This is the complex story of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, from the range’s days as the majestic homeland of the Abenaki, first seen by English colonists four centuries ago, to its unassailable standing today as one of America’s most beloved national forests, comprising 112,000 acres of protected wilderness.
Christopher Johnson, an avid hiker intimately familiar with the White Mountains, achieves two important objectives in This Grand and Magnificent Place. He lovingly explores their rich ecological, political, economic, and cultural history and, more broadly, opens a panoramic window on the evolution of American attitudes and policies toward wilderness over time.
Two competing visions of wilderness historically have coexisted in America: the instrumental, in which the wilderness is seen as a conglomeration of resources to be exploited for the benefit of entrepreneurs and consumers, and the aesthetic, in which the wilderness is appreciated for its natural beauty, the personal growth that it stimulates, the national pride it engenders, and the spiritual truth it offers. Johnson never loses sight of this fundamental dichotomy as he shares marvelous true tales of the first intrepid European settlers who “tamed” the Whites. He discusses Ethan Allen Crawford, the area’s first innkeeper, the emergence of tourism, and America’s love affair with the “wilderness experience”; and he explores tales of Thomas Cole, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other renowned artists who immortalized these mountains in their works. He considers the coming of grand resort hotels—and the contemporaneous wilderness revival—in the late nineteenth century and the passing of the landmark 1911 Weeks Act, which was instrumental in preserving American wilderness in the face of development and threats of irreparable environmental damage. Johnson traces the perilous course of the twentieth-century movement toward wilderness preservation, which has successfully conserved the Whites, an extraordinary American treasure, for future generations. Finally, he poses thoughtful and essential questions regarding the destiny of this American wilderness, exploring the balance between maintaining its usefulness while conserving its glorious heritage.
This skillful and accessible history will rivet general readers, students, and professionals interested in the history, culture, and politics of the White Mountains, as well as those fascinated by environmental history and wilderness protection everywhere.