Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal
by Sue Eisenfeld
Press: University of Nebraska Press
216 pages, paper
Reviewed by: Donna M. Crow
Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal by Sue Eisenfeld is not merely a tribute to a National Park and how it came into being. It is not a lone description of the difficult terrain or the beautiful views found deep within the 181,547 acres of the largest national park in the East. It is not the traditional travel memoir of a seeker as she embarks upon the uncharted territory of self. This small book, filled to the brim with vivid images and human insight, like the park itself, is so much more than meets the eye.
Sue Eisenfeld knows herself and she knows the trails of the Shenandoah National Park because she spent fifteen years as a bushwhacker and backpacker along with her husband Neil exploring overgrown Virginia back country. By acknowledging her elementary perceptions of the National Park system, and with a writing style of definition by negation, she grants readers permission to acknowledge their own blissful ignorance toward the hardships rendered upon thousands of residents disemboweled by a governmental practice known as eminent domain, the legal taking of personal property for public good.
In these few easy to read pages, separated by chapters that could be stand-alone essays, Sue Eisenfeld shows us a much deeper view of what the Shenandoah really is, a realized dream that painfully dismantled generations old family farms. She illuminates the narrative of days gone by with a photographer’s eye. Her anthropological dig into a lost culture creates an adventure for the reader beyond the virtual tour. Her quest is to appreciate how the park came into being from the viewpoint of both the takers and from those whom land was taken. Eisenfeld’s endeavor to realize the human spirit is triumphant.
Being a girl from center city Philadelphia where “we didn’t have to push ourselves physically beyond our comfort zone,” yet falling in love with “A science and outdoor educator and naturalist, a hiker and backpacker, a birdwatcher, and somewhat of a loner,” who “finds joy in scanning the skies for hawks and black vultures, turning over rocks looking for salamanders (21)”, Eisenfeld felt it a natural choice that she learn to push herself, one foot in front of the other on trails she would likely never have seen otherwise. What she saw was more than salamanders and snakes.Like her, once readers embark on the footfall of truth, some comforts are sacrificed. As she forewarns in her prologue, “I hiked blindly for nearly two decades…” but, “once you begin to know something… you can’t unknow it (xvi)”.
While her husband might have been looking for “some kind of hornwort slime on a log” (21), Eisenfeld trailed along unwittingly until one day she began to notice other things. “I wanted to know what happened here,” she explains, “to feel viscerally the stories that would explain the headstones and shoe leather and washbasins and China shards that we have found throughout these wild woods”(xiv, prologue). In other words, Sue Eisenfeld was looking for signs of the dead, and she takes us with her as she explores the lives lived and lost, and buried deep within the Shenandoah National Park, all but forgotten by the thousands of tourists who trek through with hardly a notice of days gone by. Eisenfeld’s journey is not so much a hunt for lost treasures as it is a search for lost souls.
With one foot booted for hiking and rooted on the briar entwined earth, while the other lifts and steps toward the ethereal, Eisenfeld becomes our tour guide to another world, a past lived, loved and lost in the conflict over what is best for the public good, a conflict between the government and the God fearing, constitutional loving people being governed. For example, many of the people removed from the park were “tenants or squatters on land they didn’t own—and those who had nowhere else to go. Of the 465 families remaining in 1934 (2,200 people), 197 of them owned their own land, and 268 of them, or 58 percent, owned no equity in their house or land and would not benefit from any payouts from the government or resettlement housing” (126).
Like so many of our gifts and freedoms in this world there is a price to be paid that should not be overlooked or taken for granted. People were devastated, and their lives destroyed. In a survey of the land proposed for the dream park, land surveys stated the area was free of commercial development with no mention of the people living in the area, although at least forty percent of the potential land grab consisted of farmland and orchards. An early estimation of perhaps 1,500 residents grew to possibly as many as 15,000 displaced by the project’s end.
While we can agree that National Parks are a treasure to behold, we need also to know about the many lives and livelihoods sacrificed. This story is of social and economic importance in understanding the making of this fine country that many of us take for granted. Through thoughtful probing into who these people were, searching high and low through the many unkempt and unremembered graveyards held within the park to pay them homage, Eisenfeld’s inquisition into what kind of people it took to extract the residents from their land and what kind of people were removed reveals a whole story, both kind and unkind about the human condition on both sides of eminent domain.
Donna M. Crow lives in Irvine, Kentucky on her family farm. She writes fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry. Her non-fiction has won such awards as the Emma Bell Miles Award for Essay, the Wilma Dykeman Award and the Betty Gabehart Prize (2007). She received the 2008 Sue Ellen Hudson Award for Excellence in Writing for her fiction and her poetry has won the Gurney Norman Prize. Her work has appeared in Kudzu, Now and Then, Literary Leo, The Minnetonka Review as well as anthologized in We All Live Downstream, Outscapes: Writings on Fences and Frontiers and The Notebook among others. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Spalding University.