- with the guardians of the great wildernesses of North America.
Just over eight years ago, after a week of discussing science in San Francisco, a friend and I headed east for some much-needed downtime. Exhausted from a long but thrilling drive, we entered a pristine glacial valley surrounded by cathedral-like peaks of the Sierra Nevada. We were in Yosemite- the landscape that inspired the great environmental philosopher and my hero, John Muir. It became the first US National Park that I ever visited, and as fortune had it, a place that I would visit many times again and the start of an obsession.
Many people come to the United State for its cities regarded as the seats of democracy (and capitalism), and for their architectural splendour and culinary delights. But what fascinates me most, are the great wildernesses of this continent which once even seemed boundless and inexhaustible. But with time, their wildlife was hunted to near extinction, resources drained and the natives dispossessed of their own land; all in the name of progress. Today, the once much famed American frontiers, in any form, only exist in the country's National Parks, which have had their own turbulent history.
The people responsible for the establishment of these National Parks, who identified them as being so majestic in beauty, so pristine, that they had to be protected from ourselves and preserved unmarred for future generations are true American heroes, worthy of much praise. They were visionaries, seemingly ahead of their time thinking beyond imminent satisfaction of financial wants, but rather to conceive such ideas that could live on to comfort and pleasantly astound generations to come. Though often criticised for its irresponsible environmental policies, this was a uniquely American model that taught the world to curb individual greed when it is at the expense of the environment. This is in fact how, many societies had existed for most of human history, coexisting with nature making decisions in tune with its sustainability. At a time when it was more accepted to assert human dominance over nature, the idea of establishing and maintaining national parks was a conservation idea that took time to evolve into what it is now. One could only hope that people would continue to value it, be innovative in thinking of civilisation and development without parasitising on nature.
As we celebrate one hundred years since the establishment of the National Parks Service, we should honour people like John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Stephen Mather, Horace Albright, Charles Young, Marjory Douglas, Freeman Tilden, Ken Burns and every man and woman, who has worn the characteristic NPS uniform and admire the roles they have played in preserving and inspiring to preserve these unequalled natural wonders up until now. But the picture is not as idyllic and romantic sometimes. It is undeniable that the parks are under threat. That is why we all need to play our part, as it is a treasure that belongs to all American people and simply by their uniqueness and shared history, in a way to whole of humanity. Treasures to be enjoyed that comes with a responsibility and duty, worthy of a ceaseless commitment to protect.
It is something deep within us that draws us to challenging and untamed natural places. However, not everyone nor every day do we have access to such natural beauty. Americans are lucky to have diverse natural wonders in their own backyards and to have had forefathers who advocated the idea of conservation. It is somehow understandable (but not totally excusable) surrounded by such beauty, why most Americans find it hard to grasp the environmental perils of the wider world. Time will only tell how many more 'Hetch Hetchy debates' are ahead of us as we enter a time of great uncertainty. But it is our obligation to keep the momentum going and fight what ever resistance we face in order to protect these wondrous places and our planet as a whole- upholding the values that nature should sometimes just be enjoyed for its beauty, and not always merely utilised for its resources.
A much used saying first attributed to Chief Seattle of the Squamish Tribe goes, “take nothing but memories, leave noting but footprints”; and that’s what I’ve tried to do since that very first day at Yosemite, many years ago. Memories of cooling down in streams after long hikes through Zion, listening to the howl of wolves while watching the alpenglow setting the tundra ablaze in Denali, sheltering under the shade of behemoths in Sequoia, sleeping under a ceiling of a million stars in Big Bend, kayaking alongside whales through the Kenai Fjords, basking in the warmth of the first sunrise in Acadia, the feel of Permian rock on one's fingertips while climbing in Capitol Reef or gazing upon the surreal landscapes of Yellowstone and Death Valley; oftentimes with others who share the same enthusiasm to momentarily surrender civilisation and be engulfed by nature, but sometimes just enjoying the beauty of solitude. I am forever thankful for their existence and we should all seize the opportunity to GO EXPLORE responsibly, and make sure those yet to come, will continue to have the chance to do so!