Mesmerized by Romance

Now, not to get too off-subject, but, does it not seem strange that the concept of a national park is a relatively new concept? To me it does. However, I also understand that wild lands had never been regarded as something praiseworthy. Wilderness was feared. Wilderness meant death. Yet, now it’s an object of joy and veneration. What changed in mankind’s mind? How did this happen? Please allow me just of couple of minutes to explain, as the following is a prominent thread in this book.

Plus, I like to teach this stuff.

Now, Western Man, from the time of Ancient Greeks, considered rolling greenery of farms and fields flecked with colors and broken by streams as that which is one of the most beautiful representations of Nature. Well-watered greenery meant sustenance and life in a world unimaginably harder to survive in compared to the 21st century. Thus, grand, isolated canyons at the base of frozen mountains packed with grizzlies and killers didn’t necessarily conjure warm and fuzzy feelings like such imagery can for us today in our modern, mechanized world.

However, things began to change in the 18th century. Personally, I think the rise in living standards resulting from the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions helped foster the Romantic Movement. I think these revolutions gave Western Man more resources and time than ever before to consider the new things. But this is just my opinion.

Regardless, one of those things that was considered was new lands. A dang fine book by William Goetzman named New Lands, New Men says the trend of the Enlightenment – the intellectual movement before the Romantic Age of the 19th century – impelled man to know intimately the natural world and all the unknown interiors of the Americas, Africa and Asia for the sake of finding “some overarching, transcendent, romantic secret about the whole earth and cosmos that seemed to give a final meaning and direction to those efforts that began in the eighteenth century to know the mind of God through knowledge of His every manifestation in nature.”

Goetzmann essentially argues the Romantic Era began because the explorations of the globe in the late 1700’s, executed not for Commerce but for Science, required the use of writers, artists and mapmakers. The scientist-explorer wanted to render colorful representations for a public also becoming ever more curious of the earth’s majesties and mysteries. Illustrated narratives of the explorations tried to capture the “teeming, variegated, proliferating world that was full of rich, qualitative sense impressions.”

Man began to see Nature in a new way because of newly-discovered marvels. Beautified renditions of Tahiti, the Amazon, the Rockies, etc, conjured new perceptions and emotions which, ultimately, compelled thinkers to question the premise of the Enlightenment that reason should only be the guiding light of mankind to know the cosmos.

After all, God equipped man with emotion too. Emotion also tells us things. It aids in the understanding given to us by our senses. To ignore emotion and favor only reason – like Spock – was to limit attempts to understand fully the source of Nature’s wondrous order. It was to limit attempts to understand the mind of God itself.

Thus, not only was there nothing wrong with using emotionally-charged imagination to fill in blanks behind the impenetrable and mysterious, such became encouraged. It was praised. It became an intellectual and artistic movement known as the Romantic Era. Spock was wrong. Emotion too was a portal unto deeper understandings of reality. It worked together with reason. Why else would God give man such a gift?

But who sees the world more accurately? The emotional artist or the rational scientist? Well, why not both? The best Romantic intellects were a blend of artist and scientist. They were a blend of explorer and researcher. A man named John Muir comes to mind right now. To a certain degree, you can’t help but to be a romantic in depicting the naturalism of the world’s most colorful and compelling lands. The lands beg the infusion of emotion to properly convey their role God intended for the senses of mankind.

Thus, formerly foreboding landscapes that filled Medieval Man with terror became a great focus of art and science. Wild lands were where the primordial residue of God’s power to create still lingered. As Muir said, “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world.” Wilderness itself could teach us something about truth and beauty and even love, which were the Romantics’ Holy Trinty.

New lands created a new men. For such a shift in consciousness, thank explorers like Humboldt and Fremont. Thank poets like Wordsworth and Whitman. Thank painters like Church and Bierstadt. Thank philosophers like Goethe and Emerson. Though, these names are an almost disrespectfully incomplete list omitting arguably far more influential men.

My ultimate point though, is that if Thoreau’s beloved bogs and forests of Massachusetts could be exalted as objects of contemplation and veneration, as he articulated in On Walden Pond, why not exalt the canyons and crests and everything in between of California’s Sierras? Why not exalt the most beautiful of those Sierra canyons with those enormous waterfalls? Why not protect the Yosemite forever by law so that future generations will also be able to derive pleasure and inspiration from some of the Creator’s best artistry?

This isn’t exaggeration or gobbledygook. This is exactly how many men from those times thought. I’ve read their words and their books and I’ve loved that stuff – though not as much as I used to.

Thus, thirteen years after the first white man entered the Yosemite Valley, California Senator John Conness introduced a bill to the US Congress which, “proposes to make a grant of certain premises located in the Sierra Nevada mountains, in the state of California, that are for all public purposes worthless, but which constitute, perhaps, some of the greatest wonders of the world.” Thus, Abraham Lincoln, on June 30, 1864, signed into law the Yosemite Grant.

Thus, the concept of conservation entered Western consciousness. The intellectuals who furthered this concept built up a powerful body of thought in the 19th century that was to become a huge force for governance in the 20th century. It still is.