Thursday, October 01, 2009
National Parks: America’s Best Idea
A Newark, Ohio perspective
What’s very encouraging to someone like me, about the Ken Burns presentation on the National Park movement, is the amount of attention he’s brought to the relative uniqueness of the concept, and its “pre-history,” if you will.
We have only had national parks officially since 1916, something that most people don’t stop to think about. When I give tours of the Newark Earthworks, the peculiar preservation history of these sites only makes sense if we quickly (and no doubt imperfectly) explain that pre-“national park ideal” history.
There are two main sections of these internationally renowned Native American earthworks still visible as above ground constructions, the Great Circle between Newark and Heath, which was made the county fairgrounds in the 1850s and was home for the Ohio State Fair in 1854, and then the Octagon and Observatory Circle, less well known to the public because it’s also been the home of the Moundbuilders Country Club since 1910.
In Burns’ presentation, the first two nights made clear just how crucial John Muir was not only to Yosemite, but to the whole set of values and ideals that defines what we take for granted in the idea of national parks today – http://www.nps.gov/yose/historyculture/muir.htm
Here in Newark, we have a possible link to Muir in that it was 1890 that the local citizens, with no particular name or officeholder pushing the initiative, decided almost as a quiet groundswell of determination to put a vote on the fall ballot. They asked the entire county to vote on whether the Octagon and Observatory Circle should be saved from development by public purchase – remember, the idea of a national park is 26 years away, with only Yellowstone set aside by federal fiat in 1871.
But it was Muir, asking the state of California to take action to preserve Yosemite, who was writing in magazines and newspapers, particularly “Century Magazine,” a best-seller of that era, talking about the preservation of unique natural and cultural resources. Was Muir the inspiration of Licking County’s movement?
Whatever the cause, the vote was 74% in favor of a property tax levy countywide, well over 90% in Newark proper. The land was purchased, then used as a summer militia encampment, and then for light recreation by Newark High School after 1901 with a new sport called “golf.”
So while I may not be too happy about Ohio’s oldest continuously played golf course being on top of a 2,000 year old Native American earthwork, I do think we need to consider that for 1910, this was a creative solution to a very new problem – how to manage public preserves.
Even the history of a militia encampment fits into the larger arc of the development of the National Park ideal, as Park Ranger Shelton Johnson explains in his essay on the “Buffalo Soldiers” who were in a very real sense the first park rangers, and whose uniform is what you still see on park rangers today --
The Newark Earthworks aren’t mentioned in the Ken Burns program, but from Daniel Webster and Caleb Atwater first considering a federal act to preserve them in the early 1800s to the possible NPS connection in years ahead, as the sites are slated to go on the United Nations’ World Heritage List of significant natural and cultural sites, I hear our story echoing through all the other stories of how preserving these wonders for all to see, for generations to come, truly is “America’s Best Idea.”
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Faith Works 10-3-09
The Power of a Beckoning Finger
Across a crowded room, a single crooked finger, a shrug of a shoulder, or a raised eyebrow, can communicate all you need to know, while pretending to listen to someone speaking much but saying nothing.
These non-verbal signals are called "gestures." In an average day, we communicate perhaps as much through them as we do with spoken words, if you consider communication to be the act of sharing information effectively between persons.
In the post-modern world, a "gesture" is almost any act that symbolizes a larger meaning in a small action, often somewhat insincerely: a gesture indicates an action that you probably will never undertake in full.
A dollar into an offering plate is a "gesture" in this respect. You put a fairly insignificant amount towards the work of the church, which symbolizes that all of your assets are in the hands of God. Right? They are, except . . .
Or in terms of the environment, you keep a couple of re-useable grocery bags in the back of your oversized SUV. You want to be seen as concerned about things related to the future of resource use and consumption, but please don't think through the relative impacts too closely.
You can see where "gesture" picked up the "scare quotes." That's a pretty post-modern phenomenon, too, the practice of using quotes to "signal" a sense of irony or presumed insincerity.
Are gestures a problem? How hard should we be on partial indications of commitment, on half-hearted motions towards a full bodied engagement with real situations?
That buck in the bucket is certainly a problem if your giving never moves beyond that level. A life of gestures is like never speaking up, just winking and nodding your way through life. But a kiss blown at the window for someone driving off to work isn't insincere, just an index of love to be more fully shared when the day rounds off to an end.
Religious behavior can be gestural, and as such can be debated for relative sincerity, on each act's comparable significance. A bowed head can be a sign of humility not really felt, but of social conformity alone. When we cross ourselves, or put on a crucifix, are we really meaning to take on the sign of Christ as the pattern for our lives?
Then some suggest that work trips and short term mission projects are as gestural as a recycled sack in the cargo bay of an Escalade. They don't really change the world, and may get in the way of "real change."
Whoops, I just used the scare quotes.
The thing about gestures, for me, is that we are always needing to be more self-conscious about them, but we can't live without them. And we shouldn't. Every act of volition can't change the world, and every farewell can't be a Hollywood clinch and dip kiss goodbye.
Gestures, thoughtfully used, are a sign also of humility. Even if I give all that I have, and offer my body to be burned, and have not love, I have nothing. (Wait, that should have had quotes, not "scare quotes," right?)
Sometimes, we can only do the small thing. Doing the small thing is a crucial reminder that often the small thing is all that we can do, but we should still do it. ("Do not grow weary in well-doing.") A gesture signals that we are aware that the biggest changes come from God, and our part is almost always going to be a "gesture," nothing more – but so much more.
So a tip of the hat, a wry smile, and a cheerful shrug of the shoulders for gestures. The CROP Walk for hunger next weekend, the Coalition of Care Gospel Concert in a month, your pledge card for the church stewardship campaign. Think about what you mean when you make them, and they (with God) can change the world.
Or maybe just "change the world."
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he likes changing the world in his "spare time." Tell him about your gestures of faith at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.com.