(Originally posted to Virtual Blue Ridge’s Blue Ridge Parkway Blog, May 14, 2008)
Writing a book of history can often be an intensely solitary process. Hours alone in the archives, communing with long-dead people as your only companions. I know I’ve had a running conversation in my head with Parkway location engineer R. Getty Browning, dead since the late 1960s, but as alive to me as many of the real people in my world. More on him in a future post.
But one of the thrills of finally publishing the book I’d worked on so long is finally getting to talk to lots of live people about it! Through a series of book events and conversations with community groups, I’ve been able to meet hundreds of people who are also passionate about the Parkway’s past and future.
A special opportunity to bring past and present together is coming next week (May 20-22) when the University of Virginia will host a conference called “Designing the Parks“, which, its website notes, will examine “the design of buildings and landscapes in the regional, state, and national parks.”
The conference will feature introductory comments from the Director of the National Park Service, Mary Bomar, along with presentations from an impressive array of scholars and park planning, history, and design professionals. On the third day, participants will take tours of the Appalachian Trail; Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway; and the Charlottesville-Gettysburg corridor’s many Civil War sites, Presidential homes, and historic downtowns.
I’m excited about all of this, of course, but especially about my own panel presentation, a conversation with two very knowledgeable colleagues, Ian Firth and Gary W. Johnson, in which we’ll try to link the Parkway’s history and current challenges.
Ian is retired from the faculty in the College of Environment and Design at the University of Georgia, and Gary is a career Park Service veteran and the longtime Chief of the Resource Management Division of the Parkway. For years while I was writing my book, Ian was working on a book-length Historic Resource Study for the Parkway, which surveys the historic design features of the road. Yet we’ve never met. Gary, meanwhile, has been the point person for coping with all of the ongoing challenges that managing the Parkway presents – especially viewshed protection and relations with adjoining landowners.
Our session, “A Borrowed Landscape: Politics, Design and Management of the Blue Ridge Parkway,” will at last bring design, policy, history, and management together into dialogue. And it will fulfill one of my fondest hopes in writing my book: that learning the history might provide insights that would speak to present policy concerns. So many of the struggles the Parkway has today have their roots in the past; history and historians should be talking to managers so that the past can help us think about the future.