There’s a terrible irony lurking in the recent news of the hantavirus outbreak at Yosemite National Park, which has killed three visitors and sickened half a dozen more since mid-June. Part of the backdrop of the 1864 act that established Yosemite as essentially the nation’s first national park (that language would not be used until 1872 in the founding of Yellowstone National Park) had everything to do with health and healing in the latter years of the Civil War. We’d do well to note that from today’s vantage of being in the middle of the sesquicentennial years of the war.
You might not connect Yosemite to the Civil War. But Frederick Law Olmsted, co-creator of Central Park, certainly did. Eyewitness to the horrific destruction wrought by the war when he served as general secretary of the United States Sanitary Commission, a Red Cross-like operation for the North, Olmsted despaired as the nation became, in his memorable phrasing, a “republic of suffering.”
By 1864, when he was briefly relocated to California, Olmsted envisioned the breathtaking Yosemite Valley as a convalescent, even redemptive, site of national healing. He served as the best known and best prepared member of the first Yosemite Park Commission, a body charged with formulating plans about management of this Sierra Nevada landscape once Congress established protections for it.
In contemplating Yosemite, Olmsted responded with ideas familiar to him about the necessity of melding democracy with nature to preserve both. And his thoughts were never far removed from the gory battles that pitted North against South. The trauma of the Civil War had heightened what he called the nation’s susceptibility to aesthetic and therapeutic contemplation, which meant nature, and especially Yosemite, could play a crucial role in reconstruction — of body as well as nation.
Olmsted’s arguments emphasized the point that Yosemite’s arrival into American consciousness — whether by way of famed 1860s photographs, paintings or florid writings — was about national healing and personal convalescence in both physical and psychological terms. “If we analyze the operation of scenes of beauty upon the mind,” he wrote, “and consider the intimate relation of the mind upon the nervous system and the whole physical economy, the action and reaction which constantly occur between bodily and mental conditions, the reinvigoration which results from such scenes is readily comprehended.”
In other words, the insults and assaults of the Civil War demanded convalescent response, and the far West beckoned.
This genesis of a national idea about health and conservation — unprecedented and radical — makes the hantavirus story all the more poignant and tragic. It’s not that death or sickness are anything new at national parks, of course. We’d kid ourselves if we did not acknowledge that at least some of the attraction of places such as Yosemite is for visitors to commit acts of feckless daredevilry. For every busload of Yosemite tourists who never leave the valley floor, there’s some thankfully smaller number who tempt fate by climbing where they should not or by ignoring plentiful warnings to stay well away from cold, fast and deep rivers or waterfalls. And even if you are prepared and experienced, there is danger because there is risk in the wilderness — and Yosemite is as much wilderness as it is valley floor.
But no sign or warning can prevent hantavirus; it is invisible and seems to have gotten into the bodies of its victims as they did nothing more reckless than breathe the contaminated air of their cabins and tents.
These recent deaths are but a terrible, quirk-of-fate reminder that our fervent wishes about nature’s restorative power can never come with guarantees of health or safety. We will still go to nature to convalesce, and the national parks will remain fundamental to that quest. But the journey will always have its dangers and uncertainties, both seen and unseen.
William Deverell is a professor of history at USC.