High Sierra glacial basin

Nature : Museum

Discussing my latest backpacking trip with my guy, I came up with an analogy which I like very much, and which seems original and enlightening. I compared modern wilderness visits with museum visits of the recent past (pre-2010). My first memories of museums were of the Anchorage Museum as a young teen, then the Louvre and Musée D’Orsay, and the Met in NYC and Mutter Museum in Philly as an older teen. Even if relatively brief, I treasure those visits for several reasons. Be they small or petty reasons it doesn’t matter, the memories are large as a very deep breath. Memories of carefully-curated open space and light, surprises of color and subtle hushed sounds. Photos were disallowed and so I would stare without blinking in an effort to somehow memorize what I had seen, feelings and all. I tried drawing what I saw. I was humbled. Lingering in front of exhibits I could never possibly understand, breezing unknowingly past exhibits of inestimable value, it was all sublime, inspiring, uplifting. Hours brief, feet sore: there simply was no way to see it all.

And it didn’t matter.

Even had I somehow visited every exhibit, and every room, listened and discussed all there was to know, there would be no reward. There was no competition for who saw the most of the museum, no punishment for only having seen part of one room. Nobody seems to collect museum visits; even just one visit is a precious memory, boast-worthy whether basking 30 minutes or eight hours. Someone might ask, “Did you see the Rodin exhibit?” and you might reply no. But you may have seen the Picasso exhibit, and though neither of you might know anything about Picasso or Rodin, both visits would be enviable, incomparable, and complete. I doubt many people ever beat themselves up very long over missing an exhibit passing through town, or were that jealous of a friend who caught an exhibit they did not. The art is there, will always be there, and we can be amidst it.

High Sierra glacial basin

And so the mountains. The wilderness. They are there, will always be there, and we can be amidst them. The open space and light, surprises of color and subtle hushed sounds, sublime, inspiring, uplifting. However, a cultural shift has perverted our appreciation of nature such that if we do not visit all the “exhibits,” photograph them, share our visits extensively with friends and strangers alike, collect stamps in our passports and more and more visits… we are somehow lacking or inferior. We are not happy to just show up at the trailhead for a stroll, to see what we see. We must follow the trailhead to the summit and back, despite dangers and pains and in near-complete disregard of what happens along the way. Imagine we all went to museums only to see the most famous pieces of art, crowding around a patch of wall for a brief moment, then headed straight back to the car. We can say we saw the Mona Lisa for a minute or two, without knowing or even imagining who painted it, or when, or why, and that is fine with us. A myopic view of the wilderness is acceptable for us now–as long as we have conquered our planned outing.

Strange how a dose of wilderness has become worth a fraction of a dose of the museum in our approval-driven esteem. Shouldn’t we be able to arrive to the grass and trees, a stream, and simply sit and appreciate as if plopped on a museum bench? Could it be sacred? Private, even? Or shouldn’t we be able to unabashedly discuss in the same passionate terms we discuss art, nature? And if a museum such as the Louvre were endangered or even burning, or if someone stole a piece of art, or even if one famous piece of art was destroyed by the touch or even the breath of too many admirers, wouldn’t we mourn in discrete increments, nearly forever? Considering it is nature which allows and largely inspires art, how we have grown to love and respect each in such nearly inverse proportions.

It’s at last time to reassess priorities. Maybe visit nature the precious way we visited museums — before cell phones.