In honor of the new Ken Burns series starting on PBS next Sunday we asked Donald Worster, Hall Distinguished Professor of American History, University of Kansas and the author of A Passion For Nature: The Life of John Muir, to take a look at the series and let us know what he thought. His response is below. Tune in on Sunday and let us know what you think in the comments.
I have been watching the new Ken Burns series for PBS, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” and it is a gorgeous and inspiring achievement. The hero of the series, and of our long history of creating national parks, is John Muir, the subject of my recent biography. Muir had nothing to do with setting aside Yellowstone park in 1872, but he was the main force behind the preservation of Yosemite, and he was the founder of a movement that would go on to add the Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Big Bend, Cape Cod, Haleakala, Glacier Bay, and many others. Altogether, Americans would set aside more than two hundred million acres in a vast, diverse system of terrestrial parks and marine preserves spanning the continent and the Pacific Ocean. Muir would have endorsed the claim that those parks are this nation’s best idea ever. But what is the idea behind the parks?
“Recreation” is a commonly expressed purpose of the parks, which usually means outdoor exercise in the form of hiking, camping, fishing, or boating. But one can find mere physical exercise in a gymnasium. Muir understood that recreation should be a “re-creating” of our inner selves through immersion in nature. In his 1901 book Our National Parks he wrote that the parks should offer “wildness” (another word for “nature”) and that “wildness is a necessity.” A nation of “tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people” seek in the parks an escape from “the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury.” They go there to reawaken something deep within their souls—a sense of being part of the natural world. Modern society has repressed that feeling of connectedness, of kinship with other forms of life, and has buried people under the burdens of too much work, too much economic insecurity, too much noise and machinery.
Muir thought the parks should be preserved for poor people as well as rich. Americans of all sorts shared the same need for getting back in touch with nature. The rich could buy a private summer retreat in the Adirondacks or a ranch high up in the Santa Barbara mountains, but the poor could not. They could, however, claim a right of access to the “people’s parks,” although it was not clear in 1901 how an impoverished sharecropper or a low-wage factory worker could afford traveling to a park. Muir seems to have assumed that eventually the railroad and the automobile would be cheap enough for almost everybody to use—and in fact that has come true. As well, he supported the creation of urban “natural” areas, like Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Central Park in New York City. It took art to design them, but they could bring the green world within reach of city dwellers.
Besides restoring Americans’ psychological and physical health, the great parks were supposed to serve a religious purpose. Muir was one of this country’s greatest spiritual prophets, and he envisioned the parks as a kind of church or temple. They should become sacred places, rigorously protected in their pristine beauty from too much profane intrusion. He would never draw a rigid line between what is sacred and what is profane; after all he wanted people to come to those new churches and they would need food, lodging, and transportation while there. It was an old dilemma that has plagued all religions. “Thus long ago,” he noted, “a few enterprising merchants utilized the Jerusalem temple as a place of business instead of a place of prayer, changing money, buying and selling cattle and sheep and doves.” He was under no illusion that the temple of Yosemite or Mount Rainier would be safe from the ancient struggle between what is appropriate and what is not.
For people who do not share Muir’s religious stance toward nature, the whole idea of setting aside and carefully preserving national parks may seem loony. Conservative Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims may find the idea of national parks a dangerous slide toward paganism or pantheism, a threat to their traditions. On the other hand, there are a lot of “nature atheists” who find Muir’s religion misguided, anti-human, or too restrictive. They don’t find nature at all inspiring or holy—it’s just a set of economic resources to be used for the benefit of humankind. Why shouldn’t we let snowmobiles into Yellowstone? Or why shouldn’t we give the parks back to their “rightful owners,” the Indian tribes that once hunted and gathered there and let them use the lands for economic development? That the parks should have a predominately religious purpose is not a universal point of view, and thus they are constantly embroiled in America’s cultural wars.
Yet I am impressed by the extent to which Muir’s way of thinking has spread through American society and the parks have become part of the nation’s religious life. The Ken Burns series promotes this success. It suggests again and again that we should come to these places in a spirit of awe and respect for something grander, more transcendent, more beautiful than we could ever create. Here are places to make us proud but also make us humble. They are the result of immense forces working over immense periods of time, and the outcome is goodness and beauty beyond our capacity to improve. This is a view that has gathered power in our culture. I am convinced that democratic societies are especially open to the religion of nature, for it takes faith out of the hands of priests and gives it back to the people. As long as Americans hunger for religion and as long as they pursue democracy, the national parks will likely be treasured as places where the people can go to worship as they see fit.