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      Reading the Earth: From Wonder to Appreciation
                                  Robert Sterling Yard

Ed. note: An important figure in the early development of the National Park Service, Robert
Sterling Yard was hand-picked by Stephen Mather to spearhead publicity for the new national
park system. A former editor with several widely read national magazines, Yard was enthusiastic
and effective in helping make the national parks into beloved American icons. In this excerpt from
the first chapter of The Book of the National Parks (1919), Yard extols the benefits of a deeper
understanding of natural phenomena as a way to achieve real appreciation of the parks.

          o the average educated American, scenery is a pleasing hodge-podge of

T         mountains, valleys, plains, lakes, and rivers. To him, the glacier-hol-
          lowed valley of Yosemite, the stream-scooped abyss of the Grand
          Canyon, the volcanic gulf of Crater Lake, the bristling granite core of
the Rockies, and the ancient ice-carved shales of Glacier National Park all are
one—just scenery, magnificent, incomparable, meaningless. As a people we have
been content to wonder, not to know; yet with scenery, as with all else, to know
is to begin fully to enjoy. Appreciation measures enjoyment. And this brings me
to my proposition, namely, that we shall not really enjoy our possession of the
grandest scenery in the world until we realize that scenery is the written page of
the History of Creation, and until we learn to read that page.
   The national parks of America                   water’s fall, a trick of the senses result-
include areas of the noblest and most              ing from failure to realize height and
diversified scenic sublimity easily                distance.
accessible in the world; nevertheless it              “To think they are the highest in
is their chiefest glory that they are              the world!” she mused.
among the completest expression of                    I told her that the soft fingers of
the earth’s history. The American peo-             water had carved this valley three
ple is waking rapidly to the magnitude             thousand feet into the solid granite,
of its scenic possession; it has yet to            and that ice had polished its walls, and
learn to appreciate it....                         I estimated for her the ages since the
   “Is it true,” a woman asked me at               Merced River flowed at the level of the
the foot of Yosemite Falls, “that this is          cataract’s brink.
the highest unbroken waterfall in the                 “I’ve seen the tallest building in the
world?”                                            world,” she replied dreamily, “and the
   She was an average tourist, met                 longest railroad, and the largest lake,
there by chance. I assured her that                and the highest monument, and the
such was the fact. I called attention to           biggest department store, and now I
the apparent deliberation of the                   see the highest waterfall. Just think of
Volume 21 • Number 2                          2004                                              5
it!”                                        Probably the majority of those silent
    If one has illusions concerning the     gazers were suffering something akin
average tourist, let him compare the        to pain at their inability to give vent to
hundreds who gape at the paint pots         the emotions bursting within them.
and geysers of Yellowstone with the            I believe that the statement can not
dozens who exult in the sublimated          be successfully challenged that, as a
glory of the colorful canyon. Or let        people, our enjoyment of scenery is
him listen to the table-talk of a party     almost wholly emotional. Love of
returned from Crater Lake. Or let him       beauty spiced by wonder is the equip-
recall the statistical superlatives which   ment for enjoyment of the average
made up his friend’s last letter from       intelligent traveller of to-day. Now add
the Grand Canyon.                           to this a more or less equal part of the
    I am not condemning wonder,             intellectual pleasure of comprehen-
which, in its place, is a legitimate and    sion and you have the equipment of
pleasurable emotion. As a condiment         the average intelligent traveller of to-
to sharpen and accent an abounding          morrow. To hasten this to-morrow is
sense of beauty it has real and abiding     one of the several objects of this book.
value.                                         To see in the carved and colorful
    Love of beauty is practically a uni-    depths of the Grand Canyon not only
versal passion. It is that which lures      the stupendous abyss whose terrible
millions into the fields, valleys, woods,   beauty grips the soul, but also to-day’s
and mountains on every holiday,             chapter in a thrilling story of creation
which crowds our ocean lanes and            whose beginning lay untold centuries
railroads. The fact that few of these       back in the ages, whose scene covers
rejoicing millions are aware of their       three hundred thousand square miles
own motive, and that, strangely             of our wonderful southwest, whose
enough, a few even would be ashamed         actors include the greatest forces of
to make the admission if they became        nature, whose tremendous episodes
aware of it, has nothing to do with the     shame the imagination of [the
fact. It’s a wise man that knows his        Romantic illustrator Gustave] Doré,
own motives. The fact that still fewer,     and whose logical end invites sugges-
whether aware or not of the reason of       tions before which finite minds
their happiness, are capable of making      shrink—this is to come into the pres-
the least expression of it, also has        ence of the great spectacle properly
nothing to do with the fact. The            equipped for its enjoyment. But how
tourist woman whom I met at the foot        many who see the Grand Canyon get
of Yosemite Falls may have felt secret-     more out of it than merely the beauty
ly suffocated by the filmy grandeur of      that grips the soul?
the incomparable spectacle, notwith-           So it is throughout the world of
standing that she was conscious of no       scenery. The geologic story written on
higher emotion than the cheap won-          the cliffs of Crater Lake is more stu-
der of a superlative. The Grand             pendous even than the glory of its
Canyon is the stillest crowded place I      indigo bowl. The war of titanic forces
know. I’ve stood among a hundred            described in simple language on the
people on a precipice and heard the         rocks of Glacier National Park is unex-
whir of a bird’s wings in the abyss.        celled in sublimity in the history of
6                                                        The George Wright FORUM
mankind. The story of Yellowstone’s          accomplishment as a precedent to
making multiplies many times the             study and observation of our national
thrill occasioned by its world-famed         parks, I seek enormously to enrich the
spectacle. Even the simplest and             enjoyment not only of these supreme
smallest rock details often tell thrilling   examples but of all examples of world
incidents of prehistoric times out of        making. The same readings which will
which the enlightened imagination            prepare you to enjoy to the full the
reconstructs the romances and the            message of our national parks will
tragedies of earth’s earlier days.           invest your neighborhood hills at
    How eloquent, for example, was           home, your creek and river and
the small, water-worn fragment of dull       prairie, your vacation valleys, the land-
coal we found on the limestone slope         scape through your car window, even
of one of Glacier’s mountains!               your wayside ditch, with living inter-
Impossible companionship! The one            est. I invite you to a new and fascinat-
the product of forest, the other of sub-     ing earth, an earth interesting, vital,
merged depths. Instantly I glimpsed          personal, beloved, because at last
the distant age when thousands of feet       known and understood!
above the very spot which I stood, but           It requires no great study to know
then at sea level, bloomed a                 and understand the earth well enough
Cretaceous forest, whose broken              for such purpose as this. One does not
trunks and matted foliage decayed in         have to dim his eyes with acres of
bogs where they slowly turned to coal;       maps, or become a plodding geologist,
coal which, exposed and disintegrated        or learn to distinguish schists from
during intervening ages, has long            granites, or to classify plants by table,
since—all but a few fragments like           or to call wild geese and marmots by
this—washed into the headwaters of           their Latin names. It is true that geog-
the Saskatchewan to merge eventually         raphy, geology, physiography, mineral-
in the muds of Hudson Bay. And               ogy, botany and zoology must each
then, still dreaming, my mind leaped         contribute their share toward the con-
millions of years still further back to      dition of intelligence which will enable
lake bottoms where, ten thousand feet        you to realize appreciation of Nature’s
below the spot on which I stood, gath-       amazing earth, but the share of each is
ered the pre-Cambrian ooze which             so small that the problem will be
later hardened to this very limestone.       solved, not by exhaustive study, but by
From ooze a score of thousand feet, a        the selection of essential parts. Two or
hundred million years, to coal! And          three popular books which interpret
both lie here together now in my palm!       natural science in perspective should
Filled thus with visions of a perspec-       pleasurably accomplish your purpose.
tive beyond human comprehension,             But once begun, I predict that few will
with what multiplied intensity of inter-     fail to carry certain subjects beyond
est I now returned to the noble view         the mere essentials, while some will
from Gable Mountain!                         enter for life into a land of new
    In pleading for a higher under-          delights.
standing of Nature’s method and

Volume 21 • Number 2                     2004                                       7
“Mission Statements” is an occasional column that presents compelling state-
ments of values and ideals that are important to the people, places, and professions
that the Society serves. We are looking for inspirational and insightful writings
that touch on close-to-the-heart issues that motivate us to do what we do as park
professionals. We invite readers to submit their own Mission Statements, or sug-
gest previously published essays that we might reprint in this column. Contact
GWS executive director Dave Harmon at or by phone
at 1-906-487-9722.

8                                                       The George Wright FORUM

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