National parks shaped my life. Not in the abstract sense of conservation, but in the all the formative ways that matter to a kid.
We usually talk about national parks in grand, national, or global terms: our national heritage, the deepest canyons, fiercest rapids, tallest peaks, oldest trees, last refuges of rare creatures. Yes, our national parks are a globally significant feat of conservation. Ken Burns called the National Park “America’s Best Idea.” But I call them something else: My Family’s Best Idea.
City Dweller Origins
I’m writing this in Portland, Oregon, my adopted hometown of 28 years. But I grew up in the industrial and suburban maze of northeastern New Jersey, known more for shopping malls and concrete freeways than nature. Getting to the nearest natural area involved racing across a six-lane highway. My dad grew up in Brooklyn, my mom just east of JFK airport. Yet somehow I found a career in conservation, in a city I selected for the proximity of Cascade stratovolcanoes, wild rivers and a rugged coastline. That’s because of how the national park system transformed a suburban kid decades earlier.
National Parks: The Gateway Drug
I was camping and hiking long before I was old enough to remember. Stories and photos prove that my parents took my camping while I was still in a crib, and that I was horsing around in national parks before a Georgia upstart named Jimmy Carter launched a run for the White House. In moves that would make today’s helicopter parents cringe, my sister and I would often paddle our own canoe—starting when I was roughly 6 and she was 8. We paddled through storms and clambered on slippery algae-covered rocks on Acadia’s rugged shoreline. I remember us hanging out unconcerned in front of our tent while a skunk strolled casually through our campsite.
The kid from New Jersey was being transformed, though he didn’t know it at the time. Nor did I know that camping was considered strange in a place where standard summer activities usually involved soccer camp or the mall. By the time I was old enough to think about what I wanted to be and where I wanted to live, I was firmly hooked. Summers had been spent backpacking and being a marine ecology nerd on the Maine coast. College visits included detours to local mountains and waterfalls. At family gatherings we still tell stories about the characters along the way. The fellow in who lived in the north woods on a beaver pond had trained them to come up to his porch to eat: my sister and I fed them carrots out of our hands. The eels lived under rocks in tidepools on the shores of Maine and Nova Scotia, and did an early version of breakdancing when I picked up their protective rocks. The gull was an aggressive beggar at a lunch break in Acadia, and the bear was a regular campsite visitor in Algonquin.
Feed Childhood Exploration; Scenery Appreciation Comes Later
I didn’t start to care about grand landscapes until I was older. I was more interested in in ponds I could paddle, tidepools I could peer into, chipmunks I could overfeed, berries I could eat. We’d gone West to the Rockies and Yosemite, but the heart of my parks childhood were the more humble landscapes of the East. Environmental historian William Cronon thinks that something about the human-scale of humble landscapes rather than vast mountains of the West seem to play play a role in breeding conservationists: John Muir from Wisconsin, Aldo Leopold from Iowa, Edward Abbey from Pennsylvania, Olaus Murie from Minnesota.
Stephen Mather and Horace Albright, when the Park Service was starting 100 years ago—and J.B. Harkin, their Canadian counterpart—saw the opportunity for personal transformation as well as beauty and ecology. That’s why they invited people, cars, and campgrounds into the parks instead of creating a hands-off set of wildlife refuges. It’s also why they created the now-iconic figure of the park ranger, who’s job was to not just keep people safe, but to give talks, lead hikes, and help visitors fall in love with the parks. It sure worked on me.