Most Saturday mornings, when there isn’t much on the agenda, I spend my time at a cemetery across town. Not because I know someone buried there, but because, if I get up when it’s dark and drive to the top of the cemetery’s hill, I can watch the sun rise over the Atlanta skyline. And during the week, if I happen to be driving at twilight, instead of going home I’ll circle up the ramps of a nearby parking deck and watch the sun set over Costco. Once I made a passing comment about the way the sun was hitting a brick building, glazing it with warm tones, and I felt my friend’s gaze settle on me as I stared ahead. She said she’d never met anyone so in love with sunlight, and it occurred to me that I might be more of a nature-lover than most.
Still, humankind has an almost universal awe at the sun’s display. Not to mention regal mountains, oceans, churning storm clouds, elusory rainbows. How do these wonders—much like music—transcend lingual, cultural, racial, and political constructs? Though everyone’s connection to the natural world doesn’t look like mine, we all notice this magnificence. It’s why I find a melting pot of people gathered on the mountain’s peak at the end of the trail, or why our economy can support an outdoor recreation industry. It’s why you and I have captured these moments and saved them on our phones.
Immanuel Kant would argue that indiscriminate lure of the sublime rests on our inability to comprehend it. We see a tornado turn, aware of its threat, yet we can’t quite grasp the bounds of its power. All we know is the tornado transcends us. I see the bottom of a canyon, but how deep is it? Is it so deep that, should I get lost, the elements would consume me?
“When we enter a national park, we’re no longer masters of the natural world. We’re part of it.”
A couple of years ago I ventured into Yosemite on a family vacation. It would become the first of many national park adventures for me, a catalyst for travel budgets and credit card miles, but I didn’t know it at the time. I was one month on the other side of a six-year relationship, neck-deep in grief and disorientation, coming to terms with what my future wouldn’t hold. Most of the trip happened in a numb stupor, rote motions. But I do remember standing in the middle of Yosemite Valley—enveloped by tall blades of grass, dwarfed by tall pines and taller rocks—thinking, Yes, it is good to be above the earth, beneath the mountains, beneath God.
Maybe our beginnings in the Garden aren’t as distant as we might suppose. I like to think we carry inklings of that once perfect and joyful submission to the Lord. Dayton Duncan, cowriter and producer of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, reasons that “when we enter a [national] park ... suddenly we’re no longer masters of the natural world, we’re part of it. And in that sense it’s like we’re going home ... We’ve come back to a place that is where we came from.” If these sanctuaries are the closest resemblance to our roots in Eden, then perhaps it’s not odd to be drawn to the uncertainty and reverence we encounter in the sublime outdoors, or to find peace there. In fact, it may reveal how the Lord designed us to relate to Him—a taste of reconciliation in our own sphere.
Every time I plan a trip to a national park and the plane gains altitude over Atlanta, I see buildings forcing their way up through the trees, shutting out the elements and seasons. Interstates six, seven, eight lanes wide that let me work and play wherever I want. Restaurants and shops begging to meet my needs.
But at the park, there’s only a road to the trailhead. Maybe a garbage can and pamphlet. This is not my jurisdiction, I think, and I instinctively know the only way to exist in the wild is to abide by it—to learn its contours, listen for its inhabitants, survey its skies.
In these Edens, the mountains that cast dark shadows over the earth are stunning, and the same brush that hides predators reclines serene in the valley. Cliff sides with no regard for the wind or ground below invite me to share their exclusive view of creation. And the very canyon walls that block light from the sun also cradle a river rich with life and motion—unsafe, unknown, and worthy of our confronting it.