The Show Will Go On

yellowstone2Last week when the US government shutdown began, a nightly news show glibly reported that “there would be no show this fall” in America’s first and quite possibly favorite national park. Yellowstone National Park is known for its incredible beauty year-round. In spring and summer, crowds are drawn to the meadows filled with wildflowers, the geothermal features, and wildlife sightings that might include newborn fawns, bison calves, and wolves. Fall brings another spectacular viewing season with brilliant foliage and bugling elk. Visitation continues through the winter for those who appreciate the subtleties of a landscape covered in snow.

I was perplexed to hear the newsman’s assurance that the “show” would not occur because the park would be closed. National parks in the US are set aside to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. Numerous research studies support the value of national parks in terms of health, education, and economic benefits, so I find it more than disturbing that our national park system and the people who work there are not considered “essential.”

The newsman’s nonchalant statement struck me as a serious indicator of the ever-widening disconnect between the American people and the natural and cultural heritage that national parks are designed to preserve. Are we really so egocentric that we believe the “show” exists only for humans? I’m reminded of a small child who sees his or her teacher as existing only in the school building during school hours. Imagine the surprise when the child first encounters the teacher at a grocery store or at a movie theatre on a weekend and realizes the teacher has a life beyond the classroom. Yes, trees still fall in the forest and they still make a sound, even if there is no human around to see or hear it. Life goes on with or without human beings. In fact, some would argue that it may be a much better “show” without any humans around.

Bison may not notice the absence of humans during the shutdown but people who traveled to Yellowstone will miss this beautiful scenery during the shutdown.
Bison may not notice the absence of humans during the shutdown but people who traveled to Yellowstone will miss this beautiful scenery and wildlife during the shutdown.

I’ve been a park user all my life, thanks to the foresight of my parents who insisted on taking us camping our way through national parks and forests throughout my childhood. These wild places and their non-human inhabitants inspired and enchanted me from an early age. They created my career path as an interpreter, planner, and conservationist. I know the importance of the people who work to protect these places by connecting the hearts and minds of those who might not fully understand the value of our public lands to what is real in this world.

Nature prevails, though we may do our best to ignore or alter it. No matter what Congress does or does not do, Old Faithful will still burst from the earth and bull elk will continue to split the air with their shrill mating calls. The leaves will go from green to gold and fall to the earth according to their own schedule. The government may shut down public access, but they cannot shut down the show.

– Lisa Brochu

Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

3 thoughts on “The Show Will Go On

  1. I’ve had the same feelings of perplexity when I see signs saying “the forest is closed after ___ pm”. I doubt the trees and animals clock out after ___ pm. We humans do believe it all revolves around us…

  2. This reminds me of something that happened during a visit to Yellowstone National Park many years ago…

    If you’ve ever been there and visited a NPS Ranger information station, you probably noticed they post whiteboards and/or charts that list various geysers around the park and their anticipated time(s) of eruption. Of course, Old Faithful is consistent and dependable, but most of them may go off every few minutes, every few days, or once in a hundred years — often without keeping to a schedule. The schedules are provided as both a tool for those who want to *try their luck* and also as a handy educational prop to demonstrate the randomness of these events.

    Great Fountain Geyser goes off roughly every 9-15 hours or so, and the board indicated it has been 13 or so hours so there was a chance it might erupt and we decided to drive out and take our chances. Even when not spraying water, the geyser is spectacular — especially at sunset (when we were there). It has a series of concentric terraces of calcium deposits, giving the appearance of a tiered fountain (hence the name). I got some of my most beautiful photos of the trip while sitting there waiting for the geyser to do something. As I recall, there are some benches nearby and many other people started clustered around also in the hopes of seeing something. We all waited. And waited. And, well…we waited, well past the projected time that was given. It was getting dark, and people were starting to give up hope.

    Lest you think this story ends with the geyser suddenly going off and everyone cheering in ecstasy, I will stop you right there. It never went off. And boy, were some people MAD. One family was going on and on, groaning from the children to the parents to the grandparents about how they were “promised” by someone it was gonna blow at a specified time. I found this assertion dubious at best, and virtually impossible if they were talking about an NPS Ranger making such promises.

    Being an interpreter (dismayed that they were clearly missing out on a nice experience and also a bit tired of hearing them grumble) I took the opportunity to explain that geological events were very imprecise and to pointedly mention what a beautiful evening it was and how great the still waters of the geyser looked in the orange glow of the sunset. I may have also told them a bit about how geysers “work” and the reason this one looked the way it did. They weren’t buying any of it. I seriously believe they thought that the geysers were somehow controlled by the Park Service, that perhaps there was a guy down underneath there like the Wizard of Oz who pulled switches to make things happen. It was like magic, from behind a curtain, and they felt cheated.

    So when you say there’s a disconnect happening, I completely understand and agree. Mind you, that was only one family/group of many that exhibited this extreme outlooks. Most of the people with us were reveling in the experience just as it was. Of course we would have liked to see the geyser in action, but we understood the processes at work and were also intent on enjoying the positive side. However, my interaction with that family was one of my first truly concerning moments in regards to seeing how some people view the natural world and their place in it. It’s always been my naive hope that such outlooks were in the minority, and that through sheer perseverance and enthusiasm we could engage them in a positive way. But increasingly I wonder if that is really working, and it concerns me to see our public lands system used as a political weapon (by both sides, albeit in different ways) in their ideological battles. Everyone loses in the end.

  3. Thanks for great comments. I think the disconnect that some folks have with nature reflects our educational system’s failure to include environmental education along with other core subjects. If we grow up without understanding that all air, water and food still come from nature’s systems, we are living in a fantasy world. The seeming controversy about global climate change also points out the basic lack of understanding of how the planet works, even among lawmakers with access to the best scientific information available. It’s all troubling and points out the importance of our work as interpreters of natural and cultural heritage. We help people understand these complex processes and we do it with real examples they can see and hopefully understand. But still some will choose to not understand, like your example, William. So it goes. You made a great effort to help them understand and that’s great. Tim Merriman

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