To qualify as a national park, it helps to have natural formations that point toward the heavens. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule—Everglades is a swamp and Cuyahoga Valley a canal. But in general the geographical spaces we deem untouchable—think Grand Teton or Yellowstone—serve as secular cathedrals, jagged and jutting monuments to the sublime and transcendent.
These metamorphic and arboreal wonders have, over time, provided the grammar to articulate how wilderness informs our national identity. When Europeans initially settled North America they deemed wild space to be a howling thicket of savagery. Moving west, though, they felled forests and scaled slopes and came to realize, as they tamed the frontier, the value of conserving wilderness while lionizing its perceived perfection.
Nobody better epitomized the spiritualization of “untouched” nature than the late-19th-century naturalist and author, John Muir. After hiking the Sierras in 1869, he wrote, “No description of Heaven that I have ever heard or read of seems half so fine.” As for Yosemite, it was “by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature ... the sanctum sanctorum of the Sierra.” The ecclesiastical bent of this language reflected society’s faith—again captured by Muir—that “these blessed mountains are ... completely filled with God’s beauty.” Bow down, mortals. Worship.
That’s ultimately what environmentalism is all about—making a home in nature, rather than emotionally consuming pristine space as a reminder of how badly we’ve befouled the commons.
Chances are good that—perhaps if you secularize the rhetoric—that you can relate to Muir’s enthusiasm. I certainly can. Undeveloped territory marked by striking geology moves us in weird and unanticipated ways. Experiencing the wonders of a national park slows time and fosters a fresh perspective. In our Muir-est moments, nature becomes more ethereal than tangible, more inspiring than pragmatic. We thus enter the sanctum sanctorum gingerly and with reverence, leaving footprints, taking pictures, incubating awe.
But if our thrall to wilderness induces personal epiphanies—Teddy Roosevelt recalled his visit to Yosemite as “the greatest day of my life”—those epiphanies don’t necessarily translate into a usable environmental ethos. National parks, in their quiet insistence that wilderness per se is essentially unadulterated and remote, suggest that civilization and nature are mutually exclusive entities. They also imply that to access nature is, ipso facto, to seek salvation from the civilized world that we have—by virtue of merely living in it—mucked up. National parks, in other words, promote a false dichotomy between humans and nature that sets an impossible standard for responsible ecological integration into the natural world. We are here. Nature is there. Pay respects (and the park fee). Buy a souvenir. Drive home.
Eighteen years ago the environmental historian William Cronon confronted this problem in a seminal essay called “The Trouble With Wilderness.” “The time has come to rethink wilderness,” he declared. Demonstrating historical analysis at its best, he explained, “far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, [wilderness] is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular cultures at very particular moments in human history.” Ah, yes, those moments. Moments such as the ones before the Europeans arrived. Moments when millions of Native Americans spent millions of moments developing distinct cultures thriving in the hollows and hills we’ve deemed sacred. Moments that national parks have helped erase from the collective American memory.
I’m not saying we should get rid of national parks. Nor am I saying that you shouldn’t take that road trip to paradise (as Casey Cep recounted doing in Acadia National Park). They’re lovely places. Rather, I’m suggesting that, for all the beauty they offer, and for all the pleasure that ensues, national parks fail to foster either the mentality or tools needed to, as Cronon puts it, make “a home in nature.” And that’s ultimately what environmentalism is all about—making a home in nature, rather than emotionally consuming pristine space as a reminder of how badly we’ve befouled the commons.
This assessment shouldn’t be surprising, especially considering the other influences besides spiritualism driving the rise of national parks in the late-19th century. Early advocates of establishing the parks pursued an ethic that blended individualism, romanticism, and renewal. The first allowed urban men to access the wilderness as an antidote to the feminizing impact of middle-class urbanity (go into nature, shoot a bear, restore manhood); the second afforded the titans of capitalism a little idyllic R&R from the castellated press of the city; and the third enabled Americans to renew the gospel of American exceptionalism as the frontier reached a close. None of these impulses had anything to do with the formation of an environmental ethic. If anything, they mitigated against it.
If there is currently any hope of a national park nurturing the kind of ecological awareness required for a genuine environmental ethic, I would place my bets on one dedicated to space that arguably holds North America’s most biodiverse but overlooked resource: native grasslands. Even better: native grasslands that are integrated into a built environment. A patch of bluestem co-existing with a mixed-use development might not inspire paeans to divine beauty, but it would have pragmatic environmentalists saying “amen.”