The tourist experience of Yellowstone National Park
Sacred Wonderland

The spiritual experience of nature in the national parks

Is nature spiritual? Kerry Mitchell in his 2007 essay “Managing Spirituality: Public Religion and National Parks” reports that 74% of national park visitors that he talked to spoke of their experiences in the parks as spiritually or religiously significant. He goes on to discuss particular management techniques that the National Park Service employs to elicit these sorts of profoundly spiritual experiences of nature, concluding that individual spirituality is “structurally dependent upon the state” through the management of parks by the National Park Service.

A student in my American Sacred Space class felt “cheated” when learning of the Park Service’s efforts to produce spirituality in visitor experiences. Her reaction seems to prove Mitchell’s point about the Park Service’s emphasis on the purity of nature in the parks. Visitors might feel cheated to learn that their spiritual encounters with nature depend to a large extent on Park Service management strategies. According to Mitchell’s analysis, the custodians of these precious sites offer America’s wild places as contrived experiences to meet the expectations of the consumer public. Maybe fooling Mother Nature is not nice, but making her palatable to a spiritually hungry nation of nature lovers seems perfectly acceptable.

The tourist experience of Yellowstone National Park
The tourist experience of Yellowstone National Park (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2015)

(See my review of Kerry Mitchell’s book Spirituality and the State: Managing Nature and Experience in America’s National Parks)

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