A complicated history of conservation.
Like many visitors to national parks, Eisenfeld (MA Writing Program/Johns Hopkins Univ.) assumed that the land had always been wilderness. One day, however, in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, she came upon “an incongruous, well-maintained cemetery in the middle of the forest” and realized that the land once had been a community where people lived, worked and buried their dead. For the next two decades, she hiked off-trail, bushwhacking, in search of the park’s past. The author’s vivid debut work of nonfiction recounts that search: a memoir of her explorations into places “not curated for beauty”; a capsule history of the conservation movement that created such spectacular sites as Yosemite, Yellowstone and Shenandoah; and, based on interviews and archival sources, stories of families whose homes and lives were threatened by their government’s good intentions. The Shenandoah project, she learned, was begun by an act of Congress in 1926, which mandated the government to create a national park in Virginia—convenient for the growing mid-Atlantic population—by gaining title from landowners. A condition of the bill stipulated that the government would buy no land; instead, it expected donations. Lawmakers who enacted the bill assumed that the area’s few inhabitants, “the nameless and faceless mountaineers,” would not object to leaving “what many outsiders considered their godforsaken, hardscrabble homes.” However, the lawmakers were surprised: Their surveyors returned, reporting “that the area wasn’t quite the wilderness the park promoters had depicted” but rather “encompassed 5,650 tracts and 3,250 homes,” with orchards, gardens, gristmills, blacksmith shops and cemeteries. Some residents had lost deeds; others adamantly refused to be dispossessed. The next years saw conflicts and evictions, protests and lawsuits, and often stalwart resistance.
Eisenfeld writes about Shenandoah the way Annie Proulx writes about Wyoming or Edward Abbey about the deserts of the Southwest: pristine, unsentimental, eloquent prose.