Conway on Slavishak, 'Proving Ground: Expertise and Appalachian Landscapes'

Edward Slavishak. Proving Ground: Expertise and Appalachian Landscapes. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. Illustrations. 232 pp. $52.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4214-2539-9.

Reviewed by Hannah Conway (Havard University)
Published on H-Environment (March, 2023)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version:

In Proving Ground: Expertise and Appalachian Landscapes, historian Edward Slavishak untangles how the Appalachian environment came to be viewed as a place where one could earn credentials through a mastery of perceived wilderness. Unfolding across five chapters, Proving Ground examines cases of “expertise in the making,” examining the work of four professionals and two hiking clubs in the twentieth century (p. 16). These professionals distilled expertise and built careers from their experiences in Appalachia that were often inaccessible to other "outsiders" and markedly different from how most locals experienced their environment. Slavishak positions his close look at these individuals and their motivations as a move to “specification” within the broader set of scholarship in environmental history that problematizes the construction of “wilderness” à la William Cronon or Roderick Nash. Like the three thousand people who still come to Appalachia every year to prove something about (or maybe to) themselves by attempting to thru-hike all 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT), Slavishak’s case studies show how knowledge is produced through a place rather than about a place. Along the way, Proving Ground makes important interventions in conceptualizations of Appalachia as a region of isolated backwardness, of the relationship between “outsiders” who studied the mountains and the “insiders” who lived there, and of the ways that Appalachian land—and the resources that can be extracted from it—has been valued more than the people residing there.

The first chapter follows the efforts of City Beautiful Movement leader J. Horace McFarland to tell “others how to experience the outdoors” in the first decades of the twentieth century (p. 19). Slavishak positions the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, printmaker as a deft conservation strategist who put forth an elitist, aesthetic vision of nature as a refuge from the class conflicts of the city and communicated the need for environmental protection through the emergent popular technologies of car travel and the camera. Slavishak employs rhetorical and visual analysis of McFarland’s travelogues and photographs to argue that his position as an expert on conservation was reliant on his upper-class status that afforded him access to these technologies and spaces.

The second chapter turns to regional planner and AT designer Benton MacKaye. While MacKaye was born and died in New England, Slavishak centers the feeling of deep connection he had to Appalachia—described in letters as his “own region and homeland”—which led him to propose the AT in 1921. MacKaye saw the mountain range as a barrier to be used against the industrial sprawl that crowded the Eastern Seaboard: Appalachia’s underdevelopment meant it was full of possibility for a new vision of carefully planned growth that lessened the ills of modernity. To enact his vision, MacKaye employed the Civilian Conservation Corps as well as local hiking clubs—creating a network of invested participants around the project that shared his ideas for environmental protection and acted as popularizers once it was complete.

These hiking clubs are explored in more depth in the third chapter. Formed as recreation groups, members of the Carolina Mountain Club and the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club developed their expertise through “the privilege of suffering on the slopes of the Smokies [as] a special type of knowing” (p. 71). Technologies of imagery are reprised as key knowledge-making tools, and photographs by club member George Masa sought to capture the effort it took to achieve an image as much as the landscape. In their work cutting trails through the Smokies, they also controlled recreational development so that access expanded but the “ruggedness” they valued was preserved. This chapter is the only one that examines expertise making by “insiders” from Appalachia—Masa and the founders of both clubs lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina—rather than outsiders who traveled there.

While expertise in these first three chapters is crafted through an Appalachian landscape that was valued because of its lack of inhabitants—“those local people whom they did encounter they could quietly omit”—in the 1920s to 1930s, the last two chapters look at professionals who built their careers through their studies of Appalachian people in the 1950s to 1970s (p. 6). Chapter 4 follows University of Kentucky anthropologist Marion Pearsall, who eschewed environmental determinist explanations of health that posited that “bad” Appalachian land created “bad” people. Slavishak argues that her work, and the disciplinary expertise she garnered through it, details an Appalachian region that was not defined by isolation but shaped by economic stagnation, institutional deficits, and cultural norms and practices of Appalachian families. Pearsall contended that if health providers wanted to change outcomes in the region, they needed to do so through careful establishment of social relations, and she translated her fieldwork in Leslie County, Kentucky, into generalizable recommendations for social scientists that defined the kinds of studies that founded the nascent field of medical anthropology.

The fifth chapter returns to the use of the camera to capture compelling imagery of Appalachia that communicated the expertise of the photographer to their audience through the work of New York-based documentary photographer William Gedney. Slavishak positions Gedney’s “junkscape” photographs of coal country as a series of hyper-local relationships between people and place: “His images portray local cultures as so local that they frustrate attempts to use them to make claims about Appalachia as a whole” (p. 145). Gedney’s documentary work in 1964 and again in 1972 with the Cornett Family, also of Leslie County, propelled him into a notable career that included Guggenheim, Fulbright, and National Endowment fellowships as well as a Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition. Slavishak concludes that his actors believed “that there were no short cuts; time spent in the mountains was the only way to get better at their practices” (p. 173).

Proving Ground offers a history of the idea of an Appalachian landscape—specifically central and southern Appalachia—as it existed for a group of white-collar professionals and the relationships they cultivated to the land through their material practices, and his arguments in this regard are compelling. Scholars working on the history of recreation in Appalachian studies or in parks, recreation, and tourism management will find generative discussions in this approachable text and within each of its digestible chapters that can easily stand alone. Historians that sit at the intersections of environmental history and the history of science will similarly find fertile soil in critiques of expertise in the social sciences and through lines of how technologies—automobiles, cameras, maps—were used as tools that rendered “wild” landscapes legible and bolstered his actors’ claims to authority. Further, Slavishak offers an original and thought-provoking analysis of the dominant construction of modern American environmentalism within the professional and leisure classes. The focus on mini-biographical chapters of individuals introduces new voices in the history of American environmental and cultural thought for those looking to teach the conservation and preservation movements beyond Aldo Leopold, John Muir, or Gifford Pinchot.

What is under-explored, however, is the settler-colonial roots of both the conceptualizations of wilderness and the possibilities for self-making professionals found there. While Slavishak points out that the “emptiness” of the wilderness idolized by McFarland and MacKaye overlooked the locals who lived there after the turn of the century, Proving Ground fails to follow this analysis through to the dispossession of these spaces from the Indigenous people who stewarded them since time immemorial—even when Slavishak’s actors explicitly and routinely drew those connections. In his work that led to his conceptualization of the AT, MacKaye’s preservationist arguments merged social and environmental concerns to “align federally sponsored sustainable resource development with fairer and more stable labor regimes” and called for a “rural recolonization”: a vision for communal, cooperative restructuring of settlement that reimagined the Homestead Act as a collective, rather than individual, endeavor.[1] He described his ultimate goal as the engineering of a “new indigenous America” (p. 56). A radical reimaging of the American landscape rooted in his socialist politics, MacKaye envisioned the AT as a footpath that connected new rural centers of industrial and recreationally based communities. He believed that if urban residents came to the mountains, they would be “loath to return. They would become desirous of settling down in the country—to work in the open as well as to play.”[2]

Proving Ground tempers MacKaye’s radical politics and argues that his construction of Appalachia as a uniquely “indigenous” place was built on his imagining of the region as connected to a more authentic past than the modern present—with no reference to “Indigeneity” as it refers to Native people. Slavishak positions MacKaye’s use of the term “indigenous” as simply meaning specific to, or originating from, a place.[3] But this assertion is challenged by earlier work from environmental historian Paul Sutter, who has explored in more depth both the radical political nature of MacKaye’s “colonization” work and his brief stint with the Indian Service in 1933. During this employment, MacKaye advocated for wilderness preservation on Native reservations in the Southwest and worked with Native conservation crews, which Slavishak does not discuss.[4] MacKaye would have been unable to avoid the Southeastern Native past and ongoing presence in the Appalachian landscape: Slavishak anchors his chapter with an experience MacKaye recounted from Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which directly faces Moccasin Bend in the Tennessee River, a significant archaeological burial site for Southeastern Native peoples and a point where our Cherokee ancestors crossed on the Trail of Tears. Investigations here were well underway in 1933, and public calls for it to be turned into a park began in 1926.[5] Both the AT and the later Benton MacKaye Trail also run around the border of the Qualla Boundary, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) reservation established in 1876, and would have had to negotiate right of way around the sovereign Native land just as the National Park Service did when it began construction on the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1935, two years before the AT opened.[6]

The direct and explicit engagement with Native history by the hiking clubs the third chapter follows further complicates MacKaye’s use of the term “indigenous.” Their trails followed existing Native trail systems woven through our traditional territory—as did modern highway and interstate construction.[7] In their Program of Hikes for 1927, which Slavishak references, the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club highlighted the Qualla as a point of interest and featured a photograph of Cherokee basket weavers.[8] Their 1932 program discusses the relationship between the AT and Native trails: “The long-way hikers will begin their trek at the Road Prong and follow the old Indian Road made during the Civil War by the Cherokee Indians.... It was the only road, until recent years, ever built across the Smokies.”[9] In their 1933 handbook, the club explicitly connected their recreation in the Smokies to Cherokee lifeways, history, and displacement: "As we prepare breakfast on Sunday morning, the sun rises over deep gorges and canyons that became the last retreat of the hunted Cherokee when his tribe was driven west of the Mississippi. We shall go on through the same virgin forest and along the narrow valleys which formed a refuge for the Indian and is now a last sanctuary for game.... We are reminded that this trail [Indian Gap] is a road made during the Civil War by the Cherokee Indians.... One can easily imagine himself in Indian country because on the Indian Gap Trail to Indian Gap he passes through the Indian Grave flats as he approaches the Gap he finds Tommy Hawk and Moccasin branches flowing into the Road Prong."[10]

Expertise in Appalachia was built not just through a mastering of dispossessed Native land but also through an accumulation of Cherokee and other Southeastern Native knowledge. In Playing Indian, Philip J. Deloria (Oceti Ŝakowiŋ) argues that settlers used outdoor recreation as a form of “self-indigenization.” Settlers like MacKaye searched for an authentic experience in the environment because they “wanted to feel a natural affinity with the continent, and it was Indians who could teach them such aboriginal closeness.... From the colonial period to the present, the Indian has skulked in and out of the most important stories various Americans have told about themselves.”[11] Historian Stephen Pearson has elaborated on this “indigenous” white settler self-making in the Appalachian context through texts Slavishak discusses in his fourth and fifth chapters. In the 1962 Night Comes to the Cumberlands, employed in analysis of Gedney’s images, Henry Caudill calls Appalachian settlers “indigenous mountaineers” and claims that “people of my blood and name have lived in the [eastern Kentuckian] plateau since the beginning.... The white man became, almost, a pale-faced Indian. He ate the Indian’s corn and ‘jerked’ meat. He wore the Indian’s deer skin clothes. He even adopted his tomahawk, and here only, on the rampaging frontier, the white border man collected scalps with all the zest of the Choctaw brave.”[12] The task of writing about Native trauma is one that many non-Native scholars may be rightly hesitant to undertake. But choosing to “omit quietly” (much like he argues his actors did with Appalachian locals) the existence and importance of Southeastern Native peoples in Proving Ground disregards a motivation that is abundantly present in the archives. It also reinforces the same settler-colonial constructions of uninhabited, ahistorical wilderness that Cronon, Sutter, and Nash critique and Slavishak works to speak to.

Proving Ground is concisely written with a focused argument making for a quick and engaging read, and Slavishak’s examination of the overlooked role of hiking clubs in developing modern outdoor recreation infrastructure and ideology is an important contribution to the literature. Delving further into the rich archives of these clubs would make excellent work for future dissertations or monographs, and Slavishak leaves many generatively open doors for other scholars to pursue entanglements between settler-colonialism, Appalachian land, constructions of wilderness, and expertise further. For educators looking to incorporate Proving Ground into curriculum, Slavishak’s narratives would work well in conversation with studies of Native removal like Mark David Spence’s canonical Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (1999), Claudio Saunt’s Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory (2020), and the rich Native history material the Appalachia Trail Conservancy has built into its online resources. Indigenous Studies professor Trey Adcock’s (ᏣᎳᎩᎯ ᎠᏰᎵ, Cherokee Nation) 2021 article “Native Lands” and mapping of the twenty-two Native Nations the land of the AT runs through is an accessible starting point.[13] While Proving Ground thoughtfully critiques “accessibility” to wild spaces through class analysis, it does not engage with how segregation mediated accessibility in state and national parks for Black Appalachians, workers, and visitors. These discussions could be enriched with works like Olen Cole Jr.’s The African American Experience in the Civilian Conservation Corps (1999), Terence Young’s “‘A Contradiction in Democratic Government’: W. J. Trent, Jr. and the Struggle to Desegregate National Park Campgrounds” (2009), and William O’Brien’s Landscapes of Exclusion (2015).[14]


[1]. Paul Sutter, “‘A Retreat from Profit’: Colonization, the Appalachian Trail, and the Social Roots of Benton MacKaye’s Wilderness Advocacy,” Environmental History 4, no. 4 (1999): 556.

[2]. Sutter, “‘Retreat from Profit,’” 565.

[3]. While “Indigenous” can refer to anything originating from a specific place, it has been used specifically to describe groups of Native people since the mid-seventeenth century. Michael A. Peters and Carl T. Mika, “Aborigine, Indian, Indigenous, or First Nations?” Educational Philosophy and Theory 49, no. 13 (2017): 1229-34.

[4]. Sutter, “‘Retreat from Profit,’” 554n5.

[5]. National Park Service, Department of the Interior, Moccasin Bend Cultural Landscape Report (Washington, DC: National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, and the Jaeger Company, April 2014).

[6]. Anne Mitchell Whisnant, “Parkway Development and the Eastern Band of Cherokees, Part 1 of 3,” Driving through Time, DocSouth, University of North Carolina, 2010,

[7]. Lamar Marshall, “In the Footsteps of Appalachia’s First People,” Blue Ridge Outdoors, April 17, 2015, Marshall’s extensive trail mapping work has been supported by the EBCI and Western North Carolina University.

[8]. Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, Program of Hikes for 1927, 51-54, Digital Smoky Mountains Hiking Club Collection, University of Tennessee, Knoxville Libraries, Knoxville, Tennessee.

[9]. Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, Program of Hikes for 1932, 12, Digital Smoky Mountains Hiking Club Collection.

[10]. Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, 1933 Handbook of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, 50, 52, Digital Smoky Mountains Hiking Club Collection.

[11]. Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 5-6.

[12]. Caudill, quoted in Stephen Pearson, “‘The Last Bastion of Colonialism’: Appalachian Settler Colonialism and Self-Indigenization,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 37, no. 2 (2013): 169.

[13]. Trey Adcock, “Native Lands,” Appalachian Trail Conservancy (blog), February 23, 2021,

[14]. Olen Cole Jr., The African American Experience in the Civilian Conservation Corps (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999); Terence Young, “‘A Contradiction in Democratic Government’: W. J. Trent, Jr. and the Struggle to Desegregate National Park Campgrounds,” Environmental History 14, no. 4 (2009): 651-82; and William O’Brien, Landscapes of Exclusion: State Parks and Jim Crow in the American South (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015).

Citation: Hannah Conway. Review of Slavishak, Edward, Proving Ground: Expertise and Appalachian Landscapes. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023.

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