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Cuts to US national parks strike at America's character

Ralph Waldo Emerson's Harvard commencement speech 175 years ago celebrated nature as a special source of American identity. His views are worth revisiting today as the federal budget sequester threatens national parks – wellsprings of our civic health.

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Yosemite Valley is seen from Tunnel View in April 2013, showing some of Yosemite National Park's best-known natural attractions. The California park is one of America's most-visited national parks. Op-ed contributor Danny Heitman writes that current 'budget policies [which have cut $130 million from the national parks service] don’t value the natural bequeath that Ralph Waldo Emerson regarded as so central to our democratic experiment.'

Kathy Matheson/AP

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This month’s commencement season is a reminder that most graduation speeches are forgotten almost as soon as they’re delivered. One exception is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1838 address to graduating seniors at Harvard’s Divinity School, a speech so controversial that Harvard leaders didn’t invite the Sage of Concord back for another 30 years.

Emerson got into hot water for questioning religious orthodoxy, but his Harvard speech is also noteworthy for its celebration of nature as a special source of American identity. His views are worth revisiting today as the federal budget sequester threatens national parks, wellsprings of our civic health.

Emerson came of age at a time when America was still largely a frontier, its streets devoid of the great cathedrals, libraries, and museums that informed the cultural life of the Old World. But Emerson frequently pointed to America’s natural landscape as an equally promising resource for the mind and spirit.

Like his friend and fellow New Englander, Henry David Thoreau, Emerson believed that connecting with nature could be not only a pleasant pastime, but a path to clearer thinking and a healthier soul. In opening his speech to Harvard’s seniors in 1838, Emerson spoke with joy of a country where “the mystery of nature never was displayed more happily.” He thought that connecting with rivers and mountains and the open sky could help improve us mentally, morally, and spiritually.

That’s not a uniquely American idea, of course, but Emerson helped to place it at the center of our national creed. It’s why figures as varied as John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt embraced the cause of national conservation – and why Roosevelt did so much to advance the growth of a system of national parks across the country.

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