By Jessica DeWitt
Originally published for the University of Kentucky Political Ecology Group
Outsider. Insider. My academic journey thus far often seems like a tightrope act between these two desires. My background and passion for state parks and nature has led me to become an environmental historian who focuses on parks. My dissertation is a comparative history of the development and management of state and provincial parks in the United States and Canada. I grew up “one mile up the hill, South on Route 36” from Cook Forest State Park in Western Pennsylvania. My parents owned rental cabins for over twenty years. Our cabins were authentic relics of an earlier era, built by hand from trees felled on the property in the 1920s. Rejecting the common path their middle-class backgrounds had paved for them, my parents took the cabins over after years of neglect in the early 1980s. My childhood was admittedly idyllic and largely spent meandering through the woods, alone with just myself, my dogs, and my nature. Even as a youngster I understood the deep divide that stood between my family and our renters; our tight knit community of small business owners and the droves of tourists; the insiders and outsiders. While the tourists assumed our life was serene, our business profitable, we understood how difficult it was to “make it” in the tourism industry, how difficult it was to hold on to the dream and to deal with the very tourists upon which are livelihood depended. Most of all, whilst the tourists sought an ephemeral thrill in what Joe Hermer refers to as a “knotless nature,” we enjoyed what we viewed to be a deeper connection to the forest. The forest in all its natural (and manmade, but we’ll leave the wilderness debate for another post) glory was a part of me, it still is a part of me, and it shaped who I am today.
Jessica DeWitt is a PhD candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. Her dissertation is a comparative study of provincial and state parks, defining the unique role that these park “middlemen” play in North American society. She is on twitter @JessicaMDeWitt