12:15 – 1:15 p.m., S.J. Quinney Moot Courtroom (Level 6)
1 CLE (pending). Free and open to the public. No registration required.
Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight over Controlling Nature
In the summer of 1972, a young man named Harry Walker left his home on an Alabama farm to find himself in the wide-open spaces of America. Nineteen days later he was killed by a grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. This is where Jordan Fisher Smith, author of the widely acclaimed book Nature Noir and narrator of the Oscar-shortlisted documentary Under Our Skin, begins Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight over Controlling Nature. In the vein of Into the Wild, The Golden Spruce, and The Perfect Storm, Jordan Fisher Smith’s Engineering Eden proceeds into a one-of-a-kind exploration of character, biography, and environmental conservation history.
Beginning in a federal courtroom where some of the greatest wildlife biologists of the twentieth century testified in a lawsuit filed by Harry Walker’s parents after his death, Smith traces Walker’s fated path to his fatal encounter with the bear and a long scientific controversy over how to restore and maintain patches of wilderness amid growing numbers of people. Maneuvered into suing by an ally of bear biologist brothers John and Frank Craighead, who were at odds with the government over conservation of the grizzlies, the Walkers charged that a plan to restore Yellowstone’s ecology after a long history of mismanagement proved fatal both for the bears and their son. But at a deeper level the case was a referendum on how much human beings ought to try to engineer nature.
America’s most famous national parks were created before the scientific advances it would take to care for them. By 1972, when Yellowstone turned one hundred years old, biologists were involved in a rancorous dispute over what exactly we were trying to save in these wild places and how to go about doing it. Some, like Walker trial witness A. Starker Leopold, son of legendary conservationist Aldo Leopold and the architect of the national parks’ nature policy, believed that human manipulation was essential to preserve threatened ecosystems. Others, like Yellowstone chief scientist Glen Cole and celebrated wildlife biologist Adolph Murie, argued that the most essential characteristic of wilderness was that it was the one place in which we can leave nature alone to work out its own destiny.
The moral of Smith’s story is that nature will not be saved wholly by engineering or by leaving it alone; a balance must be struck. But his account of the fatal complexity of tinkering with a single national park will caution readers to weigh carefully recent claims by advocates of total human dominion over nature, “geoengineering,” genetically engineered creatures, custom-built ecosystems, and “gardening” of the entire earth.
Jordan Fisher Smith worked for twenty-one years as a park and wilderness ranger in California, Wyoming, Idaho, and Alaska. He is the author of Natur Noir, which was an Audubon magazine Editor’s Choice, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Books of the Year selection, and a Wall Street Journal Summer Reading pick. He has since written for Men’s Journal, Aeon, Discover, Backpacker, and the Los Angeles Times Magazine, among others. Smith is also a principal cast member and narrator of the film Under Our Skin, which was on the 2010 Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature. He lives in the Sierra Nevada range in Northern California.
Jordan Fisher’s presentation is cosponsored by the Wallace Stegner Center and The King’s English Bookshop and is made possible by a generous donation from the Cultural Vision Fund.
For questions about this event contact Kris (801) 585-3440.
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