President’s Letter

President’s Letter
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“We cannot control or change our past, but we can absolutely control our current actions and we can influence our future through those actions.”
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Looking Forward by Looking Back
This year marks the first of two significant milestones for the Appalachian Trail. In 2021, we will celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Benton MacKaye’s essay, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” in which the A.T. was first envisioned. And, in 2025, we will celebrate the 100th birthday of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. These anniversaries help us explore and contemplate our history. They also act as catalysts to challenge us to look back with clarity and to understand that, in order to move forward, we must look honestly at everything that has gone into building our present.

It is this ability to recognize that we exist on a continuum that defines our human consciousness.

“The concept of our mind’s ability to move through time was hypothesized by Dr. Endel Tulving, who called it chronesthesia, an ability by humans, acquired through evolution, to be cognizant of the past as well as the future.

According to Tulving, recalling and replaying events in the past has helped us to evolve by allowing us to update critical information while continuing to deal with rapid changes and chaos in the world around us.”

–Understanding the Evolution of Human Thought

There is also a tendency for us to edit what we choose to remember. We are more comfortable when we look to our past to see only that which makes us feel proud and empowered. As A.T. hikers and volunteers, we can all relate to this phenomenon. We talk about the beautiful vistas and the conquered peaks — not about the days in green tunnels with only rain and fog, or the nights spent wanting to be anywhere else but in a dank shelter with a bunch of snoring strangers. And we never want to talk about the mistakes, the bad gear, poor planning, and wrong directions. We want to talk about our accomplishments and remember what we did correctly — not our errors. Try as we might, though, humans are not one dimensional — we are not just our successes but also our mistakes and missteps. We are as much a product of our past ignorance as we are of our enlightenments.

I know that many people will find reading this issue, and our exploration of aspects of our past we do not often talk about, a difficult process. It may elicit anger and frustration or perhaps guilt. Some readers will invariably believe we have, once again, stepped beyond our purview. Others will recognize the importance of these discussions but still be left unsure how to use the information to inform a better future. Some may find this issue long overdue and embrace the process we are undertaking as an organization and as a larger community to acknowledge the whole past — not just our edited version.

The most important thing I hope all readers will take away from the following stories is that we are, absolutely, a product of all that has come before us. Therefore, when we talk about whether we should care about social justice issues as it impacts the Trail today, we need to do so in the context of understanding that in our past we sometimes purposefully and other times through indifference, made the lack of diversity in how we built and managed the A.T. an acceptable approach. We try and justify this truth by attributing the behaviors to societal norms at the time but throughout history people have made choices to reject or accept bigotry and prejudice. Today, we can continue down this same path or we can acknowledge our past mistakes and take steps to rectify the consequences.

Winston Churchill said, “A nation that forgets its past has no future.” I believe this is also true for the Appalachian Trail and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. We cannot control or change our past, but we can absolutely control our current actions and we can influence our future through those actions. We understand this will be a long process and we will surely make mistakes. But we recognize that looking forward must start by looking back.

The Trail’s future depends on us making this choice.

Sandra Marra / President & CEO
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