My rating: 3 of 5 stars
One of the nice aspects of being a writer is that you have the opportunity to immerse yourself in a subject matter. For me that means reading a good number of books about Appalachia as I’m finishing up the first draft of my own book.
This week’s read was Sarah Mittlefehldt’s Tangled Roots: The Appalachian Trail and American Environmental Politics, a narrative history of how the Appalachian Trail was formed and what it says about our country and environmentalism. What caught my attention was the way in which Mittlefehldt framed her story. She’s part of a new crop of Appalachian writers who are reframing the narrative of the region as central to the American experience instead of as alien to it.
The story, though, was aimed more broadly at environmentally-minded people. Her central argument (and it’s a good one) is that the modern environmental movement should take its cues from the history of the Appalachian Trail conservation movement, which brought together citizens, non-profit organizations, private trusts, and the government in a sometimes messy but ultimately effective partnership that has both created green spaces and encouraged commerce and development. Those relationships, she argues, should be at the heart of the twenty-first century environmental movement.
At its best, the book’s narrative is a pleasant mix of well-reported histories of the Trail’s development that include short biographies of the main players, descriptions of the major roadblocks, and clear exposition explaining how those events led to creative solutions. It was weighty without feeling so, and I breezed through the first half without problem.
The narrative turned a bit as I reached the halfway point. The book suffer from overreach. Mittlefehldt seems reluctant to rely on her main environmental message, and instead pulls in side-narratives such as those relating to southern Appalachian stereotypes. When that happens, the book suffers a bit from the weight of her reporting because those side-steps require her to return to the main narrative by constantly reminding the reader that this story is really a roadmap for New Environmentalism.
Still, the narrative issue weren’t enough to derail the book. It slowed a bit in the second half, but I never wanted to set it aside. I finished it in three reads (mainly because the book is broadly broken up into three historical periods).
It’s probably best for people who are interested in conservation or who love the outdoors, but whoever reads it will come away smarter for having done so.