Earlier this month, the iconic Pioneer Cabin Tree—an ancient behemoth—came crashing to the ground in a fierce storm. In the heart of California’s Calaveras Big Trees State Park, this giant sequoia was laid to rest after inspiring centuries of awe. Known also as the “tunnel tree,” the sequoia had a car-sized hole bored through it in 1881 by a private landowner in a move to generate tourist dollars. I grieved when the story came across my newsfeed. This tree was an odd blend of the sacred and the sacrilegious. It stood as a testament to the majesty and sheer creative force of God, and yet the massive hole was an inescapable reminder of the great injury humanity can bring down upon the sacred.
The landscape of our wild places is constantly changing. In 2008, Wall Arch snapped and crumbled in the middle of the night. Across North America, thousands of acres are closed annually when wildfires force out residents and visitors alike. Landscapes have to shift and change. Many times, these changes are a natural progression and they are good. We feel the grandeur and the power of God tickle up our spines when we consider the magnitude of peaks crumbling into valleys.
At the same time, I find myself aching every time we lose a wild space. Would the Pioneer Cabin Tree still have tumbled if thousands of automobiles had not run through it? Perhaps. (There is photo evidence that the hole in the tree began as lightning damage.) Or perhaps we played a role in the undoing of this magnificent tower. We cannot deny our involvement in desecrating many of our sacred spaces. This should give us pause as we remember that it is precisely through these places that God reveals himself to us.
Growing up in an unchurched home, we never spoke of God. And yet I recall distinct, unexplainable moments of holiness and awe, throughout my childhood, that came through the embrace of wild spaces. Every summer, my parents hauled my sister and I across the country in a banged-up van and canvas tent. Before I had church words to attach to my experience, I felt the presence of God in the untamed, natural world we share. There are truths about God he chooses to reveal only through creation. When reckless tourism and consumerism play a role in changing the landscape, we rob one another—and future generations—of the same revelations we have enjoyed. Is it possible that the iconic places we celebrate are also shrines to our penchant for sacrificing the sacred?
This tree was an odd blend of the sacred and the sacrilegious.
Atop Pikes Peak, Katharine Lee Bates was inspired to write the words that would become the lyrics to “America the Beautiful.” Visitors to that site today can read a plaque with her lyrics, then turn to find a majestic site with a parking lot. A visitor center, gift shop, restaurant, and train station sit at the summit. The world’s highest cog train dumps passengers off as automobile drivers swap stories of their harrowing 19-mile trip up Pikes Peak Highway. The alpine tundra that supports their foot traffic is an exceptionally fragile ecosystem. Wagon ruts from the 1800s still run alongside the route and boot prints can last decades. Visitors change this landscape every summer as they blow past boundary signage to capture the perfect picture.
We are enamored of such places, which fill us with holiness and majesty. Sadly, to take in this revelation and the simple beauty of a place is often not enough. At first, driven perhaps by charitable instincts, we are desperate to share our experience of the divine: “Come, see and experience what I cannot put to words!” But then it shifts and we begin to manipulate that grandeur for our own gain. Can this place be monetized and monopolized?
Humanity has always sacrificed the sacred. A selfish reaction to holiness and awe was part of our original rebellion against God and it is part of what led us to crucify Jesus. It leads us to desecrate creation on the altar of gift shops and parking lots. So let us take a moment, with the falling of the Pioneer Cabin Tree, to pause and consider how we might reverently stand amidst the glories of creation. Let us take them in as divine expressions of sovereign love without having to buy a t-shirt.