A Woman of the Woods: Susan R. Schrepfer, 1941-2014

Susan Schrepfer (left) with Forest History Society colleagues Elwood Maunder and Barbara Holman in 1975. | Photo: Courtesy of Forest History Society, Durham NC
Susan Schrepfer (left) with Forest History Society colleagues Elwood Maunder and Barbara Holman in 1975. | Photo: Courtesy of Forest History Society, Durham NC

Susan Schrepfer, who died on March 3, taught several generations of environmental historians how to see the forest and the trees.

Which is another way of saying that Susan thought large and small, urged her colleagues and readers to integrate big-picture ideas with their localized manifestations, and through her impeccably researched and gracefully written books helped us rethink our complicated (because constructed) relationship to the natural world.

A long-time member of the history department at Rutgers University, Susan earned her academic degrees from UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside. Critical to her craft, though, was her successful stint as a researcher at the Forest History Society (FHS), then located in Santa Cruz (it now calls Durham, NC home). Working through its jam-packed archives, which contain an unparalleled collection of business records of the American timber industry, personal papers of foresters and conservationists, hard-to-find Forest Service records, and long-out-of-print newspapers, and by conducting interviews with some of the key contemporary players, Susan carefully tracked the paper trail that is the historian's special charge.

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These many and varied materials allowed her to reconstruct how her subjects thought and acted. Shifting through agency documents, Sierra Club memoranda, and issues of the defunct Overland Monthly or American Lumberman, for example, revealed the differing approaches scientists, activists, and entrepreneurs adopted toward forest management.

One of these FHS-generated projects, a co-authored study of the Forest Service's Northeastern Forest Experimental Station in 1973, was an institutional history in the very best sense: it took seriously the agency's scientific mission and set its researchers' studies of forest dynamics in their wider context. I'm among those indebted to Susan for her insights into the manifold connections between analysis, policy, and landscape regeneration, drawing on them for key passages in my book "Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot."

Even more influential has been her first book, "The Fight to Save the Redwoods: A History of Environmental Reform, 1917-1978." Note the play between its title and subtitle. Although she framed the monograph around the long struggle to preserve a remnant of the once-vast redwood forests of California's northern coast, which had sprawled across more than two million acres, Susan also used this enduring battle to identify the evolution of environmental activism across the bulk of the last century.

As she dug into court records, poured over the correspondence of significant actors in the Save the Redwoods League (est. 1918), and spun through endless reels of microfilm, Susan mapped the ways that the wilderness preservation movement depended on individual energy and an almost ministerial commitment to the cause. Yet voluntary action and moral suasion, for all their galvanizing power, alone could not carry the day. More sustaining were the organizations and the professionalization of their engagement that would lead ultimately to the creation of the Redwood National and State Parks. That said, this fertile combination of the personal and political proved no match for corporate clout. It prevailed, at least in this regard: The parks encompass about 133,000 acres of redwood forest, less than five percent of their original extent.

However sobering that conclusion, Susan never lost sight of her animating question: why had anyone decided to save even one acre? Why in the midst of the booming industrial revolution, and the reaping whirlwind of World War I, did Madison Grant, Henry Fairfield Osborn, and John Campbell Merriam pile into a car and rattle across dirt-rutted roads in search of what they had heard was an unimaginable sweep of primeval forest along the Mendocino coast? Because first they imagined it, then they cast their eyes on it. "In swift panorama," Merriam later remembered, "the history of these trees...passed before me, stage after stage from the remote past."

Once seen, they could not forget. Once they heard the roaring saws and smelled the burnt-scent of woodchip and sawdust, they could not help extrapolating from this industrial scene to these ancient trees' splintered future. Their extrapolation was a critical catalyst to their subsequent campaign to save what one of them described as an arboreal landscape of "mystery and charm unique among living works of creation." In so saying, these conservationists helped make Susan's case to us: The human imagination is a creative, regenerative, and historically contingent force.

Nature's Altars: Mountains, Gender, and American Environmentalism
Nature's Altars: Mountains, Gender, and American Environmentalism

That we think in certain ways in particular eras, and that these modes of knowing shift over time, is an argument central to Susan's final project, Nature's Altars: Mountains, Gender, and American Environmentalism. "Protecting wilderness not only saves biological communities and evidence of earlier inhabitants," she wrote, "but also preserves centuries of multilayered, cultural history of meanings imposed upon meanings, realities laid upon fantasies, and fantasies set against the force of very special places."

Like an archaeologist, she carefully excavated journals, memoirs, and letters, photographs and other illustrative material to expose the different manner in which men and women approached mountaineering. Climbers such as Bob Marshall or David Brower scaled tall peaks to "fulfill and contest complex and contentious ideas of what it meant to be a man," whereas writer Mary Austin helped craft a "feminine sublime" about thin-air trekking that resulted in a "keen awareness of the life forces that flowed through the physical world and themselves, verifying the values of nurturance and reproduction that society expected of women." This adult binary, Susan argued, was replicated in the wilderness training Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls received.

Yet not every woman absorbed this message about what once was thought to be a biologically determined distinction between the sexes. Feminist mountaineer Miriam O'Brien, for one, advocated manless hiking --"if women were really to lead, that is, to take the entire responsibility for the climb," she wrote in 1934, "there couldn't be any man at all in the party." As O'Brien mounted one ascent after another in Europe and the U.S., she did so, in Susan's words, to "transcend society's containment of female power." High country is contested ground.

It's revelatory, too. For Susan Schrepfer, the jagged Sierras and snow-capped Rockies, like dense redwood forests, were green screens on which we routinely project our cultural anxieties, environmental sensibilities, and social tensions. As a guide to and interpreter of this expressive terrain, she had few equals.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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