New Book Traces Theodore Roosevelt’s Environmental Legacy
By the time he left the presidency, Theodore Roosevelt had saved an unprecedented 230 million acres of American land. A new book traces Roosevelt’s crusade on the environment and deconstructs the positive and negative aspects of his environmental leadership.
Here & Now Robin Youg has a say David Gessner, Author of “Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness.”
Boo excerpt: “Leave it as it is”
By David Gessner
Prelude: Theodore on the edge
He stands on the edge of the world, the large shimmering orange-red-blue spot opens under him. Ravens take off and ride the wind. At this moment he is bursting with energy. That said, it’s like most of his waking moments.
Curious, always curious, he is a lover of the world and books about it. On the drive up here through the small juniper forest, always the show-off, he pointed it out and called all the birds he saw his companion. From his horse, he studied the chickadees and towhees and pinyon jays and nuthatches – their calls were higher than those in the east – and paused to listen to the sound of a woodpecker cracking a piñon nut. He knows these birds, knows their names and he also knows this gorge, but to this day only through the words of others.
The President came to this place with expectations, like almost everyone else. The earliest explorers may not have known what to do with the canyon, and the early white settlers may have been surprised and even angry at what they viewed as a colossal hole blocking their way west. But for more than a century, almost everyone who arrives here on the southern edge and rises from the desert into the cool, pine-scented air has known that something amazing is waiting for them. Theodore Roosevelt is no different in this regard: even before he came across the place, he had seen drawings and photos and read many descriptions. In fact, he wrote most of the speech he’ll be giving in an hour – when he’s going to be speaking to the crowd of eight hundred people who gather at the edge of the canyon – without ever seeing the Grand Canyon for itself. He did it, as he does many things, in a hurry and wrote it down in his sleeper this morning as his train sped through New Mexico and into Arizona.
For the last month his life has been a paradox of speed and silence as he takes his private train to some of the most beautiful and impressive places in North America and then after a few speeches rushes to the next place. It’s 1903 and he’s on a campaign tour for re-election, the first of its kind for a seated president, covering more than a hundred miles a day by train and car and giving nearly two hundred speeches. As an occasional insomniac and chronic coffee drinker (always with a lot of sugar, please), he is bursting with plans and plans, ideas that come to his mind at any time, his famous enthusiasm that borders on mania and maybe sometimes passes into it. “We humans are elsewhere,” the poet Reg Saner will write one day. Teddy is more elsewhere than most of the others.
Except when it isn’t. Because for someone so ambitious and so eager to get on with the next task, he’s shockingly good at slowing down time, as we could call it, in a phrase he would no doubt find uncomfortable in the now be. Whether he’s staring at a charging grizzly or diving into the refreshing winter waters of Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park, or listening to the music of the wind tinkling on the poplar leaves, he seems to have the gift of being absorbed. This is best seen in his fits of roughhousing with his children on the White House lawn. Even when weighed down by the presidency, he has the enviable ability to take off his heavy burdens and just enjoy himself.
Nothing takes him out of himself, nothing calms his restless, fact-rich, feverish mind like nature. He’s already sneaked in while camping in Yellowstone and walked eighteen miles alone to study a herd of moose. And in less than two weeks, his fourteen thousand mile road trip will culminate when he leaves his Secret Servicemen and goes on a legendary excursion with the great prophet and protector of nature, John Muir. This trip to Yosemite will long be remembered as perhaps the most famous camping trip since Jesus spent his forty days in the desert. Remember. The President of the United States sleeps outside under the stars with the country’s most famous nature lover. Details from the night are sparse, but we do know that the President criticized the writer’s avian knowledge and that the Prophet questioned the moral of the President’s bloodlust as a hunter. But I wonder what else happened when they stared into the fire and talked? Perhaps Roosevelt was affected by some form of osmosis. Perhaps the idea began to grow that wilderness was vital to not just any human purpose but to itself.
It is obvious that the germ of this knowledge, this love was already there. All you have to do is go back and read the man’s sentences. Not the jingoistic, breast-slapping, America-first jokes or the bloody descriptions of killing things. But the words in between. The neat phrases that describe the quiet of the prairie or a morning full of birds calling, or a simple description of how to wrap them up for the night in the North Dakota Badlands: “On the edge of the dark cedar wood, I cleared a place for my bed and pulled a couple of dead sticks for the fire. Then I lay down and watched sleepily until the afternoon shadows filled the wild and beautiful canyon in which I camped. This happened early because the valley was very narrow and the hills on either side were steep and high. “Here lies the secret, quieter Roosevelt.
Theodore Roosevelt got it, something few people and no other president have ever understood and felt to the same extent. The raw fact that there are worlds beyond the human world. Muir might have helped him develop, but Roosevelt already knew it. He might have been an imperialist, a belligerent, limited man anchored by the prejudices of his time, but he was different in that. To say he was ahead of his time would be wrong because many thinkers of the past, especially many Native Americans, had previously had similar insights. But whatever his flaws, in that way at least he was definitely outside of his time and culture. Not in his embrace of hunting, hiking, or bird watching, all of which were in vogue (and grew more because of him in part). But in the beginning of something deeper. The feeling that there’s a world out there that cares little about the grid man is above it. The biocentric feeling that we are just one animal in a world of many, and the corresponding thrill and freedom that people can feel when they step out of themselves and understand it.
Perhaps this gives Roosevelt too much credit. After all, he often responded to the beautiful things he saw in nature by killing them. And his fascination with the world was offset by his fascination with Theodore Roosevelt. So let me repeat an earlier, more humble, claim. The man had the gift of going outside.