Here in the USA we are celebrating the centennial year of the National Park Service. President Theodore Roosevelt along with leaders like John Muir, Charles Young, and Stephen Mather worked to establish the park system. Quite fortunately, though coincidentally, I just returned from a business trip to Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is an absolutely extraordinary place, inhabited for over 11,000 years by Native Americans and first protected in 1872 as a national park by President Ulysses S. Grant. It is a fabulous place to see wildlife and is home to some of North America’s iconic species like Bison, Elk, Wolf and Grizzly Bears. The change of scenery offered a welcome diversion, even if it was for business rather than pleasure. It reminded me how much a small change can provide a very different perspective.
Studying law at the postgraduate level has brought me a change of perspective similar to the kind experienced by a change in scenery. All I could think about while enjoying the spectacular park and very interesting communities around it was the process of law and legislation that created it. The towns around the park are a law student’s
dream, with every side of the conservation and natural resource conversation well represented and debated. Points of view and ideas that inform various positions percolate like cowboy coffee. You have a ringside seat to the details of legal wrangling at local, state, and federal levels. As a conservation-minded vegetarian with a life-long penchant for wild places, my sympathies naturally fall on one side of the question. As a law student, my visit helped me appreciate how early conservation and political leaders on both sides of the issue negotiated agreements that established the parks and protected wild lands across the country. It also helped me appreciate how knowledge and skill with the law and legal processes will influence the argument and places like Yellowstone in the future.
The presidents, legislation, advocates and activists involved with creating and managing the national parks inspired me to think about the role of legal education in American history, how law shapes our lives, and the way it is depicted in art and culture. That is a big statement, but as a former English major, I can only say how very, very much I want to revisit some of my favourite literary works with this different perspective.
Contemplating the way people of different eras engaged with their challenges through the lens of the law is absolutely absorbing. While I did anticipate enjoying my studies I did not expect to develop a much deeper empathy for my ancestors and their world, or for the courage, nerve, and skill of those embracing the law and its possibilities today.
The development of the Western European legal tradition is a fascinating topic. My text books are page turners that are difficult to put down for small matters like work and family, despite exciting trips to Yellowstone. Gaining a deeper appreciation of the law, its history and role in society is very motivating. As I study this unique subject and learn how law has been shaped by custom, among other influences, I am impressed by what a dynamic and pervasive position it has in society. If you are considering legal studies you might discover a great deal more than you expect. For other students, I encourage you to examine the role of law in your subjects. A little insight about the history and role of law can bring a completely different perspective.