When I worked for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management at the Anasazi Heritage Center, I read a lot about mining in the Rockies. The book that really let me know what life in the mining camps was like was Tomboy Bride, by Harriet Fish Backus. The men in mining wrote about what they did; Backus wrote about how they lived.
Just so, Marjane Ambler's new book, Yellowstone Has Teeth, may be the tale of life behind the derring-do that hits home for readers not familiar with what the people in parks do, or why. She writes of life at the Lake District in Yellowstone National Park - winter and summer - from 1984 through 1993, where her husband, Terry Wehrman, was a heavy equipment operator and she was a writer, free-lance journalist and, for four seasons, a seasonal interpretive naturalist.
In the interests of disclosure, I should note that Marjane and Terry were Mancos Valley neighbors and friends. I've read her 1990 book, Breaking the Iron Bonds: Indian Control of Energy Development, and recognize and appreciate that it is a well-researched, authoritative, landmark book on the subject. I also know how Marjane developed the Tribal College Journal into the high-quality, authoritative periodical that it now is, presenting substantive information from and about the nation's tribal colleges.
I also should observe that there are relatively few people who can review Yellowstone Has Teeth with in-depth knowledge of what it's like to winter in a remote district of Yellowstone in that not-so-long-ago time of limited communications and transportation … and I am not one of them. Nor have I had the experience of working in a huge park … it's a different culture, and Yellowstone is especially different. There is a mystique about working in Yellowstone (perhaps cultivated by those who've worked there) that can seem aloof and even a little bit condescending to those of us who've labored in "lesser" parks.
Despite those caveats, I found myself reading the 223-page book from cover to cover in a very short time, hating to stop each time I picked it up. Knowing how Marjane empowered, mentored, and coached her co-workers at TCJ, I can appreciate how difficult it must have been for her to put herself at the center of the book as the narrator, but that's the only way it could have worked. And it does work, thanks to her ability to write clearly, compassionately, dramatically when necessary, and with the attention to detail that makes it ring so true!
Yellowstone may have teeth, but Mother Nature began to eat 800,000 acres of Yellowstone 25 years ago this month. Marjane's account of the uncertainty, frustration and sheer terror she and others in the park went through during the weeks fires raged across Yellowstone brings it all home with a rush of immediacy as we mourn 19 firefighters dead in Arizona in a fire season just getting started. The dread and doom is lightened, however, by her recollection of looking at the list she had made of things she needed to remember to take with her if they had to evacuate Lake and seeing her husband had added "Terry" at the bottom of the list.
Much of my joy in reading Marjane's account was from those little details of life that she shares, such as seeing the imprint of wings and a tail in snow, telling the story of where an owl plunged in for a tiny prey. Or the sight of a muskrat nibbling some vegetation while riding a chunk of ice in the river. Or the sounds of the birds and animals when the park was quiet in the off seasons.
At the personal level, there were lessons to be learned, many of them having to do with snow, snowmobiles, snow, snow machines, snow, skiing, snow, road grooming, snow, clearing snow off roofs, snow … you get the picture. There were also adaptations to isolation, close proximity to partners and neighbors, and the constant "weather permitting" caution that went with every plan. Call it Mother Nature, Yellowstone, whatever … the elements were always out there, ready to trip up the unwary or unprepared.
At the community level, there are insights into the dynamics of a small, isolated community, including how individuals found ways to complement each other. Some of the accounts are touching, some hilarious … people finding ways to cope in a situation where, all too often, life could be on the line the next day.
Those who love the tales National Park Service people tell about themselves, visitors and animals will find plenty to enjoy here. There are also the all-too-common frustrations that seem to come with living in a district that is remote from park headquarters … the step-child feeling. And Washington is even more remote - unknowing, perhaps uncaring.
The popular image of the traditional Yellowstone ranger is a little like Paul Bunyan - big, brawny, able to bring Nature to heel … and male. Marjane was in Yellowstone at a time when that image was being challenged, when single women, spouses, and even children were beginning to be part of the scene in the employee housing areas and even in the workplace. The interviews she and Terry did with the Yellowstone folks who had lived there decades earlier are an invaluable part of Yellowstone Has Teeth. Marjane presents these people honestly and compassionately, while giving a pretty clear picture of how their lives differed from that of the 1980s and, of course, even more from what we would experience today.
Even in Yellowstone, the outside world gradually penetrates and causes changes. Marjane wraps that into her narrative, too - political influences, changing gender roles, our increasing dependence on technology that is often unreliable, changes in wildlife management philosophy (we don't feed the bears or shoot coyotes anymore, but she interviewed people who had done that), etc.
I heartily recommend Yellowstone Has Teeth for folks interested in Yellowstone, the big mountain parks, or the National Park Service in general. An easy read, a good read … and one that left me tearful at the end.