In Yosemite Valley one can walk for miles through a meadow surrounded by granite monoliths, cliffs, and forested mountain peaks. The view changes every time one turns, but remains stunning. A relatively short distance away is a hike to Yosemite Falls—one of the world’s tallest—for views of water and mist tumbling over sheer walls of granite. Somewhat farther away one can find another, higher meadow, with views of more cliffs, peaks, and a different stone monolith (El Capitan, a more variegated wall of granite than the Valley’s equally impressive Half Dome). If you can tear your eyes away from the mountain views, there is a more tranquil one available. Particularly during the summer (and in the middle of a drought) streams running through the meadows run slowly, bringing calm where the hike and the peaks have brought a quickened pulse.
Never have I been more forcefully reminded of the insight into the nature of the person and of our aesthetic sense provided by Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful than during my recent family trip to Yosemite Valley. That statement no doubt sounds hopelessly intellectual. But it comes as much from the heart as from the head, reflecting first the impact of what I saw and experienced and, secondarily, what a great philosopher’s work does to clarify the experience, its character, and its importance.
The powerful, awe-inspiring mountains of Yosemite contrast with peaceful meadows and shimmering brooks. One who hikes the upper trails can gain a view of the entire valley that evokes something close to fear, where one who contemplates the running waters can find a peace seldom available in our lives of constant motion. The first is sublime, the second beautiful. The first energizes, making clear God’s power to shape the universe and challenge us to both test ourselves against His creation and recognize our limited place within it. The second calms, helping us to see His mercy and the possibility of peace and repose in His goodness.
Isolated as it is from cities and even main roads, Yosemite National Park is no empty wilderness. Tourists by the thousands and from all parts of the world stream through its mountains and valleys. But it is no mere tourist trap. The few lodges, cabins, and even campsites often are booked up years in advance because the Park Service recognizes its duty to maintain the character of the area, even while making it possible for people to experience it. This is why Russell Kirk made fun of those whose “conservatism” means “selling off the national parks,” as if the natural drive for profit and development were always self-justifying. There are some things, and some human experiences, which need to be preserved and made accessible for the maintenance of the human soul.
The National Parks have not been immune to the various forms of ideological madness so prevalent in our culture. Signs and displays quite rightly continue to preach the virtues of respect for the natural world and the duty to conserve its beauty and its integrity, first of all by doing no harm. More recent additions also impart the pseudo-science of “climate change,” and related magazines have begun bringing a “queer” angle to our “understanding” of the national parks—as if the sexual orientation of those who work for or visit the parks has any relevance to their mission. But nature itself remains, and overshadows all. Nature, here, is not in a purely pristine state, for that would mean keeping people away instead of striking a balance between accessibility and sustainability. Rather, the National Parks, to the credit of their champion, Theodore Roosevelt and the many thousands who have institutionalized his ideas, have made possible the enrichment of all our lives, and the lives of our children and grandchildren, one hopes for many generations to come.
One may, of course, experience the sublime and the beautiful indirectly, through great art. But it is good to see the natural models of that beauty, the better to judge the man-made versions in their attempts to capture a glimpse of permanence. And why do we need this good? Experiencing the beautiful and the sublime will not necessarily make one a better person. But it gives one the opportunity to consider one’s place in creation and one’s duty to try to become a better person, one who acts more in keeping with the normative standards we all can perceive in God’s creation, if we but set aside our own whims and try. In today’s world, in which instant gratification of our most base desires is considered our right and, almost, our duty, it may seem odd to refer to the need for ennobling experiences, but this is precisely what places like Yosemite can provide, and precisely what we need.
Contemplation of the divine being remains the highest form of intellectual as well as spiritual activity. The virtues necessary for a good life (faith, hope and love) rest on acceptance of the natural order and, in the end, of the goodness of that order and its creator. Few of us being theologians or philosophers, and even fewer of us being good theologians or philosophers, the assistance of liturgy and art is critical in this endeavor. Also critical, and too uncommon in our increasingly urban lives, is direct contact with the wonders of the natural world in all its glory. Such contact presents us with the opportunity to rethink ourselves, our place in the order of being, and the duties incumbent upon us, given our place and the demands of that order. Of course, one may choose to reject the intimations of the divine in such experience, or settle for a kind of neo-pagan worship of nature itself. But one who integrates the experience with deeper knowledge and tradition may see in a mountain an expression of God’s power, in falling water the sacrifice of God’s Son, in a shimmering brook the promise of salvation, and in all of these a call to worship and service.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.