The U.S. National Parks, which first developed as the nation fragmented during the civil war, have played a central role in the unifying discourse of America. The parks are able to serve this role because of the close alliance between nature and nation in U.S. discourse. Nature “set apart” in the parks becomes the embodiment of an archetypal America, which is the ever-pristine source of the greatness of the nation and the people. As such, it serves as a sacred site and a unifying symbol in U.S. American culture.
By approaching the parks as pilgrimage sites, we can examine the American values that have been embodied in them. Using a model that assumes the heterogeneity of any religio-cultural event, we can see the often conflicting values both in the spiritual, scientific, national and economic discourses that make up the parks and in the embodiment of those discourses in the physical developments in the parks. Central to both is the paradoxical ideal behind the parks: to preserve wilderness.
The goal of the essay is two-fold: 1) as part of the comparative study of religions, to suggest the usefulness of a heterogeneous, spatialized model for analyzing sacred places and to apply the model to the study of American culture in order to understand more about how the embodiment of nature and nation in the National Parks has worked as a unifying symbol while at the same time disclosing contested and conflicting values in American society, and 2) to show how the meanings surrounding this symbol are being transformed today.