New! Download the MP3 podcast here
This talk was given on September 10, 2011 at a small community gathering in Alameda, CA.
Full text of the talk:
My name is Christopher Grant Ward, I operate Folk4Parks.org, a non-profit advocacy focused on supporting parks and preserved spaces across California and around the world.
Tonight is a discussion of natural spaces in America, most especially in California. And if you’ve ever taken a long road trip across California, if you’ve ever visited a National Park in the State of California, or a California State Park, then you already know in your heart most of what I am going to talk about tonight.
Still, it goes without saying that a eight hour drive from where we are tonight in Alameda, CA, you can see the world’s tallest trees, its oldest trees, some of the highest mountains and lowest depths in the US, the state’s largest lakes, and oldest lakes, expansive deserts and over 800 miles of coastline. The fact that our state has set aside 24 national parks and more than 270 state parks is impressive, but not surprising considering where we live. Or is it?
Parks Are More Than Preserved Spaces.
I mean, what is a park? A preserved open space? Where did the idea for parks even come from? Well, certainly protecting and preserving open space is not an new or American idea. Persia, Israel, England, Ireland had been doing this for centuries. Private land owners would have lands set aside to prevent them from being developed, modernized. They did this at great cost, especially opportunity cost of what could be earned on the land in other ways. They did this for the value of preserving the land. However, they were also the only people who got to enjoy these places.
Around the time of the end of Civil War, about 175 years ago, the earliest “park” advocates in America began to realize that natural places preserved in this manner would only ever be accessible by royalty, the upper class and the super wealthy who owned this land. The truly American idea, indeed the Californian idea, is that natural spaces would be set aside not only for their own protection, but for the enjoyment of the general public. It’s important to remember that John Muir and Frederick Olmstead didn’t fight just to keep Yosemite safe from big industry or land development, but to encourage the country to build an infrastructure that would allow public access to one of the most beautiful places in the world. In 1865 Frederick Olmstead wrote Congress stating,
“Thus without means taken by the government…all places favorable in scenery to the recreation of the mind and body will be closed against the great body of the people. The establishment by government of great public grounds…is thus a justified and enforced political duty. Such a provision, however…has never been made before and the reason it has not is not evident.”
This kind of thinking had never been done before, at least on a national scale. Preservation and public access are what define parks in the American way that we need to understand them. The California State Parks system was set up not just to preserve land, but to enable the public to experience these places. And this all happened here in California. So, I don’t think it’s going too far to say that parks are most certainly our legacy. The fact that past generations set aside these lands expressly for us to experience and enjoy. This makes these places ours, and our responsibility. This year, 70 of our CA parks are to be closed. After fighting, to raise awareness of park underfunding for the last several years, I’ve tried not to take it for granted driving around this state, visiting parks that we have so many natural places to visit, for such little cost, especially when they give us back so much.
Captivated, Without Purpose.
Let’s talk a little about that. And what is it exactly that parks give us? I’ve heard the value of parks described as an escape, a release, a reconnection with nature. John Muir described this as, “Saving the American soul from total surrender to materialism.” You know, I’ve thought about this a lot, living a modern life full of web design, travel, office politics and something called social media strategy. I live most of my life outside of the present moment. I focus on plans and goals. We all worry to some degree about what people will think when we do one thing or another. If you’re like me, then your daily actions are not always the things you most desire to do, but we do them because they work to move us toward those goals. And that’s OK, that’s not a bad thing. But when we work with purpose, what’s important in our lives is rarely situated in the present moment.
When I stand in the face of a natural scene in Del Norte Redwoods, Mt. Diablo or Yosemite, I am utterly enthralled, captivated. But I am captivated without intent or purpose. I have no goals but to experience the now. The natural world has no judgment of my actions. This break from purpose is what gives us rest. True rest. This break from purpose gives us reprieve from past mistakes and a pause from worry about what is to come. And we can do this with others. Standing amidst nature with your loved ones, with perfect strangers, we also can share and celebrate with each other the absence of purpose.
Tonight’s theme is Conversations with Nature. I’ve thought about what that means to me. I think, realistically, to have a conversation with nature, is to have a conversation with our own nature. We require this exchange, this transaction, between nature and ourselves, that really comes down to us preserving wild places so that we can relearn the wild places within ourselves.
Remember that John Muir quote. “Saving the American soul from total surrender to materialism.” We long for a way to be captivated, without purpose. The greatest irony is that we need a way to escape to the present, from a future that hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps at some point in history it was the other way around.
Parks Were Created For The Public,
Now They Need The Public.
I want to end tonight with this thought. Parks were created for the public. Now they need the public.
By Labor Day 2012, 70 California State Parks will be closed in the name of deficit reduction and broader fiscal responsibility. But closing 25% of our parks to reclaim one-tenth of 1% percent of a $26bn deficit doesn’t make financial sense, especially considering that parks generate $4bn in tourism revenues annually. And while it’s important to not forget about our state’s current economic problems, also remember that Yosemite was founded in the first months of rubble following the Civil War, and that the majority of California State Parks system was created during the Great Depression.
How will California espouse preservation to the next generation, as they watch us underfund the oldest, most extensive and diverse visions of state preservation in the world? How do we learn the importance of conservation when we can no longer visit places that help us understand what must be conserved?
California needs everyone to get involved. There is no time where times were so tough that people could not act to make a difference for parks, or where they should be considered ancillary to more fundamental things. 175 years ago, parks were established as preserved places with public access. Today, parks also need public support. These are your parks. If these ideas matter to you, if this resonates with you, show your support and get involved.