For a century, America’s national parks have preserved natural wonders
Weary of election-year politics? Dread the daily commute? Is screen time too all-consuming, the job too demanding, the bills too many, the stress too much, your sleep too little? When was the last time you felt truly alive?
While faith offers comfort, meaning and hope in the midst of life’s daily toils, spiritual renewal can remain elusive.
Two thousand years ago Jesus often fled the cities and villages of his day for quiet spiritual reflection in the Judean wilderness. But modern escapes trend toward loud restaurants, flashy amusements, noisy stadiums or extravagant entertainments within bustling cities.
In the midst of the frenzied chaos of modern urban living it is all too easy to forget that you as an American citizen own tens of millions of acres of the most spectacular, awe-inspiring, soul-restoring wilderness landscapes on planet earth.
Let me say that again: you own tens of millions of acres of spectacular, restorative real estate to which you can go when you need to reconnect with yourself and God. It is your land, my land, our land, public land … land long infused with a sense of the sacred, land now preserved in America’s National Park System, land that can rightfully be considered temples of nature.
As long as some 12,000 years ago Native American peoples roamed the landscape of today’s United States. Collectively they shared a belief in a creator Great Spirit manifested through nature as a universally encompassing presence.
The late Cherokee Chief Eli Gatoga said of this nature-centric religious faith: “The Indian made an effort to know of spiritual things from his own observations of nature, because all truth can be found in Nature. There is a spiritual beauty in the realization that the world has been deliberately made or created, and is in perfect balance ecologically.”
There is much wisdom in traditional Native American religion. Inherently sacred, land belongs to the Great Spirit, who graciously allows humans to walk thereupon.
Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag nation when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth in 1620, expressed disbelief over the strange European concept of land ownership.
“What is this you call property?” he asked incredulously. “It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?”
Early European settlers dismissed Native American spirituality as childish and heretical. They battled the indigenous peoples for control of the wilderness.
Slaughtering many, they forced Christianity upon survivors. Herded to and constrained upon less desirable lands, natives at the point of extermination signed documents transferring land ownership from the Great Spirit to humans.
American Baptist founder Roger Williams was an exception among early settlers. He befriended Massasoit, accepted native peoples on their own terms, and became the first European to learn and record the Wampanoag language.
Saved by Massasoit’s family when driven out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony by theocratic Christian leaders, Williams thereafter founded the Rhode Island Colony, a haven for freedom of conscience and religion, upon gifted tribal lands.
Apart from a few open-minded persons such as Williams, however, Euro-Americans for hundreds of years in the New England and Middle Colonies pursued the conquering, containment and exploitation of native peoples, often with violent means. From humanity to nature the slaughter extended.
Felling the forests of an ever-expanding frontier, settlers plowed vast swaths of newly exposed earth and forged cities and towns by the hundreds. Game succumbed or fled before the onslaught, factories belched black smoke into the air, and once-clean streams and rivers turned murky and toxic.
Finally, in the early 19th century some Americans reconsidered the utilization of nature as a commodity to be exploited for private gain and corporate profit. Romantic and Transcendentalist writers with New England roots led the way, including William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Each embraced the “wildness” of nature as scenic and beautiful, finding restorative, healing and spiritual powers within unspoiled woodlands, mountains, valleys and meadows.
Although sculpted urban public parks emerged in the Northeast as early as the 1830s, the Transcendentalists pined for the raw beauty of nature. So did others.
Against the backdrop of an urban and industrialized Europe, by the mid-19th century America’s remaining wilderness became a symbol of American identity. Celebrated in writing, art and early photography, a dawning recovery of nature’s exceptionalism fostered a nascent conservation movement.
In 1864, Vermont native George Perkins Marsh published Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, an analysis of problems associated with deforestation, including over-grazing, soil erosion, enhanced flooding and droughts, and wildlife degradation.
Marsh recognized the interconnected nature of species. His formative work represented an early example of ecological thinking, influencing forest conservation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The same year as the publication of Marsh’s volume, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation deeding the Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove of giant sequoias to the state of California “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation.”
Yosemite thus became the first tract of American wilderness set aside by federal law for preservation and public use.
Among the last regions of the American West to be mapped and conquered stood the interior Yellowstone Plateau, a vast and largely inaccessible wilderness ringed by high mountains at the juncture of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho territories.
Officially “discovered” by organized expeditions in 1869 and 1870, the spouting geysers, towering waterfalls, teeming wildlife and vast chasm of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River captivated the public’s imagination.
Fearful that commercial interests would destroy “Wonderland,” the U.S. Congress passed and Pres. Ulysses S. Grant signed legislation designating Yellowstone as the world’s first national park.
Setting aside more than two million wilderness acres “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” the 1872 Yellowstone Act prohibited private settlement and occupancy. In designating Yellowstone as the nation’s park, the government paid homage, whether explicitly or not, to the traditional Native American concept of sacred, communal land.
As the Yellowstone saga unfolded, Scottish-born immigrant John Muir left a factory job in the upper Midwest in the 1860s, wandered about for several years, and eventually landed in California. There he visited, fell in love with, and built a cabin in Yosemite.
Emerson, while visiting the park, spent time with Muir. As later summarized by naturalist author John Tallmadge, “Emerson was delighted to find at the end of his career the prophet-naturalist he had called for so long ago…. And for Muir, Emerson’s visit came like a laying on of hands.”
Muir soon set about studying geology and biology in order to better understand nature. Traveling throughout the West and Alaska as America’s frontier closed, he wrote extensively and otherwise used his growing influence to advocate for the national preservation of wilderness lands.
In 1890 his advocacy helped establish Yosemite National Park in the area adjacent to Yosemite Valley and the giant sequoia grove.
Later serving as the first president of the Sierra Club, an organization for mountain lovers, Muir helped bring about the 1906 transfer of the state-owned valley and grove into Yosemite National Park during the presidential administration of Theodore Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman, enthusiastic naturalist and passionate conservationist.
A mountain mystic and devoutly religious, Muir, raised in a Christian home, often spoke and wrote of the relationship between God and nature.
“God’s love is manifest in the landscape as in a face,” he noted in 1909. “The good Lord put [wilderness] here as a free gift that he who chooses may take with joy, and he who will not walk out of the smoke of the cities to see them has no right to them.”
Late in life while reflecting upon his first summer in the Sierra Mountains, Muir wrote: “As far as I can, I must drift about these love-monument mountains, glad to be a servant of servants in so holy a wilderness.”
Muir spoke of his beloved Yosemite Valley as “a temple far finer than any made by human hands.”
“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest!” he wrote. “Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.”
Muir wanted all Americans to experience the wilderness.
“Go now and then for fresh life. Go whether or not you have faith. Go up and away for life; be fleet!” he urged. “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”
Roosevelt shared with Muir a belief in the transcendence of wilderness. As president, he signed legislation establishing 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, 18 national monuments, and five national parks, including Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. Altogether, Roosevelt protected some 230,000,000 acres of public land, a remarkable presidential legacy.
Against the backdrop of growing national awareness and appreciation of national parks and monuments, Pres. Woodrow Wilson on Aug. 25, 1916 signed the National Park Service Organic Act. The legislation created a new government agency, the National Park Service (NPS).
Charged with oversight of the then-35 western national parks and monuments, as well as future designated lands, the NPS was charged with protecting “the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
Infused with the spirituality of indigenous peoples, Emerson, Muir and other wilderness advocates, the NPS stewarded lands considered sacred by many Americans. From the beginning, Park Service interpreters recognized a relationship between wilderness and spirituality.
In Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting our Heritage, considered the most widely read book among contemporary NPS interpreters and revised multiple times since its original publication date of 1957, the author states:
“Thousands of naturalists, historians, archaeologists and other specialists are engaged in the work of revealing, to such visitors as desire the service, something of the beauty and wonder, the inspiration and spiritual meaning that lie behind what the visitor with his senses perceives.”
The Park Service interpreter, Tilden notes, is someone who facilitates the “enrichment of the human spirit and mind.”
Numerous other scholarly books and articles addressing the spiritual dimensions of national parks have been published in recent decades.
For many Christians, however, spirituality remains a vague and suspicious concept. A basic understanding of spirituality is that of the self encountering and experiencing divine or higher realities that in turn evoke emotional, intuitive or sense-based responses, beyond rational thought, that produce feelings of mystical union.
Many studies of national parks have observed that visitors frequently report one or more of the following experiences: wonder, awe, joy, peacefulness, stillness, calm, tranquility, therapeutic benefits, and connection with God or a higher power.
All can, and often are, construed as spiritual in nature. More than any other, visitors report having experienced the Creator God associated with Christianity.
Engaging wilderness while away from one’s daily routine is, for many persons, a spiritual experience. Nature-based activities such as hiking, camping and canoeing often embody spiritual dimensions.
One study of national parks found that nearly three out of four visitors perceived spiritual well-being benefits from connecting with nature. By facilitating visitors’ spiritual encounters, the National Park Service fosters a type of inclusive, nature-centric civil religion transcendent of sectarian doctrine, dogma, ritual and human-made structures.
Four years before the creation of the National Park Service, from an allegedly cold, dreary, leaky and windowless basement in the heart of the manufacturing Northeast, the American songwriter C. Austin Miles wrote the longing words of what would become a classic hymn:
“I come to the garden alone / While the dew is still on the roses / And the voice I hear falling on my ear / The Son of God discloses.”
On this centennial of the National Park Service, venture from the daily confines of your life into the wilderness of one of your national parks. Bring a friend or two, or your family.
Leave behind city noises and smells. Turn off your cell phones. Come with receptive senses.
Shoulder a backpack and take a hike. Stand on sacred ground. Run your fingertips over boulders hundreds of millions of years old.
Smell the clean, clear mountain air. Hear the snort of a bison, the howl of a wolf, the rhythm of ancient waters, the rustle of wind in the treetops.
Gaze at the star-filled heavens. Listen to the Spirit speak.
Come and connect with creation and the Creator in ways that restore your humanity and renew your soul.
Return home more alive than ever. NFJ
Story and Photos by Bruce Gourley