Looking Nature In the Face

Writing in 1807, William Wordsworth caught a glimpse of the future in the making. In one of his most celebrated sonnets, he laments that "The world is too much with us," that humanity has become "out of tune" with the vast magnificence of the natural world. He ends the same poem with a passionate cry against civilization itself:

Great God! I'd rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;


Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

These days there are increasingly few "leas" from which to have such splendid visions. Modernity threatens the ability of the citizen to leave society, to venture out and stand in awe of the world as it must have looked on the fifth day. Theodore Roosevelt '80, the father of conservation in the United States, appreciated this reality and did more than perhaps any other American to preserve for future generations their right to escape into nature.

As a founder of the Boone and Crockett Club (which he named for two of his boyhood heroes) he lobbied Congress successfully to pass the law which created the national forest reserve system in 1891, and, during his presidency (1901-1909) the number of acres in the national parks increased from 45 to 195 million. These efforts were born of his hope that others might, as he had, find peace in the wilderness.

Having just come from a visit to the Grand Canyon, I can say without much hesitation that Roosevelt would not have been pleased. Like so many other natural wonders and wildernesses, the Canyon has become thoroughly "Disneyfied." Let no one misunderstand: I am a veteran Disney fan, but I also believe there are places that don't need to be phonied up for entertainment value. To board a bus and be taken from one tourist station to another, surrounded by "Grand Canyon" hats, mugs, and fake rattle snakes, was not my idea of escaping into nature.

But I didn't really lose it until we were delivered to an IMAX theater to watch a tourist movie on the Canyon. Here we had one of the great natural wonders of the world, the story of which began billions of years ago, and all that these intrepid filmmakers could think to portray were four 19th century cowboys navigating the Canyon's rapids.

In fairness, I should mention that the film did begin its story slightly earlier: the audience was favored with a view of the Canyon's earliest human settlers. That is to say, we were shown a host of naked actors trying desperately to look primitive while running around in caves and grunting. The film ended with the James Earl Jones-style narrator proclaiming sonorously that the Grand Canyon gives us a glimpse of the immortality within each of us.

Leaving aside the obvious observation that when someone stares into the Grand Canyon, humility rather than arrogance might be an appropriate response, this film and its kitsch counterparts diminish the experience that these parks are meant to provide. Turning the Grand Canyon into a theme park ride complete with logo does its visitors no good service. The Grand Canyon need not be packaged neatly with cliches and background music so that its visitors leave with a smile. Far better that they experience the Canyon without a commercial buffer and leave with that beautiful combination of inspiration and bewilderment that comes whenever we stand face-to-face with something greater than ourselves.

I left the Canyon optimistic, however, because I was traveling with two terrific kids who looked at me after the film had ended and said, "that was cheesy." It was indeed. But they saw far more than the filmmakers chose to show them; they walked away, though only small children, with new understanding. I would not be surprised if, looking back years from now, they see something familiar in the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever."

Eric M. Nelson's column appears on alternate Saturdays.