The Scripture of Nature

Paul Harvey

In between bouts of obsessively (and increasingly hopelessly) checking my fantasy football team's stats tonight, I checked in on the first two hours of “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea," the newest Ken Burns documentary. It was about the most religious programming I've seen on television in a while. Watching the first 2 hours, entitled "The Scripture of Nature," John Muir appears as the central character, the "ecstatic holy man" who saw "nature's cathedral" and determined to teach the rest of America to see it as well. I was about to sit down and write a blog entry on the religious references in the film so far (and not just the fact that the tediousness of parts of it are a bit like the tedious parts of the Bible, and there are still 10 more hours to go), but Donald Worster, author most recently of a biography of Muir, (A Passion For Nature: The Life of John Muir), has
saved me the trouble.

In his reflections on the film, at the Oxford University Press blog, Worster analyzes the religious vision and language both behind the establishment of the national park system, and of the emphases of Burns's film. Incidentally, the Washington Post reviewer, who (like me) is a "great indoorsman," has some funny quips about the occasional sanctimony that makes the film drag a bit -- still, it's well worth watching, and makes me grateful again for Muir and his descendants. The alternative -- the religion of the marketplace and endless development -- would have produced a catastrophe in comparison to the vision of Muir and his twentieth-century acolytes, including Gary Snyder. There is a darker underside even in this vision, hinted at a bit in the film, in terms of the connection between the displacement of Natives and the establishment of the parks; but this was part of a broader history of the 19th century. Worster concludes:

I am convinced that democratic societies are especially open to the religion of nature, for it takes faith out of the hands of priests and gives it back to the people. As long as Americans hunger for religion and as long as they pursue democracy, the national parks will likely be treasured as places where the people can go to worship as they see fit.

Watching the film also reminded me of an email conversation I had some years ago with the former editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette, Sean Paige, who now heads Local Liberty Action. For years he railed against a small local tax we have locally (TOPS, the Trails and Open Space Tax) which funds the purchase of local parcels of open space; he once responded to a short letter to the editor I sent in with a several screen email rant-and-rave to the effect of "if you want a park, go buy one yourself, PROFESSOR Harvey." For years I used his rant in class writing exercises, asking students to take his execrable rough draft and rephrase his arguments in comprehensible terms.

In doing so, Paige served as the equivalent of those who railed against the role of "big government" in setting aside the national parks, blocking "development," and the like. It's remarkable to me that the scripture of nature is powerful enough to trump the otherwise libertarian instincts of my local populace, and those in the era of the establishment and growth of the parks system. That's some powerful religion.


John Fea said…
Paul: I was also struck by the religious dimension of the program, especially the stuff on Muir. I thought William Cronon was great--at one point I believe he described Muir as "apocalyptic."
Mike Pasquier said…
So far, I don't find Burns trying very hard to distinguish the narratorial tone of the film from Muir's vision. It will be interesting to see how Burns incorporates Native American experiences into that vision. The film opened with an Indian-sounding tune (or was it Enya), but with a voice-over of someone channelling Muir's ruminations. And there was a reference to the rather violent origins of Yosemite as a White tourist attraction, but again with Native Americans serving as a sort of unfortunate counterpoint to the grand and virtuous idea of the National Park.

If only I didn't study religion for a living. Then I may have been able to just veg out on my couch and enjoy America in HD.
Rebecca said…
@Mike: I was struck by the fact that every time they were going to switch over to the native perspective, some native american-sounding music would strike up in the background. I found that annoying.

@John: I too thought that Bill Cronon was great--especially when he contextualized Muir's (and Lincoln's) understanding of the bible and literature as part of a common nineteenth-century worldview. I thought that was enormously helpful.

Yet I was left with the sense that Ken Burns doesn't think atheists be awestruck y the natural beauty of the parks. grr.
rjc said…
Catherine L. Albanese's _Nature Religion_ is relevant reading in relation to this program, and this blog post.

Popular Posts