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Do National Parks Have a Role in an Agrarian Future?

Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry on his Kentucky farm (Photo by Guy Mendes, 2011 [via http://www.neh.gov/news/2012-jefferson-lecture-wendell-berry])
A few years ago I listened in on a conversation with poet, novelist, and essayist Wendell Berry, introduced that day as “without question the leading agrarian of our time.” He suggested a definition of this term agrarian as a “love for farming” that includes an inclination to put land first as our highest value. “Access to land,” Berry surmised, “provides a measure of freedom from the money economy.” He went on to frame this question of land in terms of social justice; in Berry’s view, we cannot begin to address poverty and all of its ills without restoring people to the land.

Listening to Berry talk about his agrarian land ethic got me thinking about parks. As I understood what Berry was saying, human cultures have always been profoundly related to land. His view suggests that we need to think more about the integration of land and culture rather than managing wilderness lands as if humans were to have no part of it.

Berry commented that most rural people today live urban lives. Their attentions face toward cities, regardless of how distant, and have less concern about the land on which their lives rely. In a similar manner, we might think of national parks as urban places, extensions of the cities, places where urban people find relief from the concerns and pressures of their city lives.

Mortar holes such as this one in Big Bend National Park indicate that humans have occupied the wilderness of national parks long before they were parks (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2010)
Mortar holes such as this one in Big Bend National Park indicate that humans have occupied the wilderness of national parks long before they were parks (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2010)

No doubt that parks have been products of urbanization, an invention of a rapidly industrializing society caught up in the nostalgic regret of lost wilderness. Maybe real solutions to the losses brought on by rampant extraction, development, and industrialization will be better sought in returning people to land, as Wendell Berry envisions a healthy society, rather than partitioning off little pockets of wilderness for momentary enjoyment by beleaguered souls ensnared in the insanity of an urban ethic bent on self-destruction.

On the other hand, maybe the pockets of wilderness preserved in our national parks offer a different possibility for the future. Can an agrarian society become a reality if people have not first recognized the primary value of land? Perhaps implementing Berry’s vision of an agrarian future will have its seeds in peoples’ initial experience of wild lands afforded in the preserves of the national parks. ♨

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