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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Yellowstone, One Hundred Years Ago

Air Date: Week of

Diane Smith's novel, Letters from Yellowstone, traces a fictional scientific journey into Yellowstone Park in 1898 and the experiences of a young female botanist, Alex. Ms. Smith speaks with host Steve Curwood about her novel and its relevance to the park today.


CURWOOD: One hundred years ago, Yellowstone National Park was a largely unexplored destination for a wide range of adventurers. Vacationers came to explore the wilds. Business folks looked for ways to cash in on the park's natural resources, and scientists investigated unknown life forms. That setting is the backdrop for Letters from Yellowstone, a novel by science and environmental writer Diane Smith. Told through correspondence written by the book's characters to friends and family back home, Letters from Yellowstone is a scientific exploration of the park's plant life in 1898. As author Diane Smith explains, the story revolves mostly around the experiences of a young woman named Alex and her attempts to be accepted as a scientist.

SMITH: What I tried to do with her personally was have her come from the East, with a very strict notion of what is science, and what is scientific method, and how you properly look at the natural world from this perspective of an academic from Cornell. And using the environment of Yellowstone Park, ways that she sees that natural world in new ways and views science in new ways, and maybe even views herself and other people in new ways.

CURWOOD: Now, this is not your kind of heart-racing suspense read. It's a rather gentle explication of this young woman's encounter with this exquisite place. Why did you pick the voice of this young woman?

SMITH: Well, I tried to actually introduce several voices. She is certainly one, and she is certainly one that I can relate to. But what I wanted to do by using the form of correspondence, the book is all written in the form of letters from different perspectives, I wanted to sort of overlay the various perspectives of these individuals. So you have her perspective as a Cornell medical student coming west. You have Professor Meriam's perspective, being an academic from the West, being in the park. And then all the various other individuals, the people from the Smithsonian, for example. Their perspectives on the park and on the science and on the natural world that they're seeing. So what I tried to do was overlay those various perspectives.

CURWOOD: You have a number of sections that describe the reaction of Alex. Could you share one of those with us now?

SMITH: Sure. This is a short passage, when she first arrives in the park. And the weather has been horrible. They can't do much work. And she's writing home to her friend Jessica at Cornell. And after complaining about the weather she says (Reads): That is not to say I have not started collecting. I have. The hot springs area above the hotel is the diverse landscape of multi-leveled terraces, of hot waterfalls, Steamy semi-circular pools of red and green and yellow, And singular underground springs, which percolate from the earth like a pot put on the fire to boil. As you can imagine, the sulfurous water is deadly to animal and plant life. Pale white tree skeletons stand like sentries marking where the water once engulfed them before retreating. But even in such poisonous and dangerous conditions, much richness and diversity of life is beginning to reveal itself in the land adjacent to the hot pools. I could spend the entire season just chronicling the emerging flora as it adapts to changing conditions. If ever I am to understand the plant kingdom in all of its complexity, and truly internalize the lessons Darwin had to teach us all, it is here, where all of Creation constantly changes and struggles to adapt and survive, even me.

CURWOOD: Without giving away sort of the story line, and I hate that when reviewers tell me what happens in the book -- why bother to read it after that? -- I just say that the book is a lot of fun. You learn a lot about science, and you learn a fair amount about people as well, or your perspective on people. My question is this: why do this in the form of fiction?

SMITH: It allows you a little bit of flexibility, certainly with using the history of the park for the background of these questions. Most of the events that are not related to the people themselves, in other words, the interpersonal relationships of these people are all fictional. But if you step outside those relationships and look at the history of the park, what I've done is I've compressed several issues of things that have happened there. But I've kind of blended it all into one summer.

CURWOOD: The picture you paint here is a wild, completely unexplored place. Really, very foreign to the characters in your book. I'm wondering, how similar is Yellowstone today, compared to the wildness that's portrayed in the 1898 version here?

SMITH: You know, that's an interesting question, because I suspect in many ways the park is very much the same as it was 100 years ago. You have to understand that although they do spend some time in the back country, they also spend time either in or on the outskirts of major hotels. And the park was actually developed as a tourist destination, so even 100 years ago you could go and there were grand hotels. There were ballrooms. So much of the infrastructure that you experience in the park today are not dissimilar to the kinds of things that you would have seen there 100 years ago. The same would be true in the back country and in all the thermal features of the park. Those are experiences that you still could very much have today that they would have had 100 years ago. The only difference, I would have, is the problem with automobiles, because I think the park now is managed for automobiles. And I think that's a shame.

CURWOOD: One of the tensions about Yellowstone National Park that you deal with in your book involves various personal and business interests there. And those are ongoing issues today. I'm wondering how much you were thinking about this as you wrote, how relevant are some of these issues that your characters face.

SMITH: Well certainly, when you look back and read the history of the park, certain issues jump out of you because of our contemporary concerns. There was much pressure in those days from individual entrepreneurs who wanted to exploit the resources of the park for their own financial gain. And you look today at those outlying communities in Montana and Wyoming and the pressure they're trying to exert today on the park. It is very, very similar. As you're probably aware, there is a great controversy right now, for example, about the use of snowmobiles in the park.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering: at the end of the day, what motivated you to write this novel? Here you're having this wonderful, successful career writing about the environment and writing about science. And as one knows, novels, especially first novels, are usually much more of a labor of love than they are of something to help your pocketbook. Why do this?

SMITH: I often sit and think about the times, like 100 years ago, when they introduced the cavalry into the park because it was threatened. And looking back at that period of time, you know, I wonder now why we don't have someone to step in the way the cavalry did. Why we don't have the political will to step in and really save that resource for the next 100 years. And that certainly was one of my motivations.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today, Diane Smith. Your novel is called Letters from Yellowstone.

SMITH: Thank you.



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