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National Parks: Celebrating a Sentinel of American Memory

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and Photos by iLCP Fellow Krista Schlyer

Bighorn sheep in the Mojave National Preserve, California.
Bighorn sheep in the Mojave National Preserve, California.

In 2001, I packed everything I owned into a station wagon and set out with two friends–one canine, one human–and a vague idea. I wanted to travel for a year and explore the National Park System and all other places wild and free that we might encounter on the way.

It has a romantic ring to it, no? Journey to the national parks! Road trip! In reality it was a move of desperation (for more on that read my new book Almost Anywhere: Road Trip Ruminations on Love, Nature, National Parks and Nonsense). During that year we visited more than 80 national parks, including the Everglades in Florida, Big Bend in Texas, Arches in Utah, Grand Teton in Wyoming, Olympic in Washington and many, many more in between. If anyone had asked me during that year on the road what I was searching for, I doubt I could have produced an answer. But 15 years later, and 100 years after the official creation of the National Park Service, I have one.

I was searching for memory.

Arches National Park
Arches National Park
Mojave National Park
Mojave National Park

Wendell Berry once wrote of birds in the urban wild, “they are the remembrance of what is.” It is a strange thing to have to remember what is, but here we are, lost in a world of our own remaking. We have restructured almost every inch of Earth to make it more comfortable for us, more productive, more safe and easy to travel over. We use terms like “the natural world” and “the environment” to refer to our planet home where we are somehow no longer at home. We have forged a landscape of forgetfulness by erasing vital clues to our origins, creating a confusing, disjointed time where the ranting words of various Donald Trumps seem to matter more than the silent way an eagle flies through morning fog.

15. Ajo lily, sand verbena and desert primrose, Mojave Desert, California. (BLM land north of Joshua Tree National Park.)
Ajo lily, sand verbena and desert primrose, Mojave Desert, California. (BLM land north of Joshua Tree National Park.)

We can survive this way as humans, cut off from the world we evolved into, walled in by comfort and technology and the distractions of modern media. But there is something missing, something essential. This forgotten thing comes back in a golden rush to anyone who has ever seen a sunrise paint the face of El Capitan; or smelled the sigh of a pale pink valley of desert primrose in full bloom; or seen the stars illuminating midnight sky above the Great Basin.

It isn’t just beauty we see in these places, and in infinite others in the National Park System–it’s memory. Memory of another time, another life, when we lived in seamless connection to the system of nature. Written on this body of Earth is the prose of universal memory. We as humans are but a word of it.

Arrowleaf balsamroot in Jackson Hole, Grand Teton National Park.
Arrowleaf balsamroot in Jackson Hole, Grand Teton National Park.

It is no coincidence that the concept of a national park system came about when it did. Europeans washed over North America in waves centuries ago. They were coming from a land where people had already wiped wildness clean off the landscape–to the point where, in some locations, the concept of the wild was utterly unknown, because there were no places left to help them remember. When people arrived in North America, the wild was everywhere, peppered with human settlements that were closer to the wild than anything Europeans had ever seen. The awe that those first arrivals must have felt would have been beyond anything we can comprehend. Aged southern longleaf pine forests stretching for hundreds of miles in all directions, rich with birdsong, wolves, bears, tortoises and a biological wonderland of flora; flocks of birds to darken the skies; herds of hundreds of thousands of bison that rolled as a dark pounding tidal wave over the far horizons of the Great Plains.

To some this unimaginable wild bounty was seen as a storehouse of resources, to be tamed, bought, sold, controlled and sent off to Europe in exchange for wealth, comfort, security. Beaver, bison, bird began to disappear, year by year, decade by decade, century by century as more and more people arrived to carve up North America, to name it and claim it for god, country, and king.

UTAR_0003_00 copy

But others saw this new landscape and encountered for the first time a remembered paradise, a place to be revered, studied, a place to understand ourselves in relation to the world around us. A place to start anew and act with wisdom. Thankfully they spoke of what they saw, they wrote, painted, photographed, and shouted for sanity, for a means to preserve some of the land before it was too late. And somehow, though so, so much was lost, they managed to build a consciousness that led to one of the world’s first systems of wild land preservation.

First the national parks were scattered units like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Casa Grande, Devil’s Tower, but eventually, in 1916 they were combined in a federal system that would protect these special places for all time, for the benefit of all. Today there are more than 400 national parks, the newest units added just this month protect wildlife and their vital travel corridors, landscapes and historic places in the California Desert.

16. Desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii ) with desert dandelion (Malacothrix Glabrata). In Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA. March 2008. This individual is fitted with a radio tracking device.
Desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii ) with desert dandelion (Malacothrix Glabrata). In Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA. March 2008. This individual is fitted with a radio tracking device.

There is much progress yet to be made in order to realize the true potential of this genius idea, but this year is an opportunity to be proud and thankful for what we have managed to do, to preserve a memory of what we are, and what we can be. 2016 is a year for journeys to these powerful places, to seek out treasure within these maps to our deepest selves and the earth we are connected to whether we remember it or not. The Parks are the sonnets of this land-memory and ultimately, as Henry David Thoreau and Wallace Stegner have expressed, they are pathways to our salvation and sanity as creatures.

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Krista Schlyer is a photographer and writer living in the Washington DC area, and a senior fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, the BBC, High Country News, and National Parks magazines. Schlyer is the author of three books and winner of the 2013 National Outdoor Book Award and the Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams Award. Schlyer’s newest book, Almost Anywhere, was released October, 2015, by Skyhorse Publishing. Learn more about her at kristaschlyer.com.

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