A young man, camping in a National Park, is attacked and killed by a bear. Who is at fault? Is anyone at fault?
This is the question asked in Engineering Eden by Jordan Fisher Smith. Instead of looking at the immediate setting or what has happened in the past few decades, which is considered fairly recent in the natural resources world, Engineering Eden takes a look beginning back at the time before National Parks were even created. Following the path of decisions made and prominent thinking of the times, we are shown how we ended up in the world Harry Eugene Walker and the bear found themselves one late June night.
The natural world we find ourselves in today looks quite different than it did after the Dust Bowl. It looks different than it did back at the start of our nation. It looks different than before the Native Americans populated this continent. So which is the true ‘nature’ we are striving towards and what is the best way to achieve that goal? Is the purpose of nature to be our playground, being utilized to entertain us and removing the things less desirable? Or should we take a hands off approach, even when it is very much not convenient?
In the history of National Parks, these questions and more have been debated, researched, and theorized. At various times they have been applied in some fashion or manner, often without a full understanding of the complex interactions. For many decades, the National Parks were not even run by those interested in the interactions of nature; their goal was to make the public happy and help the process run smoothly. As time has passed, the original picture, whatever it was, has been blurred. We now are left with the results of actions by our forefathers. This makes the process even more complicated. As time has passed the study of natural resources, the interactions between different animals and plants, has grown, yet still leaves much to be desired.
I knew part of the history Smith wrote about in Engineering Eden, though a lot of the finer details and some of the players were new to me. Along the way, side stories were explained, giving a broader explanation to the whole picture. Rarely is any decision black and white, but often a result of many smaller decisions, interactions, and influences. Smith took that knowledge, weaving together the National Parks’ history and the story of Harry Walker. The result was a smooth and natural look at broader story, not a forced and dry recall of events. At no point in the book did I find myself bored or reading repeated sections.
If you are looking for a light, easy read this book is not for you. There is quite a bit of research mentioned, though not in language you will need an advanced degree to read. It will make you think and consider the view you hold. Even the look of the book, a non-slick dust jacket and pages that have a rough cut appearance, lend to a natural, real feel for the story.
While Engineering Eden ultimately is focused around the events leading up to the unfortunate encounter one June night, I believe it holds even more important truths for us all, both in regard to our interactions with nature and for ourselves. One of those truths Smith shared at the end of the book’s Afterward:
And if order prevails in nature, then it prevails in my life, and yours. And if this is true, then the beautiful world – the care of which incited such bitter argument between the people in this book – has a purpose, and so did the life of Harry Walker, and so do ours.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. This post contains affiliate links.