National Parks and Cultural Salience

It is a rare and beautiful thing to witness someone else’s love. On the beaches of Olympic National Park, wrapped in fog and surrounded by the dying sun’s orange glow, two strangers played near the ocean’s edge. From the distance at which we sat, their silhouettes were stark against the horizon; they reached for each other, then stood apart, danced together, then walked away, ebbing and flowing like the ocean lapping at their feet. All of this is to say that there’s a particular quality about the national parks and their quality of openness and adoration– something which I had never seen before, especially not recently in America. 


I don’t think I’m the only person who has felt the draw of the National Parks this year. It seems to me that since we’ve been forced inside, the siren song of nature has called out louder than most people anticipated. In Uncommon Ground, the environmentalist William Cronon writes, “Ideas of nature never exist outside a cultural context, and the meanings we assign to nature cannot help reflecting that context.” That is why, perhaps, 15 national parks set visitation records in 2020, and I, like many others, decided to embark on a great American road trip this past year; With four friends, we piled into a Ford F150, bags of popcorn, bottles of iced-tea, and the remnants of the infinite peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we consumed strewn across our feet.


Each park I have visited has been more strange, more beautiful, and more alluring than the last, but what has felt special about visiting them this past year has been the awareness of a collective experience. We pulled into North Cascades National Park on Labor Day weekend, late at night on the Friday before. Most campsites were first-come first-serve, and jam-packed with RVs and tricked-out air-streams, families looking for a break lounging in hammocks and cooking burgers on their portable grills. As such, there was not a camping site to be found. The five of us drove around looking for somewhere to park the truck that night, calling inns, and motels for vacancies, when at last we drove past a trailer park and RV camping ground $20 for the night! Running water! And laundry! 


When we pulled in a thin woman with limp blond hair and yellow stained fingers checked us in. She was incredibly kind and gracious, clearly excited to have visitors again as she proudly explained the amenities she had to offer. We drove the truck into lot 18A, between a family of seven and an elderly couple. As we unpacked the cab of the truck a couple had set up a badminton net on the lawn. They noticed two of the children from the family of seven watching them play and held out their rackets. Perhaps because I’m cynical about the kindness of strangers, or the fact that it was in the middle of the pandemic, but this moment seemed to underscore the universal appreciation for the national parks. It all felt very normal. 


In my gratitude to nature and the respite it’s offered, I feel obligated to point out my hypocrisy. The national parks establishment endeavor was based upon the same colonialist, racist ideals that built the rest of America. The creation of many national parks was spurred by a burgeoning movement in the United States to protect “uninhabited” wilderness, despite the presence of Native tribes on the land. Despite the tribes’ ownership and management of the land, many were given small reservations adjacent to the parks of which they continue to have limited access to. It’s difficult to balance the undoubtably horrific origins of the national park system in the United States, the national love for the wilderness, and the need for governmental and environmental protection of these lands. Just within the first weeks of his presidency, President Trump placed a hiring freeze on federal civilian employees– those necessary to care for the parks. The annual national park pass only costs $80, a small price to pay, I believe, to be able to visit any national park for the entire year. It seems that despite the idea that the national parks belong to every American, that there is collective ownership, there is very little collective responsibility. 


I hope I’m not alone in suggesting that one of the strange paradoxes of taking time off from Yale during the pandemic has been this sudden phenomenon of ‘found time.’ I say “paradox” as this time was not something that I, or likely most Yale students, have ever known nor wanted. Our days are typically filled and planned to the second, and yet for the first time in my overly scheduled life I have nothing expected of me to do. I simply had to bide time until Yale returned to normal, and nature was the perfect place to do just that.

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