A Review of
America’s Holy Ground:
61 Faithful Reflections
on Our National Parks
Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer
Reviewed by Janna Lynas
The last load of laundry spins in the washing machine and various rocks, shells, and small pieces of driftwood are lined up on my kitchen table, the evidence of a family trip to Niagara Falls and other state parks along the way. It has taken some poking and prodding over the years to get my once young family turned house full of teenagers out on a trail. Now mom and dad don’t have to say much when it comes to hiking and witnessing the creative inspiration of the master Creator. My children get it now, not to mention the raw attraction of more water than they’ve even seen plummeting over a rocky dropoff, the sheer power a constant reminder of the Canadian phrase “The water never stops,” and something I was reminded of as I gazed at it: neither does our Creator.
America’s Holy Ground, written by friends Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer, seeks to connect the awe-inspiring and impressive creation in our national parks to the Originator of their beauty and often-times overwhelming sense of our own humbling smallness. Page by page, a short history of at least 60 (there are over 400) of our national parks is coupled with scripture, an overarching theme, the state in which the park can be found, the year it was founded and a few questions designed to pause and enter a thoughtfulness about your life connection, even if you’ve never visited a particular park.
Lyons and Barkhauer spend several of the book’s first pages describing what led them to write this book and suggestions on how to use it. From the dedication page where both men speak to their children directly about enjoying and preserving God’s “very good” creation, to the invocation proclaiming scripture and the words of past conservationists, it is clear these pages are written from hearts overflowing with a desire that others would see and experience our natural world with awe and wonder.
I found myself drawn even deeper into these pages, upon reading the following words found in the introduction: “Important to remember is that the land all around you has been sacred for a long, long time…Native Americans have lived in North America for tens of thousands of years and their faith practices, legends, and histories are the first human chapters in the stories of America’s national parks. Respect the holy ground of those who preceded you, just as you hope others respect your holy ground” (21).
These comments and others that follow show the author’s respect for all God’s creation, people included. Here, compassion and attention to remembrance and gratitude can draw us to perhaps consider those of long ago, before our known history of this place began, and begin to feel a closeness with them through our common love for the land. It is through the findings of our commonalities that we can learn to respect and love others who may not share a common faith or lifestyle, a theme heard clearly in these pages.
The authors don’t stop there, however. American’s Holy Ground goes on to explore Theodore Roosevelt, our nation’s 26th president, who is credited with instigating the preserving and protecting of our national sites, especially in the western half of our beloved land. I was surprised to learn how this city boy came to love and find solace in the endless horizon of the North Dakota prairie that proudly bears a park named for his legacy. In his words, “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources…But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.” (237) His words inspired a nation to recall the beauty of the land and consider how our great national success was fast approaching an irreparable cost. Other great conservationist leaders have followed after Roosevelt, but the circumstances of his life and the emotional and even physical healing that can come from the beauty of America’s natural wonders played a critical role in Roosevelt’s quest to ensure generations to come would experience it, perhaps just as he had.
I admit I was concerned I would lack a personal connection to many of the reflections as I’ve only visited a handful of those featured in this collection. I am an avid hiker and lover of the outdoors, yet still, I wondered. Flipping pages, I was first drawn to the beautiful photography of the place, and found myself wanting to learn about the history, as well as the authors scripture connection and theme. I am now left with an even greater desire for exploring places I have never been and inspired to find God in the details among them.
Today I found myself choosing a short, yet extremely impactful reflection based on the theme, “Place” paired with the North Cascades National Park in Washington, established in 1968 and a park I’ve never visited. The authors explained that everything has a place as I considered my own current wrestling of seat: “The winged things that wing in the sky, the swimming things that swim in the sea, and the creeping things that creep on the land belong there.” (172) As I considered the order that my Creator established with the creatures of this world, I began to remember the places I’ve been and in fact have only days ago visited. A certain peace began to pass over me as I was led into the questions that ended this reflection, “When have you felt ‘out of place’? What does it mean to be in the right place? How does your faith help you come to know the place where you belong?” (172)
America’s Holy Ground ends with a multi-page Benediction featuring the words of conservationists and theologians alike:
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” Matthew 6:28-29 (NRSV) (235)
“We have the world to live in on the condition that we will take good care of it. And to take good care of it, we have to know it. And to know it and to be willing to take care of it, we have to love it. To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival.” Wendell Berry (235)
The authors call to travel, to record the treasures of what they have seen and experienced and researched culminates in an invitation to explore, to experience the land God has given us, to enjoy it and to care for it. Even if it is just a walk to a local park or a cross-country trip, get out and breath the air, touch the ground, look at the sunrise or sunset and be reminded that God has given us the gift of this beautiful land, and find communion with God there.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com