.

Weve long known that football was dangerous. But up until recently, we thought dangerousmeant that the players might retire from the league with busted knees and sore backs. We imagined our childhood heroes leaving the game with a hard-earned limpan inconvenience, but also a scar theyd proudly bear as payment for their years in the spotlight when they had money, fame, and glory. We imagined them coaching a high school football team, or, if theyre lucky, joshing around with fellow ex-ball players on one of those half-time analyst panels. We never imagined them broke, living with dementia, or suicidal.

More and more, I notice the injuries. It seems rare when a full possession goes by without anyone getting hurt. Between 2000 and 2014, there was an average of more than 2,000 injuries in the NFL per year. Because of all these injuries, football players find themselves battered and addicted to pain medications at the end of their careers. The NFL expects that 6,000 of its 20,000 former players will suffer from Alzheimers or dementia. 

Head injuries are not just an NFL problem. The brains of kids between the ages of 8 and 13 are particularly susceptible to concussions, one of which makes them one and a half times more likely to experience a second. High school football players experience 11.2 concussions for 10,000 practices and games, which may be a fraction of the real number, as studies have shown that 50 percent of high school concussions and 70 percent of college concussions go unreported. In the brains of high school football players, CTE has been found in three of 14 cases. In college players, its 48 of 53.

Parents, though, are taking notice. According to an HBO Real Sports/Marist poll, 89 percent of fans are aware of the connection between concussions and long-term brain injury. About a third of adults polled said this information has made them less likely to allow their son to play football. This is supported by a Sports & Fitness Industry Association survey, which found that, between 2008 and 2013, kids playing football between the ages of 6 and 12 fell 29 percent.  

Aside from inventing some new concussion-free super helmet, I dont know if theres much else the NFL can do to limit head trauma. Theyve made late hits and helmet-to-helmet hits big-yardage penalties. Theyve instituted a concussion protocol for injured players. They settled a $1 billion lawsuit with over 5,000 ex-players who have suffered and were mislead about the risks of concussions. Yet there are as many concussions as ever, not to mention the head trauma thats a part of each play.

So, given that the danger inherent in the game will never go away, I feel its up to me as a fan to decide if Im okay watching people destroy themselves every week. I dont think I am, but I still watch.

What will it take? Another high-profile suicide? Another discovery of CTE in one of my favorite players?

Perhaps I should say goodbye, but, after so many years, its hard to look away. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

Predicting the future with kindness

I’m scared of the reader of the distant future.

I’m not so arrogant to think that I’ll have a reader in the distant future. After all, getting read in the present is hard enough. Still, if just out principle, I aspire to be in the good graces of tomorrows readers, as I live far more in fear of being called "backwards" by the future reader than "crazy" by the modern.

It’s a reasonable fear. There are countless examples of slaveholders, racists, anti-suffragists, and others who, to our modern eyes, seem like intellectual dunces for being so terribly, terribly wrong. How could they not see that owning another person might someday seem universally wrong and morally stupid? 

We can't hand out immoral dunce caps just to the ignorant and dimwitted, because even the brightest of minds are limited by the narrowed thinking of their eras. John Muir, despite being broadminded enough to sympathize with even the most loathed animals, still said some inconsiderate things about Native Americans. Walt Whitman, despite his fondness for all things natural and human, had some expansionist rhetoric that rubs modern readers the wrong way. George Washington, despite risking his life to liberate the colonies of British tyranny, couldn’t properly condemn American slavery. In the eyes of posterity, few of the greats have departed from the world without a serious blemish on their moral resumes.

With them in mind, it might be helpful to ask ourselves if we might be clinging onto beliefs that will someday be considered backwards.   

Being ahead of one’s time is not impossible. John Stuart Mill, in 1869, was among the first men to call for gender equality. (This was after many women advocated for suffrage, it should be said.) Henry David Thoreau, in the mid-nineteenth century, was in many ways ahead of his time. Thoreau was sympathetic to the plight of Native Americans, accommodating to runaway slaves, outspoken about environmental degradation, and prescient in forecasting the demise of America’s open roaming culture. Aldo Leopold, in the mid-twentieth century, saw that the arc of justice doesn’t just bend toward humankind, but toward animals and ecosystems, too.

We can learn a thing or two about how to see into the future from these philosopher-prophets. I think all it takes is kindness. Kindness of the expansive and openhearted sort. Kindness and consideration for all of life, human and nonhuman. 

When we look at the world with kindness, it's easy to see injustice and suffering. And when we can see injustice and suffering, we can see into the past and future, because what made one person suffer a thousand years ago will probably make another person suffer a thousand years into the future. Slavery, subjugation, inequality, deprivation—they make us suffer no matter our class, country, or century. We’d feel these indignities just as terribly as a galley slave in Rome as we would a mining slave on the moon. 

If the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice, then its safe to predict that rights will eventually be given to those who are, and that which is, currently suffering. This is how we can see into the future.

Roderick Nash, in The Rights of Nature, documents the many ways in which the arc of the moral universe has been bent in the last thousand years. Nash suggests that we can anticipate our ethics to expand to welcome other life forms, even lifeless forms, like rocks.

From Roderick Nash's The Rights of Nature

From Roderick Nash's The Rights of Nature

While there’s still much work to be done, we can see, in the past 150 years, amazing progress made in expanding the rights of other races, women, the LGBTQ community, and animals.

What’s next? The climate? Life itself? Ecosystems? Here are a few (plausible) reforms I'd like to see come into force during my lifetime. 
  • We will no longer be okay with letting creatures live and die by the billions in factory farms. 
  • The concept of the nation-state erodes to some extent. Our embrace of humanity widens to more fully accept those currently regarded as foreigners. 
  • Rivers, wildlife corridors, and landscape-scale ecosystems earn legal standing as humans (or some equivalent status that provides them their due protection). 
What are your ethical predictions? I don't think any of the above are a stretch. On all of these topics, books have been written, films have been made, and research has been done that have expanded our knowledge, pricked our consciences, and infiltrated our collective consciousness. If we can predict the things that deserve protection, then maybe, for those of us who consider ourselves writers, we won't be doomed to be remembered as a laughingstock or an absurdity to future readers. We could be more respected, more oracular, more Thoreauvian. 

To the future reader of my work (specifically This Land Is Our Land), if I’m lucky to have one, I’d like to say that I’ve tried to be open minded and forward thinking. Yet I’m sure that I am blind to things that will be self-evident to the people of the future. I’m sure I’ve goofed up. I’m sure I’ve been insensitive. I am, as we all are, constrained by milieus.

I titled my last book This Land Is Our Land because I thought it had a bold and progressive ring to it. The title insinuates that land is too special to be despotically possessed by just one person. It insinuates that we all hold the earth in common.  

Bold and progressive? Maybe in 2018. Yet I wonder if my more sophisticated reader of the future will find something offensive about it. Maybe the idea of people owning land will someday carry the same stigma that people owning people does with us. Maybe I should have titled my book This Land Is Not Our Land or The Land Owns Us. Maybe Woody Guthrie’s lyrics about how this land is “my land” and “your land” will one day seem hopelessly backward. After picking my cover and title, I watched a YouTube video where Native Americans booed Guthrie's song. I understood why they booed and sympathized, and their boos made me wonder if I'd chosen well. 

Accidents happen. While I've tried to write all of my books with sensitivity and a kind heart, I already regret a few ignorant passages in Trespassing across America. I wrote that book just a couple of years ago. How insensitive will I look in 300 years? Let those boos and this regret be a reminder for me to more carefully write with the sophisticated reader of the future in mind.

Writing with a healthy fear of future readers and with an expansive kindness for the universe may be a good way to keep ourselves from saying things we'd later regret. It might be a good way to be one step ahead of our evolving morality.

But this is about more than just how we'll simply lookI'd like to argue that for the sake of our prosperity, for the sake of our collective conscience, for the sake of the health of the earth, we owe it to ourselves, to future generations, and to all existing life, to treat the universe with an expansive and revolutionary kindness. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Year-in-Review Outline

I've been doing a "year in review" for the past five years or so. 

I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed writing them and how much I've benefited from them. They help me focus on the future, make plans, think about long-term goals, and reflect on the arc of my life. Plus, they're just a great way to chronicle and document your life, which will make for fascinating and pleasurable future reading.  

I wrote a longer entry about writing year-in-reviews a few years back. In that entry, I go more into detail about why I do them. For this entry, I just wanted to share my outline, in case you'd like to start your own. So feel free to copy and paste this outline (and modify it to your liking). I find the New Year to be a pretty good time for an annual reflection. 

2017 Year in Review

Career Accomplishments

(What were your main career accomplishments?)


[How did you spend your time on entertainment? Make estimates in hours of how much time you spent playing games, watching movies and TV (write down the series you watched), listening to podcasts, etc. How many books did you read?]

Travels and Living Situation

(Where did you live? Write down all the places you traveled to.)


Major Purchases

(What were you major material purchases over $100? You don’t need to include basics like rent and food.)


(How much did you earn? List previous years' numbers for this and all categories.)

Total Savings

(What are your total savings (or debts)?)

Financial reflections

(Make some overall financial reflections about 2017.)

Friends and family

(Write down how your friend and family relationships have evolved. Any new notable friends?)


(What was your health like for 2017?)


(What were your adventures/notable outdoor excursions?)


(How’s your romantic relationship doing? If you're single, how many dates did you go on?)

Exterior Forces

[What major exterior forces (things that are happening at global/national level) played a role in your well being? i.e., the Trump victory got me down and occupied many of my thoughts…]


(How have your vices/addictions played a role in 2017? Did you control them better than in previous years, or have they gotten worse?)


(Musical progress? I just started playing the bagpipes, so this is a new category for me.)

Golden Ages

(Here’s a new category. I consider a “golden age” a period of my life when I’m generally content or fulfilled or stimulated or any such combination that makes me feel like my life is being well-lived. What were your golden ages in 2017? What made it feel like a golden age?)

Victories and Losses


(Write about the successes you’ve had this year, whether they have to do with career, relationships, health, sports, etc.)


(List your failures/disappointments/and mess-ups from 2017.)

2017 Goals Review

(If you had goals and resolutions from the beginning of 2017, assess how you did with each.)

Existential themes and life narratives

(Think about your year and pick out a few main story lines. Maybe you dealt with a serious health problem, or a relationship problem, or thought a lot about what you wanted to do with your life. Spend a paragraph or so writing about each theme. Another way to ask this is to think about what things affected you emotionally the most.)

2018 Goals

(Come up with a list of 2018 goals. I usually have 5-10. Pick a few that are easily achievable! Pick a few that will be tough.)

Rough Future Timeline 

(List the next 10 years. Next to each one, write down what you’d like to accomplish.)

Life goals

(List a few long-range goals. Goals for 20, 30, 40 years. i.e., having kids, surrounding life with animals, etc.)


(Read over this year in review and summarize your year. How was it?) 

Monday, January 1, 2018

George Washington

I wanted this book to go on and on. I’m a nut for presidential biographies, and this is one of the best…

Washington was a flawed man in many ways:
  • In his early years, he was unbecomingly ambitious. He obsessed over his dress, and he would not-so-subtly elbow his way into the lives of the rich and powerful with the hope of elevating his station.
  • His ascent into greatness had as much to do with his qualities as a person as the fortuitous deaths of his relatives, who passed onto him their lands, fortunes, and slaves at critical times in his early career.
  • He loved his plantation and had a passion for agricultural innovation, but he was far from a good farmer, and Mount Vernon was a constant source of debt and disappointment.
  • At best, he had an average military mind. Although he may have been the only person capable of keeping the ragged and starving Continental Army together, his military victories were few, and he was often outdone on the battlefield by his lesser generals.
  • He never sufficiently spoke out against slavery (in fact, he was often quite cruel to his slaves). Given that he was surrounded by progressive thinkers and exposed to abolitionist thought, this is especially unforgivable.
But we can say this about Washington. He recognized that the country needed a leader — if just the symbol of a leader — and he was willing to play the part. He had stature, presence, discipline. He had the right posture, the right disposition, the right look. American citizens needed a symbol of stability. Bickering politicians needed a leader who stood above the partisan fray. Squabbling colonies, that were being asked to dissolve their boundaries, needed a leader in whom they could place their trust. Washington was, as Adams put it, a “center of union” and the “central stone in the geometrical arch.” Washington's defeats and retreats on the battlefield were played down or ignored because the country needed a steady leader — a symbolic figurehead — more than military victories.

He wasn’t all warm eyes and a steely jaw, though. He knew how to play the political game better than anyone. He was a good judge of character. He recognized genius, and surrounded himself throughout his career with bright minds. He picked a good wife, who gave him a life of warmth and emotional support. His emotional IQ was off the charts, and he knew how to win people’s loyalty and scold with grace. Although he began his career seeking fame and fortune, he’d eventually, as Chernow writes, “subordinate his personal dreams and aspirations to the service of a larger cause.”

Adams said, if Washington “was not the greatest president, he was the best actor of the presidency we have ever had.” This wasn’t an insult, I don’t think, because sometimes that’s in large part what a leader needs to be—an actor. Washington was in fact partisan, fiery, hot-tempered—this we see after his presidency, when he abandons the facade of the cool and nonpartisan leader and begins to actively conspire against the Jefferson- and Madison-led Democratic-Republicans. But for the the length of the Revolutionary War and his presidency, he mustered all the self-discipline he had, swallowed his tongue, and gave the disparate and loosely bound band of colonies — shaken by war, revolution, and tumult — what it most needed: a symbol of stability and republican virtue (except for the whole slavery thing). I think it’s fair to wonder whether the U.S. would have formed without Washington. The war may not have been won. The colonies may never have come together. The fledgling nation may never have taken flight with a lesser first president. He may be one of those few figures whose existence has dramatically altered the course of history.