Saving paper is probably one of your highest tenets, as someone who considers himself or herself a “conservationist,” as most Natural Habitat Adventures travelers are. You avoid unnecessarily wasting our precious natural resources. You probably have at least two—if not more—designated waste baskets at home and at work: one for regular refuse and one for paper, in order to recycle it. Natural Habitat Adventures’ own catalogs are printed on paper made with “100 percent recycled fiber and 100 percent post-consumer waste, processed chlorine free and manufactured with electricity that is offset with Green-e certified renewable energy certificates” that are “Ancient Forest Friendly.”
So while it seems we might all have become experts at saving paper—and the digital age has helped immensely with that—there are far fewer who are working on paper saving. By that I mean preserving for posterity the actual medium on which some of our best writings and historically significant photos have been recorded.
And that could be a problem for our national parks.
No instruction manual included
What’s not commonly known is that the National Park Service (NPS) is the owner of one of the largest and most diverse natural and cultural history collections in the world. Its Historic Photograph Collection alone holds more than two million images, on subjects as diverse as Native American heritage, Civilian Conservation Corps camps, park architecture and scenic views over time, some of which may not even exist anymore due to changes in the landscape. The exhibits you see on display at national park visitor centers across the nation are just a fraction of the artifacts the National Park Service holds.
For example, in the Bryce Canyon National Park collection, you’ll find a photo of two Paiutes outside their hogan in the late 19th century. The Alcatraz Island, California, collection, part of the NPS’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area, features a 1918 Thanksgiving Day menu from the hospital that was once located on Alcatraz, some of the most well-known photographs of Al Capone and an Indians of All Tribes invitation cover, dated May 31, 1970, during Alcatraz’s Native American occupation from 1969 to 1971.
Much like NPS staff personnel who work to keep the physical paths of parks maintained, a small coterie of paper/photograph conservators are trying to preserve our national parks’ paper trails. Their discipline of art conservation combines the fields of art and science to save what’s on paper.
Unfortunately, however, there are few manuals on how best to restore a letter from Robert E. Lee or a one-of-a-kind photograph of John Muir in his beloved Sierra Mountains. Most art conservators have to invent unique methods for the singular pieces of our past.
Paper: a relic of the past?
To save—or, at least, to save a facsimile of—these unique pieces, libraries are rushing to digitize their historical collections, before the real things disintegrate. But if you truly value paper, I think you might agree that looking at a screen of a corrected, digitized version of a 1940 photo of Glacier National Park, when the glaciers were far larger, loses a little something compared to standing, instead, in the presence of that original photo, with its creases, curls and yellowing edges. The gravity, the weight and the ravages of history are somehow not as palpable; glossed over and lost.
I recently watched a sci-fi movie set in the future where a protagonist found a pen and a spiral notebook at a crime scene, and none of the investigators knew what they were. That future is not so far off.
So, much like campaigns to Save the Tigers or Save the Polar Bears before they’re gone, Save the Paper—or, more to the point, Save Our Stories—might be an equally urgent cause for conservationists both expert and self-made, like you and me.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,