“Spirituality and the State: Managing Nature and Experience in America’s National Parks” by Kerry Mitchell— Connecting to Nature

spirituality and the state

Mitchell, Kerry. “Spirituality and the State: Managing Nature and Experience in America’s National Parks”, NYU Press, 2016.

Connecting to Nature

Amos Lassen

There is something about America’s national parks that makes them inspirational and I think we can probably say that this is true because of the power and beauty we find in them. It is easy to connect to oneself and to nature while in the parks but many of us do not know that it takes a lot of work to make nature appear natural. To maintain the apparently pristine landscapes of our parks, the National Park Service must involve itself in traffic management, landscape design, crowd-diffusing techniques, viewpoint construction, behavioral management, and more just to be able to preserve the “spiritual” experience of the park. This labor is invisible to us.


Writer Kerry Mitchell analyzes the way that the state manages spirituality in the parks by the use of techniques that are subtle, sophisticated, unspoken, and powerful techniques. The park officials are aware of the secular ethos that brings about spirituality and have developed strategies that facilitate deep spiritual connections between visitors and the space, Using indirect communication, the design of trails, roads, and vista points, and the management of land, bodies and sense perception, the state gives the visitor ways of experiencing reality that is seen as natural, individual, and authentic. This is one way to naturalize the exercise of authority and the historical, social, and political interests that lie behind it. By doing this, a personal, individual, nature spirituality becomes a public religion that is particularly liberal.

Mitchell has used surveys and interviews with visitors and rangers as well as analyses of park spaces to investigate the production and reception of nature and spirituality in America’s national park system. He gives us a fresh take on the politics of religion in America and provides a “counter-narrative to scholarly celebrations of spirituality that is respectful of his subjects and acknowledges the fact that very few of us, if any, have a clear understanding of why we do what we do”. He denaturalizes the concept of spirituality, and shows that piety is not simply made-up. Rather, piety accomplishes an incredible amount of work in some places where it is necessary to naturalize the nation state and socialize the feelings of individuals. We also read about negative aesthetics or how concealment can be revelatory and “how the vagueness of nature serves to connect a range of individuals by way of a shared humanity that is rather specifically defined”.

I have not spent much time in National Parks in this country so much of this was new to me. I found Mitchell’s analysis of the relationship between state-organized nature and individual spiritual experience fascinating especially how it contributes to the understanding of the secular and the religious. Mitchell pays great attention to the concepts and practices and shows how the ideas and practices of a loosely-defined nature-based spirituality are part of a secular ethos that has become part of the American way of life.

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