Is anyone watching Ken Burns’ new documentary series The National Parks? I love the style, beauty and quality of his documentaries, well, except maybe not the World War II series. This one is different though. It has the majesty and emotional pull that affected us in The Civil War series. The power to fill us with pride and patriotism, and a deep feeling of ‘Americanism’. If you’re feeling a little cynical, an hour of Ken Burns will make you feel foolish and faithless. You’ll suddenly be saying to yourself, “Damn, I love this country.”
This show is stirring up my earliest dreams to join the National Park Service. My plan and my college majors were in parks & recreation and natural resource conservation, but 23 years later why am I not a park ranger? It’s a long story, but life, love and President Reagan and his trickle down economics changed the course of my dreams. Since then I’ve had to satisfy my wilderness craving by extensive travel and obsessive birdwatching.
Tonight is the final segment and I think that, in part, what makes The National Parks documentary so moving is the recurring theme of spirituality and reverence; that a love of the natural world brings out something pure and good in man, and moves many to a deeper communion with God. The national parks are truly our American cathedrals. I’ve stood in the great naves of Notre Dame and Westminster, and never felt as spiritually touched and awed as I have on the rim of the Grand Canyon or dwarfed beside the trunk of a Giant Sequoia. I have been baptized in the spray of a Yellowstone geyser, communed from mountain streams, and been in the fellowship of other worshippers along backcountry trails and remote 4 x 4 roads.
It sounds blasphemous to say, but I believe that if I were cut off from the natural world I would die. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I would pine away, depressed, sad, withering, like a plant without sunlight. But as an Orthodox Christian I know that the ultimate source of life and light is God, and I’ve come to understand the Church’s teaching on communion with God and the natural world. We believe the present natural world is a window, reflecting the beauty and goodness of God’s original Creation, and made as a place of living communion with God. The window though is clouded by the sin of man and the distortion of creation. The history of the world has moved through the age of Creation and Separation, to Incarnation and Salvation. Now is the age of Salvation, through the coming of Christ, His death and Resurrection. As Orthodox Christians we understand this in a holistic, communal way. Christ didn’t merely pay some tit for tat exchange of sins with his Blood. He didn’t balance the ledger of judgment and damnation. Instead, he sanctified and restored our humanity with His Incarnation; he defeated death by death; and He heals and restores us daily by calling us to live a sacramental life in His Church. All of this Christ accomplished not solely for Man but for the whole of Creation that was clouded and changed by sin. Trees, fish, water, birds; the very rocks and dirt we stand on – everything is to be transformed and restored as a means of communion with God.
Is it no wonder that mankind finds so much spiritual life in the beauty of nature? There is a danger, however, that such an honest love is twisted, and nature itself becomes an idol. Theologian and nature lover, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, writing in his book, For the Life of the World, observed that
Man has loved the world, but as an end in itself and not as transparent to God … The natural dependence of man upon the world was intended to be transformed constantly into communication with God in whom is all life … When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is a ‘sacrament’ of God’s presence … The world of nature, cut off from the source of life, is a dying world.
This is a hard truth for me to wrap my mind around. Can’t a tree just be a tree? An object of reverence merely for its beauty? Isn’t the mere inspiration of awe good in itself? Or maybe it’s impossible to just look at a winter flight of Snow Geese against the setting sun and not praise the God who created them?
John Muir, father of the American conservation movement, was himself the son of a brutally strict, Campbellite lay preacher. It was in Muir’s rejection of his father’s judgmental, wrathful God that he found love and his own personal salvation in the trees and mountains of the American West. His writings reflect a universalist God, who expresses doctrines of faith in the Gospel of Nature. It may not be strictly Orthodox, but I think it still has truths to teach us.
Rocks and waters, etc., are works of God and so are men. We all flow from one fountain Soul. All are expressions of one Love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all.