“Engineering Eden,” by Jordan Fisher Smith

Jordan Fisher Smith

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Engineering Eden, by Jordan Fisher Smith, is not for the squeamish. Its pages contain numerous accounts of human encounters with bears that end in death or injury, and as Smith points out, “There are two ways in which most people don’t wish to die: by being torn apart by a wild animal and by being roasted in flames.” Both of these terrifying ends to life have occurred in national parks.

Those who revere our national parks and forests as well as environmentalists will find Engineering Eden fascinating. Smith’s book is compelling narrative nonfiction about conflicting philosophies surrounding proper management of our national parks. More than that, it is the story of Harry Walker, a twenty-five year old who left his Alabama farm hoping to find himself on the quintessential American road trip. Instead, nineteen days later Harry met a violent death, killed by a grizzly in Yellowstone National Park.  Engineering Eden is also the story of Harry’s parents, described by a neighbor as “simple, country folks,” who had never even spoken to an attorney before finding themselves swept up in a lawsuit against the federal government.

Smith, who worked for twenty-one years as a park ranger, visited Tallahassee in November to promote his book and share his thoughts on the importance of using scientific research in developing government policies. His lectures were hosted by the Florida State University and Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee. The latter plays an important role in Smith’s book. Tall Timbers was an early promoter of prescribed burns, now accepted as a valuable tool in forest management.

For decades, government programs aimed to suppress wildfire in our national parks. Smith notes that “trying to wipe out fire in the arid West is about as practical as promoting universal chastity before marriage.”  Total fire suppression is not only impractical but also undesirable. Frequent low-intensity fires promote tree health and improve habitat for many animals.

In classic narrative nonfiction style, the book delves deeply into one area and then shifts into another. Topics covered include the Walker family’s life on a small Alabama farm, the backgrounds and personalities of the prosecuting and defense attorneys and the trial judge, competing philosophies about how to best manage nature, and mistakes made in national park management that led to both human and animal deaths.

In the early days of national parks, human encounters with bears were encouraged. As bears rummaged through trash dumps, fascinated humans watched. Bears learned to associate humans with easy access to food. Some went so far as to feed black bears by hand, resulting in injuries and property damage.

Eventually, rangers tried to kill off predators—including wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, and bears—to make the parks safe for humans. Their removal resulted in overpopulation of elks, which then had to be shot or relocated, because they were starving and killing off all vegetation, even trees. Most predators were killed to the point of extinction, which defeated the mission of national parks as a place to conserve the scenery and the wildlife “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

As the narrative develops, well-known figures in ecology emerge. Aldo Leopold and his son Starker. Joseph Grinnell. John and Frank Craigshead. Glen Cole. David Graber. Each had his own ideas about how best to manage nature in national parks. Some took a hands-off approach, believing nature if left alone would restore balance to an ecosystem. Others, like the Leopolds, realized that the parks were already compromised by their limited sizes and by previous tinkering and centuries of human influence. Smith suggests that, “to be a guardian, you must be a gardener.”

Harry Walker’s death became his family’s central story, one that influences their lives to this day. His niece got a bachelor’s degree in environmental biology and today is “known throughout the southeast as a developer and administrator of programs that teach Alabama children to appreciate and live safely with nature.”

Engineering Eden won the Silver Medal for nonfiction in the 2017 California Book Awards and was longlisted for the 2016 PEN/E.O. Wilson Award for Literary Science Writing. Smith is also the author of a ranger memoir, Nature Noir, and has written for The New YorkerMen’s JournalAeon, Discover, and Orion. He is a principal cast member and narrator of the film “Under Our Skin,” which was shortlisted for the 2010 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. He lectures, teaches writing workshops, and coaches writers on their projects from his base in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains.

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