This month’s commencement season is a reminder that most graduation speeches are forgotten almost as soon as they’re delivered. One exception is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1838 address to graduating seniors at Harvard’s Divinity School, a speech so controversial that Harvard leaders didn’t invite the Sage of Concord back for another 30 years.
Emerson got into hot water for questioning religious orthodoxy, but his Harvard speech is also noteworthy for its celebration of nature as a special source of American identity. His views are worth revisiting today as the federal budget sequester threatens national parks, wellsprings of our civic health.
Emerson came of age at a time when America was still largely a frontier, its streets devoid of the great cathedrals, libraries, and museums that informed the cultural life of the Old World. But Emerson frequently pointed to America’s natural landscape as an equally promising resource for the mind and spirit.
Like his friend and fellow New Englander, Henry David Thoreau, Emerson believed that connecting with nature could be not only a pleasant pastime, but a path to clearer thinking and a healthier soul. In opening his speech to Harvard’s seniors in 1838, Emerson spoke with joy of a country where “the mystery of nature never was displayed more happily.” He thought that connecting with rivers and mountains and the open sky could help improve us mentally, morally, and spiritually.
That’s not a uniquely American idea, of course, but Emerson helped to place it at the center of our national creed. It’s why figures as varied as John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt embraced the cause of national conservation – and why Roosevelt did so much to advance the growth of a system of national parks across the country.
All of this came to mind a few weeks ago as I stayed overnight in Rocky Springs, a Mississippi campground operated by the National Park Service along the Natchez Trace Parkway – a scene 444-mile drive through Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. Visiting with some Canadian campers who had traveled from Quebec to experience the Trace’s fabled history and beauty, I was reminded that these vistas, as much as any flag or document, help express who Americans are as a people.
That reality underscores what’s at stake in ongoing federal budget battles that threaten to compromise care of National Park Service properties.
As Theresa Pierno of the National Parks Conservation Association recently noted: “The sequester has already cut more than $130 million from the National Park Service budget, forcing places like Yellowstone, Acadia and the Cape Cod National Seashore to delay seasonal openings, close visitor centers, picnic areas and campgrounds, along with eliminating ranger positions” that help protect endangered species.
Such budget policies don’t value the natural bequeath that Ralph Waldo Emerson regarded as so central to our democratic experiment.
Economic necessity sometimes requires citizens to make difficult decisions about federal budget priorities, and in such a climate of austerity, even good programs might have to make do with less. But the sequester, which has placed fiscal stewardship on autopilot, doesn’t seem like the best vehicle for debating what national missions most urgently require our attention.
Such a discussion – when and if it happens – should acknowledge that America’s wild places aren’t just a decoration, but the core of our national character.
“Nature,” Emerson told his fellow Americans more than century and a half ago, “is loved by what is best in us.” His words remain a call to action as urgent as any commencement speech we’re likely to hear this year, or any other.
Danny Heitman, an author and a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is an adjunct professor at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.