A Hunger for High Country:
One Woman's Journey to the Wild in Yellowstone Country

by Susan Marsh

Oregon State University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-870-71756-7.
Reviewed by Martha Meacham
Posted on 01/23/2015

Nonfiction: Memoir

A Hunger for High Country is a memoir with a mission. On one hand, Susan Marsh shares her romantic notion of the wild places of Montana and Wyoming with descriptive detail. On the other hand, she shows us her strength in her quest to find her place among the male-dominated hierarchy of the National Forest Service (NFS). In this hybrid memoir and scientific report, the author provides insight into the status of federal wilderness lands as our nation transitioned from managing public lands to preserving them. The shift that began in 1964 with the Wilderness Act, signed by Lyndon Baines Johnson, has been a slow one. An inherent conflict pits "amenity" resources like recreation, wilderness and scenic quality against the status quo of utilizing national forests for commodities like timber, minerals and grazing. The old-guard bureaucracy has held on tenaciously for five decades, regardless of new laws enacted.

A baby-boomer, Marsh grew up playing in the woods rather than playing inside with dolls. Even though she had few women role models, she chose a career in environmental conservation. Women in the 1980's were expected to "smile and be pleasant" to have any hope of a career with the National Forest Service. She persisted and wrote, "Yet the longer I stayed the more I loved the forest and it occurred to me that loyalty to a place, a relationship with the land, were more important that moving on to further one's career." If you are a reader who is interested in women who pioneered in fields that are not typically pursued by women, her story is unique.

If you are intrigued by the area she calls "The Park" and the area surrounding Yellowstone (like Bozeman, Montana or the Grand Tetons and Jackson, Wyoming), there are plenty of accounts of these places as she travels on foot and horseback, and she includes black and white photos from those trips.

But vast tracts of federal wilderness lands remain at risk even after 50 years of attempts to preserve them. An alarming trend is to turn over stewardship to states and private contractors who use up natural resources as "commodities."

Marsh's voice is both scientific and poetic as she blends both writing styles in her prose. "Quiet," she warns, "by its nature slips away unnoticed. But once it is gone, we notice." She reflects:

We've grown to accept, or even expect, a theme park rather than the wild. Without authentic and individual experience, without the practiced intimacy needed to grow a personal relationship with real places, we cannot muster the visceral allegiance to them that is so urgently needed. I worry that the lack of intimate knowledge of the outdoors and its attendant quiet will make us simply forget about both. Silence will go the way of the Dodo, unnoticed and unmourned.

We owe a debt of gratitude to forest workers like Susan Marsh whose tireless efforts have resulted in victories of preserving wild lands that are "outstandingly remarkable."

Read an excerpt from this book.

Susan Marsh lives in Jackson, Wyoming. She has retired after over thirty years working for the U. S. Forest Service. She grew up among animals and wild places near Seattle, Washington. She is a writer and naturalist. Visit her website.

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