Department of History

Joseph McCall

Joseph McCall

Office Hours

  • By appointment


I am a doctoral candidate in the history department at Auburn University. Please allow this brief outline to introduce some of my research goals and objectives for my dissertation on the Appalachian Trail and specifically, the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club located in Lynchburg, Virginia. My son and I hiked about 1500 miles of the trail southbound from Maine in 1996. I hope to write a study which will illustrate the role played by this local club in shaping the trail. I am especially interested in local forces that helped shape the trail.

Benton MacKaye, the founder of the Appalachian Trail, had the rare capacity to see liminal landscapes. His eyes could take a photograph of a ridge line, a valley, or a meandering country byway and see all as a threshold, with their collective past, present and future, on what is best described as the emulsion paper of his mind. All seemed to merge into a vision of that landscape's environments: the geologic, technologic, and ecologic. This ability, forged during a career that included the nascent forestry and wilderness movements, spanned eras critical to the understanding of American environmental history. MacKaye’s lifespan allowed him to observe and interact with the seminal figures of environmental thought and action. Such luminaries as John Wesley Powell, George Perkins Marsh, Gifford Pinchot, Clarence Stein, Lewis Mumford, Allen Geddes, Aldo Leopold, and Gaylord Nelson were significant teachers, contemporaries and friends. MacKaye was a thinker primarily, but also a figure who sought action to further his visions for his town, region, country, and world. All would be guided by what he described as a geotechnic philosophy. His philosophy included first-hand exposure and involvement spanning the eras of the Progressives to the modern wilderness and environmental movements.

My study will attempt to examine how the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club section of the trail, less than one hundred miles long through the Virginia Appalachian mountain range, reflects the impact of the geographic, cultural, social, and political shaping of the broad themes of forestry, regional planning, wilderness preservation, and outdoor recreation. MacKaye's public life is like a "river" that "runs through it," from its inception to its current status as an iconic and bucolic American treasure. MacKaye saw all human activity regarding the environment as a landscape to be shaped, preserved, conserved and utilized by people. My study will focus on how his vision served as the catalyst for the Appalachian Trail, but also how the historic path it follows was made manifest and sometimes diverted from his founding aspirations. It will be a local environmental history writ large, but with an eye towards how vision becomes reality and how an active citizenry can attempt to ameliorate what MacKaye saw as significant pitfalls of modernism in the post-World War I years which continue to be relevant today.

Last Updated: October 26, 2015