In watching Ken Burns’ The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, I was moved on a number of levels: the sheer aesthetic beauty, the weaving together of personal narrative and historical context, the courage of men and women who stood against public opinion, acting out of conscience on behalf of the land, the tension between the inherent value of nature itself and the access of all people living in a democracy to its gifts.
As a Christian, I was also reminded of the deep traditions that ground our faith: the goodness of creation; the promise of the land to a people, with the caveat that they obey the Creator; the provision of manna in the wilderness and the polemic against hoarding and waste; the wisdom in our attentiveness to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.
I watched the series on our national parks and reflected on the recently published work of Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture (Cambridge University Press). She speaks of reading the Bible in conversation with the Agrarian writers, and in particular with Wendell Berry. Davis reflects on four key aspects of agrarian thought: that we should meet the expectations of the land; that we practice humility and “fear of the Lord”; that we favor the material over the abstract; and that we remember that land is not a commodity---land is life.
John Muir, whose vision animated so much of the National Parks movement, noted that “without wilderness we risk losing our souls”. Watching the art of Ken Burns and reflecting on the scholarship of Ellen Davis has reminded me of my own need for wilderness, and the corresponding importance of connecting with the One who created the heavens and the earth.