Lost World

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We still have fragments of the open, useless, untenanted world, and there is an increasing compulsion upon us to preserve these, to set them apart and go and visit them so that we can at least touch the edges of something that is no longer quite within reach. Yet this very drive to preserve and visit the wild spaces may be self-defeating; the mere act of preservation and use robs the wilderness of its virginity; there are perhaps just too many of us nowadays, and it is a serious question whether we can ever again know the grandeur, the loneliness, and the wild, challenging beauty which our continent and our world offered to the adventurous in its youth.

This question bothers Joseph Wood Krutch, and he broods about it thoughtfully in his fine new book, Grand Canyon .

The Grand Canyon is one of our most spectacular natural beauties. This enormous gash in the earth exists in one of the desolate corners of the United States, but the nation is beginning to push in on it; more and more people who want nothing so much as to get away from the rush and noise of modern life are going there to find something that cannot be found at home, and the disturbing question, as Mr. Krutch points out, is whether something like this can possibly coexist with energetic exploitation.

It is only the United States which can still, among the highly developed nations, offer its people the chance to visit large areas where nature is still unspoiled. We did start early; we set aside these great empty areas as public lands, and did our best to save them for people who would have to live in a nation where precious little remains unspoiled. But we still have “the power to ravage,” and it is by no means sure that we will always restrain ourselves in the use of that power. These primitive areas have timber, or grazing resources, or water power, or simply unoccupied acres that may be built up in neat real-estate subdivisions. We say, “Human needs come first”—but precisely what human needs are we thinking about? Mr. Krutch feels that we need to be clear about what needs may be most important. Material needs may not be the really valuable ones. As he remarks:

Grand Canyon: Today and All Its Yesterdays , by Joseph Wood Krutch. William Sloane Associates. 276 pp. $5.00.

If we recognize that there is more than one kind of utility and that the parks are, at the present moment, being put to the best use to be found for them, then they may last a long time—until, perhaps, overpopulation has reached the point where the struggle for mere animal survival is so brutal that no school or theater, or concert hall or church, can be permitted to “waste” the land on which it stands.

This worry is by no means far-fetched. Human times, as we have been saying, do change, and the pressure of a great new nation lies heavily on areas that, until very recently, seemed as remote from human pressures as the far side of the moon. Unless something priceless is to go out of human life, we need to keep such places untarnished, and yet this is not as simple as it sounds because, even if the cattle kings, the timber barons, the water-power enthusiasts, and the others are turned away, the mere act of saving a wilderness area for public enjoyment brings problems of its own.

We want, we say, “recreation areas.” Very well: recreation of what kind? Do we want the recreation that people can get when they can be in and gaze upon vast stretches that are as they came from the Creator’s hands, or are we thinking of primitive rivers dammed up so that there can be speedboats on the water and pretty girls lolling on artificial bathing beaches? The danger, again, lies in the fact that times have changed.

This is so much the age of technology and the machine [warns Mr. Krutch] that machines come to be loved for their own sake rather than used for other ends. Instead, for instance, of valuing the automobile because it may take one to a national park, the park comes to be valued because it is a place the automobile may be used to reach. A considerable number of automobilists would like when they get there to do what they do at home or at the country club. An even greater number prefers to drive straight through so that they can use their machine to get somewhere else. They feel that to stop is simply to waste time, because time spent without the employment of some gadget is time wasted. … Is it for such as these that the parks should be maintained?

This is a question that will be bothering us very seriously in the years just ahead. Meanwhile, Grand Canyon does remain—relatively gadgetless, unspoiled, free for all, a piece of the old America which we Americans, just because we are so numerous, have been crowding out of the picture. If we do not finally have the good sense to preserve at least some of these places, we shall some day—not too far-off a day, either—find ourselves with nothing but “resorts” left. They will probably be very fine places, and they will look well in the color advertisements and will do a good business, but America will have lost something that can never in all time be replaced.