Leave no trace?

Leave no trace. Have we got it wrong?

By Matt Bibbings

How often have you heard this motto of the Countryside Code? “Leave no trace!” Most likely you have heard it as a sort of initiation to the unwise to help them understand the need to preserve the natural environment. Yes, it makes a good sound-bite, but have we got it wrong?

In the field of Forensic Science there is a founding idea known as ‘Locards Exchange Principle’. First stated by the French criminologist Edmund Locard, this idea suggests that when a person enters an environment or commits an act then there is always an exchange between the people, places and things involved in that meeting. Each always leaves a trace on the other. Every professional involved in investigating crime holds this principle to be utterly true. Thus diligent investigators uncover the slightest of evidence that court cases and lives can hinge on. But what has this got to do with the Outdoors and Nature?

What would Locard have thought of the “Leave no trace!” credo? He surely would say “N’est pas possible!”; and of course he would be correct. We seem to intrinsically know that venturing outdoors does leave a trace. Hence this phrase is often transformed into “Take only photographs, leave only footprints”. No crimes here then!

What happens though if you consider your own time spent in the Outdoors from Edmund Locards forensic perspective? He would look at the mud on your boots, the footprints and tracks you left and be able to tell where you went and probably even when you were there. But what if you cover your tracks and clean your boots? Locards principle says that there is always an exchange…always a trace…

Without mud or your boots or tracks to observe, what evidence is there that you went into the Outdoors? What trace does the outdoors leave on you? Locard would appreciate the efforts of the researchers at University of East Anglia. They published a study in July 2018 titled “Its official – spending time outside is good for you”. They gathered evidence from over 140 studies involving more than 290 million people and sought to answer the question; what happens to you when you spend time outside? The evidence overwhelmingly shows that spending time in or near green spaces can offer great healing. It greatly reduces the risk of a range of health problems including type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure!

So you could say that Locards Exchange Principle not only holds up in court, but in nature too; every time you engage with the Outdoors, whether its running up a hill, dipping your feet in a stream or simply taking in a view, you will always make an exchange with Nature. Our part of the bargain is to be minimal, be respectful and take care. You may only have to offer Nature and the Outdoors your attention. In return it will make you happier and healthier. Now that’s an exchange.

It’s time to forget the idea of trying to escape nature without a trace. “N’est pas possible!” Instead…

“Take only photographs good health and leave behind only footprints stress”.