Crown Publishing, 2016
Agent: Sandra Dijkstra
The fascinating story of a trial that opened a window onto the century-long battle to control nature in the national parks.
When twenty-five-year-old Harry Walker was killed by a bear in Yellowstone Park in 1972, the civil trial prompted by his death became a proxy for bigger questions about American wilderness management that had been boiling for a century. At immediate issue was whether the Park Service should have done more to keep bears away from humans, but what was revealed as the trial unfolded was just how fruitless our efforts to regulate nature in the parks had always been. The proceedings drew to the witness stand some of the most important figures in twentieth century wilderness management, including the eminent zoologist A. Starker Leopold, who had produced a landmark conservationist document in the 1950s, and all-American twin researchers John and Frank Craighead, who ran groundbreaking bear studies at Yellowstone. Their testimony would help decide whether the government owed the Walker family restitution for Harry's death, but it would also illuminate decades of patchwork efforts to preserve an idea of nature that had never existed in the first place.
In this remarkable excavation of American environmental history, nature writer and former park ranger Jordan Fisher Smith uses Harry Walker's story to tell the larger narrative of the futile, sometimes fatal, attempts to remake wilderness in the name of preserving it. Tracing a course from the founding of the national parks through the tangled twentieth-century growth of the conservationist movement, Smith gives the lie to the portrayal of national parks as Edenic wonderlands unspoiled until the arrival of Europeans, and shows how virtually every attempt to manage nature in the parks has only created cascading effects that require even more management. Moving across time and between Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier national parks, Engineering Eden shows how efforts at wilderness management have always been undone by one fundamental problem--that the idea of what is "wild" dissolves as soon as we begin to examine it, leaving us with little framework to say what wilderness should look like and which human interventions are acceptable in trying to preserve it.
In the tradition of John McPhee's The Control of Nature and Alan Burdick's Out of Eden, Jordan Fisher Smith has produced a powerful work of popular science and environmental history, grappling with critical issues that we have even now yet to resolve.
Longlisted for the 2017 PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
"An intensely reported, rousingly readable and ambitiously envisioned book...Mr. Smith cuts between subjects as if he were writing a long, braided essay; the overall effect is a little like watching the best narrative television, which each thread creating suspense...[Engineering Eden] is a thrilling read. "
—Wall Street Journal
"A searching study of a tragedy and the legal contest that followed it, one that shaped the course of national park policy in the modern age. [A] provocative account…Fisher Smith, who understands that nature is "a web of complex relations," tells this complicated story clearly and well. Excellent reading."
"[A] compelling history of wildlife conservation in the United States….With Engineering Eden, Smith has pulled off an amazing feat: he's made wildlife management urgent and engrossing, writing about it with clarity, depth and a storyteller's pacing. The issues are timeless. On the centennial of the National Park Service, this book is an outstanding introduction to ecological decision-making."
“A dramatic, eye-opening chronicle of the struggle to preserve wilderness while making it accessible to the public…A galvanizing storyteller fluent in the conflict between environmental science and politics, [Fisher Smith] brings every player into sharp and indelible focus as he illuminates the urgent issues national parks grapple with as they struggle to wisely manage predators, invasive species, wildfires, and people. With fascinating forays into topics ranging from “garbage-habituated” bears to starving elks, fire-dependent sequoias, and government coverups, [Fisher Smith] spotlights an overlooked watershed moment in our troubled relationship with the wild.”
— Booklist (starred)
"Engineering Eden is hands down the most intellectually ambitious [parks-related book of the season.] It's a big ask for the reader—to keep track of all the characters, all of the scientific reports, all of the place names in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. But Smith pulls it off thanks to his command of the material, his firm grip on the narrative, and his insatiable inquisitiveness. When it comes to natural history, he knows his stuff."
—Jason Marks for Sierra Club Magazine
“[Jordan Fisher Smith] brings into sharp focus the backgrounds and personalities of the individuals involved in this multifaced story—the victims of bear attacks and their families, attorneys, Park Service employees and top officials, wild life biologists, and ecologists—and skillfully interweaves their various outlooks. This meticulously investigated history of Yellowstone and its wildlife management problems should appeal to fans of Jack Olsen’s classic Night of the Grizzlies, as well as readers interested in the broader issue of how much humans should intervene in nature in order to preserve it.”
"For students of wildlife management, and of the national parks, this is a great book to have. In this remarkable excavation of American environmental history, nature writer and former park ranger Jordan Fisher Smith uses Harry Walker's story to tell the larger narrative of the futile, sometimes fatal, attempts to remake wilderness in the name of preserving it…In the tradition of John McPhee's The Control of Nature and Alan Burdick's Out of Eden, Jordan Fisher Smith has produced a powerful work of popular science and environmental history, grappling with critical issues that we have even now yet to resolve."
—National Parks Traveler
"Smith covers a lot of material in this book, from elk hunting in Yosemite to controlled burning in Sequoia National Park … Engineering Eden documents important and at times deeply tragic missteps in the evolution of our park system. Hopefully the next 100 years will be far more 'balanced.'"
—Eco Lit Books
"Like immersion in the wilderness, manipulation of it poses risks. Would-be stewards of the wildlands need to decide how untrammeled we want those lands to be. Smith's thoughtful, erudite work could help them make the right choice."
—Michael Engelhard for Sierra Club Magazine
“One thing that is apparent to me after reading Engineering Eden is that Jordan Fisher Smith really did his homework on the history of Yellowstone.”
—Lee Whittlesey, Historian at the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center
“Engineering Eden skates gracefully along the thin line between scholarly and popular writing. Jordan Fisher Smith’s grasp of the science involved in national park and wilderness management is impressive. So is his ability to tell a compelling story in the tradition of John McPhee and Jon Krakauer. The result is a classic the literary history of America’s relationship to the natural world.”
—Roderick Nash, author of Wilderness and the American Mind, co-founder of the first Environmental Studies department in the United States