Voices from the Prairie, the regional literary anthology I co-edited with Kristi Rendahl, is in the hands of the printer. I am hopelessly impatient, so to cope with this minor problem, I have posted my contribution to the volume, The Gallatin!, to Academia.edu.
The Gallatin! takes its name from the section in my mother’s photo album that provides a visual foray into my family’s summer in the northeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park. As the youngest child, I am convinced they did most of the cool stuff before I came along on purpose, and the Gallatin was no exception.
I have never been overly fond of the wilderness, though my family drags me into it year after year, but I am interested in the concept of wilderness. In fact, I find it fascinating.
The premise of this piece comes from Roderick Frazier Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind. Nash argues “that civilization created wilderness. For nomadic hunters and gatherers, who represented our species for most of its existence, ‘wilderness’ had no meaning. Everything natural was simply habitat…” (xi of the 4th edition)
Nash explains that as people began to control – or attempt to control – nature, “Wilderness became the unknown, the disordered, the dangerous.” (xii) After the so-called closing of the frontier in 1890 (See Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis.), “Americans were becoming civilized enough to appreciate wilderness” (xiv) As they came to appreciate it, they developed a myth about it – that it was virgin land, unpeopled.
This virgin view emerged after Yellowstone had been a National Park for a few decades, and the new view reshaped how the Park sold itself. Rather than as a playground or giant zoo of sorts, it became a preserve, a sanctuary where nature could be untroubled by human interference. (For the challenges of non-intervention, see the last chapter of Chris Magoc’s Yellowstone: The Creation and Selling of an American Landscape, 1870-1903.) Ranger Stations were dismantled and camp sites were removed, among them the Gallatin Station. The aim was to return to an untouched wilderness.
The trouble is that they were returning to something that never was. Patricia Limerick and others have argued that this recent notion of wilderness as pristine and untouched is a myth. William Cronin discusses this in Changes in the Land as well as in The Trouble with Wilderness – or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.
A brief piece, The Gallatin! is something of a family story set in the supposedly unpeopled wilderness of the northeastern corner of Yellowstone.