May 2017--These last few weeks have laid heavy on my heart.
In the first month of the newest Executive Administration the American identity has been called into question, and there are those who attempt to re-illustrate that identity to the likeness of violence and intolerance.
There are so many people in Washington posing major threats to our identity as Americans that the big picture I have held dear for so long of my identity as an American, as a Christian, as a writer, and as a human being has been on the verge of slipping through my fingers.
If being an American means rejecting the weak and the powerless out of fear, destroying land and resources in the name of economic independence, and practicing intolerance as our basic countenance to the world around us, then I can no longer identify as American.
As the American identity is called into question, so is the voice and story of her people. The presidential administration is attempting to revise our story and overpower our voice in favor of one that bellows, “Climate change is a lie!” “Economic independence trumps all else!” “Privatize all land!” “Protect the elite way of life!”
But I don’t think the identity I have claimed—one that seems the opposite of all that I just listed—is yet gone...
And I certainly won’t allow the voice of the people—of which mine is part—disappear without a fight.
I don’t think the American identity and voice are yet entirely displaced—not while there are those who continue the battle cry.
But the risk is real.
The Executive Branch of the US Government recently put a gag order on the National Park Service (NPS). The NPS was ordered to stop sharing its narratives on social media if those narratives included facts about climate change. They also put a hiring freeze on the service, which means additional peak-season rangers will likely not be put back to work in the 59 National Parks and hundreds of other NPS divisions this summer.
If you’ve read my blog, “The Call of the Wild” you know that my call to the story of the National Parks is bound up in my experience of displacement living in North Carolina while my home lay in Iowa. It was during my time in North Carolina that I found Ken Burns’ documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and my subsequent call to the story of the National Parks. That story defines the American identity as being bound up in wildness, history, and wild beauty.
By keeping nature as it once was in the 59 National Parks, we are attempting to connect to generations past, to preserve plant and animal species, to protect the natural cathedrals and the transcendent experiences we find within them, and to draw near to the very origins of creation.
The Executive Branch is attempting to snuff out that story. With a noose around the National Parks Service, the voice of the story that calls me to the parks is at risk of going silent. Park rangers in the Badlands have begun their act of dissent. They need non-government employed America citizens to step in and join in their chorus.
I am a book editor, and I am a writer. My job is to help people tell their stories—to remove their gags, whether they are self-inflicted or a result of tyranny. The Executive Branch can and has already taken NPS employees’ jobs and kept NPS employees from sharing their stories. I’m in awe of the current and former rangers who have refused the gag, but the danger to their livelihoods remains very real.
We, you and I, own these lands. As an American citizen, I have the right to hear, to write, and to share the truth. I have the right to hear, to write, and to share the stories of these lands, her owners, her history, the threats to her existence, and the narrative of the people we employ to care for them. You have that right too. The Executive Branch took that right away by gagging the National Park Service.
In The National Parks documentary, authors like Terry Tempest Williams called the National Parks “a great equalizer.” Perhaps that is what the Trump administration and the elite citizens in our country fears most about them. These lands—with their value in beauty and awe, of history and narrative—are owned by every American citizen. They are owned by the likes of President Trump and a single mother on welfare. President Trump does not own a greater share of the 59 National Parks than that woman does. We hold equal ownership over the “open spaces of democracy.”
I want to go to 6 National Parks in 14 days. I don't know when I'll be able to make the trip, but I must do what I can to protect our lands. And what I can do as a professional writer and editor is share the narratives the NPS is no longer allowed to tell of the forces that threaten the preservation of the land. That is how I will fight. That is how I will protest. That is how I will protect our rights to ownership of the public lands of the United States set aside “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
New legislation passed in the House of Representatives in the same week as the gag order and the NPS hiring freeze includes a rule that denotes the lands of the National Parks “worthless,” which would make them easy to sell off to private buyers.
However, their creation was and is based on their “economic and agricultural worthlessness.”
Their worth is in their beauty, in their history, and in their purpose. These lands are a model of collective ownership in a mostly privately-owned country. They give every one of us a claim to our country, our land, and the identity we have as Americans who own these magnificent lands.
They are valuable, but that value is not in the economic or agricultural system that the Trump administration lives entirely within. John Muir said, “Going to the Mountains is like going home.” Though President Trump may never “go home”—though he may never see, feel, and understand the importance of protecting these lands that are economically-worthless but valuable in beauty and history—those of us cut from the “Muir cloth” are obligated to inform the rest of the owners of the National Parks of the dangers and potentially grave consequences of these Executive actions.
One thing is for certain: If the President and his administration are allowed to act without resistance, these lands will not remain protected, they will not be cared for, they will not be open to American citizens, they will not exemplify the value in beauty and history: they will be privately owned. Under private hands, we will be closed off to their beauty. Those of us who do not have the funds to purchase our own personal “playgrounds”—lands we can retire to for our sanity and our wellbeing—will lose our lands of respite.
If the Executive Branch of the United States is allowed to be the sole source of “truth” about climate change and the worth of land and to dissolve public ownership of the National Parks, their stories and our identity as Americans that is bound up in them will be lost.
Unless we can continue to tell and learn the truth through the gag we will lose the parks and the stories we hold dear.
They can gag the NPS, but they can’t gag us. Ken Burns and his co-producer and writer Dayton Duncan in did their part in The National Parks. It is time I do mine.
My trip to 6 National Parks in 14 days will connect storytelling, truth telling, and my passion to do what I can as a writer to protect these lands, their history, their people, and the people we employ to care for them.
In publicizing this narrative, I will do what I can as an American to protect employees of the NPS who want to continue telling the truth but whose jobs are directly threatened by the tyrannical actions of the Executive Branch.
I will not back down. This story will be told. This truth will be told through the gag.
We (“we” being European Americans) displaced Native American tribal owners from the land in the name of Manifest Destiny. Then, the US Government displaced white settlers who had claimed private ownership over these lands in the name of preserving nature’s cathedral (and, as was the case in Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah most prominently, displacing them in the name of bringing “God, salvation, and civility” to the “godless” mountaineers).
Now, the current President and his administration—along with a wealthy few—are trying to displace all of us. They are trying to sell off our cathedrals in the name of economic progress and in the name of “national security.”
While this will be my memoir, the story of my personal experience in the parks, I also see it necessary to include narratives of the forces that would seek to destroy the land and therefore displace us in various ways:
Neglect: The hiring freeze on the NPS means the parks will not be taken care of and protected to the extent they require—to the extent they deserve to be. To respond to the hiring freeze, I want to encourage seasonal employees—particularly those who will not be hired back this year—to come to the parks so we can talk about what the parks mean to them while I learn what the parks mean to me. I will then attempt to relate those stories of personal value and identity to the historical narratives of displaced people bound up in those same lands.
Ignorance: The obvious—though highly controversial—threat to the wildlife, vegetation, and water sources is climate change. I have a connection to the national biologist’s network, and I want to talk to biologists within the park lands about the dangers they see to the natural life in these places due to climate change.
Blatant Disregard for Sanctity: Other obvious and controversial threats to these places are the proposed and already constructed oil pipelines and the threat to the sanctity of democratic, collective ownership of land. I want to learn from the park visitors, rangers, and those who are fighting to keep these lands public and revive our stories in the nation’s eye.
I will also continue to write the story of the spiritual value of the National Parks in this narrative. It is already there—often deep beneath the surface. As a student of religion specializing in spiritual memoir, my writing is always based in the spiritual.
My quest is to continue telling my fellow Americans the truth about these priceless lands we own and, in doing so, stop the forced displacement that threatens to close off the Open Spaces of Democracy from the American people forever.