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Subdued and preserved

America's National Park System is a product of civilization

Subdued and preserved

(Yellowstone National Park/PBS)

America's National Parks, according to the latest documentary by Ken Burns, were our "Best Idea." Caught up in the tumbled landscapes, flashing waters, and glassy skies that continuously pan through Burns' camera, one can appreciate the sentiment even while acknowledging the overstatement.

The first episode of the series coincided with my own visit to Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah), named for Mormon settler Ebenezer Bryce, whose cabin backed up to an incomparable landscape of sunset-colored spires, arches, and slot canyons. When asked about the view, Bryce is reported to have said, "Hell of a place to lose a cow."

That sums it up: To immigrants and homesteaders, America was first of all a place, big and wild-and a literal hell for some who lost their cows, fortunes, or lives. Appreciation for America's wildness was mainly a sentiment of those who no longer had to contend with it, such as the landscape painters who celebrated its sprawling views from a safe distance. Meanwhile, settlers went about the business of taming the wilderness. It wasn't pretty, but in a little over a hundred years, the land was tamed.

"What does 'wilderness' mean to you?" asked a park ranger on our third evening at Bryce. "Solitude," "renewal," "escape" were some of the answers offered by visitors-answers that, if they'd thought about it, revealed that they were not talking about true wilderness at all. They were talking about undeveloped preserves within an ordered society. Like animals in a zoo, America's national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas are left untouched only to the degree that we want them to be, for purposes very much defined by civilization.

And that is not a bad thing.

True wilderness is, among other things, terribly concrete. It's demanding and unbending. We like to think of it as a place where civilization's rules don't apply, but nature's rules are harsher. In the Bible the wilderness is a place of rejection, where the scapegoat strays to its doom. Or testing, where Israel fails and Christ triumphs. Or punishment, where God's people are forced to wander.

But they are also courted: "I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her" (Hosea 2:14). The chief value of wilderness lies in its being to some degree subdued.

The National Park System, according to Ken Burns, is America's best idea because, instead of allowing these magnificent places to be gobbled up by wealthy capitalists, they are preserved for the people. But that's an outgrowth of three previous "Best Ideas": first, that government is established by the people and should represent the people's interests. Second, that individuals should be free, as far as good order allows, to pursue their goals, including the ownership and use of real estate. Third, that citizens have dominion over the land, and setting aside vast tracts for limited development is as much an exercise of dominion as farming or strip mining.

From its beginning America has nurtured a line of "naturalists," from William Bartram to James Audubon to Edward Abbey. John Muir, who emerges as a patron saint of the documentary, was the most influential. Like almost all his predecessors, Muir dismissed biblical revelation and turned to "the book of nature," "opening a thousand windows to show us God." But Muir was a civilized man, a friend of statesmen, capitalists, academics. For all his immersion in nature, he approached it from the outside: A man in the wilderness is quite different from wilderness in the man.

Ken Burns and various talking heads go on at length about how much poorer the human spirit would be without these wild, magnificent places to instruct and inspire us. That's true up to a point, but natives in the actual wild are usually too busy merely surviving to be inspired. Wilderness is best appreciated by those with a civilized perspective who can visit for hours, days, or even months, but eventually go home. America's best idea toward nature was confining it.

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