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How Much Closer Do We Really Get Back to Nature with Pilgrimages to National Parks?

By Alan Levinovitz

Yellowstone National Park. Photo credit: David Mark
Yellowstone National Park. Photo credit: David Mark

The National Park Service blows out 106 birthday candles today! Without them, we wouldn’t have the majesty of Yellowstone and the like. We retreat to these enclaves of preserved wilderness to reconnect with nature, but are we aware of how much worship is tied up in our notions of nature’s goodness? Is it possible for us, souped up as we are with modern comforts like technology, to truly bond with nature at its rawest level? Alan Levinovitz has some thoughts on the matter, which he expounds on in this excerpt from Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science.


As long as national parks have existed, people conceived of them in religious terms. In his book Discovery of the Yosemite, the nineteenth-century explorer Lafayette Bunnell described the valley as hallowed ground. Yosemite wasn’t just beautiful, it was holy, “the very innermost sanctuary of all that is Divine in material creation,” a place where visitors could “commune with Nature’s God.” When his companions failed to behave respectfully, Bunnell reacted as one would in church. “It may appear sentimental,” he wrote, “but the coarse jokes of the careless, and the indifference of the practical, sensibly jarred my more devout feelings . . . as if a sacred subject had been ruthlessly profaned, or the visible power of Deity disregarded.” (Despite revering the valley, Bunnell had no problems profaning the Native Americans whose presence long predated his “discovery,” calling them “naturally vain, cruel, and arrogant.”)

Today people pay over 350 million visits to US national parks each year, visits that might be better characterized as pilgrimages. The pilgrimage is an archetypal religious ritual in which individuals seek spiritual significance and renewal through travel to a holy place. This experience is precisely what national parks have always promised, as Lynn Ross-Bryant meticulously documents in her book Pilgrimage to the National Parks. We go to “get away from it all,” to be awed and humbled, surrounded by grand systems in which we had no hand. Hikes lead to overlooks dubbed “Inspiration Point” in Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone, recalling the original meaning of inspiration: to be filled by divine breath with life and spirit. “Better men and women will result from their visits to the great open breathing spaces,” declared the director of the National Park Service in 1921.

Pilgrimages are constituted by smaller rituals: prayers, sacrifices, ablutions. In a sacred place, pilgrims can communicate directly with divinity. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate devotion through giving up time and resources. Cleansed of earthly concerns, you reconnect with what matters. In Yellowstone, devoted wolf-watchers wake up before the sun like monks to point pricey scopes at an active hillside den. Later, tourists rise and submit themselves to the rhythm of Old Faithful’s eruptions or hike a mile to give thanks for the kaleidoscopic colors of Grand Prismatic Spring.

These various rituals are infused with shared meaning by their context. They take place in a massive natural cathedral, larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, set aside and protected by people who are dedicated to preserving nature in its most pristine form; nature’s clergy, so to speak. They are devoted to the earliest scientific mission of Yellowstone, the world’s first official national park: “Preserving natural conditions.”

The appeal of pure natural conditions—genuine wilderness—has its roots in being the antithesis of the artificial environments where we spend virtually every minute of our existence. “It’s something real in this contrived and digital age,” argues Doug Smith, a longtime wildlife biologist and the leader of Yellowstone’s Wolf Restoration Project. “Life and death. Real nature with no bars in between. Most of us don’t get this in our daily lives, so it can be a thirst slaked only by the real thing. There are not many places other than Yellowstone to go for this.” Zoos, even the best ones, are simulations. For people like Smith, our “contrived and digital age” is also a simulation, a zoo into which we have placed ourselves. (And who among us hasn’t felt this way, at least a little?) But not Yellowstone. Yellowstone is nature, shaped by forces from beyond and before humanity. It is wild, and therefore it is real.

To fully experience the wildness of Yellowstone I decided to camp solo in the backcountry. Vehicles out of earshot; buildings and roads out of sight; animals my only companions. Wasn’t that Yellowstone in its purest form? I’d read numerous essays about “the pricelessness of untampered nature,” as the ecologist Paul Errington puts it, and I wanted to evaluate it for myself. Everyone I spoke with approved. Two of my guides, the naturalist Ashea Mills and her husband, ecologist Michael Tercek, told me stories about their own life-changing backcountry experiences. Rangers praised me. “Only one to two percent of visitors even get off the road,” one said scornfully, as he helped me find an April hike that would be tolerably free from snow. “You’re doing it the right way.” When I sat down to talk with Doug Smith, he advised me to take at least a couple breaks from yelling “Hey, Bear!” standard practice for avoiding dangerous encounters when you’re hiking alone. What was the point of wildness, he mused, if we are constantly contaminating it with the sound of our own voices?

I knew I wanted to immerse myself in untampered nature, but as I planned the trip I struggled with translating that abstract ideal into practice. It wasn’t just my voice that could contaminate nature. There were the propane stove for boiling water, the instant oatmeal and freeze-dried beef stroganoff (slogan: “Savor the adventure!™”), my tent that traded the night sky for nylon, my book about the park and my lantern for reading it before falling asleep. I was an impure pilgrim, clinging to unholiness because I couldn’t live without it. Even if I went silent, my very existence would keep shouting “Hey Bear!”

Part of me dismissed these feelings as puritanical nonsense. You can’t spoil the natural world with a lantern and a book. Not even the most dedicated nature lovers would think to suggest a Yellowstone backcountry trip in April without a can of bear spray and a subzero sleeping bag. There will always be distance between humans and the rest of nature, and that’s just fine. Striving to fully close the gap can lead to a situation like that of Timothy Treadwell, the bear lover and activist immortalized in the Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man. After Treadwell was devoured by grizzlies in Alaska’s Katmai National Park, his partially eaten head, spine, and right arm—watch still ticking on his wrist—were recovered by rangers, a warning to anyone who might be tempted to leave the bear spray at home, as Treadwell did out of respect for his animal companions.

And yet, before his death, Treadwell had managed to cultivate unmediated relationships with multiple bears for over a decade. Was his connection to nature purer than that of the park rangers who insisted on carrying bear spray and installing electric fences around campsites? At a certain point, the security we’ve come to demand must depend on artificiality and alienation, aerosols and electricity, a distance from natural systems that blessed and tragic. We “unplug” and “disconnect,” but not completely. We can’t; it isn’t in our nature. Even Treadwell slept in a tent.

H. G. Wells captured the paradox beautifully: “Man is the unnatural animal, the rebel child of nature, and more and more does he turn himself against the harsh and fitful hand that reared him.” Unnatural animals. How then do we act naturally? What are the right rituals?


My own ritual visit to Yellowstone removed any lingering suspicions that the idea of nature is a “social construct.” Naturalness is a continuum, and it can be very difficult to decide where something exists on that continuum. It may be the case that human influence has spread so far that nothing is purely natural anymore. But there is no denying that certain spaces and systems are less touched and less ordered by humans than others. Walking alone through the grass, immersed in one of those nearly untouched systems, I was fully convinced that nature has intrinsic value and deserves protection, just like a historical monument or a classic piece of art. Resources spent on saving the bison, on bringing back the wolves, on carving out cathedrals for nature—these are wise decisions that make the world a better place.

Yet as I gathered my waste and placed it in the nylon bear bag for the last time, I also felt certain that, paradoxically, my ritual visit was undiminished by its unnaturalness. You don’t need to be a “grizzly man” to understand and care for grizzlies. You can take the approach of a scientist and tag them, collar them with radios, study them from airplanes, crunch data about their eating habits on a computer. You can observe them through a scope, or from an automobile. You can connect with elk by photographing them; you can integrate yourself into an ecosystem by shooting them. To honor nature there’s no need to remake ourselves in its image, an impossibility for un[1]natural animals like ourselves. Instead, we can do what wolf-watchers do after a glorious morning; what Native American hunters do after success[1]fully felling a buffalo; what my guides do every day as they look up at ancient mountains and down at new-formed soil. I learned another ritual from these diverse lovers of nature, an alternative to being natural.

It is giving thanks.


About the Author 

Alan Levinovitz is associate professor of religious studies at James Madison University. In addition to academic journals, his writing has appeared in Wired, the Washington Post, the AtlanticAeonVoxSlate, and elsewhere. He is the author of Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science. Connect with him on Twitter at @AlanLevinovitz.