Any Yellowstone National Park fan who thinks everything has been written about the Park and its history is wrong.
John Clayton’s new book, “Wonderlandscape: Yellowstone National Park and the Evolution of an American Cultural Icon,” features plenty of engaging material few Yellowstone devotees besides historians have thought about.
As the author explores what makes Yellowstone Yellowstone in the public imagination he leads the reader on an enjoyable path to knowledge.
From artist Thomas Moran to television cartoon character Yogi Bear, from the creation of the dude ranch in the Cody area to famed photographer Ansel Adams’ visual recordings, from the massive fires of 1988 to the evolution of grizzly bear policies still felt today, Clayton focuses on narrower slices of the Park’s evolution to determine how we got where we are today.
Clayton is best-known in the Cody area for his book “The Cowboy Girl: The Life of Caroline Lockhart.”
He lives in the Yellowstone region and like so many of us drawn to the world’s oldest national park repeatedly, he can’t stay away. But Clayton was also drawn to the hows and whys behind what is, not merely what he sees on each visit.
Clayton’s introduction includes this passage: “The story of Yellowstone is the story of a place gifted with natural wonders and cultural force and with powerful yet ever-changing ways to harness those gifts for the greater good. It is, in other words, the story of America.”
One thing explored is just how anyone really even dreamed up the notion of setting aside land for future generations. This is a tricky topic because of the vaguely articulated thoughts in the 1800s and the seemingly retroactively placed thoughts.
When Ken Burns produced his magnificent documentary on the national parks system, he called it “America’s Best Idea.”
Where did that idea come from?
Nathaniel Langford, the Park’s first superintendent after its 1872 founding, wrote a book some 30 years later telling a tale of early explorers, himself included, sitting around a campfire and discussing the need to keep the Yellowstone lands pure. Not everyone believes such a session took place.
Clayton makes the case the duo of Stephen Mather and Horace Albright, the key executives overseeing the birth of the National Park Service and the expansion of the parks system in the early decades of the 20th century, ingrained the idea in the American people through their programs. Fair enough.
They were salesmen who believed strongly in the necessity of preventing some of America’s lands from being gobbled up by industrialization and settlement. They employed the 50th anniversary of the founding of Yellowstone in 1922 to their public relations advantage.
“You didn’t have to be excited about geology or wildlife or frontier conditions to love Yellowstone,” Clayton wrote. “You could come because you wanted to be a better citizen, take a civics lesson, become inspired about your country’s ideals. Yellowstone had been discovered and set aside by vacationing middle-class folks just like you, who had a spirit of patriotism just like yours.”
Think of that the next time you drive through the East Gate.