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More than just birds and trees

April 26th, 2012

Have you ever stood on top of a mountain and seen the whole range twisting out southward from underneath your feet, like the spine of some ancient creature emerging from the earth? It’s an absolutely awesome feeling.

Yes, you can look at paintings, and photographs and read all kinds of literature on the subject, but nothing is quite like the real thing. Whether it’s the majesty of Glacier, or the total isolation of a place like Isle Royale, national parks are the crown jewels of the United States. And that’s why this week we celebrate National Parks Week!

The national parks are our last great stretches of wilderness. They are the temples of mother nature herself. Though not wholly untouched by mankind, they are at least protected by him. Since its founding in 1916, the American National Park Service has helped preserve 84 million acres of land and 4,502,644 acres of oceans, lakes and reservoirs.

The National Park Service has helped in the preservation of some of the most beautiful places in the Unites States, and I have a firm belief that every American citizen should visit at least one national park before they die.

Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir didn’t work so hard to secure these massive amounts of land so that we have a last refuge to go to when we’ve exploited every other piece of land. The national parks are our national playgrounds!

Remember when you were in elementary school and you got SO excited to go out and play at recess? We should be just as excited to visit our national parks. Maybe a nice jaunt out in the woods isn’t your thing. I can respect that. But remember what John Muir said: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Through nature, all things are connected. Yeah, even you.

And it’s no coincidence that National Parks Week is aligned with Earth Day. Well, it might be a coincidence, but I do not think it is. The national parks are a reminder of why we celebrate Earth Day in the first place. Here we have preserved these naturally beautiful, or geologically unique (I don’t know how beautiful people consider Death Valley), pieces of land so that our children have something to inherit other than high-rise apartments and mountains made of concrete.

Since its founding in 1916, Yellowstone National Park (the oldest, and perhaps the most famous of the parks) has changed very little. Yet, since 1916, the face of America has developed dramatically. Cities have been built. Highways now criss-cross the country, thanks to Eisenhower. You can fly from New York to Los Angeles in a matter of hours.

Yet, the national parks have changed relatively little in the past 96 years. Sure, Yellowstone is starting to bulge (it’s located over a massive super-volcano that puts pressure on the Earth’s crust) and The Grand Canyon continues to erode, but it all happens at a very slow pace. The national parks are our legacy. They are unchanged America.

How awesome is that? When you go to a national park you are seeing it as it was, essentially, 100 years ago. Yet, every time I go home to small town America something seems to have changed, and “small town” doesn’t seem so small anymore.

I haven’t been to Yellowstone for years, but I know that if I go back, the hot springs will still smell like rotten eggs, and the mountains will still strike me with their majesty as they rise above the Lamar Valley, and the lower fall of the Yellowstone River will still have that one single streak of green in what is otherwise a curtain of white.

The national parks are the heirloom of America. They are the beautiful thing that we have to pass on to our children. And they are especially important these days because, even if we prefer city living, and prefer to live with all of our modern conveniences, we still feel the tug of nature every once and a while and have to run off to the hills because, as Thoreau so aptly observed, “Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him.” Now, if you’ll excuse me, “The mountains are calling and I must go.”