There are all kinds of things people point to when they talk about the roots of our very blessed and fortunate country: our “melting pot” foundation which levarages the desire of every human being to live in safety and happiness; our constitution which is a brilliantly vague and lasting declaration and definition of freedom; our tripartite form of government (which has taken a real beating in the last few decades and may be poised to turn a new corner into something better).
I grew up in a family that was really taken by the generosity of our National Park System–my grandfather thought our parks were the best marker of our civility; my dad was wild about the western parks and every summer we headed out for a new camping adventure: Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Death Valley. In between we camped in our beautiful California parks: Joshua Tree, Big Sur, Carpinteria, el Capitan, the Redwoods parks, Los Osos, on and on.
The first National Park in the world was Yellowstone, and it was designated such in the 1870s by Ulysses S. Grant–imagine the times: we had just come out of a bloody and devestating civil war. General Grant had the expansive vision to recognize our better self, to see beauty and hold it dear.
From that point, successive presidents, governors, activists, and visionaries have worked to set aside areas for our common good, common use, as places that would raise our collective consciousness toward beauty and majesty.
Recently some friends and I stayed at the renovated lodge at Mt. Rainier. The original lodge was built in 1916–imagine that: the world is heading into war and still we’re able to see beyond our calamities to imagine a loftier future. It’s a beautiful old lodge with a lot of original features that were put in place through PWA projects in the 30’s–and imagine that: gov sponsored art allotments during a global and domestic depression.
The thing that kept striking me as we hiked the well-maintained trails and enjoyed the massive gift of this park that is maintained through our collective desire to make such a thing possible was this: we enjoy a country that was envisioned by hard working dreamers, true visionaries. Our love of beauty, our shared taxes, and our collective willingness as a country made this possible under the guidance of leaders willing to dream really really big.
When I consider this, I get sort of sick when I hear candidates focus on less taxes, less government, less and less and less of the very things that have made the country they now take for granted. Those same individuals stand on the shoulders of giants. People who put muscle into their dreams–who talked less and did more.
Here’s one: Stephen Mather. Mather was an business man, an industrialist, conservationist, and a guy who recognized that our parks were a crown jewel of the nation. He left the business world after a string of successes and focused his energies on creating the network we now know as the National Parks System. Imagine: here’s a brilliant and wildly successful entrepreneur who, in 1916, a period of great turmoil, uses his skills and talents to enrich all of us, not just himself. His goal: to make the entire park system accessible to all so that they might experience the natural beauty of our country.
That’s vision. That’s patriotism. That’s determination. We have never been at our best when we think small. We have always been at our best when we think big.
So here’s My Big Question for the candidates out there, at every level: 100 years from now, what would the plaque that memorializes YOU say? What do YOU want to put in place that will last well into the next century, that will lift enough hearts up that we want to remember YOU?