a1 Department of History, Texas A&M University. Email: email@example.com.
“Viewing the national parks as the highest incarnation of American attitudes on nature,” Ian Tyrrell said, “has long occupied an important historiographical space within nature's conception in the United States,” and he went on to show how much of that space was taken up by local ideas and how little by the parks' transnational context. To redress the balance and encourage more work he offered an account of the work and international connections of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society in the early twentieth century. The account added to our knowledge of the park movement and suggested what might be learned from overlooked organizations but it also spoke to richer themes. In the late nineteenth century concern grew in industrialized countries about the destruction of nature and debates began about its place in a society where, for the first time in history, most people could ignore their ties to the world beyond the sidewalks. Conservation and preservation became public issues, even popular crusades, and outdoor recreation an important social phenomenon. National parks formed only one element in these conversations, which invariably mixed nature and culture. Everyone wanted to get “back to nature,” but a nature defined in familiar terms, terms set by attention to the local conditions and a common cultural background. Also, they usually ran off in all directions. In Great Britain the urge to preserve led on the one hand toward nature conservancy, firmly embedded in the local and in the mystique of English rural life, on the other to the campaign to save big game in the overseas colonies for imperial sportsmen. In Germany, the nature movements were, sometime after they began, associated with, or appropriated by, politics, which led a later generation to spill much historical ink over the question of how Green were my Nazis – or the converse. In the Antipodes the European settlers of Australia and New Zealand pressed nature into the service of rising nationalism. They called themselves “natives,” gave other names to the people already on the land, and made native species national symbols to be protected by law. A generation before they had enthusiastically imported everything that reminded them of “home” and gave the local biota nothing but the back of their hand. All the while, of course, they clung to allegiance and identification with Britain. In the United States, its eastern areas “settled” for three hundred years and its western ones barely snatched from the Indians, both local and “imperial” conversations went on within the country. Campaigns for nature in the East looked toward the preservation or reconstruction of early European settlements, or at least those where the settlers spoke English, and in the West to vast parks that would preserve the national-heritage monumental scenery. Here too the elite pressed for conservation programs that would rationalize the scramble for the region's still-untapped resources. Easterners regarded all these as matters of sound management of the nation's treasure; westerners saw them as colonial exploitation. South Africa, with two European cultures and populations and a variety of indigenous ones, carried on its own, even more complex, conversations.
For reasons built into the discipline, historians generally neglected whatever international aspects they found in these discussions. Academic history, established to tell the (usually triumphant) story of the nation-state, had little place for them, and the archival sources so important to professional practice often left them out. Particularly when compiled by government agencies, records traced what an organization did rather than where its ideas came from. Transnational topics might have found a home in the study of foreign relations, but that field – influenced by the archives – was for generations narrowly defined as governments talking to each other. Intellectual history, another possible refuge, tended to look at great ideas passed down through the ages. In the United States historians faced an additional handicap, the strong tide of American exceptionalism. Add the strong human desire to play “I've got a secret” and it is easy to see why transnational themes got a scant mention in chapter 1 before the author got down to the real story – what they found in the archives.
Tyrrell's account raises rather than settles issues, asks more than it answers, and suggests more than it declares. It invites further thought, not just about the place of wilderness in the parks but about the larger issue of the lines drawn between nature and culture during the last century. The American national parks began with some areas we now consider wilderness, but early park developers did not think of wilderness as we do or place the same values on wild lands, and while John Muir and his cohort were busily engaged in fencing off nature as a separate world, everyone else, including the ASHPS, had no trouble mixing them, and when ordinary people went “back to nature” they carried their culture with them. His major point, that from the first the parks had an international component, could be further developed, for he told only the first chapter in a continuing story. Parks still hark back to Yellowstone. Doing research in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, I found (or at least it seemed like it) in the introduction to every park history, weighty book or local pamphlet a mention of Yellowstone, the mother house of national parkdom. Like American politicians getting right with Lincoln, or more recently Reagan, boosters felt the need to show that their park belonged to a storied tradition. Talking with ecologists, I found them continually bringing in examples from elsewhere, sometimes another continent, and the records of Parks Canada recorded administrative conversations across the 49th parallel. The United States and Canada not only had a common culture and the same biota but roughly similar situations – population centers in the east and world-class mountain scenery far to the west. Because America had more people and developed more quickly, Parks Canada used the American problems and disasters or good points to prepare for its own future. In the 1960s, as the parks began to emphasize ecological ingetrity, the tide ran the other way. Canada's less-developed wild areas became possible examples for the rewilding of American parks.
While parks histories burned incense before Yellowstone's shrine in their introductions, in their texts they told a different tale. Ideas and ideals came from abroad, but people made parks by adapting these to local conditions. Historians have only begun to explore this topic. American scholars have in the last decade or so recorded the making of parks by the erasing of history – excluding Native American hunting and gathering or white settlers' livestock grazing. That picks up a thread in studies of parks and hunting in Africa and India, but we have not fully included the Antipodes or made systematic comparisons. Climate and topography allowed New Zealand to build parks around common European cultural values for the vision of Britain-in-the-South-Seas, but it still faced the awkward problems posed by having people already on the land. The Maori experience might usefully be laid alongside that of the American Indians and the Canadian First Nations. They retained more political rights than the North American tribes but still lacked control of the land, and European ideas of parks did not fully accommodate their land uses. In Australia the original inhabitants could more easily be ignored (or exterminated), but making parks required stretching the category of “scenery.” Only in Tasmania was there much resembling the European ideal. The peculiarities of Australian ecosystems (one ecologist told me it took two years in-country to begin to grasp their differences from the rest of the world) and the pervasive presence of invasives created unique management problems. A record of park management over the last century – as outside ideas about landscapes changed, Australians found their own vision, and ecology became the measure of nature – would not only be fascinating but provide a perspective from which to study other nations. Here too the southern African experiences would provide more food for thought.
Tyrrell got to the heart of the matter with the observation that the ASHPS's members shared with European park advocates an aesthetic “centered on a revolt against mechanical civilization and in favour of the authentic.” As policy and programs, public crusade and social movement, modern nature appreciation had its roots in the reaction against industrialism, particularly that part interested not in returning to the past but in making experience in nature a vital part of modern life. The outdoor recreations in the Anglo-settled colonies of North America and Australasia often turned pioneer work into industrial play. American sport hunting looked to unsettled country and emphasized pioneer woodcraft as the central skill (recall the Boone and Crockett Club, formed in 1889) but found its code of sportsmanship among the English gentry and its weapons at the Winchester factory. Sport fishing at one end of the social spectrum paid homage to Izaak Walton, with elaborate equipment and an equally elaborate code for the taking of species like trout, at the other to the joys of the American rural childhood with cane poles and bobbers for sunfish. Canadians followed the voyageurs in camping and canoeing but took modern tents, cooking gear, and bedding on their expeditions into the true North strong and free. Australians rode trolleys out from Sydney and Melbourne to spend Sundays “bushwalking” with swag and billy can, in conscious homage to the wandering workers of the outback. Even the landscapes that became icons of identity, such as the New England countryside of small farms and stone walls, were hardly “natural.” These iconic views reproduced the countryside of failing, hardscrabble farms and returning forests that the first wave of “summer people” saw when they escaped the industrializing city.
American birdwatching most consciously and successfully pulled nature into culture. The hobby began in the late nineteenth century as a way to encourage bird conservation by getting women interested in bird study, and it developed as a humane way to study birds in the field and as a quest for beauty and meaning in nature that did not require a retreat to Walden. The first field guides described birds that were found around the home and in city parks, and there the first generation compiled its lists. Birdwatchers counted, and still do, any free specimen of a wild species, wherever found. The peregrine seen taking a pigeon over Fifth Avenue had the same value on the checklist as the peregrine seen taking a dowitcher on the Arctic tundra. Species introduced by humans counted once they established free, breeding populations. After some initial hesitation birdwatchers even included the house, or as it was then called the English, sparrow (Passser domesticus), a pestiferous import they compared to the immigrants with whom it shared New York's streets.
In the parks no bright line separated that engineered marvel of nature, Central Park, from the apparently natural one of Yosemite Valley (its park-like scenery the result of Indian fires). The early national parks were set aside for spectacular scenery and developed to give visitors a comfortable experience of the sublime. Roads had views over valleys and mountain ranges, and while the hotels looked rustic they featured comfortable armchairs by plate glass windows looking out over the lawn to the mountains or the lake. Wildlife meant large ungulates posing nobly in family groups in the middle distance. American and Canadian park officials fed elk and other “good” animals through the winter and put out poison, traps, and guns to get rid of the “bad” ones, like wolves. Even humans had to fit this vision. Yosemite Valley became a spectacle of nature when the Indians were removed, and Yellowstone rangers kept the park “natural” by excluding Indian hunters and gatherers and white graziers. There was in all this no wilderness aesthetic, hardly even a “wild” one, in Thoreau's sense of the wild as a quality in nature essential to our lives.
We might, in fact, modify Tyrrell's argument that there was no export of an American wilderness version of the parks before World War I and just say there was no wilderness version to export. That seems extreme, but wilderness as a land use came not from the national parks but from the national forests, not in the formative years but after World War I, and not because anyone saw “pristine” nature as the highest incarnation of nature's values. The first areas stemmed from plans Aldo Leopold and Arthur Carhart made for the Forest Service's southwestern region just after World War I, and wilderness was not forever but an administrative classification that could be changed when the agency found a “higher” (read “more lucrative”) use for the land. The National Park Service only took up the cause in the 1930s as part of the redefinition of “nature” in the parks that led to an end to predator poisoning and a new emphasis on parks as refuges for endangered species. That change also included the preservation or restoration of pre-Columbian landscapes (another type of “historic” view). In 1940 the NPS added the first “wilderness” park, Isle Royale, and made it into wilderness by removing evidence of a century of human occupation and managing wildlife for ecosystem integrity. These objectives occasionally came into conflict. In the 1950s Durward Allen, directing research on the island's wolf population, had to plead with park personnel not to burn down the summer cottages still in the woods. His graduate students needed them for shelter during winter research.
The conflation of national parks and wilderness comes, I suspect, from Wilderness and the American Mind. That founding document of American environmental history, and particularly its intellectual history, often served as a light for our path and a lantern for our steps, but here it may have been a snare and a delusion. In showing that the concept of wilderness had a long history, Nash made it easy to believe that wilderness as a land use had an equally impressive one and that wilderness was the highest incarnation of nature in the parks. Events reinforced that, for he wrote as wilderness was becoming a political issue and public policy and the parks' early aim at scenery for high-class vacations had become faintly embarrassing and the agency's record of poisoning predators and excluding poor settlers and Indians something best forgotten. Runte's useful pioneer effort did not break the spell, for while it told an important story it was one of the parks as a system, which said little about the agency's mixed motives and the parks' mixed landscapes.
The national parks are indeed “the highest incarnation of American attitudes on nature,” but not the only one and not of American values alone. The large and interesting stories and questions lie in the record of the varying fates ideas common to the culture met as people applied them around the world. Entities describable, or described, as “national parks” exist in countries settled by Europeans, countries where European colonizers ruled over an established civilization, and where Europeans never had political sway. They include areas where humans were removed and where they still pursue their ordinary, nonindustrial lives. The same country may have parks of markedly different kinds. Canada has, effectively, one system in the south, where the industrial population lives and works, another beyond European settlement, where only indigenous hunters and international mining companies roam. Parks lie in areas of classically sublime scenery and places without much claim to that distinction. Everywhere, though, we see the picture Tyrrell presented in this piece: ideas about nature rooted in the culture and a concern with the local formed by participation in international conversations. The activities, programs, and organizations around us have gone through many changes since the late nineteenth century in response to new knowledge and conditions, and scholars have a vast country to explore. It is not a scholarly wilderness – many have trekked over parts of the territory – but it is not a well-groomed suburb either.