The Green Roosevelt: Theodore Roosevelt in Appreciation of Wilderness, Wildlife, and Wild Places

by Zachary Michael Jack


America’s first Green president, Theodore Roosevelt’s credentials as both naturalist and writer are as impressive as they are deep, emblematic of the twenty-sixth President’s unprecedented breadth and energy. While Roosevelt authored policies that grew the public domain by a remarkable 230 million acres, he likewise penned over thirty-five books and an estimated 150,000 letters, many concerning the natural world. In between drafts both personal and political, scientific and sentimental, he quadrupled existing forest reserves while creating the nation’s first fifty wildlife refuges and eighteen national monuments, among them the Grand Canyon, and five national parks, headlined by Yosemite. And Roosevelt was far more than a policy wonk and political do-gooder. John Muir, by his own admission, “fairly fell in love with him.” John Burroughs wrote that Roosevelt “probably knew tenfold more natural history than all the presidents who preceded him.” And the Smithsonian’s Edmund Heller dubbed him the “foremost field naturalist of our time.” In addition to creating more than 150,000 new acres of national forest, Roosevelt made a new vogue of sportsmanship, famously refusing to shoot a lame bear in Mississippi and inspiring, thereof, an American icon and ecological fetish all at once: the Teddy Bear.

Indeed, Roosevelt’s Green undertakings produced a truly living legacy—one whose everlasting qualities he took robust pleasure in. Naturalist William Finley once suggested to TR that the President’s environmental prescience would serve as “one of the greatest memorials to [his] farsightedness,” to which Roosevelt replied, “Bully. I had rather have it than a hundred stone monuments.” In fact, Roosevelt would have both—a lasting reputation for environmental protection and timeless stone monuments at Mount Rushmore and elsewhere built to honor his dramatic public policy initiatives.

Roosevelt became the nation’s original Green president and, as the first to publish a book while in the nation’s highest office, its first true presidential author. These two braided strands, naturalist-executive and writer, serve as a twin focus for this singular book. Indeed, this anthology springs from two key assertions made by historian E. C. Blackorby: first, that “Americans do not fully appreciate their indebtedness to their first conservationist president” and, second, that as much of Roosevelt’s interest in and writing about Green politics and environmental protection took place before and after his presidency as in it. The Green Roosevelt, then, recollects for the contemporary reader a rare longitudinal cross section of TR’s ecological writings from his teen years to his later-life zoological expeditions. In sum, these letters, speeches, memoirs, magazine articles, personal essays, executive addresses, pamphlets, field notes, diaries, and childhood stories demonstrate the variety of methods by which Roosevelt offered a wilderness cure for the national malaise of desk-bound, closed-door toil. “Had Roosevelt done nothing else as President,” R. L. Wilson writes “his greatness would still have been ensured by what he did in conservation.”

A handful of collections of Roosevelt’s outdoor writings published to date have mostly followed two well-worn paths: Roosevelt the Sportsman and Roosevelt the Adventurer. The seasoned Roosevelt, however, proved much more circumspect than such reductive labels allow, regretting his youthful habit of over-collecting specimens for nature study as “entirely needless butchery.” This nature-appreciative anthology, then, aims to show a kinder, gentler TR, a man who, importantly, rendered false the supposed divide between sportsman and naturalist. In fact, Roosevelt’s great gift exists in transcending such pigeonholes, he of the “extraordinary ability,” as environmental historian Ralph H. Lutts puts it, “to express almost simultaneously his admiration of an animal’s beauty.” Most especially, this unique volume traces the evolution in Roosevelt’s thinking not through his oft-anthologized narratives of the hunt but through his lesser known nature-writing oeuvre—personal and public letters, nature essays, zoological reports, periodical articles, Presidential speeches, letters to his children, and the charming zoomorphic fables he penned as a child. Wrongly remembered as an overzealous hunter, the depth of Theodore Roosevelt’s Green thinking is exemplified in his own brave introduction to hunter A. G. Wallihan’s book Camera Shots at Big Game, wherein he writes, “More and more, as it becomes necessary to preserve the game, let us hope that the camera will largely supplant the rifle.”

The Green Roosevelt will be a critical resource for all those in American history (particularly presidential history), environmental history, environmental studies, nature studies, place studies, Agrarian studies, conservation studies, fish and wildlife biology/management, and ecology.


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