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Yellowstone Park and the Black Hills: Preservation versus Cultivation?

We’ve recently taken a 5000-mile road trip, from home in Vancouver, BC, to our middle son’s college in suburban Chicago. Along the way, we stopped for a couple of days to enjoy Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and the Black Hills in South Dakota. And the two park areas provide rich fodder for theological reflection.

In particular, they raise the question of our calling as human beings toward the rest of the world.

Yellowstone is all about preservation of nature, enjoying as it has from its beginning the blessing of such proponents of wilderness as Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir. As one drives for hours through this vast park, seeing only the one road ahead and behind with few other signs of human presence, one cannot fail to be impressed by grandeur, vitality, authenticity, and other themes.

Indeed, if one does fail to be so impressed, the visitors’ centre will do all it can to help. And it will do so in the cadences and categories of nature mysticism, a long tradition in America. The film presentation we watched in the centre explicitly invoked Emerson and Thoreau and their successors in this alternative religion.

For it is an alternative religion, one which only uneasily makes a place for human beings, with our powers of manipulation and depredation. Even though the Park Service (a human institution) and the interstate road system (ditto) have made it easy for millions to visit this park every year, the official message from the keepers of Yellowstone is to leave as small a footprint as possible.

Leaving a small footprint is simple wisdom in a park dedicated to preservation of wilderness, of course. But the further implication of this at the visitors’ centre is that nature is good, and cities are bad. In fact, nature and the mysticism it provokes is The Answer to the confusion, sadness, and evil of our normal (which is to say, “urban”) lives.

Our teenage and college-age sons emerged from the visitors’ centre quite clear that they had just visited the temple of a different faith, with a different deity offering a different salvation. The irony (and ironies abound here) is that we were introduced to nature mysticism by way of a massive investment of human culture: roads, electrical and water supplies, artistic and curatorial work, park maintenance, etc., etc.

Quite a different message greets the traveler a few hundred miles down I-90 at the Black Hills. We visited there twenty years ago, and have come back to find it thoroughly commodified–“Niagara Falls-ified,” one might say. The area south of Rapid City is full of such dubious tie-ins as “Reptile Gardens,” “Bear Country,” and “Cosmos Mystery Area.” All it lacks is a wax museum and a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”

Nature mystics trace all this exploitation of nature back to 1931 and the carving of Mount Rushmore itself. The Park Service has done a good job of turning it into the ideological shrine it was intended to be. Yet its visitors’ centre also allows that the carving of this mountain was scandalous in its day: a despoliation of natural beauty, in the view of its critics.

I’m not an American, so I resonate with Mount Rushmore differently than do Americans. But, if I may offer a foreigner’s opinion on a subject that so literally will not be affected by it one way or another (!), I like Mount Rushmore. I think it is tastefully done, symbolically edifying to people of many countries, and well worthwhile–to make and to visit.

As for the tourist traps that surround it, well, chacun à son goût. We took our sons to “The Flying T Barbecue and Country Music Show” and thoroughly enjoyed it–as we had twenty years ago. We happily avoided all the rest, and instead spent our time driving and photographing the spectacular Needles Highway and enjoying walks around Sylvan Lake. There is much unspoiled and, what is different, uncultivated, nature to enjoy here yet.

Note, however, that to enjoy that pristine nature we were driving the highway and walking the trails cut for us around the lake, which themselves would have been inaccessible to us were it not for that highway.

Preservation of nature? Good idea. Cultivation of nature? Good idea. Exploitation of nature? Bad idea– and not the same as “cultivation.”

Simple conclusions, yes, if one looks at Yellowstone and the Black Hills through Christian eyes.

But they are strange and repellent complements if one is either a nature mystic or a cynical developer–two deeply important types in American history. Christianity can coordinate preservation and cultivation, but not all outlooks can, or want to try.


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