Besides opportunities to view wildlife and gape at astonishing vistas, America's National Parks provide a literary well that never seems to run dry. Every year new books about the parks are published: hiking guides, natural histories, even works of fiction that inhabit the park landscape and often address current issues related to park politics or policy. With crowds swelling annually, particularly across the West, the demand for fresh reads shows no sign of letting up.
John Clayton is one of the most recent authors to contribute to the rich mix of national park literature. In Wonderlandscape: Yellowstone National Park and the Evolution of an American Cultural Icon, the Red Lodge writer focuses primarily on the country's first national park. His approach is somewhat novel. Rather than rehash the known history of Yellowstone's origin, Clayton looks through the lens of American culture as it relates to the park. What made it popular in the first place? Why has it remained popular for so long? Who are the people and what are the events that have shaped it over the years? Yellowstone is a prehistoric landscape so vast it seems unchanged in the tiny scope of our known history, and that is largely true. America, though, has changed, even in the brief 150 years or so since Yellowstone was founded. And Wonderlandscape explores how those changes have affected the way Americans have come to view the park.
Clayton creates this narrative through 10 distinct stories. Each story occupies a different period in the park's history that echoes the zeitgeist of America at the time. For example, early in the book we see how the magnificent paintings of artist Thomas Moran, who was part of an expedition to Yellowstone in 1871, were used by lobbyists arguing in favor of establishing Yellowstone as a national park. His work at capturing these landscapes, so unlike the Euro-centric landscapes Americans were most familiar with, buttressed the growing perception that the United States had its own special character—with the geography to prove it.
Some myths are busted along the way. Clayton possesses something of a contrarian streak that I enjoy, and one of his first targets is Theodore Roosevelt. "For years," Clayton writes, "I wanted to vote for Theodore Roosevelt as Yellowstone's Most Overrated celebrity." He points out that it is fairly common for Americans to associate Roosevelt as a key player in the establishment of Yellowstone as the first national park, and his name is attached to several man-made features in the park. While Roosevelt was renowned as a conservationist—as president he set aside more national parks (five), nature reserves and federal land than all of his predecessors combined—he had little to do with Yellowstone. It was established by Ulysses S. Grant when Roosevelt was 13 years old.
"Roosevelt did visit the park and loved it," Clayton writes. But he "didn't expand it, didn't make lasting alterations to its management, didn't create the National Park Service."
What Roosevelt did do is establish a cultural narrative that played to the story Americans wanted to tell about themselves. He was this rugged man of the wilderness—or seemed to be—who came along at just the right time "to rescue high society from the effete Victorian era." Roosevelt celebrated the West as being responsible for turning him into the manly man he became. "As he spread that credit, thick and wide," Clayton writes, "a great deal of it pooled into the national park."
What about the line, most often attributed to writer Wallace Stegner, calling our national parks "America's best idea"? It is a sentiment that has been restated over and over again, never more loudly than in the title of Ken Burns' 2009 documentary about the national parks. In Wonderlandscape, Clayton asks whose "idea" it was in the first place—something the documentary fails to reveal—and sets out to learn the truth. His research looks into what's known as the campfire myth, a story created by Yellowstone's first superintendent about a group of men who came up with the concept of the park while sitting around a campfire. The story was perpetuated by another park superintendent, Horace Albright, to help Yellowstone transition from a train-based destination for the wealthy elite to a destination for a common, car-touring audience.
Wonderlandscape does an excellent job of giving the reader new ways to appreciate the park, and the personalities that have shaped it. It depicts Yellowstone as a kind of super-lab for understanding how to manage wildlife, and in the process, reveals how the park has been anything but a static, unchanging wilderness. There have been many failures along with successes, but Clayton shows that, regardless, the outcomes have always been fascinating.