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

Drew A. Swanson Author Of Remaking Wormsloe Plantation: The Environmental History of a Lowcountry Landscape
By Drew A. Swanson

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.

The books I picked & why

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Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America

By Megan Kate Nelson,

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

Why 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.


A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek

By Ari Kelman,

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

Why 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).


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

By Paul S. Sutter,

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

Why 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!


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

By Tiya Miles,

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

Why 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.


The Park and the People: A History of Central Park

By Roy Rosenzweig, Elizabeth Blackmar,

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

Why 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.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in explorers, Georgia (USA), and Central Park?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about explorers, Georgia (USA), and Central Park.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Shadowed Ground, Marked, Unmarked, Remembered, and Madison's Hand if you like this list.