National Parks Don't Need Your Misty-Eyed Reverence

John Muir rhapsodizing about Yosemite is one thing, but Ian Frazier has had it with people calling their favorite outdoor spots “cathedrals,” “shrines,” and “sacred spaces.” The false piety detracts from the real task at hand: seeing these places as they actually are.

Jun 7, 2016
Outside Magazine
National Parks Don't Need Your Misty-Eyed Reverence

For the metaphor to work, the MOC (magnificent outdoor cathedral) must be empty of human beings, except of course for the observer.    Photo: Nikolaus Gruenwald

National Parks Centennial

100 reasons to love the parks (and a few things we'd improve)

You are hiking in some remote, un­frequented place. Shafts of sunlight come over the ridgetop. The quiet is the quietest you have ever heard. The earth itself seems to hold its breath. You pause on the trail. You look around. You are all alone. A thought occurs to you. The place you are in reminds you of…

Stop right there! Restrain your inspiration, if you can! What you are thinking, and what you are about to whisper to yourself, and what (if you are a writer) you will want to write in an article or a book when you describe this moment, is that you feel as if you are in “a magnificent outdoor cathedral.”

It’s an understandable impulse. Thousands if not millions of people in similar circumstances have felt the same way, have had the same words on their lips, and perhaps have even typed them, later, on their computer screens. In the process, these falsely inspired have not only made themselves dumber but have made other people dumber, too, and contributed to all-around dumbness. I don’t dispute the awe they’re trying to convey and will take their word that the place they’re describing is beyond wonderful. But it is not a cathedral.

With some of the things that we say, we are only under the illusion that we are saying them. In fact, they are saying us. They are using us as the vectors by which they keep replicating themselves in the world. This they do by many means, such as familiarity, unavoidable aptness, and cliché. I’ll give you an example. One night I was watching a baseball game on TV. In the dark blue sky over the stadium a half-moon rose. The camera showed it and the announcer said, “It’s a beautiful night tonight, folks, and there’s a beautiful full moon over the stadium.” His description defied the visible fact that the moon was only a half-moon, but nobody corrected him. The familiar phrase “beautiful full moon” and its tongue-friendly interior rhymes carried all before it, including the reality of the half-moon that was actually in the sky.

“I felt I was in a magnificent outdoor cathedral”—such a proud, powerful cliché! Every time I come across it, I do a slow burn. There’s an insufferable smugness to it, a piousness, a fake counterintuitiveness, as if most of us fool­ishly think cathedrals are cathedrals, while the real, true cathedrals exist unnoticed out in nature, where the average dummy never thinks to look. Sayings related to this one are “I don’t believe in God, and I don’t believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, either!” (always sure to get a chuckle at a dinner party) and “The sane people are the ones in mental institutions, and the crazy people are free and walking around!” These insights don’t hold water, either. Believing in God does not equal believing in the Easter Bunny, and the people in insane asylums, generally speaking, are unwell, while those on the outside, with some exceptions, are sane. AND THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS A MAGNIFICENT OUTDOOR CATHEDRAL!

I admit that I have used the phrase ­myself, or it induced me to write it, in a piece I did 34 years ago. I was quoting someone I admired, and I thought he had hit on an amazing truth. I was young and suggestible. By the time the concept possessed me, it had already been around for at least a hundred years, ever since that shift in history when people stopped being afraid of the outdoors and ­began to get mushy about it. You see evidence of it in all the Cathedral Rocks and Cathedral Ridges and Cathedral Peaks and Cathedral Buttes that are out there. Long ago Teddy Roosevelt, the country’s original cathedralizer, referred to Yosemite National Park as “a great solemn cathedral.” For centuries we had been hacking away at the continent, killing animals, cutting down forests, and suddenly, when we were no longer terrified of it—behold, a cathedral! The significant upside of the cathedral concept, then not yet hardened into a cliché, was that it helped inspire the creation of our national park system. Coinciden­tally, this was also at a time when the last free Native Americans were being forced onto reservations. ­Cathedrals can’t have people living in them.

For the metaphor to work, the MOC (magnificent outdoor cathedral) must be empty of human beings, except of course for the observer. And the MOC must draw the eye upward, to the requi­site ecclesiastical sunbeams. Bugs are unwelcome, also. You never hear the people on Duck Dynasty waxing elo­­quent about the magnificent outdoor ­cathedral they live in, because they live in a swamp. In fact, the metaphor rules out most of the planet. Globigerina ooze, the calcium-rich goo left after the deaths of tiny shelled sea animals, covers vast reaches of the ocean bottom; ­nobody who ventures to the glob-ooze seafloor refers to it later as a cathedral. Steppes don’t get tagged as cathedral-like, nor do deserts, ice caps, tun­dra wastes, or lava fields, much less the Anthro­pocene-era paved landscapes in which we spend most of our time. 

The word comes from the Latin cathedra, which means “chair.” In church ­usage, a cathedra is the chair where a bishop sits; the cathedral contains that chair. The MOC metaphor refers subliminally to that origin—i.e., it makes us, the describer, feel like a bishop in holy solitude with our wilderness church enclosing and sanctifying us. We overlook the fact that real cathedrals were built to hold hundreds or thousands of people. In our MOC, a crowd of hundreds or thousands is the last thing we hope to meet up with. This combination of nature-loving high-mindedness with the exclusion of almost everybody except ourselves is what gives the MOC its special bogus appeal.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about my friend Leonard Thomas Walks Out, who died last August at the age of 73. He was an Oglala Sioux, of the tribe of Red Cloud and Crazy Horse, and he called himself Le War Lance. When I first met Le, he was living in Manhattan, in an apartment with the head of a buffalo drawn in carpenter’s pencil on the ceiling. The first time I visited, he explained that he had been lying on the floor staring at the ceiling when suddenly, from the cracks, the details of a buffalo head emerged in a kind of vision, and he then penciled the vision in. I lay on the floor myself and looked up, and for a moment the sensation was like being eye-to-eye with the White Buffalo of Lakota mythology.

Later, when I was in eastern Colorado to give a speech, a woman named Kelly took me to a cave on her friend’s ranch near the ­Arkansas River. A little way in, on the rock ceiling, was an ancient pictograph of a buffalo calf. You had to lie on your back to see it. A faint application of red paint still colored the image, which seemed to have been ­elicited from the irregularities of the surface, as on Le’s ceiling. The red calf seemed to tremble. I’ve seen the Mona Lisa face-to-face, and this image had a similar aliveness. Because of Le, I had a sense of what I was seeing—the depiction of a vision. I came to the edge of the cave and looked out at the miles of prairie along the river, and an overwhelming feeling of the place’s holiness grabbed me. Luckily, by then I knew enough to leave it at that.

Because of legal problems in New York State, Le had to move back to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He returned to Oglala, his hometown, and when I was living in Montana I often visited him there. The main thing we did together was drive—almost always in my car, because he was often drunk and had long ago lost his driver’s license, not that either of those considerations would have stopped him. The reservation landscape, which looked like empty ground to me, teemed with history, much of it blood soaked. In other parts of the country, historical markers on certain sites note their connection to important past events. Not on Pine Ridge. The spot on the Jumping Bull Ranch where two FBI agents were murdered in 1975 during a tribal civil war is unmarked and resembles any of a million other acres of western ranchland. Le’s running commentary filled in the landscape and peopled it as we passed by.

If I had said, after being shown the red calf or while standing with Le by an awe-inspiring chasm in the reservation’s badlands, “I feel as if I am in a magnificent outdoor cathedral,” I would have been a sap. Such a flight of metaphor was not mine to make and would have violated Will Rodgers’s helpful maxim “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” What applied in those cases applies outdoors in general. You have no real idea what went on in a place, what it has meant to humans before you, what it will mean after. Your own take is never definitive, nor should you think it is. Or, as another philosopher once said, “It don’t do to be too goddamn cocksure.” 

Most of the places where we live our lives have fixed meanings. They are already labeled or, worse, “branded.” Much of the trash that drifts all over the planet nowadays has brand names on it, and the MOC concept resembles that trash. It’s a sort of psychic branding. When the MOC gets into your consciousness, it’s hard to shake. The great thing about the outdoors is that it has no one meaning. If you want to think a place is an MOC, that’s your business, but it’s only polite to keep the cliché to yourself. Otherwise it will grow weedily and crowd out other ways of looking at the place. The people your MOC excludes will have no idea what you’re talking about—the young, for example. It’s already hard enough to peel kids from their screens and persuade them to do stuff outdoors, and today the national parks suffer from a scarcity of young users. If we tell them, “And don’t forget, you’re in our magnificent outdoor cathedral,” how will they react? They’ll redefine the place in their own defiant way, we’ll object and complain, and the rich soil of cross-purposes will sprout gated real estate and dull regulations.

Le asked his relatives to scatter his ashes in the Black Hills near the reservation. The U.S. government stole the Black Hills from the Sioux after gold was discovered in them in the 1870s. The tribe considered the Black Hills holy, and still does, though the chance of them ever being returned to the Sioux and receiving that status seems small. Le never referred to the Black Hills as a cathedral. On the subject of their holiness he was vague. I got the impression that he didn’t want them officially declared holy, but he didn’t want them not holy, either. This benign vagueness seems the best approach to me. 

Shakespeare is buried in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford; Le now reposes in the Black Hills. A verse possibly of Shakespeare’s own making, with the line “Curst be he that moves my bones,” carved on his gravestone, has so far kept the curious from rummaging in the remains of the language’s greatest writer. Le could curse with the cursingest, but wherever his ashes have drifted, no written curse protects them. I hope a purpose of forbearing tact nonetheless keeps development from messing with the places where they lie or, for that matter, with any of the still-undeveloped parts of the Hills. May we tread carefully everywhere, and with ­reverential doubt—“It don’t do to be too goddamn cocksure.”

As for the MOC, it will outlive every person currently on earth. Very few living creatures are as hardy as a cliché. Space travelers in ­future millennia will probably bring it with them when they find the next habitable planet. “I feel as if I am standing in a magnificent outer-space cathedral,” a pioneer will report, the sound of his voice reverberating in his helmet. Anything that exists wants to exist more, and that goes for the MOC. To be honest, I can’t guarantee I’ll never use it again myself. But if I do, I’ll forgive the lapse, because I’m only one human being, while the great, undead MOC lives on.

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