The National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday on August 25. Ken Burns, producer of a PBS television series on the parks, explains why he chose to title it America’s Best Idea: “…it doesn’t matter whether your ancestors came over on the Mayflower or your parents just arrived in this country, whether you’re from a big city or a tiny town, whether your father owns a factory or your mother is a maid. You are the owner of some of the best seafront property this nation’s got, from magnificent waterfalls to stunning views of awesome mountains and breathtaking canyons. They belong to you.”
The Park Service oversees 412 properties, including National Monuments and Preserves and Historical Parks, and as part of the celebration all are offering free admission from August 25-28. (See http://bit.ly/PYNPS100th) Of these, 59 carry the official designation of National Parks, sites famed for their abundance of natural wonders: the most impressive geysers, the biggest trees, the most famous canyon, the hottest desert. As I went over the list in Wikipedia I was pleased to learn that I’ve visited half of them.
My state of Colorado has four very different National Parks. Mesa Verde preserves historic native cliff dwellings; Rocky Mountain contains some of our most glorious scenery; the narrow and steep Black Canyon of the Gunnison is so named because parts of it get only 33 minutes of sunshine a day; and Great Sand Dunes features the continent’s tallest sand dunes, a thousand miles from the nearest ocean. In addition, more than a third of the state is designated as national forest, wilderness, or public domain.
To reach my goal of climbing the 14,000-foot mountains in Colorado, I spent a lot of time immersed in natural surroundings. I pity residents of megacities such as Beijing, Sao Paulo, and Jakarta, who live out their days amid concrete and asphalt, under gray, smoky skies. Nature has unique healing properties: one study in Japan showed that after people took two long walks through a forest, inhaling the organic compounds called phytoncides produced by plants, the number of their Natural Killer cells—white blood cells that support the immune system—increased by 50 percent. Numerous other studies have established that time spent in nature can lower blood pressure, promote cancer-fighting cells, and help with depression and anxiety.
I haven’t seen any studies measuring nature’s effects on spiritual health, although I’ve experienced it firsthand. Many of the Psalms extol the wonders of nature as proof of God’s power, creativity, and faithfulness; reminders that I fall back on when stress and human tragedies overwhelm me. Here are some wilderness lessons I have learned:
Nature destroys my illusion of control. As a guest I must adapt to its rhythms, determined not by alarm clocks and electric lights but by the rising and setting of the sun. Every morning begins anew: a chorus of bird song, dawn filtered through the trees, a coating of dew or condensation on the tent. Almost always, what I will later look back on as the day’s highlight occurs spontaneously, as if by accident. Once, I startled a flock of mountain bluebirds who flew into a shaft of sunlight with an explosion of color, bright as fireworks. The same day I heard a loud, hollow sound echoing through the canyon I was hiking; I peered over a ridge to see two bighorn rams jousting head-first, like football linemen. You enter nature on its own terms. Sometimes it seems nothing happens: the mountains just sit there, the animals remain hidden. Yet nature has its own sequence: tides move in and then recede, dusk falls, winds rustle the quiet, a crash of thunder announces the coming rain, and every morning the earth reawakens. If you stay long enough, and still enough, the epiphanies do appear.
We are but creatures, naked and vulnerable in a wilderness better suited to furry animals with claws and pointed teeth. On a hike in Glacier National Park I rounded a bend to closely encounter a grizzly bear standing on its hind legs sniffing the air. I backed up slowly and crouched behind a rock to watch as the grizzly proceeded to dislodge huge boulders on the hillside, tossing them aside like pebbles in a vain search for marmots. After observing his unsuccessful efforts for half an hour, I decided I should creep away, lest the grizzly remember that a much larger, more accessible source of meat lay within easy striking distance. Nature cures me of any sense of self-importance; it reminds me that we are small, temporary visitors on a planet that long preceded and will long outlast us. Stretched out in a sleeping bag staring at the Milky Way above, I often reflect on the psalmist’s words: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?”
Whole industries exist to offer storage for stuff that will not fit in Americans’ already-oversized houses. The wilderness proves how little we really need. You can spend the summer on the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trail with nothing but a fifty-pound pack on your back. And if you do, I guarantee that the clutter of civilization that we consider essential will suddenly seem ridiculous. The same goes for the synapses of an electronically connected society. On maps of cell phone and internet coverage, Colorado has many blank spots due to its protected wilderness areas. Nature beckons us to unplug, to stop measuring worth and productivity by quantity, whether we’re counting consumer goods or text messages. “In our relentless quest for human contact, we have forgotten the solace and friendship of Nature,” wrote the Irish priest John O’Donohue. One of the most refreshing books I read this year was Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice, by Belden C. Lane. He found that the wild provided an ideal setting in which to spend time with virtual companions such as Augustine and Thomas Merton and John of the Cross. One thing he did not experience was loneliness.
C. S. Lewis used to say that we do not go to nature to learn theology but rather to fill theological words with meaning. As he wrote, “Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and of infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word glory a meaning for me. I still do not know where else I could have found one.” I was twenty-two years old when I first entered Yosemite National Park and saw its pure white waterfalls spilling over snow-glazed granite onto the breathtaking valley spread out before me. I walked in Giant Sequoia groves among trees taller than 30-story buildings. Not just glory but words like awe and reverence took on new meaning—like the difference between experiencing fear when watching a scary movie and knowing the fear of encountering a grizzly bear in the wild. The emotions seemed wholly appropriate, inevitable even.
Finally, nature teaches me wonder. On one mountain climb I came within six inches of stepping on a nesting ptarmigan, a member of the grouse family so well-camouflaged that I mistook it for a rock until it scampered off with a cry. In winter months, I knew, every feather on the bird would turn white, adapting its disguise to snowy conditions. (Could someone please explain to me how randomness could orchestrate the many mutations necessary for a bird to molt and then sprout thousands of color-coordinated feathers simultaneously, when any partial costume-change would attract predators and doom the species to extinction?) Creation has about it a sense of delight and even whimsy. In my part of the world, the law of nature—“Big animals eat little animals”—has two notable exceptions. Larger mammals carefully avoid the bristly porcupine and the tempting morsel known as the skunk. John O’Donohue again: “We lament today the absence of God and the demise of the sacred. Yet it is we ourselves who have killed God. The world today is just as full of sacred presence as it was centuries ago.”
O’Donohue adds this prayer of blessing: “May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.” I don’t know if it’s possible to experience each day that way, but I do know that spending time in nature makes such days more likely. I’m grateful that a hundred years ago some politicians had the foresight to set aside large expanses of wilderness in perpetuity. As it happens, preserving the planet has the side benefit of nurturing our own health—physical, mental, and spiritual.
P.S. Thanks to Holly Davison for her stunning photos taken in some of our national parks.