Peace has been hard to come by, of late.
When J and I began making plans to spend a year in the national parks, it was in part because we needed a respite from the work we had been doing in Asia. Our partners were justice-minded lawyers, non-profits, and academics who have been under incredible, intensifying pressure, as countries around the world have begun to reject the international human rights framework or, at least, any role for foreign governments, non-profits, and other do-gooders in it.
We needed to get out of the haze in Beijing, literally, and reassess the way we had been doing our work, and perhaps living our lives.
The need for reflection wasn’t simply that our work was getting harder (it was), but it was more the creeping feeling that our presence in places like China was actually making life worse for our friends and partners who worked for the rights of women, children, or the disabled, among others. When visiting an old friend (or making new ones) means that they will be immediately visited by state security police and questioned about their loyalty to the state, you stop making house calls. The stress and strain that authoritarian regimes place on human relations is the subject of another blog, but it was real for us, and was a big part of why we were coming home. We were going to find peace in the parks, and use the quiet inspiration of some of America’s most beautiful places as a backdrop for a reflection on ways we might continue our work in more constructive ways.
This is a time-honored peace. Like people all over the world and throughout time, Americans have sought restoration of the soul in nature. This is the peace that Thoreau and Emerson found pre-Civil War. A peace that John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and godfather of the national parks, once wrote about:
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
But then we got home to the US, and we found that stress and strain on human relations is not exclusive to authoritarian regimes. It was as if we (and everyone we knew) had been following the anti-Muir advice:
“Logon to Facebook and Twitter and get their bad tidings. Partisan discord will flow into you as vitriol flows from the mouths of pundits. Foul political winds will waft their rancor (rank air?) into you and drain your energy, while cares mount like bacteria on a fallen redwood.”
So “peace in the parks” was personal. We were going to follow Muir’s advice, get out of China, stop reading the news, get off Facebook, and seek to clear our lungs and minds at the same time. And even after two short months of doing it, I know that this self-prescribed remedy will work. You don’t need Thoreau or Muir to know that. There’s almost no way one could immerse oneself in some of the most beautiful places in the world and not feel relaxed, restored, at peace.
And yet, a full year off may seem extreme, decadent even. More than that, it may appear selfish, especially to friends of ours (in China & Cambodia, in Brooklyn & Wisconsin) who feel like things have never been worse, and who might feel that now is the time to fight for x cause, because x cause has never been more vulnerable than right now. It hurt when my colleagues in China told me they felt abandoned, that I was leaving at exactly the moment when the marginalized there needed me. It has hurt to hear stories of American friends and families torn apart by the recent election, by the loss of faith in our institutions, our media, our churches. It’s hurt to see that strain impact even my own family–to feel torn at every turn, even in places I used to seek solace.
The truth is, I don’t know for what or whom to advocate at this time. I happen to know and respect many good people who hold decidedly different political views from one another, and yet, I find that I can empathize with many of them. I personally feel that we’re at an epoch shift both domestically and internationally, and the traditional methods of politics and advocacy aren’t going to work. We need some new ideas.
That’s why there’s another aspect to “finding peace in the parks.” A move that’s a higher degree of difficulty, so to speak: I’m hoping my friends, family and perhaps even anonymous concerned readers can experience that peace that comes through the parks with us and “suck the marrow…”–as Thoreau said–not just “out of life” or the parks but out of our democracy and institutions. To figure out what “is essential” to preserving us as a people, at a point when personal and demographic rifts are uprooting families and communities.
At a time when it’s nearly impossible to find common ground between the divided camps on our political battlefields, something that nearly all Americans can agree upon is the necessity and beauty of our national parks. We don’t just love nature, as all people and all cultures have throughout time, we’ve reserved the most beautiful places in our country for all of us, rich and poor, young and old, fake news and real news readers alike. I believe there’s a fragile, but significant truth in there somewhere, but I can’t yet explain it.
Over the course of the year, I’d like to dwell on issues that unite us (like a near-universal love of our national parks), and what it might mean for turning around the dialog in our country. I’d love to strike up a conversation with you about that here in the comments sections, and dream together ways we can build similar types of consensus on other aspects of our democratic institutions. The parks are a great place to start, but hopefully there’s more to salvage there than a few old trees and big holes in the ground.