The hard and resolute granite peaks of the Teton Range that rise dramatically above Wyoming’s Jackson Valley are not as unchanging as they appear. In fact, the mountains are still growing – although at the rate of about a millimeter a year, it’s hard to notice. And while much of their metamorphic rock, formed 2.7 billion years ago, is among the oldest in North America, the Tetons themselves are among the youngest mountain ranges not yet 10 million years old, mere toddlers compared to the 300-million-year-old Appalachians in the East.
At a time when even the idea of a unified – and unifying – national identity seems to be disintegrating in front of us, when the old myths that held us together, however imperfectly, for over two centuries don’t work any more, when our political leaders seem bent on tearing us apart, we must look for common ground – and one of the defining narratives of this country has been the land itself: “America the Beautiful” in the words of Katharine Lee Bates; and while her lyrics may seem naïve, even sappy, in these times, they still resonate with people. In an America that is now more than 80% urban, the call of the wilderness persists, drawing over 300 million people annually to our national parks.
And although the history books of my youth depicted an empty continent just waiting to be settled, to be made productive, to be improved, the land was not empty. Population estimates before European settlement range from seven to 18 million people in North America alone, and from 50 to more than 100 million in the entire hemisphere; and many of the Europeans’ improvements (clearing forests, damming rivers, extracting minerals) destroyed the landscape even as they produced immense material wealth.
For the landscape to provide a unifying myth it must incorporate all of the American experience, not just the history of European settlement, just as bringing together the American people requires embracing our diversity, instead of rejecting it. Europeans began exploring the area about 200 years ago, notes the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, but native people first came over 11,000 years ago, “valuing this ecosystem for its natural resources and as a site of spiritual importance.”
The national parks, and the 84 million acres they contain, are more than a luxury for rock climbers and tree huggers. They are our common ground and our national heritage, a reminder of the vast and fragile beauty of the American landscape that belongs to all of us.
Sometimes, Aldo Leopold reminds us, we must learn to “think like a mountain.”