Book Review: A Weird and Wild Beauty: The Story of Yellowstone, the World’s First National Park by Erin Peabody
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.
In early 1871, the readers of Scribner’s Magazine, one of the best-selling periodicals in the United States, were treated to an article about a mysterious land south of the Montana Territory. According to the article, there was a place of geysers that shot steaming water hundreds of feet into the air, where mud pools exploded on a regular basis, and trees were encased in stone. This was the first widely-published account of the Yellowstone, and many dismissed it as an absurd traveler’s tall tale.
But the Yellowstone River and its surroundings were very real. It had been named “Mi tse a-da-zi” (Rock Yellow River) by the Minnetaree tribe, and translated to “Roche Jaune” by French trappers before English speakers gave it the present name. Native Americans had often visited or lived there for its special properties, and stories of it were shared by the few hardy white people who’d managed to survive a visit. They were generally disbelieved by those who had not been there. It took a proper expedition organized by former banker Nathaniel Langford and staffed by sober, reliable citizens to show the reality.
This volume is a history of how Yellowstone became a National Park written for young adults by a former park ranger. The primary emphasis is on the two important expeditions, first Langford’s and then a full scientific expedition led by government geologist Ferdinand Hayden. In addition to the hardy scientists and support staff, the expedition had two artists and photographer William H. Jackson, and their visual evidence was key in convincing Congress of the reality of the fabled wilderness.
The writing is clear and concise, rated for twelve and up, but quite readable for adults. There are multiple sidebars about related subjects such as the Transcontinental Railroad and Henry David Thoreau, and many illustrations in both black & white and color.
The history section briefly covers what is known of the history of the Yellowstone area before the expeditions, and up to the point where the National Park bill was signed into law. More recent events concerning the park are not covered in the main text, although some are mentioned in the sidebar.
After the history section, there’s a map of America’s National Parks and other federal preserves, then a couple of chapters on the science of why Yellowstone is a unique area. There are endnotes, a bibliography, index and photo credits (in readable sized font!)
Part of Yellowstone’s importance is mentioned in the subtitle; it was not just the United States’ first National Park, but the world’s. Previously, when land was set aside to preserve it, it was only for the powerful (“the King’s forest”) or the very wealthy to enjoy. This was the first time a national government had set aside wilderness for the sake of the public at large. And just in time, as the Hayden expedition had already run into people planning to exploit the Yellowstone area for private commercial gain. (At this point in history, the U.S. side of Niagara Falls had already been completely privatized and commercialized!)
The book briefly touches on mistreatment of Native Americans, the extinction or near-extinction of animal species and other difficult topics, but these are not the main concern. The bibliography contains books that go into much more detail on these matters.
Most recommended for teens interested in history and the outdoors, but also good (and affordable) for adults with similar interests.