The Telling of Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park really knocked me out. I just got back from a trip with my husband and kids, and it’s got to be about the strangest place in the country. The geysers, multi-colored pools, mud pots, hot springs and steam vents all seem like something from another planet.
And there’s beauty at every turn—rivers and waterfalls, canyons and mountains, grassy fields and volcanic rock slides. We swam in a river that was the perfect temperature because boiling runoff from hot springs combines with frigid ice melt from the mountain tops.
Back in the mid-1800s, before it was protected as a park, people who’d been there recognized the value of preserving it. But they had a hard time convincing the general population, the vast majority of whom had never—and would never—see it.
They knew that once people saw it, they would understand. And they were right. Thomas Moran and William Henry Jackson, a painter and photographer, respectively, went along on the Hayden Expedition in 1871, and are credited with the groundswell of popular support for protecting Yellowstone. Their pictures told the story of why this amazing place needed to be saved.
Readers often ask me about the future of the publishing business. (I know this seems like a very strange non sequitur, but hang in there and you’ll get the connection.) The world of books is definitely undergoing massive changes, many of which aren’t terribly comfortable for publishers, agents, booksellers, authors and even, at times, readers.
But our brains are wired for stories. And whether they’re made of words, pictures, music, dance or drama, storytelling will always serve a critical function in the human experience. Stories make us feel something that bulleted facts, financial data and logical arguments do not. Which is why the idea of a national park didn’t catch on until people’s imaginations were engaged with a visual story.
I’m not sure how we’ll be getting our stories in the future. Electronic devices are on the rise, and who knows what might come after that. But stories will always be told because people will always want to hear, see or read them—whether on paper, onstage, on canvas on a screen.
Moran’s actual field sketches and Jackson’s original photos are on display in the Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center in northern Yellowstone. They are beautiful, and it’s easy to see why Americans were finally persuaded to protect this wonderful place. The nation owes a debt of gratitude to these two men for telling such a compelling “story.”