The National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday on August 25, 2016.  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 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.


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11 responses to “Our Best Idea”

  1. Adedeji Adewunmi says:

    Good Afternoon,

    My name is Adedeji Adewunmi from Nigeria, Africa. I was proposing to writing “am your number one fan” but that will not drive my love for your work. The first time i read one of your book (Rumors Of Another World), i felt i was reading the book of proverbs or job because of the spiritual poetic lining. Your wordings drives God into my space anytime i read your work. I started a journey to know more about God when i read the Jesus I Never Knew. I have read almost all your books, except for Vanishing Grace, in the space of six years. I was never an avid reader, with the help of your books, i come to love reading. Your work has introduced me to tens of other authors whom i enjoy reading their books now. I want to say a big thank you for walking in your life purpose because it has helped me found mine.

    Warm Regards,

    Adedeji Adewunmi
    Lagos, Nigeria.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      You warm my heart! Especially your comment about other authors I’ve introduced you too. We may live thousands of miles away, but printed words travel on wings, don’t they? –Philip

  2. Bobbe Brooks-Fischle says:

    Awesome! Oh how we miss inhaling the wonders of nature in our beloved Colorado…and miss seeing you. Again soon…<3

  3. Vicki says:

    My daughter’s godfather, who was actually old enough to be her dad’s dad, does photography for a living. He’s taken pictures of things for sale and photos of the imagery they use for cell phone screens & lock screens, and he’s also the Director of Photography for the documentaries he does. To most people that means he’s unseen and (they assume) not that important. There are hardly any famous cinematographers compared to actors and directors and especially producers just because they pay for where you film the movie.

  4. Marty Jones says:

    You will enjoy spending time with John Muir, when the Homecoming arrives…
    Blessings, Marty

  5. Kevin says:

    I appreciate your thought on a lot of Christian subjects, however one in particular I would like to respond to. Your thoughts on sin in general, whether homosexual, heterosexual or other sins that may be included in the above categories. Your blogs on these were very elusive as how to live a life unto the Lord, while you may struggle with the sin nature. The bible is always very clear on sin, and then Christs forgiveness and telling us not to sin anymore. So by your own admittance you remain neutral on so many views, but Christ was always very black and white on sin. I believe if we in the church aren’t, then this would render the cross and Christs’ death in vain. I would encourage you as a ” Christian” to consider your stance from a biblical view and this should render the definition of sin very clearly and help us all to see how we are to respond in love but also define sin for what it is. Alas we should all have a clouded view of how to truly serve our saviour and go about our business as usual and then we would have no affect on a lost and dying world, like so many great women and men of God before us did.

    Your brother in Christ

  6. Patti Peters says:

    Good Morning Philip!

    I owe you a long overdue thank you. I was still just a teenager in Christian years when life’s “perfect storm” hit: marital problems, work changes, christian community around me not behaving in a christian manner. This was almost 10 years ago now. At the time most everyone around me was saying, “if this is christianity count me out.”

    I was blessed enough to have a co-worker and life-long friend who sent me on a week’s vacation with your book, “Soul Survivor.” I read it on the drive from FL to a CO and finished the last page just short of Pueblo. The wisdom of your words allowed me to see myself and the christian community I was a part of for the fallen, broken people we are. My expectations were too high for us. My savior however, you helped me see his perfect love clearly and to this day I am a soul survivor. I am prepared to love and try to be like Christ in this broken world that becomes more foreign to me the older I get.

    Anyway, heartfelt thanks for sharing your gifts. Simply said, you are the reason I am still a Christian and a huge influence on our daughters Christ-centered hearts.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I feel so unworthy to receive this, and yet so grateful to you for writing it. Soul Survivor was my favorite book to write, because I got to write about my heroes while also reflecting on my own spiritual autobiography. To imagine that it would have this kind of effect on another person, though–I am humbled just to read your account. Bless you for taking the time to send me such a moving, articulate note.

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