The next empire of grandeur

When it comes to National Parks my enthusiasm and sentimentality knows few bounds, and thus it made for a delightful day last weekend when I both woke up with a stomachache and found that PBS had put Burns’ “National Parks” up for free viewing, in their entirety. My curiosity over the years has been such that I’ve almost purchased them outright. Too cheap to do so, I watched all ten hours without significant break, and being unable to eat much without pain was hardly a distraction.

IMG_0724I have no desire to cultivate what would create an even-handed sensibility about this documentary, or the National Parks generally. Like many of the commentators in the film, I got religion in the parks as a young boy, and while the intimacy and perspective of age have given me many grounds for cynicism, to this day I find it easy to hold these opposed ideals in hand, simultaneously and without distress. As the film quotes Steven Mather, first director of the NPS, the parks are “a cheap way to make better citizens.” All the roads and restrooms and lines and publicity get people into the parks who would seldom otherwise go to nature. They are shown the door to a wild world, and it is up to the individual to see and then walk through it.

One subject Burns et al dance around but do not directly touch is the extent to which racism continues to shape National Park visitation. A survey in 2008/2009 found that white folks make up the majority of park visitors, significantly beyond their percentage within the general population of the United States.  It would take an exhaustive historiography to give an accurate picture of why, it is too easy to cast blame on individuals in retrospect, but their can be little argument that as of today minorities feel less welcome in National Parks.  This is of concern because the US population is becoming less white, and while National Park visitation continues to climb, in my opinion average visitor engagement has become ever more brief and potentially shallow in the last 30 years.*  While Burns gives several, crucial examples of individuals who both acted significantly for a given park and never visited it in person, if “National Parks” shows nothing else it gives evidence that in general engagement with the parks correlates directly with them being well funded and protected.


That historiography of race and the US National Parks would likely mention the ways that in the 19th century, when the idea of national parks was created, that creation was driven by the affluent, who were the only humans with the luxury of fetishizing rather than conquering wild nature.  It would probably also mention how hiking, camping, and backpacking remain the sort of esoteric, expensive, potentially uncomfortable, and somewhat perverse kind of vacation which still only appeals to those whose daily lives are suffused so thoroughly in comfort that being cold and having pine needles in ones hair is a pleasant novelty.  Digging into specific examples, be they from 1890 or 2016, makes this portrayal less certain, but I still believe it to be at base an accurate explanation.

I also believe, to make a statement deeply coloured by privilege, that in moments of conflict social justice has to take a back seat to environmentalism.  It matter little who is around after, if the world saved for them is so truncated.  I think we can view “the world” as socially constructed and intersubjectively determined (which in the public mind is a fait accompli, culture wars notwithstanding) while still acknowledging that there is a world beyond us, whose influence on creation is unknowable because of our own limited place within it, and experience/cognition of it.  Hume comes together with Muir here:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.**

We all flow from one fountain Soul. All are expressions of one Love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all.***

I’m skipping a bunch of steps and alluding to some big words here, and the plain english  of it all is that there will always be a tension within National Parks between education and preservation, and between the present and future.  And in my experience when one finds such tension and paradox drawn like a tightrope, that tightrope is as close to truth as we’ll ever get.


* 1 in 68 US Citizens visited Yellowstone in 2004; 1 in 2,700 in 1904.  1 in 41 Yellowstone visitors in 1979 spent at least one night in the backcountry; in 2015 it was 1 in 91.

** A Treatise of Human Nature,

*** Life and Letters of John Muir, June 9, 1872 letter to Miss Catharine Merrill.

6 responses to “The next empire of grandeur”

  1. Wow these photographs are breathtaking, really want to explore some US national parks, so far from me in London though :(

    1. Photo 1 is the west face of Mt Cleveland in Glacier NP, taken from near the Belly River Ranger Station. Fairly easy 7 mile hike in. #2 is halfway down the Bill Hall trail in Grand Canyon.

      If you only visit three US National Parks, those two and Yellowstone would be good choices.

      1. Thank you for the tips, gonna write those down on my bucket list :)

  2. I think the racial disparity in the use of National Parks and the outdoors in general date back – somehow – to how African Americans were generally introduced to the country.

    While certainly some of the disparity comes from the expense of equipment its also what the wilderness/outdoors means culturally. I think it’s a fascinating topic and disconnection from the land is a symptom of something larger. I’m active within Outward Bound and hope to push to change/improve this disconnection…

    Great site and article…!

  3. Interesting topic. It reminds me of the comments about the number (or lack thereof) of people of colour going to Burning Man last year. My take ( note that I am not in the US nor have a US citizenship) is that people have agency and the fact that group X does thing Y does not make thing Y something everybody needs to aspire to. Specifically outdoors pursuits were unavoidable to our rude forebears and are a culturally mediated choice for some people in modern times. The fact that some groups do not take part in about outdoor pursuits need not be caused by exclusion per se, but might just be a active choice. I am aware that people of colour have a long list of justifiable grievances about US society, but I am not aware of any particularly strong drive towards greater access to the outdoors — basically, while it is well possible that people of colour are excluded from ‘the outdoors’ I’d like to hear it from them, because (1) they have, or should, have a voice on the issue and (2) I’d like to know how much of an issue this is, assuming it is an issue to start with (to be perfectly clear I am not denying that it might be an issue to some or most, and that it might be a serious issue, but I am kind of tired of not hearing these news from the source). Even if people of colour do not give a damn about the outdoors and the NPS (as it is their right) I do agree that it would be good to make *everybody* care for the outdoors and the NPS, for a number of reasons that are probably well obvious to you and your readership.

  4. Environmentalism is possible without social justice, but I’ve become convinced the reverse does not apply. Dignity, function, and a sense of place are all roots of what social justice strives for, and I don’t think those things are sustainably achievable when society is cleaved from contact from natural ecosystems. It’s a problem that environmentalism is seen as a white thing while environmental justice is seen as a black one.

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