Sunday, September 27, 2009

Entr'acte: Our National Parks

As a Californian and as a teacher of History of Photography for more than a decade, I could not resist turning on PBS for Part I of the multi-part documentary by Ken Burns, and company. And, though his prose is anything but Biblical or Shakespearean, I do revere John Muir.
Yesterday, on C-SPAN, a caller deplored the entrance fees that now make visits to the National Parks prohibitive to whole families, especially those with children of just the age to be taken to them. That is not quite new, either. Though it is right to prohibit tent camping and campfires in the park, the cost of staying in approved accommodations also adds greatly to the expense. The Parks certainly are not accessible to everybody, and they never were.
I was a child of the Depression and the War years. Both parents worked, neither earning very much, and never having vacations or sufficient (coinciding) weekends to go to Yosemite. In any case, we never had a car that could be counted on to get up to Yosemite—or gasoline coupons sufficient, either. I am very grateful, however, to the California State Textbooks in Social Studies that had pictures, as well as to a few of my grandparents' stereoscope views, mostly of Sequoias, which brought them as close as . . . as close as the moon, photographed by the Palomar telescope. When I was at university a friend, R. A., who had a little English car, was driving two of us up to see Yosemite, but did not realize that England had not counted on such altitudes and had installed a vacuum assist (I think it was called) on the clutch. So we only got half way.
In elementary school, I had a children's book, called Carmen of the Golden Coast, from which I learned of Crater Lake and was possessed by a desire to see it. In later years, when I taught at the University of Oregon, given its short open season and my friends' having seen it already as children and my not getting a car and learning to drive through half of my tenure there, I never did get to Crater Lake which had been (dare I confess) the one thing in Oregon I looked forward to seeing. I did go to Timberline Lodge, a really great WPA project, on Mt. Hood shortly before leaving Oregon, though of course not to stay.
My roommate of the 1950s, M., had earned her yearly expenses for tuition, books, etc., by working at the hotel in Yosemite, and I thought that was wonderful.
The best thing I have to report is that, after his retirement, when they were in their sixties, my grandparents did go on a sort of long-delayed honeymoon (as both of them called it, in separate conversations) to Yosemite. Never mind that they were past hiking; they went. It meant a lot to them.
I am not complaining. I have seen much that summer vacationers never see, because all my adult travel itineraries have been governed by what I needed to study: needed to for research; research for tenure and promotion, which sometimes took me, walking around cities, where tour groups did not go and allowed me (museums close early) to stop for as long as I wished to look at things.
But no one should say that the U. S. National Parks are for everyone. They were for The Bobbesey Twins and their friends. They are for those who can take cars a long way, for those who could take trains (while we had them), for those who do not need to stay at the cheapest chain motel. In Europe, on the other hand, I can spend all day on the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace free of charge (respecting the gardening and avoiding littering, of course) or even, as of the one time I did so, at Versailles. I think I could wander all over the glories of Switzerland, too. Of course, it may be necessary to charge admission to maintain the American parks, since Americans are exceedingly quick to call socialist anything that is publicly funded, but it is not true that ours belong to everyone and theirs don't!
And then there's the Religion thing. First, John Muir was not a Christian, any more than Emerson was. Second, strings of rhetorical questions on the order of Only God can Make a Tree, etc., etc. are asinine and offensive. Persons who know what awe is don't talk like that. Those who know what awe is do not belittle the work of the architects of cathedrals any more than they belittle John Muir. All the way through the public schools, pious dimwit teachers drummed into us that we are small and Nature is great, harassing us brutally if we asked whether it isn't great to perceive the vastness of it all, never considering that "Nature" does not consider what the creatures capable of awe might really be. It was worse than a dentist who typically jams one's mouth full and then preaches about oral maintenance, repeating just what one has known all one's life. Third, there's the nation's worst painter, Bierstadt, who sold his work as Nature, even divine Nature, and in fact not only worked indoors and away from site but falsified the colors (those vile, lurid colors) and added gratuitous figures and copied his own pictures, serially, rather than going out to take another look. Sometimes he even used a photograph by one of his contemporaries rather than go outside at all. His painting has far less sense of light and space and natural form than any of the photographs, even the commercial stereoscope ones. Yet, sure enough, here's Mr. Burns' script, extolling Bierstadt. Besides, the documentary has this man named Cronon whose love affair with the camera and whose curious waving of his face and whose words spoil every sequence that he's in.
I have thought, I'll have a look at the book, or perhaps I'll get the DVDs and play them with the sound muted, even though I was delighted to be reminded of my favorite childhood Sunday School song:
This is my Father's world / And to my listening ears / All Nature sings and round me rings / The music of the spheres.
I hadn't heard that for more than half a century.