I have a small booklet of illustrated postcards from National Parks, both ones I’ve been to and others I have yet to see: Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Acadia, Glacier, Olympic, and more. The cards are whimsical. Each in the set features an outline of a park, and a smattering of critters, landmarks, and flora and fauna in bright colors. There is a cartoon banana slug; a meadowlark, beak open in song; a sunny yellow coneflower, petals all the way unfurled; a bighorn sheep; a branch of a ponderosa pine; a hiking boot looming larger than a small illustrated tent; and a herd of antelope making their way toward Delicate Arch.
Whether because of the tiny size of the cards — a whole park scaled down to the size of a palm — or the natural world tuned to carefully blocked hues of teal and mustard and coral and lime green and blue, when I look at the postcards, I tend to daydream about the National Parks in a way that mirrors the illustrations themselves: my perception of the parks becomes two-dimensional, sanitized of any complication. I envision myself hiking along a dirt path, a Steller’s Jay swooping down to scavenge for seed, Ponderosa pines lining the way, the sky blue and open above the picture-perfect peaks of a mountain chain. In my daydreams, there is never anyone else around: there is just me moving through a landscape freckled with flowers, silence broken only by the chittering of birds.
Some parts of these daydreams are feasible, which I know from time spent in parks. I have followed a dirt trail for miles around a lake in Grand Teton, the woods quiet save for the stirring of small creatures. I have hiked down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up in a day, the sun baking every shade of orange-red rock in sight. I have kept my body still in Yellowstone in hopes of watching a coyote limber across a field just a few moments longer. I have foraged for blueberries in Acadia, sat by the placid, shockingly-blue waters of Lake McDonald in Glacier, and hiked through parts of Denali, pink fireweed lining my way.
The time I’ve spent in National Parks has always seemed restorative, a reminder that there is wild beauty to be protected. But my perceptions can be complicated, underlying tensions teased from what I simplify. For example, as Terry Tempest Williams writes in The Hour of Land, she grew up with the myth of Yellowstone National Park being “void of people” when it was established in 1872, before learning as an adult that the lands where the park was created “was the seasonal and cyclic home of Blackfeet, Bannock, Shoshone, and Crow Nations.” She writes, “Like any good story with the muscle of privilege behind it, it seemed believable. And I never asked the question: ‘Who benefits from the telling of this particular story?’”
What stories have I told myself about the natural parks? Why do I imagine myself alone there, when I have rarely — if ever — experienced solitude on the trails? What kinds of privileges afford me the ability to travel to the parks, and who are parks truly accessible to? What types of harmful histories have I buried or blurred in the way I’ve narrativized the parks in my own mind? What environmental protections have the park lands been granted and what is at risk in a time of climate change and a president’s dangerous decisions? The essays curated here approach these questions — and more.
1. Out Here, No One Can Hear You Scream (Kathryn Joyce, HuffPost)
As a child, the outdoors felt most like home to Cheyenne Szydlo, a trait she carried with her into her professional life as a wildlife biologist. But when she earned the chance to find the elusive — and possibly locally extinct — Southwestern willow flycatcher in The Grand Canyon, her experiences outdoors took a sinister turn, not because of any natural threats, but human. A man named Dave, her river guide, perpetually harassed her and threatened to sexually assault her.
Szydlo’s story is far from uncommon, as Kathryn Joyce writes in this harrowing longform piece. From interviews with Szydlo, women firefighters, and other women park employees, as well as a bevy of researched statistics, Joyce emphasizes the dramatic scope of sexual assault and harassment that far too many women have experienced while working in national parks and other natural places.
The agencies that protect America’s natural heritage enjoy a reputation for a certain benign progressivism—but some of them have their own troubling history of hostility toward women.
In 2012 in Texas, members of the Parks and Wildlife Department complained about a “legacy” of racial and gender intolerance; only 8 percent of the state’s 500 game wardens were women. In 2014, in California, female employees of the U.S. Forest Service filed a class-action lawsuit—the fourth in 35 years—over what they described as an egregious, long-standing culture of sexual harassment, disparity in hiring and promotion, and retaliation against those who complained.
2. We’re Here. You Just Don’t See Us. (Latria Graham, May 1, 2018, Outside)
Number seven on a list of “22 Things Black Folks Don’t Do,” an article Latria Graham finds on BlackAmericaWeb.com, is “Go to national parks.” Graham, who encounters, both online and in life, an array of stereotypes about black people not liking the outdoors, explores the premise of those stereotypes by mapping the locations of national parks and discussing the ways in which historic practices of segregation still influence people’s perceptions today.
By blending gorgeous ruminations of growing up on her own family’s land, reminiscing on the ways in which Zora Neale Hurston’s work helped her discover her own voice, recounting her trips to national parks and incorporating hard-hitting research, Graham’s essay asks readers to evaluate their own internal biases and work to make real change.
The parks were designed to be clean and white, and if we let the data tell the story, that’s how they’ve stayed. In 2009, the National Park Service did a comprehensive survey of the American public, consisting of phone interviews with more than 4,000 participants. According to their data, African Americans comprised just 7 percent of visitors.
3. Dear Mr. Abbey (Amy Irvine, Autumn 2018, Orion)
In this direct address to Edward Abbey, Amy Irvine writes about how life within public lands has changed since Abbey’s death, and also ways that his work might be reconceived if thought about through a more contemporary lens. Irvine, as she reckons with who has the freedom to travel to natural lands — “a privilege that belongs to the able-bodied, upper classes” — tells Abbey about the destruction of natural lands that has occurred as a result of Trump’s decisions, and discusses the ways in which her experiences of natural parks and solitude differ than Abbey’s because she is a woman.
Can you imagine, in my own book about Utah, if I had called it “Amy’s country”? I could have justified it; my family has been there for seven generations and counting. Yet even with such credentials the clan of my surname doesn’t get to call it ours because it’s all stolen property: whatever the forefathers didn’t snatch from the region’s Native Americans on one occasion, they took from Mexico on another.
4. The Government Won’t Let Me Watch Them Kill Bison, so I’m Suing (Christopher Ketcham, May 20, 2015, Vice)
The history of bison in North America is a long and sordid one, which includes settler colonial violence that, at one point, led to there being only 23 bison left in existence. Though the population of bison has increased since then, there are still tensions surrounding their existence, as Christopher Ketcham reports in this piece. Most notably, Yellowstone National Park “culls” (through slaughter) bison from natural lands. The damning part? For over a decade, park officials haven’t allowed the public to watch, spurring the ACLU to file a letter of intent to sue.
I once saw a video of bison being trapped in preparation for their sorting and slaughter. It had been filmed in 2004, in Yellowstone, the last year the Park Service permitted viewing of their bison operations. In the video, the bison are angry, bucking and kicking. The wranglers cry, ‘Hyah, hooee, yah yah, uhsh uhsh,’ smiling as they whip and beat the animals from catwalks. The camera angle shifts to the colliding bodies of the creatures, which cram in the bottleneck of the chutes.
5. From Yosemite to Bears Ears, Erasing Native Americans from U.S. National Parks (Hunter Oatman-Stanford, January 26, 2018, Collectors Weekly)
Though the National Park Service prevented wholesale industrialization, they still packaged the wilderness for consumption, creating a scenic, pre-historical fantasy surrounded by roads and tourist accommodations, all designed to mask the violence inherent to these parks’ creation. More than a century later, the United States has done little to acknowledge the government-led genocide of native populations, as well as the continued hardships they face because of the many bad-faith treaties enacted by the U.S. government.
Accompanied by photographs, maps, historic promotional materials, and other artifacts, Hunter Oatman-Stanford lays bare a multitude of violences and injustices perpetrated against native populations in the creation of National Parks, as well as chronicles the ways in which the harm of this history still affects people today.
6. Are We Losing the Grand Canyon? (Kevin Fedarko, September 2016, National Geographic)
During an end-to-end hike of the Grand Canyon, Kevin Fedarko notes how much of the landscape has been impacted by human development and ruminates on Edward Abbey’s prediction that the wilderness he was writing about “is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial.”
How much of the Grand Canyon should be developed? And in what ways? What tensions exist because of the Grand Canyon’s capacity to generate revenue? And who has been harmed in the process of development? Fedarko explores answers to these questions, and more, in this longform piece.
But according to U.S. Geological Survey data, 15 springs and five wells inside the Grand Canyon area have levels of uranium that are considered unsafe to drink, due in part to incidents in older mines, where erosion and problems with containment have allowed uranium to leach into the groundwater.
7. Clothing Companies Are Funding Our National Parks Because Our Government Won’t (Jen A. Miller, August 27, 2018, The Outline)
Jen A. Miller, who has a goal of visiting all 417 sites in the U.S. overseen by the National Park Service, began receiving Instagram ads for “Parks Project,” a company that seeks to fund NPS-related charities through their sales of shirts and other goods. Upon researching further, Miller discovers that “Parks Project” is not the only company attempting to help with NPS funding through the sale of merchandise, a noble goal, though one that still falls far from providing the kind of money NPS actually needs to thrive.
And while on paper it looks like the National Park Service budget has gone up from $3.276 billion for fiscal year 2009 to $3.460 billion for fiscal year 2018, when adjusted for inflation, it’s really an 8 percent drop. The New York Times has referred to this paradox of rising crowds and shrinking funds as a “crisis” — I was in Zion National Park in Utah right around the time their reporter was, and I don’t think the pictures do justice to the massive crowds I had to work through.
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.
“Hey, no fair! You’re cheating!”
The guy was wrapped head to toe in black Lycra. He had clip-in cleats and a racing helmet. I was wearing a skirt and blue suede shoes. He was annoyed because I’d passed him. He was riding hard, I could see his effort and as I pulled out on the left, I could hear him breathing.
This stretch of road doesn’t look like much, but it’s an uphill grade. When I’m heading into town, I hit it from a right turn or a full stop, both of which kill my momentum. It’s nowhere near the gut emptying climb before you reach my house, but it’s not a coast, either. Road bike guy had probably come from the park at sea level; he’d likely been climbing for a mile already. Read more…
Hunter Oatman-Stanford, writing in Collectors Weekly, introduces us to the lifestyle and wellness hawkers of 13th century Italy: the Monks of Santa Maria Novella, in Florence.
One of the company’s most fabled products is Aceto Aromatico (or Aromatic Vinegar), which was known as Vinegar of the Seven Thieves in the early 15th century. “The story says that one part of the recipe was known by each of seven thieves, so they could only make the product when they were all together,” Foà says. “They used the recipe to protect themselves so they could rob people affected by the plague, but only when they were all together could they create it. Later, it was used as a cure for fainting. Back when our grandparents were young, it was very common. We called it the salts, as in, ‘Give me the salts!’” Today, the pungent liquid is sold as a stimulant and air freshener.
Other traditional recipes include pastilles called Pasticche di Santa Maria Novella, an antispasmodic sedative called Acqua di Melissa (or Lemon-Balm Water), and the pharmacy’s signature calming tonic called Acqua de Santa Maria Novella, originally known as Anti-Hysterical Water.
Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
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Driving down the Sunset Strip has always felt a little like being in a magazine. The billboards loom and beckon, towering and untouchable and yet still totally in your face. Today they advertise luxury brands and new TV shows, but once upon a time—back when the Sunset Strip was at the heart and soul of rock ‘n’ roll—they were hand painted musical monoliths, larger-than-life variations on album art and psychedelic interpretations of soon-to-be hit records. As Hunter Oatman-Stanford put it, “in the 1970s, you knew you’d made it big if your record label paid for a hand-painted billboard on the Strip.” The hand painted rock billboards on the Strip were an art form specific to LA’s car culture, intended not for gallery walls but to be seen through a windshield at cruising speed, and preferably with the convertible top down.
According to the Los Angeles Times, each billboard took roughly ten days to produce, with costs ranging from $1,200 to $10,000. Craftsmen would hand paint the illustrations on individual wood panels at warehouses in Mid City, before ultimately reassembling the pieces on location in the wee hours. And they were by nature ephemeral—each was destroyed after its contract ended.
Luckily for us, a photographer named Robert Landau documented many of the billboards during their roughly decade-and-a-half heyday (from 1967 to the advent of MTV in the early 1980’s). Landau was a teenager living with his dad in the hills above the legendary Sunset Strip Tower Records when he first started documenting the fleeting masterpieces, shooting with a Nikkormat camera and Kodachrome film. A few years ago, he published a complete catalog of his photos with Angel City Press, and in a few weeks the billboards will finally grace museum walls, when an exhibit of Landau’s work opens at the LA’s Skirball Cultural Center.
Over at Collectors Weekly, Hunter Oatman-Stanford has interviewed Landau about his work and the billboards themselves. Below is a short excerpt:
Collectors Weekly: Who started the music industry’s billboard trend?
Landau: As far as I can tell, it was the Doors in 1967 for their debut album. I talked with Jac Holzman—the head of Elektra Records who signed the Doors—while writing my book. In 1967, he had just come out here from the East Coast and opened an office on La Cienega Boulevard, not far from Sunset Boulevard, and it occurred to him that billboards were being used for everything except promoting records and music. A lot of radio stations where popular disc jockeys worked were farther east on Sunset, and he knew they drove on the Strip, and that the entertainment industry in general was based there.
The Doors were really into it; the whole band even climbed up on top for a photo shoot. Jim Morrison was quoted as saying he thought it was cool he’d be hanging over the Strip like a specter. I think at that time, it cost about a thousand dollars a month, which was quite a bit of an investment then. Elektra signed on for a year, and they had several different billboards. Little by little, the other record companies caught on.
Earlier this year, a 17-year-old high school student from the Bronx named Donna Grace Moleta won the chance to meet Bill Nye “the Science Guy.”
“Meeting my childhood hero was one of the greatest experience of my life,” she told the Bronx Times. “It’s something I’ll never forget. He’s such a strong believer in what science and education can do.”
Inspired by Ms. Moleta’s experience, here’s a reading list of some of our childhood heroes:
1. Ever Wished That Calvin and Hobbes Creator Bill Watterson Would Return to the Comics Page? Well, He Just Did. (Stephan Pastis, Pearls Before Swine, 2014)
Getting to work with a celebrated comic artist:
…I emailed him the strip and thanked him for all his great work and the influence he’d had on me. And never expected to get a reply.
And what do you know, he wrote back.
Let me tell you. Just getting an email from Bill Watterson is one of the most mind-blowing, surreal experiences I have ever had. Bill Watterson really exists? And he sends email? And he’s communicating with me?
Let’s be honest: Humans never should have been allowed behind the wheel in the first place. There’s so much that can go wrong, so much room for negligence—it’s incredible to think that we managed human-controlled cars for as long as we did.
Here’s a reading list covering the past, present and future of transportation. Read more…
Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
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