Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Earth Day in Zion National Park

We had visitors from Sweden in town last week, and ended their visit with a trip to Zion National Park in Utah.  The weather was gorgeous, and the pink, orange, grey, and rusty hues of the canyons were rimmed by verdant mesas and framed by bright blue skies.  On Earth Day, we walked to the top of Angel’s Landing, the last stretch of which requires hanging onto a series of chains and trying not to think about the kind of splat you’d make if you put one foot wrong.
The panoramic view from Angel’s Landing looks down the valley onto a series of lower mesas across southern Utah, up to higher ground, capped by a handful of the hoodoos that become grander in Bryce Canyon, and down to where the Virgin River winds through a lush canyon.  The most famous hikes in Zion don’t deliver solitude, but there’s something joyous about seeing people from all over the country and the world, sharing hopes for a beautiful day and a successful hike, and giving voice to the wonder that Zion inspires.
Nothing, I felt sure (other than falling 1,500 feet), could spoil such views.  And then I saw a hat.  “Make America Great Again,” it read.  I had missed it at first, because it wasn’t the bright red variety, but the camouflage model.  
At this point, we had just reached Angel’s Landing itself, and the end of the trail was filled with people, breathless from the ascent and the view.  The man in the Trump hat was loudly exclaiming about the amazing view, the magnificent trail, how easy it had been to take the shuttle to the trailhead, and what an amazing park this was.
I could clearly tell nothing about what drew this man to Donald Trump.  He might have been motivated by Trump’s ethnic nationalism, militarism, anti-immigration rhetoric, or sexism.  Or he might just have wanted to take a gamble and throw a bomb (because “they” are “all the same”) to see what happened.
Perhaps it was the altitude getting to him, but it was clear that there was little critical thought going on in this man’s head as he stood atop Angel’s Landing, Trump hat on, and marvelled at the natural beauty of his physical surroundings, and the physical infrastructure that had allowed him to view them from this vantage point.  
It clearly did not occur to our Trump supporter that if his man had been president when the conservation movement was gaining steam, there would have been no national parks, and few if any public lands.  Donald Trump would have dammed the Virgin River, dynamited the Sentinel, ravaged the Narrows for mineral wealth, and built a sprawling hotel in the floor of Zion Canyon, blasting aside Angel’s Landing to make room for a parking structure and putting the Trump logo on top of whatever remained of the Watchman.  
Donald Trump and his cabinet think that collecting public revenue to invest in national parks and the infrastructure required to take people there.  Roads to small communities, a shuttle system, interpretive centers, and the trails constructed by the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps are not things Trump and his fellow plutocrats believe in.  
They do not believe that clear mountain waters and smog-free skies are the markers of a strong society, or that forests, canyons, and campsites have any value unless you can place a price tag on them.
I don’t know where our Trump supporter placed national parks in his hierarchy of needs.  But he seemed pretty thrilled atop Angel’s Landing.  I wish that he and others would think a little bit longer and harder about the implications of putting into power someone with no appreciation for or understanding of the public good, and about how public spaces like parks and campsites and museums enrich their lives.  
Just that little bit of critical thought could open the floodgates for this man and other voters to contemplate just how badly they’re being played for suckers by a man who promised them the stars, and is instead pursuing confrontation with North Korea to help his ratings, rolling back the protections for our air and water and food, offering tax cuts to the rich, and doing his best to resuscitate racial nationalism as the basis for political thought in the United States.  

Our national parks are one of the things that draw visitors to our country from around the world. They are interpreted by many of these visitors as an example of the national vitality and caring that is lacking in our social relations and civic discourse. Creating these parks required forethought and an understanding of the public good, two of many things that Donald Trump utterly lacks.  

The next time you visit a park, engage critically with your surroundings. When you breathe the fresh air, ask why it is clean. When you board the shuttle, consider what kinds of views about the public sphere ensured it was there. When you tread on the trails, ponder who built them, and who provided the will and the vision. And when you take in the vistas, consider which world views allow for their maintenance, and which call for their extirpation and the erection in their place of monuments to the bloated egos of wealthy plutocrats and their offspring.