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Wanderings in the Wilderness: Taking Bearings (The Library) by Adam M. Sowards - Issue #4
Searching for lessons in an 85-year-old book.
A few prefatory words
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This week’s feature is The Library, which means I'm reflecting on a book. But I hope it doesn't read like a book report! Read on.
Wandering in the Wilderness with the Chapmans
The Story of the Book
The Chapmans—Wendell and Lucie—met, married, and made a plan. After working for a decade, they would take a year off. A Gap Year at 35. Possibly in the South Seas? But a storm interrupted their good sailing plans.
After law school and doing well in the bond business in the 1920s, Wendell and the rest of the nation (and large chunks of the world) faced the Great Depression. As such things do, this economic downfall clarified things. No longer did the Chapmans aim for a year off; they were done. Seeing suicides and nervous breakdowns changed Wendell. Continuing in business seemed futile. “In the crowded city we were just two more ants;” they wrote, “in the vast out-of-doors we seemed to have a place in the scheme of things.” With that sense of place, they invested in their “health and happiness” and headed away from financial security—and toward Yellowstone.
They arrived after the heavy summer tourist season and became entranced, especially with beavers, and they decided to remain all winter.
“No foreign lands for a while. There was plenty to see right here. Why chase rainbows when we were at the foot of one already?”
With this explanation, the Chapmans’ Wilderness Wanderers is set as a book, ten percent into the tome. The next almost-300 pages takes the reader along with them to various parts of Yellowstone—and a little beyond—focused almost exclusively on wildlife. The cover suggests as much.
To spend time with a book is both an intellectual and a tactile act. In this case, the tactile may have outweighed the intellectual experience. Wilderness Wanderers was published in 1937. My first edition is a hefty book with dimensions that make it ponderous: about eight inches by ten inches and an inch-and-a-half thick. The binding is in better shape that the bones of most 85-year-olds, but cracks and crinkles played along with my reading. Every turn of the thick pages reminded me of the age of the volume.
The ideas were old, too.
A Different World with Different Ethics
I have no doubt that the Chapmans loved wildlife—they convey this fascination and affection clearly—but their interactions with various can make a modern reader stop cold and wonder.
Wendell climbed into a “beaver house.”
They named some animals.
They sometimes referred to them as pets.
They assigned concepts like “fair play” and “private property” to what they observed.
They compared the National Park Service feeding wildlife to the animals being on the “dole.”
And they fed small animals. A lot. At one point they even nursed some orphaned ground squirrels.
And in Wendell’s endless attempt to get good photographs, he often seemed to be harassing animals, especially young ones.
Those of us socialized with Leave No Trace sensibilities and admonished to “leave only footprints” cannot help be shocked by the intrusive way the Chapmans moved through Yellowstone. (At one point, they describe driving down an unfinished road and then leaving it to drive into a “virgin meadow.”) And obviously the Chapmans had never heard the advice today's science and writing students receive about avoiding anthropomorphism.
All of this, though, is a reason to dip into books from other times and cultures: to glimpse other ways of believing and being in the world.
Social History Glimpsed
Some of those glimpses, though, can be unsettling, even offensive. Those, too, teach us things or lead us to pose important questions.
Wilderness Wanderers is about nature in the mountains, yet traces of social history lay within the pages.
Consider gender norms. The cover bears two names: Wendell and Lucie. Some sort of collaboration is implied by both names, but authorship isn’t clear. The text is in Wendell’s first-person voice. There is no evidence about whether he wrote it or co-wrote it or took credit for Lucie’s work—all seem possible.
The era’s sexism appears sporadically between the covers. Wendell tells us of first meeting Lucie in college on an outing to Point Reyes, now a national seashore. Immediately smitten, it seems, Wendell had to surrender “an old prejudice against women who craved the outdoor life.” Without further explanation. Perhaps, in 1937, “everyone” would have understood what that meant.
Once the Chapmans made it to Yellowstone, obstacles appeared for Lucie. Park officials made clear women could not ski to the interior of the park. And she could not join Wendell when he headed to the famed Buffalo Ranch, because there was no place for her to stay given the bunkhouse set up at the ranch. (Simultaneously resigned and dismissive, Wendell said: “I was sorry that Lucie had missed this trip, yet, after all, it was a man’s world.”)
And a few times in the book, the Chapmans discuss Indigenous peoples, not acquitting themselves particularly well. The casualness of the racist stereotypes dropped in the text suggests something clear about the time—that such stereotypes were not problems to avoid. (No purpose is served in sharing the specifics—they don’t need airing—but it was common in books at the time and often long after.)
Despite this bad example of racist thinking and writing, the Chapmans do describe a historical moment that is interesting to capture in the history of twentieth-century Tribal resurgence.
Wendell observed an annual buffalo roundup, and Robert Yellowtail (1889-1988) from the Crow Reservation arrived with a purpose. Yellowtail was a historic, if sometimes controversial, figure. Appointed superintendent over the reservation, he oversaw the addition of 40,000 acres of grazing land and new stock. Yellowtail was at Yellowstone’s Buffalo Ranch to obtain 87 bison to restock the Crow Reservation, starting a bison herd after the devastation of the previous century. The account Wendell offered remained predictably condescending, but he found it “heartening” that “a new trail in wildlife restoration” was beginning before his eyes.
Nuggets like these, even if they aren’t at the heart of a book’s purpose are what an undergraduate professor of mine called “telling details,” places where meaning is rich. From them, we can piece together stories from beneath the surface.
From Prose to Purpose
I found Wilderness Wanderers several years ago and bought it to join scores of old books I own that touch on the themes of my work in conservation history. One of my current writing projects centers on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. So I pulled the Chapmans off the shelf to dig in.
I hoped for intellectual insights or beautiful prose. Occasionally, the Chapman’s delivered on the latter. This passage about solitude strikes a pleasing tone:
To be alone in a mountain glen in daylight gives one an exultant feeling of solitude and a desire to have that experience prolonged. To be there in darkness intensifies that solitude until loneliness creeps over one. But if to darkness is added a breathless snowstorm, one feels the oppressive weight of utter isolation and his spirit then takes on the jaded droop of the forest’s snow-weighted limbs.
And a passage like this one from the Upper Yellowstone River portrays their life in the mountains nicely:
Two nights we remained in this hushed solitude, lulled to sleep by croaking frogs and singing tree tops, awakened in early mornings by the sweet incessant songs of robins somewhere among the tree tops in a sunny bird worlds between land and sky.
Yet I found less of interest than I’d hoped. This is a risk in choosing a book you know little about. I’m willing to keep taking the risk, because kernels of interest do exist among the chaff.
The Chapmans bookended the text with their purpose. They wanted to inspire readers. Genuinely drawn to wildlife and wild places, the Chapmans hoped others would grow to a similar appreciation, perhaps from their amusing stories of animals or the feats of their skiing or climbing adventures.
In the shadow of their hopeful rhetoric, though, lurked fear. Hurry, they seemed to say, you must come before so-called civilization advances to these places. Only in the final pages do the Chapmans connect to any broader public purpose. Before then, it was only their adventure. On that final page, though, they write:
Now we felt the call of a new purpose in our leisure. Greater than our desire for personal freedom came a desire to help save a few wilderness areas and creatures of the continent. . . . Already such ideals were stirring national consciousness and in this changing public attitude we placed our faith.
And so maybe there, at long last, after three hundred pages, of odd stories amid beautiful places and creatures, is a message reaching out across the decades: seeking personal freedom, divorced from a larger public purpose, falls short.
As always, you can find my books and books where some of my work is included at my Bookshop affiliate page (where, if you order, I get a small benefit).
I mentioned above a writing project about Yellowstone. One piece of my writing derived from that research can be found in the link below:
The Slaughter of Elk at Yellowstone National Park - JSTOR Daily — daily.jstor.org And how it changed Park Service policy.
Taking Bearings Next Week
Next week is The Wild Card, so I'm not going to tip my hand about its topic quite yet. But I hope you'll enjoy it. Thank you for reading and please consider passing this along to friends who might also find it worthwhile.