National Parks Show Our Steady March Toward 'Liberty & Justice for All'

"Happiness is the only sanction of life; where happiness fails, existence remains a mad and lamentable experiment."

I was looking for the origin of the statement, "Those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it" when I came upon this quote, also from George Santayana, the 20th century philosopher.

I've always felt that happiness is the point of life, so it's great to be validated. We Americans are fortunate to have the right to the "pursuit of happiness" enshrined in our Constitution, and nowhere is that right more accessible to us than in our National Park System where we experience it mentally, physically and emotionally.

The great philosopher Joseph Campbell established that when we are out in nature, there is no accounting for the aggregate of ways it affects us beneficially, and today doctors across the country are writing prescriptions for healthy doses of nature to address a myriad conditions.

What is our national happiness index today, I wonder?

As our public discourse becomes more rancorous and debased, I am grateful that Nature, the "product" we have been pushing for the past 20-plus years is increasingly being recognized as a key to a happier, more fulfilled life. In our national parks and wealth of public lands we have the opportunity to calm our minds, to distill essential truths about the development of our country and our shared destiny, and to see clearly our way forward.

" 'Facing a great vista - or a starry sky or a cathedral - we realize we're a small part of something much larger. Our thinking shifts from 'me' to 'we,' " I quoted from the October 7 issue of Parade Magazine's Feeling Awe May Be the Secret to Health and Happiness to the large group of conservation supporters gathered at the Openlands Luncheon in Chicago last week.


"Nowhere are we more privileged to have these experiences than in our National Park System and on our publicly owned lands," I reminded the group, approximately 900-strong, including representatives from Chicago-based Outdoor Afro, Blacks In Green and Eden Place Nature Center.

Showing an image of the Milky Way Galaxy taken in Badlands National Park, I emphasized that we occupy a tiny dot in a far corner; that, having no idea how we got here and how or when we'll get off, humanity has segmented ourselves into artificial categories and assigned "values" that have little relationship to truth.

As an example I showed a wide cross section of non-white Americans engaged in mountaineering, sailing, hiking, scuba diving and conservation advocacy from Congress to the White House. Long standing fallacies hold that Americans of color are incapable of appreciating or managing our public lands. (Green 2.0 Report)

I pointed out how those views do our country a disservice and must be discarded in favor of embracing our entire population to confront the challenges presented by - among other urgencies - climate change. I said that it's going to take all of us working together to protect our environment so that it continues to sustain human life.

Heartened by their enthusiastic response, Frank and I flew to Shutesbury in Western Massachusetts to visit friends who're also collaborators in our work. Over the weekend I heard many different people thanking Frank for shifting their perspective.

"I thought we were at the most dire stage in our country, and you remind me that we've been through worse," said both a father and his 21 year old son. "It makes me feel calmer when you remind us that it's our turn to do our part, not just whine about how depressing everything is and how stressed we feel."

Exactly! As park ranger Betty Reid Soskin pointed out at the Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference last month, "this is a participatory democracy. . . it doesn't come nicely wrapped up in a little bow. Each generation must do its part."

Frank often laughs about being around for almost one-third the time America has been an independent country. He's lived through segregation and the horrors of Bull Connor and George Wallace. He can place our current experiences in context of the aggressive strain of racial malignance that has not gone away. (Driving through the South in the 60s with his wife and sons on their way from Florida to her parents' house in Tuskegee, Alabama, he carried a pistol on the dashboard as a signal to racists that he would defend himself and his family.) Working for civil and human rights and now for the protection of our environment, he maintains the calm demeanor of someone who knows his country, warts and all, and is prepared to love and strive as those who've gone before us to achieve the goals of democracy.

It's the same message I get from our public lands, and it's not complicated: Every racial and ethnic group that has ever graced the North American continent invested their lives into building the country that we enjoy today, and only with willful ignorance can anyone demand to "take our country back."

The National Park System contains our American story, warts and all, and shows us always striving to a more inclusive country that is "one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all."From the Natives 11,000 years ago at Bandelier National Monument to George Washington's destitute multi-racial army at Valley Forge National Historical Park 1777-78; from Gettysburg where Abraham Lincoln called our country to Unity; from the Civil Rights Marchers on the Selma to Montgomery road and the LGBT uprising at Stonewall Inn, the National Park System commemorates our experiences at the places where they happened.

By that example, the only question I need to answer for any choice is,

Does it bring us together? Or does it strive to tear us apart?

In the 2016 elections, the answer is clear. Our future happiness depends upon how many of us recognize that. We may not all have the benefit of generational vision from our loved ones, but our national parks exist to steer us all forward, in the right direction. Let us so be led.