Nature Notes

Vol. X June - 1932 No. 6

The National Parks and their Educational Purpose

To see and to understand what you see -- such should be the motive of a visit to the national parks. Thus one's stay is made more interesting, more worth while and of inestimable value to you nor is the picture which one takes away, viewed as it should be with an eye to its understanding, one of transient worth. Rather it should increase in consequence with the years having taken positive form in one's mind. In this form it serves as a sort of master pattern for the explanation of many interesting things which are found on every hand and which would pass unnoticed, their story falling upon barren ground, if one did not have this master explanation, as exemplified by some region of major importance, fixed in mind. Then this picture comes back and there is the explanation. Better than books, far superior to the standard methods of education for it is visual and inspiring and of such magnitude and beauty that it is indelibly impressed upon one's memory - a mental reservoir of information to be drawn upon later as some puzzle in natural history rises before us.

Such are the national parks; regions of great beauty, of inspiration and examples of the great truths of science which hold the key to the explanation of many lesser things that we see, but so often do not understand, from day to day. Great scientists have proclaimed these areas as such. They have extolled their educational value to the public. They have urged that thousands of visitors utilize these parks in the fulfillment of their greatest service - that of education; education that is as far removed from standard methods as is the value of such use to the individual removed from the value of a casual, sketchy visit by which one sees little and understands nothing.

A great glacier sweeps down majestically from a mountain's summit. One views it first from afar drinking in its beauty and observing the evidence of its activity in earth sculpture. Descending, one then approaches the vaste expanse of ice itself and sees the actual evidence of its power - the milk white stream flowing from the snout, the moraines of rock debris gouged from the mountain and cast up to the side and the yawning depth of great crevasses. This is a story of force and power which returns many times over the effort and expense incurred on the trip. A great forest with huge trees lifting their bulk from the dense mass of underbrush at their base toward the heavens sing a saga of plant associations, of variation and adaption to environment, of the rise and fall of local botanical empires, of plant succession - the clothing of the raw earth in sequence from ages back or its redressing following its denudation by fire or some other catastrophe of plant competition, survival or extinction.

There is a story of gradual change, a story of complex interrelationships much of which is visible, if one can see these things, in one's own locality.

So it is with the national parks in their entirety. Each is emblematic of some one or more great truths of natural history - chapters in the story of the earth upon which we live. They present a great opportunity to our people, an opportunity which lies in more of an understanding of the things that have happened in the past and which are happening at the moment all about us. Nor is this opportunity represented by a closed book for if it is neglected its loss lies only in a closed mind.

One cannot understand a completed story by reading not one chapter of a volumn. Each and every chapter must be digested to get a complete picture of the whole. So we may compare the national parks system with that of a book - each park representing one chapter and each one worthy of being understood in order to obtain a complete picture of the entire story. To compare the parks is folly. Each is distinct; each is representative of some phase in the complete explanation of the things that go on about us, in a minor way, at all times. Some may be more beautiful than others yet their purpose is not that of beauty alone. Rather is it the reason for that beauty; the reason for the spectacular canyons; the reasons for magnificent forests or flower fields, for an understanding of the source of foundation of that beauty should be the objective. Let the beauty or magnitude of the spectacle serve to retain the information thus gained in mind to be drawn upon later in the explanation of what you see about you.

But one cannot expect even a small part of the visitors to these sections to observe with seeing eyes and an understanding mind. There is much yet to be learned - and there always will be - by the National Park Service itself about these areas. But in each national park one will find trained men capable of explaining and interpreting for you. These men are taken from the ranks of science and they have schooled themselves in methods by which everyone may be given to understand what he sees. In fact, if we are to consider the park system as a book as stated above, we might say that the educational department through the naturalists stationed in each of these areas, is comparable to the index in that book. Through the activities of this branch of the National Park Service the contour of the horizon and the things at one's feet are translated for you.

And so we extend an invitation to you to visit this, as well as other parks, to come and see and to understand. And to make the fullest use of the various means by which we try to serve you in this manner.

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