I am writing on behalf of my children to urge you to protect our National Monuments. My son Max (9), my daughter Lulu (5), and I have had the chance to camp at, explore, and hike several National Monuments, including Chiricahua, Organ Pipe Cactus, Chimney Rock, Capulin Volcano, and White Sands.
At these places, my children have participated in the Junior Ranger program and we have learned a great deal: about mountain lions, volcanoes, cacti, loggerhead shrikes, coyote scat, erosion, pit houses, hunting, the medicinal uses of juniper, and what to do if you simply have to poop while on the trail. Max and Lulu have earned many Jr. Ranger badges, which they proudly display on their Jr. Ranger vests. What I like about the ceremony of this is how each Ranger has a different oath that the kids repeat with a raised right hand. In one case, the Ranger asked them to pledge to treat everyone kindly even if they look different. In another case, the Ranger made them promise to care for our mother earth.
There is a basic ethos to being a Junior Ranger that has three parts. First, be safe – you know, stay on the trail, drink water, wear sunscreen, look large if a mountain lion appears, etc. Second, learn about the area (for example, did you know that mountain lions don’t roar?). Yes, mountain lions (or catamounts, if you will) are our favorite.
Third, leave no trace. These are places where we quiet our souls, slow our rhythms, and listen. They are places for contemplation, which, if we are the rational animal (rather than, say, a featherless biped or a human resource), is our highest good. This is also a lesson in humility and something of a counterbalance to, shall we say, the YouTube culture where everyone is a star. No, in these places you must be marginal and indeed insofar as possible, invisible – try to be nothing at all. The PG-13 version is that you are not special, you are inconsequential, you will inhabit this ancient earth for but a wee piffle of time, and then you will be gone.
If you spend enough time working on being a Junior Ranger, you will learn that there is a fourth, unspoken, part of the ethos. It is the most important and the most difficult. We could say that in the art of leaving no trace on those ancient and wild places, they begin to leave a trace on you. You start to get carved, shaped, and honed by the stars and blistering sun and the moon shadows of saguaro. It is a fragile process and the mood can be broken easily. But it has happened to us. For example, once among the rhyolite hoodoos of Chiricahua in a dead silence we suddenly heard the awful whump-whump-whump of a raven’s wings shoving desert air downward as it lifted into the towering arms of a ponderosa. When that sort of thing happens, as Rilke said, you must change your life.
So, the ethos is four-fold: be safe, learn, leave no trace, and deepen your soul. The fourth one is unspoken and ambiguous to be sure – but also essential. After all, if the point was only to be safe, learn, and leave no trace, then it would be far better to stay at home and study on the internet. If you go, it is because you are asking those places to mold you, redeem you, build you anew. The importance of land for building character should be apparent to conservatives, at least as I once understood them. Or, in John Muir’s words, “The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers…”
The sad implication of Muir’s words is that strip-malls, highways, and parking lots are also fountains of men and women. We, alas, are not as fortunate as the National Monuments. We have not been spared the debilitating impacts of so-called ‘development.’ Yes, we are comfortable. But we have grown soft, distracted, impatient, and in a word spoiled. The best cure for this is a long hike in an area outside of cellphone range. That such places still exist is a miracle. That we are thinking about shrinking or eliminating them is dumbfounding – especially coming from the party that stands, or stood, for conservation and good-old, tough-ass, quit-your-crying grit, spit, and fortitude.
Do not let either a narrow interpretation of the law or the small mindedness of your city-slicker boss cloud your vision. You know that these are the places that make America and Americans great. Keep them large so that we can fill out the full measure of our mettle.