Glenn's photo on trail in Hawaii - NPR Special Blog

NPR’s All Things Considered – Like the Air We Breathe

Volcanos National Park - photo by Glenn McClure
Volcanos National Park – photo by Glenn McClure

National Parks are like the air we breathe. I usually don’t think much about the air. It’s invisible, but it’s always there. I take it for granted while I go about my day. However, I get highly focused when suddenly I can’t breathe. Unless the National Parks are part of our vacation plans, they are invisible to most of us. We take them for granted. We don’t see their importance until they’re taken away. Glenn is mentioned in the article here.

I woke up this morning to an interview by NPR’s Elizabeth Blair for an upcoming episode of “All Things Considered.” Yesterday, to my surprise, my work here in Hawaii was injected into the national media bloodstream when a local news outlet announced that, due to the government shutdown, my upcoming concert was canceled. I explained to Elizabeth that the shutdown has blocked access to Hawaii Volcanos National Park so I haven’t been able to spend much time there for my research and creative work. Instead, I have been scouring the rest of the Big Island for volcanos, lava tubes, etc. There are plenty of beautiful places to see. I have met some great people, both locals and transplants, who care deeply for this place. But with no end to the shutdown in sight, I am beginning plans for a return trip to continue the work and renew these friendships. With the help of the National Parks Arts Foundation and the freedom to build the project as I see fit, my work goes on.

We are rightly proud of our country that protects our rights to self-determination. However, while we enjoy the freedom to chart our own course, the stresses of work, money, etc. associated with that freedom often draw us back to natural spaces. We often spend our limited vacation time fleeing the problems of civilization to go back to the wilderness. The smell of a waterfall, the immensity of a mountain, the depth of a canyon, or the unimaginable power of a volcano begs us to set aside our individual agendas. For just a moment, we gather together around the beauty and wonder that is bigger than any of us.

As early as 1872, Congress established Yellowstone National Park, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” At the turn of the 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt realized that human self-interest and ambition could both build a great nation and destroy its natural spaces in the process. Franklin Roosevelt transformed many more sites around the country into the National Park Service in 1933. These beautiful places exist today because we, as a country, decided that their value to our national consciousness exceeded their value for individual profit. Laws passed by generations of American leaders have put in place resources to protect the land, water, and air. The current shutdown has removed some of those resources. Each passing day brings more damage to the parks as crowds overwhelm the limited services. Without those folks reminding us of how to care for nature, some have given in to their worst instincts. I watched one car full of angry visitors tear up plant life and green space out of frustration because they couldn’t find a parking spot. The shutdown is costing our parks and communities around them dearly. The post-shutdown clean-up and restoration will cost even more.

It will take years to recover from this.

In the face of the shutdown, national parks can still remind us of the best part of our national character. They plead with us to stop talking about ourselves and to listen in silence with others to the common song of nature. They invite us to turn off our phones long enough to connect with a network that reaches beyond our digital communities. They beckon us to reach deep inside ourselves to find that place of shared purpose. It is ironic that, at the time when our divisive political dialogue needs it most, this symbol of national unity is left to wither. Perhaps our leaders might reach an agreement more quickly if they took a long walk in the forest.

The fresh air of our national parks serves a greater purpose than providing oxygen to our lungs. This is the air we breathe as a democratic people. This is the invisible substance of shared imagination that ebbs and flows behind our days consumed with self-interest. We can take it for granted for only so long, until the day comes that we can’t breathe. Today is one of those days.