The Narratives of Yellowstone

But a higher ideal even than those has emerged for the parks. It is that we must preserve parks not only for all the things that they can do for us today, but for values and services they hold that we have not yet had the wisdom to recognize.

Aubrey Haines Lecture
Yellowstone National Park
October 10, 2012

Dr. Paul Schullery

Paul Schullery, the original editor of Yellowstone Science, is the author, co-author, or editor of more than forty books, including twelve about Yellowstone. His recent books include The Fishing Life and an enlarged edition of his 1991 book, Yellowstone Bear Tales. He is scholar-in-residence at Montana State University Library, Bozeman.

It’s a great privilege for me to participate in the tradition of the Aubrey Haines Lecture. Aubrey is the founder of modern historical study in Yellowstone and I was fortunate enough to have him as a friend and advisor when I started working in the park’s archives. I dedicated my first book to him, and I’m sure I speak for many people when I say that since Aubrey’s passing twelve years ago, whenever I am caught short by some intractable historical puzzle, there follows even yet the sad realization that I can no longer have a nice long conversation or correspondence with Aubrey about it.

My presentation today continues many historical conversations, including two important presentations at the previous conference: Mary Meagher’s Leopold Lecture and Judith Meyer’s Haines Lecture. In very different but happily compatible ways, both of those speakers exposed the daunting challenges of making sense of the Yellowstone landscape and our place in it.

As far as making sense of the Yellowstone landscape in formal scientific terms, I think that this conference series amply demonstrates the fantastic progress we make in doing just that. When I think of our dreams and ambitions for these conferences when we started them, I can’t express how gratifying it is to me, and should be to you, to look back on all they have accomplished.

As far as making sense of the Yellowstone landscape in formal scientific terms, I think that this conference series amply demonstrates the fantastic progress we make in doing just that. When I think of our dreams and ambitions for these conferences when we started them, I can’t express how gratifying it is to me, and should be to you, to look back on all they have accomplished.

As far as coming to terms with airier propositions such as our place in Yellowstone, that has always been much murkier territory. In making those bigger, deeper decisions about the meaning of Yellowstone, we have also come a long way—in good part thanks to you—but in considering the meaning of Yellowstone in our world we always find that actual information will only carry us so far. Here’s my best shot at explaining why.

Forty years ago, when I first became a Yellowstone ranger- naturalist, the national parks were still regularly advertised as “a world apart.” They were, like all well-behaved vacation destinations, places that people went to “get away.” But in the community of professionals and passionate amateurs devoted to the stewardship of such places, the parks have long been the center of the world rather than its periphery. During the past century, while the parks attracted ever-larger numbers of vacationers, the identity and the mission of these amazing and challenging places have undergone a profound change.

Natural-area parks, largely left behind in a transformative rush of continent-scale landscape alteration, were rediscovered as relatively undisturbed islands of wildness, priceless yardsticks against which to measure and ponder the effects of that continental transformation.

Cultural parks, charged with honoring thousands of years of human experience and achievement, became forums for the constant reconsideration not only of those achievements but of society’s greater ideals.

Parks have thus become societal consciences and testing grounds for our most deeply felt values. But a higher ideal even than those has emerged for the parks. It is that we must preserve parks not only for all the things that they can do for us today, but for values and services they hold that we have not yet had the wisdom to recognize.

Yellowstone exemplifies and often has led this process of endless redefinition. Recognized from the beginning as a great “natural laboratory,” Yellowstone has been rediscovered and reinvented repeatedly, accumulating a dazzling array of responsibilities and potentials. Yellowstone has gifts, celebrations, and warnings for us that run far deeper than the sincere nature platitudes offered by earlier generations of rangers, like me, at our campfire programs.

And it is clear that we are nowhere near aware of all the services that Yellowstone may yet provide us. In ways barely articulated only forty years ago when I first put on my flat hat, Yellowstone matters.

That, in brief, is what I see as today’s most compelling long-term narrative of Yellowstone. I hope some of you agree. I am sure, however, that it is not the prevailing narrative among the public, who, if they think of Yellowstone at all, still mostly see this place as a vacation destination—an exceptionally important vacation destination, no doubt, but otherwise not that big a deal in their daily lives. As Director Jarvis told us last night, we have a lot of work to do with those people.

Today as I speak of the narratives of Yellowstone, I celebrate the diversity of those narratives, but I also worry about their limitations. And I hope at least by implication to include everything from our unique individual stories to the great, sweeping chronicles by which we collectively imagine important places.

In his monumental two-volume history, The Yellowstone Story, Aubrey gave us Yellowstone as epic saga, with all the dramatic elements, nuanced plot twists, and gripping adventures that type of narrative demands. Because Aubrey had already done so much of the scholarly heavy lifting in The Yellowstone Story, the rest of us have been able to specialize our stories. For just one example, in my book Searching for Yellowstone, I give you Yellowstone as a coming-of-age tale, in which we as a nation have slowly awakened to our responsibilities and opportunities as stewards of this place. The point I’d like to make here is that whether each of us nurtures our own Yellowstone narrative as a personal yarn, a folk tale, a paradigm, a research agenda, a metanarrative, a conspiracy theory, a working hypothesis, or just one damn thing after another, we are messing with powerful stuff.

As Superintendent Wenk pointed out in his welcoming remarks on Monday, our decisions about what to do here are all about values. Our narratives about Yellowstone do more than just make it understandable to us; they dictate, often subconsciously, our individual and collective sense of direction for how Yellowstone should be tomorrow. Like it or not, for 140 years, Yellowstone management has been about fulfilling those predispositions. So it’s no wonder that coming to terms with the meaning of Yellowstone presents us with so many complications.

As a seasonal ranger in the 1970s I had lots of unemployed free time. Living in what now seems to have been a fantasyland of cheap gasoline, I got around. I quickly discovered that for all the limitations of their perspective, most people I met demonstrated Yellowstone’s peculiar universality. Wherever I happened to be, if I dropped the word “Yellowstone” into almost any conversation with almost any group of people, it was virtually guaranteed that someone would say, “I went to Yellowstone once, and . . .” From that invariable opening line, they would launch into their personal Yellowstone story. It almost seemed reflexive behavior. I confess that most of the time I wasn’t especially interested in listening to the endless variations on the Yellowstone bear story, or camping story, or traffic story. In fact, eventually when I met new people I tried not to mention Yellowstone at all.

But I knew even then that their stories mattered. The magical thing about human nature, and about world-class wonders like Yellowstone, is that even after 140 years and 150 million visitors, each of us can still have an experience here that really is ours alone. Yellowstone is that good to think with. For anyone who is even half paying attention, it is a bottomless wellspring of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual stimulation. And, apparently for many of us, Yellowstone is so powerful a presence that our visit is incomplete until we
tell our tale.

The infinite diversity of the Yellowstone narrative is tricky for historians. Some years ago, Park Historian Lee Whittlesey and I discovered that we had independently reached the same conclusion about Yellowstone historiography. We believed that we could discern a significant difference between the writers who had had extensive one-on-one dealings with large numbers of park visitors, and those who had not. Of the two types, writers who had not spent much time with actual tourists were far more likely to emit grandly confident generalizations about “the public”—far more likely to characterize those millions of visitors as passive fly-switching herds paraded past the park’s attractions with little or no variation in their response to the place.

I realize that in passing this judgment on other historians, Lee and I were certainly elevating the authority of our Yellowstone narratives, because both of us had dealt with thousands of tourists. We liked to think that gave us an edge in our historical studies. But that’s my point—personal narrative is usually about just such self-serving entitlements, even when the narrators are correct, which of course Lee and I were.

I first came to a deeper appreciation of the diversity of the Yellowstone historic narrative when I was researching the book I dedicated to Aubrey. It was called Old Yellowstone Days, and it was published in 1979. It was a collection of early accounts of the park, most of which had originally appeared in nineteenth century periodicals, and in researching it I read hundreds of similarly early accounts of the park. There was an apparently endless supply of this material in the libraries, and it has been a priceless resource in studying the park’s early years.

But it now seems laughable to me—and to Lee, who has seen more of this material than anyone else ever—that one day in about 1976 I asked Aubrey if he thought we were getting close to having found all these early Yellowstone accounts. Aubrey thought about it, then said no—the rate at which they were still being discovered suggested that there were many more to come. That was an exciting thought, because these obscure items were our equivalent of new data. Each newly identified narrative account was cause for celebration, because it might finally answer any number of nagging questions or raise any number of new questions. There was great enjoyment to be found in this search.

But we had no idea. In the years since we lost Aubrey, the digital revolution has transformed this documentary quest. As the fully searchable texts of hundreds of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century newspapers and periodicals have come on line, the former trickle of newly discovered Yellowstone accounts, maybe a few in a good year, has become a flood. As Lee and his interns make their way through the steadily increasing number of newly available sources, they stack up hundreds of previously unknown accounts in a matter of months. I so wish that I could see Aubrey’s face if we could show him all those big piles of great new old stuff. And I wonder at how all this material will eventually recast our take on Yellowstone history.

On the opposite extreme from each individual’s personal attempt to make sense of Yellowstone through their own stories are an array of broad big-picture narrative forms that we have employed to come to terms with Yellowstone for some greater audience, perhaps society entirely, or at least for the people who are interested in national parks. And here it becomes even more obvious than it was with the personal narratives that these forms tend to fulfill what legal scholar Richard Sherwin has called “the overwhelming urgencies of belief.” Our predispositions are as powerful now as they were 140 years ago. There are always beliefs that we wish to reinforce, lessons we prefer to learn. That’s my Yellowstone story, and I’m stickin’ to it.

In the late 1800s, the first historians of Yellowstone Park, the likes of Superintendents Langford and Norris, and the great army engineer Hiram Chittenden, told the park’s story as a classic hero tale. The heroes were pretty much all male WASPs living out a romanticized dream of high-minded Manifest Destiny. Of course they were; Who wasn’t? Yellowstone was just swept along in the prop-wash of national ideas about the course of the American empire. As always, the values that most influenced the management and the public concept of Yellowstone were the values of the nation as a whole (a case can be made that Yellowstone often rallies a little ahead of the pack in the values it attempts to reflect, but always at the risk of being reined in hard).

It was suitable, probably even inevitable, that these hero tales were rich with what we now see as mythic add-ons, such as the idea that early nineteenth-century fur trappers called the park’s geyser basins “Colter’s Hell,” or that Native Americans were afraid of the geyser basins, or that the idea to create Yellowstone Park originated among a group of altruistic Montana citizens around a campfire at Madison Junction in 1870, or that Buffalo Bill Cody discovered the East Entrance route into the park. Yellowstone has a million of them.

I should emphasize that I am making a distinction here between the hero tale and the countless genuine tall tales that Yellowstone has also inspired. As erroneous or egregiously self-serving as the Yellowstone hero tale may seem to us now, it was widely perceived as fact. As Judith Meyer pointed out in her Haines Lecture two years ago, even in the twentieth century there were people who believed that the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River was so deep and light-resistant that even at mid-day you could look up from the bottom and see stars in the sky. I remember hearing that in the 1970s. As I’ve watched myself and many others get some little piece of the Yellowstone story wrong over the years, I’ve gotten in the habit of going easy on our ancestors about their mistakes. We’re all doing our best.

It is important to remember that we do not run through these narratives in sequence; we simply add new ones. Most of the older ones hang on or even thrive.

It is important to remember that we do not run through these narratives in sequence; we simply add new ones. Most of the older ones hang on or even thrive. most appealing morals of the story was that a century of fire suppression had caused an immense and unnatural accumulation of fuels, which led to a horrible fire season; Aesop couldn’t have given us a much tidier lesson. No matter the extent to which history and science compromised the story, it fulfilled pre-existing urgencies of belief gloriously, and I assume it’s still common knowledge among the public.

Another narrative form we are living out in Yellowstone is the redemption tale, which has a long history here, dating back at least a century, to when the park salved the national conscience by preserving a remnant of the fabulous pre-Columbian bison population of North America. And today we’re all about redemption in many ecological restoration efforts in Greater Yellowstone, perhaps most famously the wolves. Here, as always, we struggle with the same mythic temptations of narrative as did our predecessors. Ecologist David Mech has recently articulated a concern many of us have felt, over what he has called the “sanctification” of wolves. Few beliefs have seemed so urgently overwhelming to many of us in the modern Yellowstone community as the apparent conviction that wolves are furry little Anakin Skywalkers who will finally bring balance to the Force. From that point of view, all that’s left is deciding who in Yellowstone’s colorful cast of characters is Darth Vader, and who is Jabba the Hutt.

As I have studied, and now and then personally succumbed to, our need for narratives like these, I have found one consistent, essential element underlying almost all the narratives. It is a need among Yellowstone enthusiasts, an absolute passion, for authenticity. In whatever narrative form we expressed our overwhelming urgency of belief, we seemed most often driven by a need to believe that we had identified the real hero, the real founder of the park, the real way that nature worked, the real way to feel about nature—the real thing.

Like narrative, the concept of authenticity, particularly authenticity in a natural setting, has been given a pretty good working over by scholars and other commentators. For most of its history Yellowstone has been walking us through the rhetorical minefields of authenticity. As we have struggled to figure out how to manage, enjoy, and love Yellowstone, the place has given us abundant opportunities for flirting with, imitating, approaching, denying, restoring, and otherwise seeking vignettes, reasonable illusions, and other forms of authenticity. Thanks to all that effort and the disagreements and disappointments it so often led to, we know how hard authenticity is to define out there on the landscape, especially when it comes to other difficult terms like naturalness, wildness, and ecological integrity, even while we necessarily continue to use those terms pretty freely in a conference like this one.

I started this talk by giving my best shot at describing the narrative of Yellowstone as I think it stands today. Having gone that far out on the limb, I shall now turn around and saw it off by describing what I suspect is the most important challenge facing us as we shape the future narrative of Yellowstone.

We are, as Stephen Jay Gould famously put it, “pattern-seeking, story-telling creatures.” And we are enormously ambitious in the patterns we seek. We love to understand. Most all, we love answers. We love answers so much that even if they don’t quite work, we will be tempted to convince ourselves that they do fit, or to just make them fit. We love to settle things. It’s why our narratives tend toward the tidy and simplistic.

But whatever the people of any given year may have thought, the entire 140-year societal conversation about Yellowstone hasn’t really been about settling things. It’s been about advancing the conversation. No matter how confident each generation of citizens and advocates and researchers and managers may have been that they finally had those big answers, that they finally had come to durable workable terms with the meaning and worth of Yellowstone, it never turned out to be quite true. The answers were always provisional at best, as they must be as long as we as thinking people continue to mature, and study, and learn, and revise our narratives.

A young man standing in front of an audience with a campfire in the background of a campground.
Mr. Schullery delivering an evening program.

Steve Schullery

A black and white historical illustration of the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces and people exploring on the terraces.

Another narrative form we are living out in Yellowstone is the redemption tale, which has a long history here, dating back at least a century, to when the park salved the national conscience by preserving a remnant of the fabulous pre-Columbian bison population of North America. And today we’re all about redemption in many ecological restoration efforts in Greater Yellowstone, perhaps most famously the wolves. Here, as always, we struggle with the same mythic temptations of narrative as did our predecessors. Ecologist David Mech has recently articulated a concern many of us have felt, over what he has called the “sanctification” of wolves. Few beliefs have seemed so urgently overwhelming to many of us in the modern Yellowstone community as the apparent conviction that wolves are furry little Anakin Skywalkers who will finally bring balance to the Force. From that point of view, all that’s left is deciding who in Yellowstone’s colorful cast of characters is Darth Vader, and who is Jabba the Hutt.

As I have studied, and now and then personally succumbed to, our need for narratives like these, I have found one consistent, essential element underlying almost all the narratives. It is a need among Yellowstone enthusiasts, an absolute passion, for authenticity. In whatever narrative form we expressed our overwhelming urgency of belief, we seemed most often driven by a need to believe that we had identified the real hero, the real founder of the park, the real way that nature worked, the real way to feel about nature—the real thing.

Like narrative, the concept of authenticity, particularly authenticity in a natural setting, has been given a pretty good working over by scholars and other commentators. For most of its history Yellowstone has been walking us through the rhetorical minefields of authenticity. As we have struggled to figure out how to manage, enjoy, and love Yellowstone, the place has given us abundant opportunities for flirting with, imitating, approaching, denying, restoring, and otherwise seeking vignettes, reasonable illusions, and other forms of authenticity. Thanks to all that effort and the disagreements and disappointments it so often led to, we know how hard authenticity is to define out there on the landscape, especially when it comes to other difficult terms like naturalness, wildness, and ecological integrity, even while we necessarily continue to use those terms pretty freely in a conference like this one.

I started this talk by giving my best shot at describing the narrative of Yellowstone as I think it stands today. Having gone that far out on the limb, I shall now turn around and saw it off by describing what I suspect is the most important challenge facing us as we shape the future narrative of Yellowstone.

We are, as Stephen Jay Gould famously put it, “pattern- seeking, story-telling creatures.” And we are enormously ambitious in the patterns we seek. We love to understand. Most all, we love answers. We love answers so much that even if they don’t quite work, we will be tempted to convince ourselves that they do fit, or to just make them fit. We love to settle things. It’s why our narratives tend toward the tidy and simplistic.

In her Leopold Lecture at our last conference, Mary Meagher, speaking about the history of ecological research and management on Yellowstone’s northern range, warned us to be careful of simple answers, because nothing out there in the wild setting is simple. That is just as true for our perpetual effort to come to terms with the best role for Yellowstone as an institution. Be suspicious of simple answers. And be most suspicious of the simple answers that you want to hear.

I’m sure this all must sound intuitive to you, but Yellowstone history suggests that it’s been incredibly difficult in practice. It still is.

Traditionally, the idea that we can preserve Yellowstone for its wildness, or naturalness, has always had a counter-narrative, that we cannot—that the very idea is naive and quixotic, that it’s too late for nature in Yellowstone. This is one of the oldest of Yellowstone narratives and it finds new adherents in each generation. Predicting Yellowstone’s imminent demise is a venerable cottage industry, and it hasn’t always operated just on the fringes of the conversation. The predictions—and the predictable demands for desperate action according to the agenda of whomever is doing the predict¬ing—have often come from respected figures of formidable authority. Many of you are already aware of some of the recent warnings about the imminent collapse of nature in Yellowstone, so I’ll go back further and start with some nice safe examples of people who we can laugh at for being so silly and dead.

A hundred and thirty-five years ago Yellowstone Superintendent Norris himself said that if we didn’t drastic cally reduce the beaver population, their dams would soon flood the whole park. And he did it, fostering the wholesale poaching of beaver in the park and setting off who knows what ecological ripples that we’re still living with today. Ninety four years ago, one of the National Park Service’s official justifications for the creation of Katmai National Park in Alaska was that the national park system needed a new geoathermal park because Yellowstone’s geysers were dying out. Fifty years ago we were told that the Yellowstone ecosystem was already so ecologically degraded that the grizzly bear population could not thrive without supplemental feeding in garbage dumps.

But wait. Fifty years isn’t all that far back in history, is it? And the modern debates over grizzly bears haven’t seemed silly to us, at least not like the beaver Armageddon imagined by Superintendent Norris long ago. Thus we are welcomed to the present, our present, and the fragility of our own decisions in the eyes of our descendants.

As National Park Service ecologist David Graber has recently pointed out, part of the folly of the counter-narrative was and is its apparent presumption that parks were just attempts to preserve static pristine settings, to somehow bring back the past. This has proved to be a marketable narrative, but it doesn’t hold up. In fact, it shares the mythic qualities of the Madison Campfire Myth. If we did once believe such a thing, we long ago outgrew the notion.

In fact, from the earliest days of Yellowstone there have been scientists insisting that the highest value of the park is as a place to learn from its changes—a place to set up what amounts to an evolutionary observatory—a platform from which to watch how nature works when it is independent of human values.

Enter climate change. The reality of climate change, even though it remains a non-reality for an appalling number of disbelievers, has changed the conversation about the parks and their mission. Climate change has empowered the champions of the counter-narrative. They claim, in effect, that climate change simply demands not merely the acceptance of their counter-narrative, but a whole new narrative. They say that because of climate change, nature is no longer nature, or at least it’s not the nature we intended to preserve when we created the parks. Therefore (and there is always an agenda-driven “therefore” in every counter-narrative) it’s time to get in there and muck around. Take control. Let’s get out there and manage something.

But if the evolutionary observatory was a good idea 140 years ago, it remains unclear to me how climate change lessens the value of the observatory. It seems that climate change only heightens our need to have places where we can watch how nature acts, specifically how nature responds to the changes in the climate. Yellowstone long ago, and many times, showed us that nature doesn’t stop being nature just because we cramp its style.

Before we get back into the business of dictating to nature, or deciding what is “best” for nature in places like Yellowstone, we have questions that we must answer very carefully.

Question one: Are we really sure we know enough? Every time our ancestors thought they knew enough they were wrong. Superintendent Norris wasn’t a stupid man. He just didn’t know enough.

Question two: Are we really sure we’re ready to abandon the observatory? Forty years ago, if we hadn’t toughed out the opposition and stuck with the so-called natural regulation experiment, our knowledge and understanding of Yellowstone’s ecological community would be sadly impoverished, and the Yellowstone landscape would indeed be part of a lesser Yellowstone.

And in that example, the natural-regulation controversy, is the great irony of the anti-narrative: if we give up, there’s so much we’ll never know. Worst of all, we’ll never get to learn what would have happened next if we’d only kept our hands off. That would seem an unforgivable betrayal of the opportunity Yellowstone gives us.

All I can tell you is that in 140 years of trying everything under the sun to get Yellowstone right, the truest compass we have ever found to guide our decisions is still the decisions that nature makes when we let it alone. If I may speak for the historical record, I would say that we should only abandon that compass with the greatest of reluctance, in the smallest possible increments, and in ways that don’t narrow the choices left to our successors as they attempt to construct their own narrative of Yellowstone. I see no reason to doubt that these same cautions should apply to every other unit managed by the National Park Service.

One of the many ways in which the national parks have broadened their mission since 1872 is that they now serve to remind us of our flaws, errors, and failures. Andersonville, Manzanar, Brown v. Board of Education, and many other National Park Service sites tell us heartbreaking stories about ourselves, stories we need to hear. Yellowstone likewise teaches us about our past mistakes, ranging from the disenfranchisement and displacement of native people to the elimination of such essential ecological forces as predators and fire. Seen in that spirit, climate change is just one more Yellowstone opportunity for us to learn from past mistakes.

We will always need the evolutionary observatory for the same reasons we have always needed it—for the exciting and surprising stories and wisdoms it gives us about nature, about authenticity, and about ourselves. If, because of climate change, some of those stories and wisdoms also happen to remind us of the consequences of our tragic mistreatment of our environment, well then: Shouldn’t that be a morality tale for Yellowstone to tell the whole world?

Thank you.

Last updated: March 30, 2018