Column: Parks

by flaunt

National Beauty Complex: Nature and Impossible Standards
You’ve seen the magazine covers, sensuous and arousing. You’ve seen the opulent orbs of perfect symmetry bulging and barely contained on the page; the provocative contours guiding the eye up and down, then up again; the unblemished silken textures, filtered and making the most unachievable seem standard. And you keep looking—unabashed, mouth agape—directly into the mystique of modern celebrity. Because this is how we are taught to worship. How we are taught to commodify the corporeal. And I worry what it’s doing to our sense of appropriate reality. Could anything less—or more mundane—ever suffice hereafter?

This, as we know, is an existing problem with magazines. But I am, of course, talking about national parks.

I’ve been to 51 of the 59 US national parks, having set the goal, six years ago, to visit them all. This has taken me from the rainforests of American Samoa to the taiga of central Alaska; from the Keys of Florida to the borderlands of West Texas. I’ve been a zealot, and, as such, have let my mind wander just as much as my body, to the works of Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, and John Muir. I’ve learned from naturalists, conservationists, and preservationists, expanding my scope of environmentalism beyond the basic realm initially offered by monumentalism. This is all to say, I’m starting to notice a missing depth to our current outdoor ethos that is integral to land appreciation.

It starts and ends with celebrity.

We never consider celebrity a problem though, when it comes to landscape. In fact, it’s expected that you worship wild places lest you be considered a shallow, heartless dolt by your peers (check any online dating profile as proof: Everyone LOVES the outdoors)—but when brought under the same scope of scrutiny as other forms of entertainment, it must be asked: does creating a superstar out of nature, too, lend itself to exploitation? Unfortunately, I’m starting to believe the answer is yes.

By making the parks famous, ushering them into the social stratum of pop culture, we’ve inevitably subjected them to the same forms of distortion typical to that of a Hollywood persona. This shouldn’t be that surprising, however: The most iconic depictions of the parks are always the “sexiest”—pristine alpine lakes, robust granite domes, U-shaped glacier-cut valleys. People only want to see the beautiful vistas of Instagram notoriety, and only use them for such.

Take Los Angeles, for example: The closest national park to the city, Channel Islands, is the least known in the region (getting only a few hundred visitors a year). When I spent a weekend there, I hardly saw another person. Yet, it’s almost inevitable, when traveling to Joshua Tree (with two million annual visitors) that you’ll run into L.A.’s copious fashion aficionados and boutique shop browsers; if you make it to Sequoia & Kings Canyon (at one and a half million visitors) or Yosemite (over four million visitors) on a summer weekend, much of the unbearable crowd has been pulled from Southern California.

So why the disparity? Well, first, think of the last time you saw a picture of Half Dome or El Capitan. Now think of the last time you saw a picture of the Channel Islands…or even heard the place mentioned. There is clearly a monopolization of what is being branded as top “wilderness” to us as consumers, and it changes our patterns of consumption.

I worry this is what’s lending itself to the current disrespect and disregard that’s seen in the parks (people getting gored by Bison, falling into geysers, carving names into ancient arches), because to be in a magnificent place, now, doing unbelievable things, somehow makes us into more magnificent and unbelievable people. It’s clout—like being personal friends with Daniel Radcliffe or being on the guest list at a Beyoncé concert.

Therefore, these are no longer the parks of Muir or Roosevelt, but social media havens ensuring that you, as a visitor, are in fact a more environmentally conscious person for visiting. And this brings us back to the disregard: Friends often ask me why anyone, without fear or reservation, would approach a thousand-pound untamed animal for a selfie. My assumption is it’s the same reason Scarlett Johansson or any other A-list celebrity can’t eat in public without being accosted by strangers.

Fame makes rational people do irrational things.

Nature is all around us, it always has been, from wild columbine in the woods, to queen palm trees lining San Diego sidewalks, to poison oak in Griffith Park. But placing wilderness on a hierarchy has made us believe there is an arbitrary threshold needing to be crossed for appreciation to take place. National parks have become this threshold into “the wild.” Escapes from civilization. Summertime vacation rituals.

A dichotomy, therefore, gets drawn between what is “standard” and what is “exceptional”—what is worthy of celebration and what is not. We’ve seen similar problems in other forms of celebrity, like misogynistic ideology perpetuated from the long-standing exploitation of the female body, and this takes us back to magazine covers: breasts squeezed up and out, challenging the integrity of an all-too-tight blouse; contours, from chest to waist to hips, down slender legs often seen in underwear, or, if not, then easily found on the internet—just a Google away.

But what can be said of these Hollywood women, beyond a few IMDB accolades and their striking physical features; beyond the celebration of their impossibly articulated anatomy? Few know anything of their actual lives (or how they even look un-airbrushed). Hence, a wellspring of nightmarish body dysmorphia is generated and exported to the rest of the world.

I do see the times changing, however slowly, to a healthier representation of the human condition. And, much in the way current feminist theory is upending the old regime of degradation, I think we need to start amending our views of “the wild” to achieve a healthier representation of the environmental condition.

The national parks are great—just as Daniel Radcliffe and Beyoncé are great, just as Scarlett Johansson is great—but none are the epitome of perfect. And just as we are relearning to love our own bodies, free from the threat of toxic commercialism, we also need to start relearning how to appreciate nature—even to that which extends beyond arbitrary boundaries, both on our maps and in our minds.

Written by Tyler Dunning