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A Great Conservationist, by Jingo

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Bob Thomas/Popperfoto/Getty Images
Theodore Roosevelt at Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, 1903

If there is any merit to Giambattista Vico’s claim in The New Science (1744) that human societies naturally pass through an age of gods, an age of heroes, and an age of men, then it’s safe to say that today we are in the third of those ages. One of the hallmarks of the human age is a persistent nostalgia for heroic times, when power was freer to exercise its agency on behalf of the right, if not of the good. This nostalgia often takes the form of adopting—at times naively, at times histrionically—the gestures and rhetoric of heroism. Ronald Reagan was a master of such postures, and many Americans loved him for acting as if the nation’s heroic age, far from being superseded, merely awaited revivification. Even if one believes that Reagan accomplished that feat (dato non concesso), a look at his would-be heirs today makes it clear that it was a short-lived restoration, confirming that Reagan too—indeed, Reagan especially—belonged to a human age that looks back wistfully, if not stubbornly, to a prior one.

In Douglas Brinkley’s The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, our twenty-sixth president comes forth as the very paragon of presidential heroism. The biography focuses on Roosevelt’s booming persona, his sweeping political successes during his years in office (1901–1909), and the glory of his environmental legacy. Its profusely detailed pages convey a palpable sense that Roosevelt lived in titanic times, when the continent was still vast and relatively wild, when corporations, monopolies, and industry were cyclopean forces, when both national and local politics were for the lionhearted, and when the odds against a president achieving what Roosevelt achieved as a conservationist were overwhelming. Surrounded on all sides by giants, or what he called “short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things,” Roosevelt managed to dwarf them all.

Consider his accomplishments. As a conservationist Roosevelt protected over 230 million acres of land in the form of six national parks, eighteen national monuments, fifty-one federal bird reservations, and 150 national forests. As a naturalist, he was recognized as America’s premier authority on large mammals. He regularly contributed to the US Biological Survey, and he concentrated political might in the newly consolidated US Forest Service, helmed by his friend Gifford Pinchot. As commander in chief he oversaw US intervention in favor of Panamanian independence and negotiated the lease authorizing US completion and control of the Panama Canal. As a progressive reformer, he earned the moniker “trust-buster” by breaking the monopolies of over forty corporations (although, on the whole, trusts continued to grow during his administration). During the anthracite coal strikes, he was the first president to use his powers of office to arbitrate a dispute between labor and management. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for negotiating the settlement of the Russo-Japanese War. He was the popular author of over thirty-five books and 150,000 letters, continuing to publish even while in office. He had an almost superhuman energy, fostered by what Brinkley calls his “fervor.”

It is fortunate that Brinkley writes easy and lively prose, otherwise the sheer length and weight of his book (over nine hundred pages) would pre-sent a serious obstacle to the contemporary reader. Furthermore, Brinkley made his job easier than it might otherwise have been by deciding to focus specifically on Roosevelt’s environmentalist “crusade,” for when it came to his defense of America’s nature Roosevelt was clearly on the right side of history, while his opponents (there were many and they were powerful) were not. Brinkley’s epigraph from Roosevelt’s A Book-Lover’s Holiday in the Open (1916) is the first of many reminders that this crusade was engaged on behalf of us.

The “greatest good for the greatest number” applies to the numbers within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us to restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations.

Inscribing wilderness protection and resource management in our moral obligation to the future, Roosevelt’s words, like his policies, make him a president on whom Americans today can look back with satisfaction, admiration, and even affection.

Brinkley’s book bears all the signs of this retrospective sentimentality. It is laden with many small affectations. Panoramic, sepia-toned photographs of Roosevelt contemplating a shoreline adorn the inside boards; the pages are rough-cut; and an elaborately descriptive table of contents parrots the look and feel of nineteenth-century sportsmanship and adventure books like Roosevelt’s own demi-luxe edition of his Badlands adventures, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885). By repackaging many of the trappings of outdoor adventure narratives, presidential biography, and Victorian hero worship, The Wilderness Warrior belongs to what the poet and literary critic Susan Stewart has called a distressed genre—“distressed” in the sense of furniture beaten and stained to seem time-weathered, or pre-faded new blue jeans, or Roosevelt’s own custom-made, frilly buckskin hunting outfit, which he sported during his Davy Crockett–themed cowboy charades of the 1880s. Like such costumes, Brinkley’s book comes to us antiqued and pre-worn as it slipstreams behind Roosevelt’s own flare for self-mythologization. It clearly seems intended for an audience nostalgic for heroes, especially presidential heroes.

Roosevelt’s “fervor” for conservation derived in part from his personal debt to nature’s restorative powers, which gave him a vigor he lacked early in life. Born in 1858 to a lofty New York family, Roosevelt was a badly nearsighted and asthmatic child who found that his wheezing was eased through nature outings. Sent to Maine to recuperate from his asthma at age thirteen, he recalled being treated by other boys as “a foreordained and predestined victim.” From that point on he engaged in energetic compensatory acts of self-overcoming, like teenage tramps through the North Woods of Maine and boxing and weightlifting at Harvard. Few artifacts testify to Roosevelt’s willful self-transformation from a sickly youth to a robust American male like a photo of him at Harvard in 1877, bare-chested and mutton-chopped, glowering from behind his bulldoggish physique (see illustration). In nature’s womb he was reborn to be wild.

From early on Roosevelt’s love of nature also took the form of scientific wonder and curiosity. By age fourteen he was, in Brinkley’s words, a precocious “taxidermist, illustrator, diarist, voracious reader, hunter, ornithologist, mammalogist, animal rights advocate, naturalist, and now Darwinian evolutionist.” Largely thanks to his early fascination with birds and their songs, he mastered Latin binomial taxonomy. By the time he was twenty he had published his first booklet—a bird guide to the Adirondacks, which caught the attention of leading naturalists like C. Hart Merriam, with whom Roosevelt would have a lasting friendship.

Brinkley also dwells on Roosevelt’s youthful love of frontier adventure stories and the outdoor literature of field observation, from Captain Mayne Reid’s The Boy Hunters to James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. These were important influences. From Reid he would take both his condescending opinion of Native Americans and an exuberant faith in naturalism as a lifelong avocation. From Fenimore Cooper he would inherit the idea that American forests, far from being profane, dark, and hostile to civilization, were places of wonder, worthy of human reverence.

Roosevelt’s postcollegiate hunting and ranching trips took him farther and farther west. It was in the Dakota Badlands, beginning in 1883, that he completed his transformation from “Knickerbocker” aristocrat to quintessential late-nineteenth-century “natural man.” It was there that he stamped out all traces of his earlier frailty and sought to supplement his Victorian “moral manliness” with the frontier codes of what Richard Slotkin memorably dubbed “regeneration through violence.”

One must be careful not to overpsychologize heroes, who are defined mostly by their deeds, not their states of mind. Indeed, Vico believed that psychology pertains exclusively to the age of men, and is out of place when it comes to earlier ages. Brinkley seems to intuit this, or maybe as a historian he is committed merely to reporting the facts, for he resists almost every opportunity to delve into Roosevelt’s psyche, except in the most superficial ways. He leaves us to wonder how a novelist—say Gore Vidal—might have treated Roosevelt’s long stay in the Dakota Badlands, for example, shortly after the intensely traumatic loss of his mother Mittie and his wife Alice, both of whom died on February 14, 1884. Roosevelt loved them both dearly, yet for the rest of his life he almost never spoke of Alice. He did not even mention her in his 1913 Autobiography, an omission that was especially painful to his daughter Alice, born the day before her mother died.

The connection between Roosevelt’s overwhelming grief and his sojourn in the Badlands is barely touched on by Brinkley, except to remark that Roosevelt “took the route of bottling up his emotions,” and that he “wondered whether the Badlands—where even the half-clad buttes had an unstable equilibrium—might be the best place to heal and hatched a plan to light out for the Dakota Territory.” Brinkley then adds, awkwardly: “Perhaps solace could be found in a ranch house with undraped windows surrounded by roping corrals and branching chutes.” The record shows that from this point on Roosevelt became ever more rugged, ever more masculinist, and ever more obsessed with hunting big game. “Why?” is not a question Brinkley asks, as if he were sworn to the same stoic silence that Roosevelt adopted after his loss.

Many contemporary readers will find Roosevelt’s passion for killing bears, lions, rhinos, buffalo, cougars, and other game distasteful, if not objectionable, and Brinkley is well aware of this. Rather than sidestep the issue, he offers an open-handed argument that the aristocratic, gentlemen hunters in North America worked alongside Darwinian naturalists, resource surveyors, and wildlife aficionados to foster the major initiatives of the modern conservation movement. One of the reasons Roosevelt was such an effective conservationist was his ability to work as a “bridge figure,” in Brinkley’s phrase, between Darwinian naturalists and rugged outdoorsmen.

Brinkley stitches together American industries and pastimes like hunting, ranching, birding, and mountaineering with the developing ethical codes of conservation and environmentalism. His book is constantly milling outdoorsmanship into ecology. We are led to imagine a world in which present-day environmentalism could be led by the NRA hand in hand with the Sierra Club. It was in this spirit that Roosevelt appointed former Rough Riders, Buffalo Soldiers, and western lawmen like Deadwood sheriff Seth Bullock to enforcement positions as park rangers and “wilderness wardens,” and demanded that they work closely alongside Eastern Seaboard scientists.

Brinkley certainly cannot be said to overvalue the poetic and spiritual inspirations of environmentalists like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, whose musings were for the most part—in the historical annals to which Brink-ley holds—inconsequential. Thoreau, he writes, was much overshadowed by the preservationist tendencies of “well-to-do Eastern Seaboard hunters who loomed over the early campaigns to create wilderness preserves.” In Brinkley’s account, Thoreau and Muir were feckless hermits among a great nation of fishing societies, hunting clubs, and gentlemen sporting associations, which were far more instrumental when it came to wilderness protection.*

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Theodore Roosevelt Collection/Harvard College Library
Theodore Roosevelt at Harvard, 1877; from Douglas Brinkley’s The Wilderness Warrior

Thoreau and Muir of course do not need Brinkley to champion them, for their words still speak for the very soul of American environmentalism, at least where that soul has not lost its calling in the language of pragmatism, expediency, and legislative technicalities. In Walden Thoreau writes: “[The young man goes] thither at first as a hunter and fisher, until at last, if he has the seeds of a better life in him, he distinguishes his proper objects, as a poet or naturalist it may be, and leaves the gun and fish-pole behind.”

Roosevelt seemed to develop the other way around. He began as a naturalist and bird-watcher, and as the years went by his love of hunting increased. Brinkley reports an exchange between Roosevelt and John Muir around a campfire in Yosemite National Park in 1903. As Roosevelt carried on about his big game exploits, Muir challenged him: “Mr. Roosevelt, when are you going to get beyond the boyishness of killing things…. Are you not getting far enough along to leave that off?” A chastened Roosevelt replied: “Muir, I guess you are right.” Brinkley adds: “(But while Roosevelt did start promoting the camera instead of the rifle, he never gave up the sport of shooting big game.)” The parentheses notwithstanding, the statement makes it clear that Roosevelt never mastered his obsession.

It remains to be said that, whether we like it or not, we cannot have Roosevelt the conservationist president, or even the anticorporatist reformer, without Roosevelt the killer of big game. The two belonged to one nature. As his friend the naturalist John Burroughs once observed about him:

He has both physical and moral courage in a degree rare in history. He can stand calm and unflinching in the path of a charging grizzly, and he can confront with equal coolness and determination the predaceous corporations and money powers of the country.

The wider orbit of what might be called “proto-conservation” in America receives excellent treatment in Brinkley’s book, which is populated by a host of colorful minor characters, some of whom were major figures of the time. These include Roosevelt’s father Theodore Roosevelt Sr., who was one of the founders of the American Museum of Natural History, and his uncle Robert B. Roosevelt, an ardent defender of fish who shepherded important environmental reforms by means of journalism, local governance, and simple influence peddling. “Uncle Rob” tirelessly promoted the efforts of Seth Green, the inventor of fish hatcheries who, having been the most successful angler in post–Civil War America, developed primitive methods of artificial insemination and ultimately restocked many of the depleted rivers and lakes of the Northeast and beyond with their native trout and shad. Henry Bergh, another pre-conservation hero in the well-to-do Roosevelt social orbit, was a leader of the emergent humane movement of the 1860s and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Bergh fought his battles over the caged drowning of stray dogs in the Hudson and East rivers, and the suffering of sea turtles imported from Florida on the East River docks.

In his early political career Roosevelt had important relationships with other naturalists and Darwinists: C. Hart Merriam, the premier naturalist in America and head of the Biological Survey; George Bird Grinnell, with whom Roosevelt founded the influential conservationist organization the Boone and Crocket Club in 1887; and Gifford Pinchot, founder of the Yale School of Forestry, whose recommendations became forest policy under Roosevelt’s administration. Other minor characters include the ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an advocate for Florida bird sanctuaries, which Roosevelt created in 1903 with the decree “I so declare it,” saving numerous bird species, including the brown pelican, from the devastating effects of the New York millineries.

Roosevelt was also fond of seeking out legendary hunters to accompany him on highly publicized presidential sportsmen’s outings, among them Holt Collier, an ex-slave who killed more than three thousand bears, and the fascinating Jack “Catch ‘Em Alive” Abernathy, who led Roosevelt on a wolf hunt through Oklahoma in 1905. Abernathy, a family man, teetotaler, and sometime lawman in a largely lawless territory, could jump from his horse onto a running wolf and wrestle it down bare-handed, a technique known as “wolf coursing”—a far cry from killing wolves with a high-powered rifle from a helicopter, à la Sarah Palin. Getting acquainted with this cast of characters is one of the main pleasures of Brinkley’s book. One immediately warms to many of them, which cannot necessarily be said about Roosevelt himself.

Brinkley has a tendency to downplay the less appealing aspects of Roo-sevelt’s personality and presidency. We know, for example, that Roosevelt was given to bullish bouts of jingoism where foreign policy toward Asia and Latin America was concerned, bouts he was prepared to turn into military adventurism, as when, at age forty, he quit his job as assistant secretary of the navy (considered political suicide at the time) in order to lead the Rough Riders into Cuba. As president, he continued an imperialistic policy of military expansionism, presiding over American domination of the Philippines (an episode Brinkley hardly discusses). Not merely a Darwinian naturalist but part social Darwinist as well, Roosevelt believed in the superiority of the civilized races. His lack of regard for Native Americans, which he translated into policy, followed from his belief that they were “the weaker race.”

Brinkley duly acknowledges some of these disagreeable, stridently imperialist aspects of Roosevelt’s character, yet he also minimizes them by speaking of Roosevelt’s “jingoistic but good-natured pride” in American grandeur, or arguing that “the saving grace…which liberates him from what was later called fascism—was that he was democratic in spirit, believing anybody could rise to greatness in America.” As a result, Brinkley passes up the opportunity to explore the deeper connections between Roosevelt’s impassioned crusade for America’s nature and his nationalist expansionism and triumphalism. Western parks like Yellowstone, for example, become “trophies of expansionism,” in Brinkley’s term, the wise choices of a conquering king. Yet what are the implications of this for modern environmentalism? What lessons does Roosevelt’s legacy hold for ecology today? Is hypernationalism still a workable basis for conservation policy? Such larger questions fall for the most part outside the scope of Brinkley’s book.

Brinkley offers an exhaustive description of Roosevelt’s environmental crusade while he was president. In another new book, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, the subtitle is at once oxymoronic and absurdly hyperbolic), Timothy Egan reminds us that the crusade did not end when Roosevelt left office in 1909. Egan presents a gripping account of the Great Fire of August 1910, also known as the Big Burn or Big Blowup, which raged across three million acres of heavily forested land in northeastern Washington, the Idaho Panhandle, and western Montana. The forests were under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service, headed by Roosevelt’s friend Gifford Pinchot.

In elegant and fast-moving prose, Egan tells the story of the causes of the conflagration, the towns it destroyed, the eighty-seven lives it claimed, and the extraordinary heroism of the forest rangers, college students, day workers, and immigrants who fought desperately to contain its devastation. According to Egan, while Roosevelt’s enemies (in particular Idaho Senator Weldon B. Heyburn, but also various robber barons) claimed that the fire exposed the unsoundness of his forest protection policies, Roosevelt and Pinchot turned tragedy into triumph by capitalizing on the public’s shock at the magnitude of the destruction and by exploiting public sympathy for the greatly overmatched firefighters who gave up their lives. Egan writes: “Roosevelt and Pinchot grew stronger in daily battle with the enemies of conservation, coasting on a full tank of outrage after the fire, a righteous wind at their backs.”

With public opinion now solidly on the side of the Forest Service, new and far-reaching forest legislation was passed. While Roosevelt had failed repeatedly as president to pass a bill that would enable the federal government to purchase and thereby protect eastern hardwood forests, a similar bill was approved by Congress in the wake of the Great Fire:

The big burn, taking with it nearly a hundred men, had made the difference…. Barely ten months after the fire, Congress doubled the money in the Forest Service budget for roads and trails, giving the rangers what they had begged for in previous years.

Eventually the US government would acquire more than 20 million acres of forests in the East.

Referring to the Coeur d’Alenes in the River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho—the largest designated “wilderness area” in the continental United States—Egan concludes by remarking that today it is “just as Roosevelt envisioned it, just as Pinchot remembered seeing it for the first time, taking his breath away—there for fresh eyes, for people yet to be born, there to be discovered anew.” That is indeed a priceless gift.

When read together, these two books reveal how long it took for many Americans to consider America’s nature as their own, to see it as a gift to be received and not as a wilderness to be feared or a resource to be plundered. One of the hardest lessons for Americans to learn is how to receive, perhaps because we believe so fervently in earning, or perhaps because we have a long history of merely taking, if not grabbing. Perhaps Robert Frost had it wrong in his poem “The Gift Outright” when he wrote: “the land was ours before we were the land’s.” What if you first have to feel that you belong to the land before you can feel that the land belongs to you? In his crusade Roosevelt fought above all to convince his fellow citizens that America’s nature was their proper and precious possession. Whether or not Roosevelt’s claim was legitimate—whether the continent was given over to the latecoming American people or merely taken over by them—its nature de facto became ours. The ongoing, seemingly interminable challenge for America is to find ways to assume this ownership responsibly.

After the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government the delegates had given us. He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” There is every reason to believe that the reply contains an allusion to Genesis, where God creates Eden and enjoins Adam to “keep” it—a responsibility to which Adam was finally not equal. Many Americans, Thoreau foremost among them, have believed that America’s nature is a veritable Eden, and that for some reason it was handed over to us to keep. For all his jingoism and his passion for the hunt, Theodore Roosevelt remains to this day one of the garden’s greatest keepers.

  1. *

    America was not unlike old Europe in this regard. Ever since William the Conqueror “afforested” parts of England in the eleventh century (i.e., forbade public encroachment and provided sanctuary for their wildlife), kings and aristocrats, in their zeal for the chase, have been at the vanguard of wildlife and habitat protection. See Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 69–74.

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