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  • Representing Yellowstone: Photography, Loss, and Fidelity to Nature
  • Richard Grusin (bio)


In Yellowstone’s Norris Geyser Basin a couple of summers ago, I was struck with the idea that to experience Yellowstone was to experience the moment of wonder at the heart of historical discovery. 1 My observation was prompted by a remark from an elderly man to his wife, overheard on the Porcelain Basin interpretive trail: “Imagine what it would have been like to have been the first person to see this, to have come across these geysers and hot springs without knowing they were here.” What was striking about the man’s remark was not that I had not heard anything like it before, but rather that I had been hearing such exclamations of wonder ever since my arrival in the park—about geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and other thermal features; about the spectacular scenery of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon or Yellowstone Lake; about the park’s buffalo, moose, elk, bear, and other wildlife. Known from its inception as “nature’s wonderland,” Yellowstone is “culture’s wonderland” as well. This sense of historical discovery as wonder so frequently articulated by visitors is supported by the park’s impressive interpretive program, one of the principal strategies of which consists in foregrounding the history of Yellowstone’s discovery through an aggregation of verbal [End Page 415] and visual texts (pamphlets, signs, nomenclature, markers, trails, and exhibits) that inscribe the park’s cultural history both on the land and into the parkgoer’s experience.

But it is not only the park’s interpretive program that seeks to reproduce the moment of Yellowstone’s discovery: the conjunction of natural preservation and historical discovery has been part of the Park Service’s ecological management policy at least since 1963, when Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall received a report from his Advisory Board on Wildlife Management, a five-person committee chaired by A. Starker Leopold (son of the famed conservationist Aldo Leopold). Recognized as a landmark in the history of National Park policy, the Leopold report fundamentally redefines Yellowstone’s management objectives from the original goal of protecting the park’s “geothermal curiosities” to the more ecologically sensitive goal of preserving the park’s ecosystem as a whole—a redefinition manifested most recently in the currently held management paradigm of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, an area that today includes more than 18 million acres of public and private lands in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. 2 Adopted as official policy within the year, the Leopold report recommends that “the biotic associations within each park be maintained, or where necessary recreated, as nearly as possible in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man. A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America.” 3 Even if this “goal cannot be fully achieved,” the report continues, “it can be approached. A reasonable illusion of primitive America could be recreated, using the utmost in skill, judgment, and ecologic sensitivity.” 4

Seeking to “represent a vignette of primitive America” by preserving [End Page 416] or re-creating the biotic associations that obtained when Europeans first encountered Yellowstone, the committee would simultaneously produce and elide signs of human agency in the park. Even while recommending “the utmost in skill, judgment, and ecological sensitivity” to re-create “a reasonable illusion of primitive America,” the report insists that “observable artificiality in any form must be minimized and obscured in every possible way.” 5 Although recognizing that the reproduction of nature would require active management rather than passive protection, the committee advises that the methods used by the Park Service should have as their “objective . . . to manage ‘invisibly’—that is, to conceal the signs of management.” 6

Managing the park’s ecosystem as an “illusion” or “vignette of primitive America,” the Leopold committee would preserve or re-create the biotic associations that existed before the first white men arrived in the area, while simultaneously restaging the disappearance of those biotic associations by reproducing for the parkgoer the scene of discovery in which those “primitive” ecological conditions were changed forever. Striving to provide an ecological ground or philosophical foundation upon which the management of national...

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pp. 415-436
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