Ever wander though a national forest with an overwhelming sense of awe? Hike a trail like the A.T. and feel grateful that your path will take you as far as you care to go? Camp under the stars at Yosemite or Shenandoah or Dolly Sods?
It's no accident that these lands are here for you and me. It's thanks to the passion and commitment of people who knew that every piece of land shouldn't be up for grabs to the highest bidder and that some of the most majestic places should be held in trust for all of us.
That's the story of Jeff Ryan's latest book, This Land Was Saved for You and Me, a fascinating exploration of the people who advocated for America's lands and waters. The book, Ryan's seventh, comes out September 1 this year and can be preordered now. Recently, we had a chance to ask Ryan a few questions about his new book.
What was the inspiration for this book?
“This Land” is really the result of a progression that started with my first book, Appalachian Odyssey (the story of my 28-year section hike of the AT). In writing my thoughts down, I began to more fully appreciate how the trail came into being and its ongoing protection and maintenance.
This naturally led me to consider the context of the creation of the AT in relation to our public lands in general. Who were the pioneers in establishing our national parks and forests? What challenges did they face? The more I dug, the more I realized how fascinating a story it is (particularly how Benton MacKaye’s life intersected with so many aspects of the narrative).
How long have you been working on the book?
In some ways, seven years, but my focus on This Land exclusively has been really the last three years. My tendency is to keep researching a subject until I have the “aha moment” about how to tell the story, which is when the writing phase kicks off. I had been playing around with different ways to approach the subject until this one became the clear winner.
Did you travel much while researching the book?
I have always been intrigued by the question of how much the physical environment of where people were raised affected their outlook on nature and the world. So, I try to get to the places where the giants of conservation were both raised and where they did their best writing.
For this book, I visited some really great places including Aldo Leopold’s childhood home in Iowa and the shack where he got the inspiration for A Sand County Almanac. I also went to the home of George Perkins Marsh in Vermont. Marsh wrote an incredibly influential book called Man and Nature in 1864 that was the first to question practices such as indiscriminate clear cutting of forests (which was common then) and the resulting damage (primarily mudslides, flooding and the destruction of fisheries). He even foretold of the prospect of climate change, which was probably the first mention of it.
Similar research took me to eastern and western Pennsylvania, the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area, Walden Pond and the Great Smoky Mountains. I also spent time at the USFWS archives in Shepherdstown, WV, which is always a treat. (The greatest danger there for me is getting sidetracked there is so much fascinating material for potential new projects.)
Did you discover a new favorite hiking spot while out on the road?
I try to make time to walk every day when I’m researching and writing, but the deeper into a project I get, the more difficult it is to get away. I am prone to getting on a roll and not wanting to allow current thoughts to escape before I write them down.
That said, I did get a chance to log some miles on the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin and the Virginia Creeper Trail in Virginia. In fact, after the book was completed, I went back and did the VCT from end-to-end as kind of a celebration.
What's something that surprised you during the research?
I was at a point in the process where I was trying to shut off all distractions, so I could focus only on writing This Land. A dear friend kept trying to urge me to read a book about Rudyard Kipling’s years in Vermont. I told him I didn’t have time, but he said, “It’s a quick read.”
For whatever reason, I caved in. That weekend, I was reading the book and almost fell out of my chair when I read that Steele MacKaye (Benton MacKaye’s father) rented a cottage in Bennington, Vermont, where he took the family to enjoy the surroundings while he hunkered down to write plays and that Rudyard Kipling rented the same cottage shortly thereafter while he waited for his home to be built in Bennington, just up the road. It was just one of several intersections of famous and not-so-famous people whose paths crossed during the telling of the story. It was also a reminder to me that some side trails are worth taking (and necessary).
What do you hope readers will get out of the book?
The oft-told story is that our parks, forests and wilderness areas exist because a few well-known, influential people wouldn’t take no for an answer. It’s an easy to tell story and largely accurate.
But when you peel back a few layers, we see a number of people who were raising alarms about rampant environmental destruction and the need for federal management of at least some lands in the name of the public good many years before. I hope readers will find the contributions of people like Franklin Benjamin Hough, Carl Schenck and Howard Zahniser—people who gave everything they had to advance the cause of forests and wilderness areas—as inspiring as I did.
Round Hill Outdoors: Join us in bringing together local friends and family to unplug and get outside. Let’s discover our amazing backyards — from national treasures like the Appalachian Trail to new local and regional parks.