Friday, September 25, 2009

The Big Burn

The story I tell is about two rich guys: Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, who came from one of the wealthiest families in the United States—his grandfather was a logger who clear-cut half of Pennsylvania, and one of my theories is that he became a forester out of guilt. His family founded the Yale School of Forestry. In the conservation movement there were several stands of thought coming together—John Muir, and some naturalists on the East Coast—somewhat incrementally. But Roosevelt realized early on in his presidency that he had the power to do it, to create public lands. By executive order he could do it. So it’s two things: one is, he had the passion all along, and then he realized he could do it by executive order and fight with Congress later.

Excerpted from a Smithsonian interview with Egan.

Seems like it would dovetail nicely with The Wilderness Warrior for those who would want to pursue this theme.


  1. Seems like Egan focuses on "event" history, which I always find interesting. As I recall, there was a reading group on The Worst Hard Time in the old NYTimes forum, but alas I didn't participate in it.

  2. I love his column in the NY Times -- I think he gets the west. I'll have to get this one, too.

    Just started Muir last night at the restaurant -- ah, the luxuries of having dinner and beers delivered while you read!

    Worster is such a great writer and historian:

    "A human life, like any mountain trail, winds and twists through a very complicated, ever-changing landscape, taking unexpected turns and ending up in unexpected places. The lay of the land, the physical or natural environment, has some influence over the path one chooses to take -- going around rather than over boulders, say, or along the banks of a stream rather than through a tangled wood. Likewise in the course of an individual life, nature helps give shape to the direction a man or woman takes and determines how his or her life unfolds. So also does one's inner self, the drives and emotions that one inherits from ancestors far back in evolutionary time, determine the route. But the trail of any one's life is also shaped by the ideas floating around in the cultural air one breathes. All those influences make it impossible to explain easily why a person's life follows this path rather than another. Muir's case was no exception. He was shaped by an imposing tangle of factors: the physical nature he encountered, the passions he felt, the people he met, and the ideas he encountered along the way."

    I wish I could write like that!

  3. As for Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency == I read that on the plane. It is boring as the title suggests but this is where the whole interpretation of that period started, so I have to reread it.

  4. Funny enough, I've been offered all sorts of much needed work lately and decided to go with writing a history of the Forest Service's fire sciences lab. This is perfect background!

  5. PBS in Atlanta broadcast a documentary on the history of the National Parks tonight. It had an extensive segment on John Muir. But why oh why must every documentary these days look like it was made by Ken Burns? Does he make all of these documentaries?

  6. Thanks for the reminder. Actually, unless they showed something else in your area, Ken Burns did make this one...! This is the one I was interviewed for.

  7. I never saw you, but then I didn't watch the whole thing.

  8. I seriously doubt I'll be in the series, but I suppose you never know. I'm way too much of a historian (damn that graduate education) always qualifying things, looking for nuance etc. in spite of coaching.

    When in Yellowstone, they filmed the campfire origin story for example. When I pointed out that it was a myth, Duncan admitted they knew that but it was such a good story they wanted to use it anyway. And he said "those who are paying attention will know that."

    That they started with Yosemite suggests he may have changed his mind since this was technically the first "national" park, released by the feds to California.... (well, after Hot Springs Arkansas). Yellowstone had no state to be released to, so it was a true federal or national park.

    In any event, these are the sorts of caveats that can bog down a good story quickly. I'm so snoopy I asked about how he does this and he basically starts with a script and then gets people to say what he wants in their own words so he doesn't have to have a narrator read the whole thing.

    While I was there, they also interviewed several WPA workers who did so much work in the parks. He wasn't sure how they were going to use those interviews, but eventually that all gets donated to some archive, which will be great for some future historian.

  9. He interviewed me about Yellowstone but was really interested in Grinnell, who he saw as the "hero" of the parks. Grinnell certainly was one of the bigger advocates after the railroads..... you can see the problem he had with me even though I tried to be helpful!

  10. "he basically starts with a script and then gets people to say what he wants in their own words so he doesn't have to have a narrator read the whole thing."

    Well he identified the problem but didn't correct it--a major problem with this series--way too much Peter Coyote, way too little of folks like you, or original sources read by many actors (the gimmick that worked in the Civil War series--maybe fewer were willing this time around.) I also agree re the music being too much present and too often the same (if not a banjo folky sound, a plinky piano sound).

    Thoroughness is one thing, but 12 hours really might be too long...many viewers might be just hanging on from gorgeous shot to gorgeous shot.

    It's a lot better being in Yellowstone, eh avrds? What aspects of econ. history are you "hearing" papers on?

  11. Nice to see I'm not the only grouchy reader. Unlike the reviewer of Wilderness Warrior, I think he actually read the book: