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Review: “Saving Yellowstone” by Megan Kate Nelson

“Much like the United States itself, the story of Yellowstone is one of tragedy and hope, defiance and cut-throat ambition, beauty and terror, charity and callousness.”

Yellowstone is America’s national park. It was the first. It remains the most resplendent. Old Faithful and the Lower Falls are among the most iconic images of America’s naturalistic imagination. When we think of the natural treasures of North America, Yellowstone ranks at the very top. Yet when we also think of our natural wonders, we hardly consider the turbulence, technology, and terror that coincided to create these places which are now considered prized treasures of our inheritance.

Megan Kate Nelson has recently become one of the greatest popular writers and historians of Americana and of the American West in particular. Her magnificent 2021 book The Three-Cornered War was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and I have written elsewhere that the book teems with humanity and readability. In another life, I derided this kind of popular history. Today, I am an ardent champion of it. As an avid hiker and naturalist, I enthusiastically looked forward to her newest work, Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America, bringing forth the unlikely and often forgotten story of how Yellowstone became the “natural wonder” that “proved America’s greatness.” It does not disappoint.

Near the end of their first expedition into the Yellowstone Basin, Ferdinand Hayden and his team of intrepid explorers, adventurers, and scientists experienced an earthquake which startled their horses and manifested the full force of the sublimity of nature. “The earthquake suggested, like most of the Yellowstone Basin’s features, that this was a landscape in tumult.” “Landscape in tumult”—that is an apt description of America in 1871 and how Yellowstone became America’s national park.

While we tend to think about science in purely mechanical terms, a result of the victory of the propagandists of the “empty rainbow,” 19th century conceptions of science were far more complex than what is presented by its crude handmaidens today. Early modern science, exemplified by the likes of Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, and Nicolaus Copernicus, envisioned a deterministic cosmos of causality and fixed patterns (itself reflective of their fusion of Divine determinism with the New Science of Francis Bacon). We still largely think of science in the same way: mechanical, dry, straightforward. The spirit of 1871, however, teemed with the specters of the romantic vision of science: one of terror, violence, and conflict—a world of intensity that matched the romantics’ own vision of the passion of existence. That intensity and passion, violence and conflict, is what motivated America’s westward expansion and the scientific expeditions of the 1800s. (This view of a romantic understanding of nature is also part and parcel of America’s western imagination in literature and film, and it saturates the consciousness of those, like myself, who climb mountains and chase waterfalls for the thrill of existence.)

A “landscape in tumult” is the underlying thesis of Nelson’s work. 1871 is just six years removed from the end of the American Civil War, the bloodletting that claimed over 600,000 American lives. It is also the time when the transcontinental railroad was built, the time of the proliferation of the photographic camera, scientific expeditions into the American West, the despoiling of the buffalo and the violence of the “Indian Wars,” and the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and white terrorism in the American South. The casual reader may not see all of this as necessarily linked. However, the majesty of Nelson’s prose and storytelling is in showing how these are all interlinked with the story of Yellowstone National Park.

While the preservationist movement, if we can call it that, aimed at saving the natural wonders of the American West—especially the Yellowstone Basin—it was still part of the longstanding westward expansionist policy. Furthermore, it occurred along with a vision of the United States that was tied to the free-labor and public land development ideology of the Homestead Act, and the ascendant was Republican Party riding high following victory in the American Civil War and near-monopoly on political dominance following President Ulysses S. Grant’s election in 1868. Indigenous tribes, like the Lakota Sioux led by the emergent chief Sitting Bull who garnered his power by killing other indigenous warriors alongside American settlers and soldiers, had to be swept away to make room for the great American project in the west. What was this great American project? Civilization? Empire? Conservation? While we may see these as often opposing values in light of the 21st century, in the mid and late-19th century, they were all part of the prevailing zeitgeist of American politics.

Not only was America exceptional for its democratic republic and attempt to create an interracial democracy (though the Indigenous need not apply like freed Black Americans in the short period of Reconstruction optimism), it was equally (if not more so) exceptional for its geographical history and topography (something that, in spirit, goes back to Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia and the earlier European explorations in search of El Dorado). And America’s exceptional natural wonders were now being made accessible by American industrial greatness: the Transcontinental Railroad. But this also posed a problem: Would that natural greatness be preserved with the opening of the western lands to the burdens of war and settlement? Additionally, the allure of nature (and its tensioned relationship with science) also beckoned.

Ferdinand Hayden seems like an unlikely protagonist of this story. He came from nothing. He did not have scientific credentials like the haughty professors of New England and Ohio, the botanists and geologists teaching at the country’s seminal institutions of higher education. But he was ambitious and cut-throat. His own persona and personality matched the ambitious and cut-throat reality of post-Civil War America. Through social climbing, media connections, and sheer force of will, Hayden ended up being the man to head the congressionally-funded expedition which included a hodgepodge of characters venturing into Yellowstone Basin. Hayden was, “A child of divorce who grew up in poverty, [he] learned early on that he had to hustle to make his way in the world.” And hustle his way to lead the Yellowstone Expedition he did, and with remarkable and consequential ramifications that led to Yellowstone becoming America’s first National Park.

Jay Cooke, a railroad financier and tycoon, was equally instrumental in getting Hayden’s team to Yellowstone for its scientific survey. Before the rise of the railroads, westward travel was by foot, horse, or wagon. Travel was always very slow and often dangerous. Even when setting out from the frontier of civilization along the Mississippi River, one would only have a couple of weeks of good weather to conduct research and surveys in the western mountains and hills before having to leave and find winter shelter in some of the Montana or Great Plains towns lest they die of hunger, starvation, or weather-related crises. A man who was also one of Ulysses S. Grant’s significant presidential donors, Cooke’s Northern Pacific Railroad laid the iron and steel that would bring Hayden, the painter Thomas Moran, and the entire expeditionary team to Yellowstone giving them ample time to conduct their survey of the basin and compile their report for Congress. Cooke was not really involved in the pursuit to preserve Yellowstone for naturalistic reasons either; he saw a great opportunity for financial gain if his railroad monopolized the only modern path to the vast mountainous northwest.

Thomas Moran is one of America’s most celebrated artists. He was an immigrant from England, arriving in Philadelphia in 1845. As a young boy he developed his skills and entrepreneurial spirit by “launch[ing] himself into the working world as a teenager, learning the craft of engraving and then lithography, as part of Philadelphia’s burgeoning book and magazine industry.” This skill Moran cultivated as a teenager became instrumental in pitching Yellowstone as a place of preservation to Congress. His paintings of Yellowstone captured the awesome splendor and vitality of the basin for those men of power who never set foot west of the Mississippi, let alone visited the sacred grounds of Yellowstone.

Moreover, the newspaper and magazine connections that Moran had, along with those of Cooke and Hayden, helped with the ideological dissemination of preservation as a cause of American (naturalistic) Exceptionalism. Yellowstone was news, and Moran was correct to give Americans back east a glimpse of the natural environment that was “pleasing to both the eye and intellect,” capable of producing “powerful emotions,” and revealing “the sublimity of nature,” which was true in 1871 and remains true today in 2022.

President Grant is another unlikely protagonist in the story of Yellowstone. American memory of President Grant is that of the Union war hero who was General of the Armies and accepted the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox—and not usually as the 18th President of the United States. His reputation as President of the United States, if it is remembered at all, tends to be mixed in the public memory as someone shrouded by the smoke of corruption. But President Grant was, in his time, a humane voice dealing with the complications of leading a nation still in tumult after the end of the Civil War.

Leading the Republican Party at the time was no easy job despite its dominance in Congress. Republicans were clamoring for westward expansion, protection of black Americans now threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, and taking bribes from railroad tycoons which began to codify the party’s reputation for being allied with big business. Although Republicans controlled much of America’s political power at the time (federal and state), their internal divisions were always ready to explode. Republicans, more so than Democrats, were also the primary supporters of Hayden’s Yellowstone expedition, though not always for the most benign of reasons. President Grant’s support of Cooke, his eventual abandonment of Reconstruction in the South, and sending federal soldiers west paved the way for Yellowstone and western conservation, as American soldiers originally enforcing Reconstruction moved west and battled the Indigenous tribes for supremacy of the western plains and mountains that would take white American pioneers and settlers closer and closer to Yellowstone Basin.

Sitting Bull is one of the most famous names of the Indigenous heritage of the United States. The fearsome and famed Lakota Sioux warrior chief, whose name achieved immortality through his defeat of George Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (who is also indirectly related to the story of how America’s national park came to be), also tread the cavernous grounds of Yellowstone. To reach Yellowstone, American surveyors, railroad men, and army soldiers had to pass through Lakota territory.

Sitting Bull’s policy of resistance allowed him to consolidate power over the disparate Lakota tribe torn by internal fissures boiling up to erupt—not altogether dissimilar to the United States or the geysers of Yellowstone that mesmerized Hayden’s explorers. Sitting Bull’s defiant stand against American railroad and settler expansion eventually led to outright hostilities, which resulted in the defeat of the Lakota and the final opening of the western lands to American settlers and the federal government’s policy of public land acquisition that would serve to advance the national park system.

Considering Yellowstone as America’s national park, a land of untainted nature, it is important for us to remember that technology and industrialization, war and the sweat of human labor are just as much part of the park’s story as the rolling hills, roaring waterfalls, and rip-roaring geysers. Railroads, pickaxes, bullets, wagons, trains, photographic cameras, and the almighty dollar also helped to achieve the preservation of Yellowstone. The natural splendor of the basin is what we think of when we imagine, and gaze upon, Yellowstone. But those “dark Satanic mills” that William Blake spoke of despoiling the pastoral commons of England also had a hand in preserving the remnants of an American Eden.

Since the publication of Leo Marx’s 1964 book The Machine in the Garden, Americans of a cultured reading background have grown familiar with the contrast and contest between nature and the American Eden vis-à-vis the industrial urbanity bringing corruption, squalor, and violence in its wake, which dominates American (especially western American) mythology, literature, and film. This is a very old cultural trope that is replete throughout American literature and poetry, even going back east (one can think of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau). It is also a false dichotomy insofar as it pits nature against industrialization and innocence against violence in a nifty bifurcation as if the two do not overlap. Nelson reminds us that the beauty and sublimity of America’s natural landscape came about because of that machine of violence that is often paired against in our own cultural imagination. While Yellowstone’s spiritual and metaphysical allure still offer a sense of healing and the specter of an American garden utopia, they exist in tension with the violence that surrounds it and infiltrated it, the devilish machine that also had a hand in its preservation.

In a sense, Yellowstone is a monument to that innocence and grandeur we wish to imagine. The unspoiled and untainted grounds of Yellowstone are something that we Americans should be proud of, and many of us are proud of the fact this ancient basin remains a protected land which transports us back to a mythic perfectionism.

Yet the story of Yellowstone is not particularly innocent as Megan Kate Nelson reveals in this short and splendid read. Much like the United States itself, the story of Yellowstone is one of tragedy and hope, defiance and cut-throat ambition, beauty and terror, charity and callousness. Yellowstone truly is a microcosm of America, which makes it beautifully and hauntingly appropriate for it to be our national park: “…its geysers and mud pots revealed the reality of this strange country: the United States is both beautiful and terrible. It is both fragile and powerful. And what lies beneath the surface in this nation is always threatening to explode.”.

Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He can be found on Twitter @paul_jkrause

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