There are occasions, weekly, when the weight of my professional life demands of me nothing other than escapism. This, least I forget who I am entirely. Beer is instrumental here, just like coffee, each morning, noon, and night. The world without can be horrid and in proportion to how I would alter it but cannot, at least not today, so too will I alter myself within, right now. The near universal popularity of such things cannot be a coincidence. Out of the many narrative forms of escapism, Burns’ National Parks series endures. It is a precise, but not trying, and exhaustive report on a cause about which I care deeply, but do not work in professionally. Within the frame of an evening, it can go on for as long as I care, as close to forever as is practicable.
The veneration of the National Parks is made easier by having been to them, but easier still by not being too near to one, now. The efficacy of the idea of National Parks is not subject for serious debate, though the permutations and interpretations certainly are. Their separation highlights a central paradox; that holding up great nature separates us, also a part of nature, while still being felicitous to the on the ground fact of the anthropocene. Me today, watching the wind shake 12 hour snow off Douglas Fir limbs, through a window built in the first Cleveland administration, and seated on a couch made in the Reagan era, is not in itself apart from nature as G.M. Wright conceived it. What is apart from nature, as most practical definitions would have it, is my many neighbors, presumably doing something similar, at roughly the same time, habitually, just as I do.
I am a fan of the “post modern” trend that would break down and generally complicate this distinction, while also recognizing that flattening this distinction too far is nothing short of a-historical. Kant wanted to show how reason made knowledge and indeed experience possible. So too should nature, insofar as we can recall how it gave birth to us, circumscribe our possibilities. The puerile cultural disease which would have human knowledge hold all possibilities, even in the hypothetical, ignores just what we don’t know. Great Nature is easily recognized in Glacier and Yosemite, because the leading edge of American conservation overtook technology in the early 20th century. Cultural memory gives us a shadow of understanding when it comes to what Great Nature was lost in Iowa and Ohio, and even less in places like tidewater Virginia. Neurobiology has yet to permit us to inquire of the squirrels what they lost when Daniel Boone and Anthony Wayne opened up the beech-maple climax hills of the Ohio.
When I began writing here, 11.5 years ago, I was teaching social studies at a residential treatment center in Arizona. I soon began pre and post tests of all my students, age 11 through 17, on the 50 states. Most could name 3 or 4 upon admission, those including and immediately surrounding their state of residence. Most sought to identify California, though they often got it wrong. More recently, I spent six years working with children and families in the Flathead Valley of Montana, some of whom lived over an hour each way from town, and within a mile of the border of Glacier National Park. Were it not for 2nd and 3rd grade field trips, and my own efforts, most would never have entered that place. How, in summary, can one know oneself and ones place in history without knowing Great Nature, and how can one ever come to know Great Nature without the ability to understand not only the past, but how it shaped the place in which one came to be oneself.
Poverty and reduced abilities in the realm of executive function are, when it comes to historical geography, the ultimate chicken and egg question.