Sunday, August 8, 2010

A man ahead of his environmental time

The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America
Douglas Brinkley

At a critical time in our Nation (and the world) when much attention is focused on environmental issues ranging from improved water quality and disease control to destruction of forests and degraded coastal communities, the current generation is often portrayed at the first serious crusaders for environmental awareness and protection. However, that song has been sung numerous times in history, only to a different melody, but perhaps never as effectively as during the Theodore Roosevelt era. Roosevelt provided a call to arms in environmental protection decades before it was fundraiser topic for the nouveau riche or a soapbox for the nature-loving activist.

Temporarily setting aside the impressive accomplishments of Roosevelt as Lt. Col. of the Rough Riders during the Battle of San Juan Hill, the driving force behind the construction of the Panama Canal, and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the Russo-Japanese War, The Wilderness Warrior focuses on the profound effect Roosevelt had on conservation and preservation at a time when the US was rapidly expanding due to the industrial revolution. Through the power of Executive Orders, Roosevelt and his hand-picked team of Darwinian naturalists created or enlarged 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reservations, 4 national game preserves and 6 national parks. Brinkley depicts the life of Roosevelt in vivid detail from his childhood in New York City where he harbored a fascination and love of all things nature, through his obsession as a hunter of big game who took pride in bagging the biggest and the best, to the end of his presidency when he secured his place in the annals of political and environmental heroes.

I cannot begin to express what a gift Brinkley has for making history not only readable, but enjoyable. He doesn't just spout out facts (although this tome is certainly full of them) but weaves together historical stories involving some of the most colorful characters of the time - you couldn't imagine more entertaining people of the West: Catch 'Em Alive Abernathy wrestled wild wolves to the ground with his bare hands, Holt Collier killed more than 1,000 bears, and John Muir revolutionized the philosophy of nature. My one criticism of this wonderful book is that it simply ends when Roosevelt's presidency ended. I would have liked at least a chapter that described his hunts and efforts during the last decade of his illustrious life.

If you are interested in conservation, national parks, the preservation of the West, or nature in general, then I highly recommend The Wilderness Warrior.

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