Jennifer Ladino reviews A Hunger for High Country: One Woman’s Journey to the Wild in Yellowstone Country, by Susan Marsh
Oregon State University Press | 2014 | ISBN: 978-0-87071-756-7 | 192 pages with black-and-white photographs
On the final pages of A Hunger For High Country: One Woman’s Journey to the Wild in Yellowstone Country, Susan Marsh writes that the story readers have just finished “is nothing new, only [a] particular rendition of the oldest story of all—the quest for understanding, for consequence and meaning” in wild places. Despite this disclaimer, Marsh’s rendition of this classic story is something new. Hers is a unique “journey to the wild” that confronts the challenges of honoring and protecting the high country while facing hurtles that are bureaucratic, technological, and—perhaps most significantly—patriarchal.
The book opens at the top of Windy Pass in Montana’s Gallatin National Forest, where Marsh is “bidding farewell” to a beloved place. She is about to take a job in the Bridger-Teton National Forest and begin phase two of a lifelong career with the U.S. Forest Service that began in the Gallatin. She discovers early on that she is a “square peg” in the agency. Very few of her colleagues in the Gallatin, which she describes as a “boys club,” take her or her work seriously. She struggles with the Forest Service for other reasons, too: the oppressive paperwork, the mundane acronyms, and the “caste system”-like hierarchy. She worries her job is increasingly “to reduce the wonders of the wild to bloodless data.”
Marsh would rather be outside than pushing papers. Like other good nonfiction nature writers, she values nature as a place to get away as well as a place to find herself. And like other good memoirists, Marsh tells a story of self-discovery that entertains, educates, amuses, and captivates. Marsh reveals her Pacific Northwest childhood in flashbacks—including air raid drills, family struggles, and formative outdoor explorations—that culminate in frank discussions of her relationships with her aging parents and her need to pursue counseling in order to make peace with them and with herself.
Key moments of insight are linked to particular landscapes, including Yellowstone National Park during the 1988 fires, an apocalyptically burned-out scene that helps put her life in perspective. She tells tales of bear encounters, skinny dipping, and present-day mountain men, including a father and son in the Gallatin who abducted a runner and remained at large in the wilderness for months afterwards. Even the most beautiful wild places are fraught for Marsh—and for many women I know, especially women of color—and a strength of the book is that it rarely sounds naïve or overly romantic about nonhuman nature.
That doesn’t mean Marsh’s descriptions of nature aren’t beautiful. Her account of driving to Montana to start work is full of lyrical language, for instance: “whiskers of snow swirling along the frozen surface like ribbons tied to a fan.”.
A diverse array of black-and-white photos—including shots of favorite backcountry spots as well as of Marsh performing routine tasks like picking up garbage at campsites—supplement the text. Marsh is smart to decorate the book with realistic photos that personalize her story in ways that aesthetically impressive images of famous landscapes like the Teton Range wouldn’t have. The photos are especially poignant for me: I was a 13-year seasonal ranger in Grand Teton National Park, adjacent to her latter-career employer, the Bridger-Teton National Forest. I share Marsh’s love of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, our mutually “adopted home range.” And, like Marsh, I have more than once felt the absurdity of trying to assess the stunning beauty of wild places using inadequate bureaucratic tools—one of the key tensions in her professional life—as well as the irony of trying to “manage” wild nature.
Even though Marsh eventually finds more support and satisfaction working for the Bridger-Teton, she is plagued by disillusionment, and she ends the book with very little optimism. Some readers might bristle at her persona on the page, especially when the tone verges on bitterness. When she describes her colleagues as “children bickering in the sandbox while the real world unfurled as it always had, with sublime beauty,” it’s hard not to sense that Marsh aligns herself with the sublime beauty. This alignment risks sounding self-congratulatory, as if she’s the only one in the sandbox who sees through the nonsense.
Marsh’s frustrations are warranted, though, and the critique of patriarchy she weaves through her story is as urgent now as it was when the Wilderness Act was passed more than 50 years ago. Her penultimate chapter includes an online account of the sexual jokes and assault one female employee of the Forest Service reported as recently as 2012. Marsh laments, “some things will never change.” A jaded sentiment, maybe, but also a timely one: just over a year ago, Grand Canyon National Park dismantled its River District in response to extensive allegations of sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation against female employees who reported their experiences. I was fortunate to find in Grand Teton a supportive work environment—perhaps due to the mentorship of my immediate supervisors, many (but not all) of whom were strong, smart, outspoken women—and Marsh and other women of her generation deserve credit for making better working conditions possible for me and other women in mine. But the situation at Grand Canyon reveals how far we still have to go to make lasting changes in the culture of the agencies that manage federal lands, particularly in the new administration.
For Marsh, these agencies are essential, despite their dysfunctions. In order to preserve the remnants of wilderness that remain, we need not only to “recognize its value” but also to agree on what constitutes that value—a tricky task. Marsh’s book shows that the tensions between wonder, awe, and other less tangible descriptors and the monetary worth of federal lands are tied to the complex politics of gender in this country. These tensions seem to have intensified since Marsh’s career began. The armed occupation of a federal building on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by Ammon Bundy and his band of white men speaks to a longstanding view among some Westerners that aggressive hyper-masculinity is an appropriate response to the presence of government agencies in the region. For these men, the Forest Service and other federal agencies—even the government itself—are the enemy. As long as the United States is home to both Bundys and Marshes, federal land management will be a tough road.
Decisions about public lands “come down to a matter of human values,” and Marsh reminds us where we might turn to rediscover those values: to the high country that is our source. Faced with evolving challenges like soundscape preservation and privatization of federal agencies, Marsh advances a call to action: for more “people who speak for the freedom of the wild and the importance of the common, greater good, in the language of abundance and renewal.”
Marsh herself is one of these people, and her voice provides a distinctive and important complement to other champions of wild places, especially Western memoirists who have written about their work for the Forest Service or National Park Service. Notably, the first names that come to my mind are names of men: Edward Abbey, Pete Fromm, Don Scheese. But after reading A Hunger for High Country, I’m happy to say that’s no longer the case. The publication of Susan Marsh’s book suggests some things have changed for the better.
Header photo of Yellowstone River by tpsdave, courtesy Pixabay.