A Study in Appreciation of Nature : John C. Merriam and the Educational Purpose of Crater Lake National Park

By Mark, Stephen R. | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

A Study in Appreciation of Nature : John C. Merriam and the Educational Purpose of Crater Lake National Park


Mark, Stephen R., Oregon Historical Quarterly


If inspiration is a creative force or a divine influence leading to great works or understanding, then it is also highly relative to individuals and resists precise definition. For John Campbell Merriam, inspiration lay at an intersection of the emotions aroused by art and of observable scientific fact made intelligible through careful study of the geologic past. Crater Lake, in his view, was especially useful in illustrating the earth as a living thing, since beauty and power could be seen there in extreme contrast.[1] Merriam believed that the educational program at Crater Lake National Park should focus on helping visitors see the landscape in the process of development, a landscape whose major features would inspire them to appreciate the "unity of Nature."[2]

For Merriam, Crater Lake stood out as a superb case study, an opportunity to show how a scientist could develop a formalized program of "interpreting" nature for the general public. With the dramatic landscapes of Crater Lake and the Grand Canyon as branch campuses, Merriam hoped that the national park system would be perceived widely as a "superuniversity of nature." At Crater Lake National Park, Merriam thought, the Park Service could develop the means through which visitors could find inspiration -- the true purpose of all national parks.

As president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, a private foundation devoted to furthering scientific research, Merriam represented credibility and influence for the fledgling National Park Service (NPS) as it struggled to position itself among federal bureaucracies during the 1920s. He wrested time from administrative duties in Washington, D.C., to visit the parks each summer. On one trip to Crater Lake in August 1928, he paused with the park superintendent south of the Watchman, fourteen hundred feet above the lake, and looked into the crater of Wizard Island. The cone covered a large part of what Merriam described as a "picture," with the lake as background and Mount Scott in the distance. This view of the Crater Lake landscape prompted Merriam to articulate four reasons why people visit national parks: change from the ordinary, rest in the outdoors, an opportunity to see new or unusual things, and a chance to learn something.[3] Because visitors arrived in national parks in a relaxed, receptive mood, they were in a frame of mind to consider large, fundamental questions. Under those conditions, an individual could make real decisions of exceptional significance -- or at least capitalize on the possibility for intellectual and spiritual growth.[4]

Given that potential, Merriam was adamant that park management at Crater Lake be centered on providing opportunities to enjoy and appreciate the lake's beauty. His charge went beyond providing access to the park and instead aimed at linking aesthetic features, such as the lake's intense blue color, with the geological events that had produced the remarkable caldera. Rather than dictating the content of a person's park experience, Merriam wanted to leave "as much as possible" to individual visitors.[5] The park would be a catalyst for visitors to form their own views about even the smallest aspects of nature. Exposure to natural features such as Crater Lake could open "windows of the mind" to a continuing influence by beauty and grandeur.[6] Merriam prodded the NPS to help the national parks serve what he believed was their main purpose: to stimulate the thinking of visitors so that they could derive great lessons from the landscape. Instead of merely protecting the parks "in the hope that these places would be well used," the NPS should take an active role in adult education.[7]

The NPS had been in existence for scarcely a decade in 1928, and it administered twenty national parks and thirty-two national monuments.[8] The agency's organic act, passed in 1916, directed the NPS to "promote and regulate" land set aside for national parks and monuments and to avoid impairment of park values while providing enjoyment for visitors.

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