America’s Best Idea

Today is my country’s 240th anniversary, and before I go to a local city park with my husband and in-laws to eat very unhealthy food from food trucks (I’m thinking some kettle corn, hot dogs, and I hope they have those chocolate-covered frozen bananas again this year, yum!), listen to a band play music on the stage while small children dance in front, and then at sundown watch people set off multicolored explosives, I wanted to post something quick for this occasion.

There aren’t a lot of things going on right now that make me proud of my country. We’ve been at war for 15 years, we keep having mass shootings, we keep having unarmed black men shot by police or vigilantes, we still treat rape as if it’s not that big of a deal, but for some reason what public restroom you use is a huge deal, and one of our major political parties is about to nominate someone who admires Mussolini and is loved by white supremacists.

Theodore Roosevelt and John MuirBut there is one thing that makes we swell with patriotic pride: our national parks. Ken Burns was absolutely right, that was America’s best idea. All the other things that make America great are ideas we got from other places, but the concept of the national park was born here. Yellowstone National Park was the first national park in the world. And while there is a lot of talk in Pagan circles about honoring the “founding fathers” on the 4th of July, I’ve always felt better about honoring Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir as great Americans worthy of hero cults.

(Yes, I know John Muir was from Scotland, and yes I know Theodore Roosevelt had some problematic things about his presidency, but dammit, they gave us the national parks! And Teddy was a Republican. Can you imagine what he’d think about the Republican Party today?)

The idea of the national parks is that contact with Nature is a human right, just like free speech or the right to vote. That’s a pretty revolutionary idea. And now there’s plenty of research out to prove that Nature is vital and necessary to human health, both mental and physical.

And though the national parks were founded “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” they led to the modern American environmental movement and the idea (or rediscovery of the idea) that nonhuman life has a right to exist too.

The last episode of Ken Burns’s documentary series on the national parks had a segment about the return of wolves to Yellowstone, and I admit it, that part made me cry.

Yes, our country is very flawed, and yes, even the national parks themselves are flawed (they’re horribly underfunded and they don’t do a good job attracting non-white visitors), but I still think they’re a thing that truly makes America great. This year is their 100th anniversary. We must do all we can to ensure they last another 100 years.

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