Exploring Public Lands

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Last weekend, I tried (unsuccessfully) to attend an
astronomy event.  Long story, short, we
failed to read the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club’s website correctly and
landed at a different astronomy event than the one we had had in mind, at a
different state park, which had closed 15 minutes before my compatriots and I
arrived.  Feeling dejected but not
entirely discouraged, we meandered through the roads of rural Virginia, looking for
a place to stargaze.  What we found was a
lot of open country, surrounded by a lot of locked gates. 

2012-10-17_0000099.JPG

Sky Meadows State Park, our unattained destination.  Photo credit: John Cushing, MyShot, 12/02/2009.

Perhaps in a bit of a state of ignorance and naivety, we
city-folk were surprised to find that there really wasn’t a field we could lie
on without trespassing on some kind of property.  But now, recalling lessons on land-use planning,
I know that should have been common sense; all land IS property, after all,
whether private or public.

The issue of private property ownership has been contested, but for all intents
and purposes, I am not particularly pressed to get into that too deeply, here
and now.  Simply accepting that it exists
in our current government and land-use system, I can make sense of our
limitations to property that is privately owned by others.  For example, I do not think of my next-door
neighbor’s fenced-in, ¼-acre yard as a place I am or should be allowed to set
out a blanket and watch shooting stars, unless invited. 
The same perception applies to a yard outside of the suburbs (even if it
is big enough that the owner couldn’t possibly notice).

It is the limitations in access to public property that
intrigue me.  Again, there are
contrasting viewpoints surrounding the issue of public property and its
regulation, spanning in nature from socialist
to libertarian. There are public lands of government and non-government
ownership, though I only know how to find those of the government type. State
and national parks, which are set aside as spaces for the public’s recreation (and
arguably for resource
extraction
by private companies, too) are my go-to “open space”.

2012-10-24_0000096.JPG

Seneca Creek State Park in Maryland. Photo credit: Baishali Ray, MyShot, 10/24/2012.

However, many of these parks have hours of operation,
fees (if not for admission, then for parking), and other rules and regulations.  Because these rules and regulations kept me
from Astronomy Night, I was feeling a little bitter about the entire concept.  The word “public” seemed to indicate that the
land was, in part, mine.  Naturally, that perception
was the root of my surprise at being rejected from at state park because of the
late hour (8:15pm) and at our subsequent difficulty in finding an alternative
space to lie in, safe from the dangers of being scolded, fined, arrested, or
run over by a car.  But maybe I was
putting the emphasis on the wrong end of the definition; maybe this denial-of-access-to-nature injustice wasn’t such an injustice, once I realized that public land is actually mine,
in part.  And because I have to share it
with everyone else that makes up “the public”, there are rules and
regulations.  I’ll admit, those rules
and regulations wouldn’t have hindered Astronomy Night Extravaganza if my friends and I had done our
research (correctly) before venturing out.

It may have become apparent, by now, that I was in the company
of some people who enjoy spontaneity. It’s probable that we would have
successfully made it to our event, had we been more of a planning-inclined
group.  Fortunately, we were able to find
a patch of grass by a church in a one-street town and catch a few shooting
stars before stumbling into a beautiful, old

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inn that welcomed us in from the
cold with hot coffee and live music. 

Not a bad evening, by any stretch.  Still, it would have been kind of nice if we
could have stumbled, wandered, or ventured into some open space.  Last month, at NG Education, we had the
pleasure of hearing from David Sobel, the author of Mapmaking With Children
(presentation here)
and an expert on the relation between developmental psychology and geographic
literacy.  One of his main points was to
highlight the lack of connection between children and their environments.  He showed us that the land area, or distance
from home, in which a typical 8-year old child was allowed to travel alone was
reduced from six miles to less than half a mile over the course of four
generations.   Whether for safety reasons
or just because of zoning, children (and adults, alike) are living in
increasingly confined geographies. 
Adventures and outdoor experiences are still possible and plentiful, but
they require a bit more deliberate resolve, these days.
  I’ll be sure to keep that in mind, the next time I try to amble into the great outdoors, and plan accordingly.

– Lindsey Luria for National Geographic Education

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