Friday, 5 February 2016

Wild America: A personal celebration of the national

Veteran outdoor journalist Roly Smith and acclaimed photographer David Muench have brought their respective skills to bear on a rather fine coffee table tome, 'Wild America: a personal celebration of the national parks'. Although the work will of course be of interest to US readers, it will probably be equally appreciated here in the UK where most people's knowledge of US national parks begins and ends with Yosemite and Yellowstone.

In fact the US National parks-of which there are now 59 across 27 states-precede our own by almost 80 years. Compared to the relatively recent first UK national park established in The Peak District in 1951, the aforementioned Yellowstone national park spread across Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, was established in 1872.

In 'Wild America' the author's offer a modest 21 of the sum total of US parks based on personal favourites. However, included in this 'Greatest Hits' selection are some real humdingers,including many of which were unfamiliar to myself. The vast majority are as expected,concentrated in West/Mid West of the United States with a high concentration around  'Abbeyland'; the mountains and deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. Only two parks in the East appear. Arcadia in Maine and Shenandoah in Virginia.
With roughly four pages allocated to each national park, Roly Smith's text combines his personal impressions and descriptive notes with historical details and anecdotes. Each section beautifully illustrated by David Muench's sumptuous photographs.

Some fascinating historical facts jump out at times. For example, when the Shenandoah national park in Virginia was created in 1935, the indigenous 'hillbilly farmers' were evicted off the land by the state. The theory being,that national parks had to be empty uninhabited wilderness. Perhaps that would explain the present day survivalist tendencies and paranoia displayed by the redneck constituency!

For the casual observer of national parks stateside,it has always seemed ironic-for me at least-that the land of the free appears to operate quite a rigid,structured and decidedly authoritarian approach to how its parks are used. For example,entrance fees and strict control over wild camping within the confines of the park. Edward Abbey in his essays describes taking a great delight in ignoring 'keep out' signs and tearing down fences in the wilderness areas whenever he had the opportunity! As a former national park employee,he was on record as lamenting the drift towards tourist consumerism and the taming of the wild places of south western America.

That being said, the US's approach to establishing national parks-the latest being the magnificent Black canyon of Gunnison, granted national park status by President Clinton in 1999- shows up the UK's rather timid approach. For example,anyone familiar with north Wales would ask why the boundaries of the Snowdonia park have been so arbitrarily set? Why is most of the wild Hiraethog, The Berwyn mountain range, The Dee Valley, even the Clwydians not included in an extended national park or even set in a new NE Wales national park?

Probably because the farmers and landowners object,as they did when the Cambrian Mountains were proposed as our first national park in the 1930's. But I digress; to get back to Wild America. It's only flaw as far as I'm concerned is the fact that the author is no Ed Ebbey. The approach is rather touristy and tame.Lacking the investigative spirit of ' Cactus Ed' the author contents himself to guided walks and looks on from a safe distance as it were. Without this spirit of adventure,the book lacks the excitement that a seasoned backpacker like say Chris Townsend would have brought to life.

That being said, it's still a lovely little book-just 96 pages- which I'm sure will stimulate interest in areas unfamiliar to the reader. The photographs are never less than exquisite and its a nice little work to dip into for inspiration when the grey skies of Britain threaten to tip you into depression!

Wild America will be published in the UK in April. You can pre-order it from Rucsac Readers 
John Appleby:2016