Rural Identity, Academia, and my Complicated Romance with National Parks (Part 2)

Hello everyone! I’m finally back with the last part of my series on my complicated love for the National Parks. If you haven’t done so already, I suggest you start by reading Part I. In that post I talk a bit about the complicated history of the National Parks and I recall my childhood family road trips from Iowa to California every other year. I also share how magical my experience of the American West seemed on those trips in comparison to the pleasant but nonetheless decidedly undramatic rural midwest.

I want to start where I ended, on the thrill of feeling a bit unsettled in a place as different as desert southwest. In that last post, I wrote that when we crossed over the Rockies and into Utah, it often seemed like a different planet. Much later in life, I’d learn that part what I was experiencing on those early trips was the sensation known as “Sublime.” After discussing this concept, I’ll follow up by exploring some of the ways that National Parks helped expose me to cultural experiences that I couldn’t experience at my rural midwestern home.

The Sublimity of the American West

The “Sublime” on display in Thomas Moran’s “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone,” 1893

While there are lots of definitions of the Sublime, the one I tend to draw from comes from the influential philosopher Edmund Burke, who happened to also influence a lot of landscape artists in the 19th century and thus has played a bigger role in the kind nature appreciation that relates to National Parks. Burke talked about the sublime in positive terms as a fusion of awe, fear, and pleasure. By the time that artists like Thomas Moran, illustrated here, were embracing the idea, the concept also became tied to overpowering experiences in nature. Darkness, vastness, limitless, loudness, suddenness are all words linked to this idea. Think of a storm off in the distance, or thick fog. Or, to put in more contemporary terms, think of the kind of pleasurable terror that many people get at the top of the hill on a giant roller coaster.

There’s an actual physical component to the Sublime that is part of what keeps us seeking it out. We start to crave that stir in the belly we feel right before the roller coaster sends us over the hill. Burke would argue that the pleasure also comes from recognizing, despite our fear, that we are relatively safe.

In the midwest I’d get to feel the sublime occasionally whenever a storm would roll in. In the American West, I got to have a more sustained experience of this sensation. And I didn’t have to do much more than simply look out of the car window as one of my parents drove.

And what a view it was: the enormous cracks in the ground, the sheer drop offs, the striations that made me sometimes feel like I was journeying to the center of the earth. All of it was like we had stumbled across a place where some cataclysmic event had ruptured the earth.

Of course, I was seeing all this from the car window in the backseat. I could awe and gasp, and still feel relatively safe as our car looped the switchbacks because I trusted my parents as the drivers. I was at a safe distance from the action to take in the view and let it stir my imagination without feeling any real danger (If I had been driving, it would have certainly been a completely different experience.)

The Accessible Sublime of a National Park

When we’d go to a National Park, it was even better because then I’d get to get out of the car and experience the Sublime up close –  on a hike, or a walkway, or a viewpoint – and almost always with some kind of sign to tell us all what we was looking at. I’m not bringing up the prevalence of signs to be facetious about this experience. In fact, one of my favorite things about my childhood experiences with National Parks is that accessibility element.

By accessibility I don’t mean that these places are easy to get to (you definitely have to go out of your way to travel to a National Park.) I mean that the Park Service works hard to make National Parks places where novices – and people of all abilities –  can feel comfortable in the outdoors (in fact, in recent years they have made accessibility for those with disabilities one of their main goals).

When I was growing up, this made National Parks ideal for a family of five coming from rural Iowa – a place where the elevation never rises more than a few hundred feet. It meant we could learn about – oh, say the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde – via a guided tour run by a ranger who knew how to talk to kids. It meant my parents could show us unusual rock formations without having to drag the youngest of us (who was about age 3 on our first NPS trip) more than a few hundred feet.

National Parks and my Art History Identity

Although I now have a PhD in the field of art history, when I was a kid I didn’t even know what art history was. I had never been to a museum, and my only exposure to famous art was in a set of time life books about artists that sat on one of our bookshelves.

Looking back I think that National Parks played a role in setting my on this professional path, albeit in an indirect way.  For one, National Parks encourage the pleasure of looking, and not just gazing out to see the view. They encourage what an art historian would call “close looking” too – at the changing colors half way up a cliff, at the tiny bits of petrified wood along a winding desert path. At some parks, looking entails getting up close to wildflowers that only appear during rainy seasons. At others, it’s about a search for a furry creature hidden among the rocks.

I also like to think of National Parks as my first museum experience, curated by way of visitors and roadside ways and trails. So I didn’t get to an art museum until college but I did get to go to visitors centers packed with artifacts. And tours gave me context and made me curious for more.

The Cultural Impact of National Parks

Finally, I want to talk a bit about the role of National Parks as international tourists destinations where people from around the world come to visit. Though the Park Service still needs to make more headway in cultural diversity outreach, National Parks have long been places where tourists from other countries visit. And this was important for me as a young girl who spent much of her life feeling a bit trapped in rural Iowa.

My family had more exposure than some to other cultures than some where I lived, thanks to a set of grandparents who helped to sponsor western African men and women going to a nearby Christian college. Family get togethers included a wonderful group of Nigerians and Liberians who lived at various periods in their house with them.  But still,  the vast majority of the people I knew were English speaking, white, protestant Christian, agriculturally employed Americans. As importantly, this majority left a strong imprint on the social institutions (school, church, etc) that I experienced regularly.

In National Parks, I had some of my first experiences – albeit in a superficial way – with people who spoke other languages. There, I had some of my first intercultural encounters.  And for a kid who grew up where I did, this made National Parks one of the most “cosmopolitan places” places of my youth.

Thus my romance with National Parks is more than an appreciation for nature or joy of thrill seeking. As I mentioned in my last post, they even played a role in my later decisions to pursue an academic interest in art history. As I suggested in that post, there is an irony to this – since historical studies has given me the tools to reflect critically on my own interest in the park system.


But it’s worth noting that this knowledge has also helped to deepen my appreciation for the NPS as a historical institution threaded to American society. It has also helped me recognized the importance of the Park System’s ongoing efforts to work on outreach and accessibility initiatives.

A final note: there’s a lot on those efforts available in the media thanks to the attention the parks have received for their anniversary. But in case you are interested, for more on outreach with Native Americans, here’s a useful starting point. For accessibility initiatives, my friend Jeremy Buzzell’s posts, in his capacity as Chief of the National Accessibility Branch of NPS, are a good start. And for ongoing challenges related to environmental concerns, the recent National Geographic issue on the parks is a useful start.

2014-08-19 13.24.23
The final part of the Mount Fremont Lookout trail in Mt. Rainier National Park

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