The Irrelevance of Beauty
On June 30, 1864, President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant, the first time the federal government had set aside land for public use and protection. At the time, the Civil War was reaching a critical phase, as Ulysses S. Grant had just launched the nine-month Siege of Petersburg, which would eventually lead to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox – but was also the harbinger of the trench warfare that would devastate western Europe 50 years later. Lincoln could focus on two major issues simultaneously, I guess, because Twitter hadn’t been invented yet. I like to think that protecting the beauty of the Yosemite Valley, which he would never see, was for him an antidote to the horrors and the burden of the war, of which he had seen so much.
Beauty itself seems under siege these days, as the Trump administration guts environmental regulations meant to protect our waterways and looks on national parks as federal land grabs that should be returned to the states (which never owned them in the first place) or to private landowners to use for private gain. From northern Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters to Utah’s Bears Ears, the idea that natural places should be protected for the public because they are beautiful is portrayed as the effort of elitists to stand in the way of progress. A thing of beauty is not, as Keats thought, a joy forever; it just needs to get out of the way.
It’s impossible to reduce the complexity of Lincoln’s thinking to 140 characters, so let’s just say that he knew better.