Andrew Fiala

A radical proposal: that the political class spend time in America’s wild places

This year, the waterfalls of Yosemite are a special treat

A historic 2017 rainfall year made that spring's waterfall display one for the ages.
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A historic 2017 rainfall year made that spring's waterfall display one for the ages.

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke recently visited Yosemite, where he revealed his plan to fight climate change. He described his visit as a “religious experience.” Yosemite provides political as well as spiritual inspiration.

If you lack energy, sit beside a waterfall. If you are lonely, listen to the birds. And if you need a fresh perspective, climb a granite peak.

Spiritual naturalism has its priests and prophets. John Muir is the most famous. But Muir was not a retiring mystic, content to live quietly in accord with nature. Yosemite inspired his activism in defense of nature’s sacred places. He helped found the Sierra Club in 1892.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, right, walks with environmental advocate Leslie Martinez, center, and Anne Kelly, Director of the Sierra Nevada Research Stations Monday, April 29, 2019, in Yosemite National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) Marcio Jose Sanchez AP

If Muir is the father of American environmentalism, its grandfather is Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson met Muir in Yosemite in May of 1871. Emerson refused Muir’s invitation to camp out in a sequoia grove. But he was moved nonetheless. Emerson explained that in Yosemite, the grandeur of nature is laid bare as the mountains “strip themselves like athletes for exhibition.” In a letter to Muir, Emerson called Yosemite a “mountain tabernacle.”

Muir also used religious language in his accounts of natural wonders. He described the forests of the Sierra as “God’s first temples.” A similar phrase was used by President Theodore Roosevelt, who visited Yosemite in May of 1903. Unlike Emerson, Roosevelt went camping with Muir. Roosevelt said that camping under the giant sequoia was “lying in a temple built by no hand of man, a temple grander than any human architect could build.” Roosevelt actively worked to protect and preserve natural lands. He said, “A grove of giant redwood or sequoias should be kept just as we keep a great and beautiful cathedral.”

Roosevelt’s spiritual connection to the land inspired his enthusiasm for conservation. We need leaders who understand environmental science and ecology. But we also need politicians whose spirits are aroused by the wonders of nature.

Upper and lower Yosemite Falls flow into Yosemite Valley at near peak levels on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. The Sierra Nevada snowmelt is in high gear after a bigger than normal snow year. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

The power of nature puts human ambition and ideology to shame. Intolerance makes no sense when you watch a river flow. War appears absurd when you witness the sun set across the breakers. In the deserts and mountains, the mind is liberated. The starry heavens reveal a larger whole. The ego shrinks. And the pettiness of partisan politics fades away. Mountain tabernacles dwarf us. Athletic cliffs and roaring rivers will outlast our mortal concerns.

But not everything natural will remain unchanged. The glaciers of the Sierra Nevada are rapidly shrinking as we heat up our planet. California’s glaciers have shrunk by 70% during the past century. Drought and wildfire have destroyed nearly 150 million trees in the Sierra forests. The mighty sequoia may eventually succumb.

When Notre Dame cathedral burst into flames, the human spirit was outraged. The world rallied to rebuild. A billion dollars has been pledged. That iconic cathedral is a symbol of artistic prowess and spiritual aspiration. We feel compelled to preserve it.

Andrew Fiala Fresno Bee file

A similar passion is required to preserve the cathedrals of the natural world. In order to confront our environmental challenges, the spiritual dimension is essential. We need more people and more politicians to experience the wonder of nature.

So here is a radical suggestion. Members of the political class should spend time in the wild places. Our leaders need to be baptized in icy streams and pounding surf. Our politicians dutifully attend religious services and military rituals. But they should also be exposed to America’s natural wonders. They need the kind of attitude adjustment that only happens on the trail, in the woods, or on a mountain top.

They must visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon. And not merely for a quick photo-op. They need to sleep under the stars, float down a river, hike to a retreating glacier, and hear the birdsong that is the harbinger of dawn.

Emerson said, “nature is loved by what is best in us.” The wisdom of those who love forests, rivers, and wildflowers is missing in the overcivilized and attenuated souls of those who run things. They prefer golf courses over meadows. Their eyes are focused inward instead of upward. And they forget that we are merely visitors on this planet who ought to leave the Earth in better shape than we found it.