Before Congress officially designated Yosemite America’s first national park in 1890, a team of experts was sent out to determine that the land was truly worthless. Why set land aside for a park if it’s valuable, eh? The team reported back to Washington that yes, it was truly worthless. Not fit for mining, agriculture, ranching, other development, or what-have-you. And so the magnificent grandeur of Yosemite National Park became one of our priceless treasures. Priceless because it was worthless.
Often during the day I have similar thoughts about the things I do. Which of them are valuable? Which priceless? Which worthless? Sometimes I wonder if such terms should even be attached to a day’s activities. When these terms seem inappropriate, I can always fall back on “useful” as a measure for what I do, and so utility becomes the criterion for value. The Protestant work ethic hovers over many days, nagging at me to be useful, not waste time, get something important done. A day doing useless activities is wasted, like it has no value at all. And I can begin to think that such days are not priceless.
But maybe they are. Take play for example. Play can be defined as enjoyable activity that has no purpose other than enjoyment. Children used to spend enormous amounts of time—valuable time—playing in this way. They did it to have fun. It was priceless. And adults didn’t seem to mind. But in recent years we’ve decided that children‘s play should also be useful, like teaching them big concepts or developing valuable skills they need to have before they reach the age of, oh let’s say, three. Acquiring skills may have always been a side benefit of play, but it was not the primary goal. Having fun was the primary goal. And children knew whether they were having it or not. (Notice how there always seems to be some parent admonishing a child, “You’re not here to play!!”) (Pssst! Yes, they are.)
Leisure also used to be valued. Doing things slowly or as we say “leisurely.” But that too seems to have become a term unrelated to the valuable and the priceless. Henry David Thoreau, always poised to scold us about something, said, “Nothing can be more useful to a man than a determination not to be hurried.” How would he know, living in the first half of the nineteenth century? Wasn’t everything slow back then? It took so long to do things then compared to today. But each age has its own ideas of what’s fast, slow, hurried, unhurried, useful, useless, and priceless. I guess we shouldn’t cram our current values into other generations’ heads. Let Thoreau cram his own head.
But Thoreau’s comment is a good teaching for us, perhaps more so today than in his day. I have been home for about two and a half weeks after a month traveling in Europe both for teaching and pleasure. (Yes, pleasure. I walked across the Charles Bridge in Prague just for the fun of it! So there!!) But after returning home, all the tasks that went idling, including writing, started to hound me to get them done. It seemed a waste of time—valuable time—to take time off (Now there’s a strange phrase!) and go slow when so much needed to be done. So I have been in a whirlwind of activity since returning home. I value shamanism because it can lift us out of the need to be hurried and rushed. Journeying outside of time and place is liberating, and a reminder that what we do with a day is just a small blip in the greater universe that is timeless, spaceless, and priceless. Shamanism is a reminder that every day and moment is priceless in its own way, and that our lives, which are seemingly bounded by time, are really timeless and always will be. What’s this nonsense about working or being available “24/7”? I think that’s a phrase that would have stuck in Thoreau’s craw.
I am fortunate to live where there are many parks, forest preserves, wooded tracts, and other undeveloped pieces of worthless land. I try to walk through them as often as I can without any goal or motive other than to walk through them. And to walk slowly (and as poet Mary Oliver says, “bow often”) and not think about what I need to do when I get back home. But I’m a man of my times, and I often need to find some “good reason” for taking time off from the more important activities of the day to justify sauntering leisurely among the trees. I keep trying to take a long, slow hike just for the fun of it. But that’s hard to do. Ours is not an age for sauntering. So I remind myself of Thoreau’s remark that not to be hurried is useful. Aaah, there is hope!