Driving across the United States this summer with my family, we were offered countless vistas of natural beauty that went from the sublime to the majestic. From the carpet of trees that seemed to spread from our hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina to the deep red buttes of the New Mexico rockies, we were confronted by natural beauty at every turn that just took our Asia-jaded breaths away.
“I love America,” said my twelve year-old son, and often, after we drank our visual fill of one of these wonders.
Indeed. As do his mother and I.
But is it right for us to be proud of America, a political entity, for the natural wonders bestowed on the continent long before modern man set foot on her shores, much less sat down to write a constitution? Should we tell ourselves that we are a great nation because we are endowed with an inheritance for which we can only thank G-d?
I think not. The natural grace shed upon the land by the Almighty was not the result of some favorable judgement of our people or our deeds.
On the other hand, what we can take pride in is our response to that bounty. We have approached each of these blessings with varying degress of two noble urges: the urge to protect, and the urge to learn. Often driven by enlightened self interest (tourism, logging, the desire to preserve a favorite campsite), we have learned to make preservation a part of a national bi-partisan dialogue. Preservation is no longer the question: the question is how, and how much?
And study of nature has been a part of the national idiom since Thomas Jefferson, whose remove on his beloved hilltop on Monticello was taken up more with the study of the natural world than with politics. The names of explorers grace our history and name our streets, mountains, and lakes. And Theodore Roosevelt was more than any other individual (with the possible exception of John Muir) responsible for making the study of nature synonymous with what it is to be an American. So much is this the case that by the time the Baby Boomers began to take positions of responsibility in American society, most Americans took for granted our urges to preserve and study. In this, we can take justifiable pride.
In the processs, unfortunately, we have forgotten the stormy debates that have surrounded each governmental act of preservation throughout history. We have disregarded the arguments, however sincere and reasonable, made against each act of government acquisition for the purpose of preservation. This selective amnesia is a problem: If we are to understand the role and limit of government, we must remember the debates that sought to curb the influence of the state, even in such an obvious place like the conservation of nature. And if we are to truly appreciate our inheritance, we must acknowledge the sacrifices that individuals have made to bring them to us – even if they started out on the wrong side of history. The real credit for conservation goes to those who have given up the economic benefit of something that is rightfully theirs in deference to the interests of the nation, of mankind, and of the planet. In the acts of these Americans, we can also take pride.
Finally, we must recongize that our urge to study and preserve is not universal, and that for all of our faults, we can look around the world and be justifiably proud at what we have accomplished as a people.
These thoughts were with me as we drove down through the winding vistas of the Virgin River Canyon, a Grand Canyon in miniature at the extreme Northwest corner of Arizona that offers some of the most remarkable vistas in the Southwest. The Canyon and the river that formed it are a gift. We can take no pride in the gifts we receive, I told my son, only in what we do with them.