The National Park Service and the Legacy of Naturalist Activism

Amidst the seemingly never-ending flurry of both Trump Administration actions and inspiring moments of communal resistance to those steps, one recent duality jumps off the page. Trump signed an Executive Order requiring a number of federal agencies to stop communicating directly with the public (in what's being called a "temporary freeze"); when the National Parks Service and a number of particular parks (such as South Dakota's Badlands National Park) continued to Tweet out information about climate change and other issues, those Tweets were deleted. In response, a group of anonymous yet still deeply courageous NPS employees have started a rogue Twitter account, @AltNatParkSer, to resist these dictatorial and propagandistic steps and add their voices to our collective conversations.

There are a number of features to this story that seem largely (if not indeed strikingly) new, from the blatant authoritarianism of Trump's attempt to control the voices of government employees (and explicitly silence those who disagree with his regime--I mean, administration) to the role of Twitter as a space of social and political resistance. Yet at the same time, @AltNatParkSer represents an extension of the long, inspiring, too-often minimized connection between naturalism and activism in American culture and society.

The mid-19th century Transcendentalist writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau provides a compelling case in point. Thoreau is often defined as an originating figure for two distinct American (and global) traditions: the naturalist and environmental movements; and the forms of social and political protest known as civil disobedience or non-violent/passive resistance. Those influences are usually linked to different actions and writings of Thoreau's: his two-year (1845-1847) sojourn to Walden Pond, and the resulting book Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854), tied to environmentalism; his imprisonment for refusing to pay taxes to support the Mexican American War and slavery, and the resulting essay "Civil Disobedience" (1849), linked to political resistance.

Yet these efforts and writings of Thoreau's were far more interconnected than that, and not simply because they took place over precisely the same years (although that simultaneity does certainly reflect their interdependence). When Thoreau writes, in an epigraph to Walden, that his goal is "to wake my neighbors up," he does not mean only to open their eyes to the power of nature or of Transcendental philosophy. He also means to awaken them to social and political realities that need resistance, as exemplified by the passage in Chapter 2 ("Where I Lived, and What I Lived For") on the exploited workers who have built the nation's new railroad system, often at the expense of their lives. Using the slang term "sleepers" (overtly meaning railroad ties) to bitingly describe both the bodies of these workers and the lack of collective awareness of their stories, Thoreau concludes the paragraph thusly: "I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again."

It's no coincidence that this paragraph in Walden follows directly the paragraph containing one of the book's most famous lines: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." It is that line, for example, highlighted on a stone memorial at the site of Thoreau's cabin near the shores of Walden Pond. But to remember that personal and philosophical moment without linking it to the overtly social and political one with which Thoreau follows it is to miss one of the most essential facts of his book and perspective, and to sever his natural and political activisms in a way that he never did.

The legacy of Thoreau's conjoined and codependent naturalist and political activisms has been continued by a number of American writers and voices. John Muir, perhaps the single most instrumental figure in the creation of the National Park system, dedicated his individual efforts as well as those of the Sierra Club (which he co-founded in 1892) to both conserving America's natural spaces and to making those spaces accessible to all Americans. Rachel Carson, one of the 20th century's most pioneering scientific writers and thinkers, dedicated much of her later life to political activisms against nuclear power and the corporate overuse of chemicals, among other causes. Carl Sagan, as responsible as any individual for broadening and deepening our collective understanding of the universe and our place in it, likewise protested nuclear proliferation, and used his public scholarly voice to brief President Carter on the vital role science could play in government.

By launching their rogue Twitter account, the @AltNatParkSer voices have offered one more inspiring step in this history of interconnected naturalist and political activisms. (The group of scientists planning a potential Washington march of their own offer another.) Striking as this moment might feel, it's vital to remember and celebrate that longstanding and influential American history, and to recognize how much our natural and scientific leaders have also and consistently played important roles in our social and political movements.