The best books to understand why American parks look the way they do

Who am I?

I grew up a farm kid and then worked as a park ranger fresh out of college. This background draws me to the history of American preservation, where so much that seems natural also has deep cultural roots. I find the American South—with its combination of irony and tragedy, beauty, and flaws—the most fascinating place on earth to study. Or maybe I’m just pulling for the home team.

I wrote...

Remaking Wormsloe Plantation: The Environmental History of a Lowcountry Landscape

By Drew A. Swanson,

Book cover of Remaking Wormsloe Plantation: The Environmental History of a Lowcountry Landscape

What is my book about?

Plantations conjure up visions of southern leisure and wealth, but their tourism landscapes are cultivated as carefully as their fields once were to produce cotton for world markets. My book looks at the long transition of one plantation on the Georgia coast from a site of sea island cotton cultivated by dozens of enslaved laborers to a state historical park. I highlight how natural forces always shaped human ideas, and vice versa. It’s a tale of sorrow and hope, challenge and promise, environment and humanity—forces that shape all of our historical landscapes.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America

Drew A. Swanson Why did I love this book?

An acclaimed historian of the Civil War, Nelson’s newest book connects the nation’s Reconstruction struggles with its impulse to set aside dramatic western landscapes as national parks. The compelling narrative follows not only western scientist-adventurers like Ferdinand Hayden, but also weaves the preservation of Yellowstone into the Indian Wars and the violence against freedpeople in the American South. At a time when Americans sought healing in the aftermath of a divisive war, they turned to magnificent western landscapes like Yellowstone, only to find they were also contested ground.

By Megan Kate Nelson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Saving Yellowstone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From historian and critically acclaimed author of The Three-Cornered War comes the captivating story of how Yellowstone became the world’s first national park in the years after the Civil War, offering “a fresh, provocative study…departing from well-trodden narratives about conservation and public recreation” (Booklist, starred review).

Each year nearly four million people visit Yellowstone National Park—one of the most popular of all national parks—but few know the fascinating and complex historical context in which it was established. In late July 1871, the geologist-explorer Ferdinand Hayden led a team of scientists through a narrow canyon into Yellowstone Basin, entering one of…

Book cover of A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek

Drew A. Swanson Why did I love this book?

Who defines a park and the terms of that definition matter, Kelman reminds us. In the case of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Colorado, the politics of memory are on full display. Should the event be remembered as a “massacre” or a “battle”? Should the Cheyenne and Arapaho or the National Park Service control interpretation? Whose memory gets priority? And where exactly did the terrible event take place? This book is a gritty, narrative history of how the sausage gets made during park creation (and there’s a hook at the end).

By Ari Kelman,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked A Misplaced Massacre as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the early morning of November 29, 1864, with the fate of the Union still uncertain, part of the First Colorado and nearly all of the Third Colorado volunteer regiments, commanded by Colonel John Chivington, surprised hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho people camped on the banks of Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado Territory. More than 150 Native Americans were slaughtered, the vast majority of them women, children, and the elderly, making it one of the most infamous cases of state-sponsored violence in U.S. history. A Misplaced Massacre examines the ways in which generations of Americans have struggled to come to…

Book cover of Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South

Drew A. Swanson Why did I love this book?

This history of Providence Canyon in southwestern Georgia explores a seemingly ironic state park: one dedicated to preserving a network of massive erosion gullies formed by poor cotton farming. But Providence Canyon is so much more than ironic, as this book beautifully illustrates. Yes, improvident farming harmed the land—as was the case across much of the South—but the spectacular gullies of Stewart County came from the intersection of human abuse and terrifyingly fragile soil structures. And they are somehow sublimely beautiful, despite their grim past. The park is perhaps the perfect place to witness the way in which human and natural actions are always tied together. Come for the gullies, stay for the lessons!

By Paul S. Sutter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Providence Canyon State Park, also known as Georgia's "Little Grand Canyon," preserves a network of massive erosion gullies allegedly caused by poor farming practices during the nineteenth century. It is a park that protects the scenic results of an environmental disaster. While little known today, Providence Canyon enjoyed a modicum of fame in the 1930s. During that decade, local boosters attempted to have Providence Canyon protected as a national park, insisting that it was natural. At the same time, national and international soil experts and other environmental reformers used Providence Canyon as the apotheosis of human, and particularly southern, land…

Book cover of Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era

Drew A. Swanson Why did I love this book?

What does it mean that tourists are attracted to sites of historical enslavement? And why are ghost tours, especially tours focused on horrific stories of the abuse suffered by female slaves, so popular? Miles uses the seemingly frivolous subject of ghost tourism to explore serious issues of American memory and historical sites. Injecting herself into the story—she visits house museums and historical districts in Savannah, New Orleans, and Louisiana’s Mississippi River plantation district to explore the nation’s pathological attraction to a sordid past—she gracefully restored humanity to history’s victims with her gentle empathy.

By Tiya Miles,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tales from the Haunted South as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this book Tiya Miles explores the popular yet troubling phenomenon of ""ghost tours,"" frequently promoted and experienced at plantations, urban manor homes, and cemeteries throughout the South. As a staple of the tours, guides entertain paying customers by routinely relying on stories of enslaved black specters. But who are these ghosts? Examining popular sites and stories from these tours, Miles shows that haunted tales routinely appropriate and skew African American history to produce representations of slavery for commercial gain. ""Dark tourism"" often highlights the most sensationalist and macabre aspects of slavery, from salacious sexual ties between white masters and…

Book cover of The Park and the People: A History of Central Park

Drew A. Swanson Why did I love this book?

What’s not to love about a book that starts with the release of invasive starlings and ends with Donald Trump’s New York real estate deals? (And along the way describes a thousand equally fascinating events.) Throughout this richly detailed history of the nation’s most famous urban park, Rosenzweig and Blackmar always keep everyday New Yorkers in focus, highlighting how they shaped the park as surely as did urban elites. The result is one of the city’s most democratic spaces.

By Roy Rosenzweig, Elizabeth Blackmar,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Park and the People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This "exemplary social history" (Kirkus Reviews) is the first full-scale account of Central Park ever published. Elizabeth Blackmar and Roy Rosenzweig tell the story of Central Park's people-the merchants and landowners who launched the project; the immigrant and African-American residents who were displaced by the park; the politicians, gentlemen, and artists who disputed its design and operation; the German gardeners, Irish laborers, and Yankee engineers who built it; and the generations of New Yorkers for whom Central Park was their only backyard. In tracing the park's history, Blackmar and Rosenzweig give us the history of New York, and bring to…

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Hatching Love

By Heidi Matonis,

Book cover of Hatching Love

Heidi Matonis Author Of Hatching Love

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Vegan Food entrepreneur Reader Animal lover

Heidi's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

This is a story of how the human-animal bond can heal, connect and redeem us all – even possibly a very jaded ghost!

The story opens with Tom’s wife, Beth, receiving a shipment of duck eggs. She has watched a YouTube video and was charmed by the idea of hatching a duck egg using her body temperature. She believes, either consciously or subconsciously, that hatching an egg will cure her malaise and set her on the path to finding joy. However, when she mistakenly orders a dozen eggs, she must find other people, who like her, are looking for something. She renames her project a “happiness experiment” in order to lure others to join her and posts it on Facebook.

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