A footpath along the Appalachian Mountains had existed since the early 1900s. In a 1921 article, Benton MacKaye—a forester, planner, and conservationist with degrees from Harvard—first proposed building a trail. Four years later, the Appalachian Trail Conference, later renamed the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), was founded to build and maintain the trail. It began work on the trail shortly thereafter and completed it by 1937.
Myron Avery—a lawyer, hiker, and explorer who at times collaborated with MacKaye and at times rivaled him—plotted out the original route, then took charge of the project and helped to complete it. “He did extensive mapping work of the official first route and wheeled the entire trail,” says Matt Robinson, a GIS specialist in the NPS’ Appalachian Trail Park Office. “That was the first official survey of the trail.”
Last summer, I moved into a flat on the edge of London’s Bethnal Green and Whitechapel. I chose it only because it was where my significant human made his home. It was my first time moving in with someone. As I clattered up from the Tube, I found myself in a swell of schoolchildren on Jack the Ripper tours, Bangladeshi immigrant families, and men with tortoiseshell glasses and Scandinavian backpacks. The local cafe offers beetroot lattes and vegan croissants. The local supermarket has an aisle devoted to halal food. This was a beautiful place to live, but I was a mess. My first novel was about to come out, and I jittered and jangled around the flat, failing to read or write.
Finally, I did what I’ve always done when nervous. I looked for a library. My father told me once that he always has to know the location of the door of any room he’s in. I need to know the nearest bookshop and library. The theory is the same: we need an escape.
But an ad-based publishing model built around maximizing page views quickly and cheaply creates uncomfortable incentives for writers, editors, and readers alike. Attention flows naturally to the outrageous, the harrowing, the intimate, and the recognizable, and the online personal essay began to harden into a form defined by identity and adversity—not in spite of how tricky it is to negotiate those matters in front of a crowd but precisely because of that fact. The commodification of personal experience was also women’s territory: the small budgets of popular women-focussed Web sites, and the rapidly changing conventions and constrictions surrounding women’s lives, insured it. And so many women wrote about the most difficult things that had ever happened to them and received not much in return. Most sites paid a few hundred dollars for such pieces at most; xoJane paid fifty dollars. When I began writing on the Internet, I wrote personal essays for free.
For a cookbook author and lifelong lover of cookbooks like myself, “Feast for the Eyes” is also an evocative walk down memory lane. On so many pages, I’m reminded of the times I fell in love not only with the idea of creating recipes, but also with the images that accompanied them. Pictures of food have always been my preferred way to kick-start a daydream. They’re an instant passport to somewhere else.
Here, the broader point – that we need to reach a better accommodation with our ecstatic impulses – becomes compelling. The question of what can reliably fill the gap left by organised religion is beyond the scope of this, or perhaps any one book. Yet, as Evans shows us, we can have a high old time trying to answer it.