Glacier National Park is the place where I realized that I am not an atheist. It’s the place where I have most viscerally tapped into a sense of a greater power, of scale, time, vastness, and the humble truth of my own smallness. I spent my first trip there with a wide-open mouth, listening to this and this on repeat while driving along the Going-to-the-Sun road, because it was the only music I could find that matched the intensity of my experience. I could not believe that these dramatic, imposing walls of rock, these impossibly green mountains and all of the wildlife that they harbored – the bears, the mountain goats, the moose, the wolverine, the ptarmigan, the pika, the marmots – I could not believe that this place was real. Now I seem to be drawn back annually and it has become a tradition, and if a year could be compared to a week, it is most definitely my Sunday.
I’m still ambivalent about what it is I believe, and still feel most comfortable inhabiting the vaguely defined agnostic, but Glacier made me a believer in something. It is, most definitely, my church. I am thankful for the lessons in humility, awe, and grace, even if I spend too much of my day to day life forgetting them. Isn’t that what church is for? Community, good lessons told by way of stories, a sort of moral compass, a reminder of what’s important? Glacier gives me all of these things. At its most stripped down, I am reminded of the miracle of our animal selves: the ability of my feet, legs, core, arms, and self to traverse the back country, to move across and through a landscape, with only the power and volition of my body and my will. That is definitely miraculous.
There is a reason why so many people call wild places church. While that worship of outdoor spaces has received some criticism, I think it is the perfect word to embody all of the things that the natural world inspires in us. Some of us look at it and call it God. Some of us call it other things. Whatever it is, it’s powerful. It is the why our data-obsessed culture produces study after study confirming what some of us have intuitively discovered: wild places are necessary for us to thrive. They impact us deeply. They are necessary on so many levels: for the simple fact that animals, plants, lichens, fungus, forests, ecosystems, and biomes deserve their lives and processes to be respected. Necessary because we need it, too, though so many of us forget that, in our lives boxed in by structures, consumerism, devices, and too much work.
Among the many studies validating that instinct that nature is good for us, the Japanese practice around forest bathing is my favorite. The very idea is soothing: walk in a forest, engage all five of your senses, bathe in the verdant canopy, be calmed, renewed, invigorated. Church.
But for all of this, there are days when it feels like there are people in the world whose single goal is to willfully destroy all of this for a little myopic gain. It breaks my heart daily. Again with the facts: by and large, it seems we are doing our damnedest to destroy all of it. How do we navigate this? Small changes, day by day, and year by year, that lead to bigger changes? How do we get back to a place of reverence, humility, and awe as a culture? For starters, check out Our Wild.
Friends, if you do one thing today, listen to Terry Tempest Williams narrate her extraordinary book, The Hour of Land.
By definition, our national parks in all their particularity and peculiarity show us as much about ourselves as the landscapes they honor and protect. They can be seen as holograms of an America born of shadow and light; dimensional; full of contradictions and complexities. Our dreams, our generosities, our cruelties and crimes are absorbed into these parks like water. — TTW, The Hour of Land.