A sensitive portrait of the iconic national park in terms of the American people’s place in it.
American history and culture converged in the creation and preservation of Yellowstone National Park, as Montana journalist Clayton (Stories from Montana's Enduring Frontier: Exploring an Untamed Legacy, 2013, etc.) delineates in his fine survey. The author proceeds chronologically in his exploration of the many layers of Yellowstone’s significance, from its geological magnificence to its function as a romantic symbol of American self-image and illustration of the dire urgency for ecological attention. Clayton chronicles the stories of people who have been profoundly moved by the natural site and how their sagas dovetail with a larger cultural picture, beginning with the first intentional American expedition (the author sets aside Native American life for another study) by “upper-class explorers” in 1870-1871, which included painter Thomas Moran, who “intended to transform the nature he witnessed into art, into a piece of culture for others to consume,” and “scientist-bureaucrat” Ferdinand Hayden. As the concept of a romantic Western landscape merged with the sense of America's Manifest Destiny, Yellowstone grew in political stature and importance, as did its need for preservation by the 1880s (although Clayton reminds us that the National Park Service was not founded until 1916). Other significant personages in the development of the park as a cultural touchstone (and not just a sanctuary for wild animals) included architect Robert Reamer, who designed and built the eclectic Old Faithful Inn in 1903-1904; National Park leaders Horace Albright and Hermon Carey Bumpus, who advocated for roads and museums to make the park more accessible and “teachable”; twin brothers Frank and John Craighead, who conducted groundbreaking experiments with electronic trackers on grizzlies and other animals; and the valiant firefighters and ecologists who helped the park return to health after devastating fires in 1988.
A thoughtful study of a celebrated natural wonder that has come to truly “embod[y] American ideals.”