Wilderness Warrior: Douglas Brinkley's New Historical Epic of Theodore Roosevelt Has Key Lessons for Our Time

09/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

-Men of small caliber in public office find scorn of expert knowledge a convenient screen for hiding their own mental barrenness. (--Wilderness Warrior, p. 411)

I was wary about choosing the word "epic" to describe Douglas Brinkley's recently-launched volume, Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (Harper Collins), because the word has become so hackneyed that it has almost lost its meaning. I use it not to convey that the book is grand, or comprehensive, or handles matters of immense importance, although all of that is true. Nor that Brinkley is an awesome storyteller, employing the narrative style to convey momentous historical events -- although he is, and he does.

Rather, I choose it because the original epics were deep cultural tales about men who were confronted by challenge after challenge, all successfully met by the main character's abiding world view that enabled him to survive and eventually to conquer all. Reading Brinkley's well-documented tale, one slowly begins to realize that Theodore Roosevelt ("TR") is indeed an epic hero in the original sense of that term -- his world view was that our lands and forests and birds and animals must be defended from the rapacious talons of corporations and monied interests whose only concerns are profits. And, he did everything and anything he could to mount that defense, not worrying about the enemies he made in the process.

Brinkley has indeed written an epic, but he is too accomplished an historian to worship his 'hero". He clearly points out his failings even if some were not so obvious in the era in which TR lived. In addition, TR's achievements provide lessons for our time, and raise provocative questions about Executive Power.

Is epic hero too bombastic a concept, especially for our era in which, with the exception of some sports figures, any one seeming to be headed toward that status is cut down as completely as lumber companies clearcut forests?

Perhaps, but try this on for size: In his less than two term tenure as President, Theodore Roosevelt's legacy is 234 million acres of national parks, forest reserves, game parks, reclamation sites and bird sanctuaries. To visualize the magnitude of his achievement, this amounts to 50 percent of the size of the Louisiana Purchase.

Although he has long stood as a giant in American history -- his face (along with Washington, Lincoln and Jackson) peering at us for eternity from Mt. Rushmore -- and thus has been the subject of many biographies as well as his own autobiography, no one before Brinkley has captured and described in such fine detail the breadth and depth of TR's knowledge of nature and wildlife, and the origins of his commitment to the natural world that are traced to his early childhood, and became his obsession for his entire life. Indeed, TR's family had already been deeply engaged in conservation, his uncle (Robert Barwell Roosevelt, aka, "RBR") had pioneered preserving fish and healthy rivers in New York State, his father founded the American Museum of Natural History.

Brinkley shows us that Theodore Roosevelt did not adopt conservation as just another convenient political position -- no sooner did he have a new position of political power than he immediately began wielding it to promote his lifelong passion on behalf of the American people. Nor did this passion arise solely from his own enjoyment of nature; TR was one of the world's foremost naturalists, who had published books and articles on his observations from his teenage years onwards.

To TR, nature, the wilderness, and man's duty toward that world defined his perspectives and guided his actions on almost everything, and so abiding was his commitment that those who would seem to be his likely political allies instead became his foes.

Consider these vignettes:

1. As a young boy, TR spent most of his time reading about nature, and not just collecting skins and feathers, but cataloging and describing them in detail. These were of such high quality that the young boy donated them to a grateful Smithsonian Institute.

2. As a young boy, TR had read most of the great treatises on different animal species that were published, including Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Home-schooled, when he arrived at Harvard he as much took on his professors as he did learn from them. In the end TR felt that the laboratory types, who do not experience nature by living in it, had little to offer.

3. When illness struck him, whether asthma or even cholera, TR literally fought through it hiking, climbing, camping.

4. When his wife and mother died on the same day in the same house, TR coped with this unspeakable tragedy in his life by reading books on nature and then taking a long journey to the Dakotas after the Republican convention. He did the same when his brother Elliott passed away.

5. Governor of New York for only two years (before becoming McKinley's Vice-President), TR used his time in office to strengthen -- by depoliticizing -- the Fisheries Game and Forest Commission, to protect the oyster beds, and to preserve land for bird nesting.

6. Upon his election as McKinley's vice president, TR immediately embarked on a program to expand the reach of conservationism throughout the country. Just a few days after the election, he wrote a long letter to the National Irrigation Congress about storing the floods and preserving the forests. [Interestingly, the very New York politicians he had opposed, supported his vice presidential candidacy as a way of getting rid of him, locking him up in the irrelevancy of that office].

7. After McKinley had been shot, TR went to visit him in Buffalo where he was recovering; believing McKinley was improving, TR set off on a hiking/camping trip. When McKinley died several days later, no one except a ranger who had guided him on this trip knew where the vice president was. For about 10 hours, the U.S. had no President. (And, no, Mark Sanford, you are no Teddy Roosevelt).

8. President only because of an assassin's bullet, TR worried nothing about his mandate. Instead, he wasted no time upon assuming office to launch his conservation, preservation, irrigation and reclamation agenda. He placed key experts with whom he had shared scientific and conservationist studies and trips and conversations for many years in charge of key departments. He recruited some of his Rough Riders to serve as protectors of key natural treasures. His first Annual Message to Congress laid down the gauntlet -- on regulating corporations, on improving the conditions of labor, on politicians who fattened themselves at the public trough, and most notably on conservation. That part of the speech, says Brinkley, was not give-and-take, it was TR telling Congress the way it was going to be -- the U.S. had cut down half its timber, topsoil was washing away, Roosevelt knew from his own studies the symbiotic relationship between forests, water and soil conservation.

It is of course a foolish endeavor to try to encapsulate a work like Brinkley's in a short article, because it is the flavor conveyed by the reams of accumulated narratives, with Brinkley's unerring description of the botany, zoology or geology, that provide the true understanding of what drove TR, and how this world view, like that of the epic hero, defined his character and enabled him to withstand and overcome challenges, physical, personal and political.

Lessons for our time. Wilderness Warrior would be a summer must-read on its own account. But it also has an immediacy to it because of the lessons it conveys for our time.

Two events are of particular note. The first, described in the prologue, was TR's war against the plumers and milliners of his time. It may be difficult for us to appreciate, but the manufacture and sale of high-priced hats with ornate bird feathers to high society was a very lucrative business. High-end merchants became very wealthy and free-lance hunters received good money for their kills.

Roosevelt realized that many species of birds would soon go extinct, and wanted to do something about it. After listening to the arguments, and receiving a definitive "no" to his question about whether there was any law preventing him from preserving Pelican Island in Florida, TR launched the era of avian sanctuary conservation with four words, "I so declare it". That was it, no waffling, and no hesitation despite knowing full well that it was also declaration of war against the industry and their well-heeled consumers.

Secondly, Roosevelt was mesmerized when he saw the Grand Canyon, calling it "the most wonderful scenery in the world". "Overawed by its immensity, enjoying even the ground squirrels running across its naked rock, Roosevelt was in rapture." (p. 528) At the time he encountered it, the Grand Canyon was being considered for mining. According to Brinkley, even debating this matter was, for Roosevelt, out of the question, almost criminal. The Grand Canyon must become the exclusive property of the United States for future generations. He resolved to make it a national park. He would go through Congress to get it designated, but, if Congress balked, he would do it by executive order.

Fast-forward a century. The same battles are still being waged against the same forces and with the same terminology. When Roosevelt preserved a natural wonder or habitat, he was accused of being a socialist. The next time one frequents one of those 234 million acres of wildlife, natural beauty, campgrounds and forests that Roosevelt preserved, just remember that if you enjoy and appreciate it, you must be a socialist too.

Hopefully, President Obama will visit the national parks this summer and that experience will galvanize him as TR's visits did a century ago, as an occasion to recognize that he has the power under the law to follow TR's example, setting aside lands and rivers and forests and streams and deserts for the common good.

But TR's lesson is not just about conservation. It is about character and commitment borne of a lifetime of work, study, and direct experience. (In Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, he notes that mastery in almost any field requires 10,000 hours of work, commitment, experience. Wilderness Warrior clearly reveals that TR has put in those 10,000 hours by the time he was a young man -- just as Bill Gates had with computer programming by the time he went to college).

Roosevelt did not set aside all that acreage because someone told him it would be a cool idea. If asked why he did it, I suspect TR would have answered that you might as well have asked him why he breathes.

The Question of Executive Power. Finally, Roosevelt's exercise of executive authority raises provocative questions. It would difficult to imagine anyone today who would wish that Roosevelt had allowed the Grand Canyon to be exploited by mining interests, or for the milliners to have won the "feather war" by hunting egrets and pelicans to extinction. If left to Congressional action, neither would likely have survived.

Yet, we have just rid ourselves of eight years of the most destructive use of questionable executive power in our nation's history. Nothing was too much for Bush to do for his industrial friends. He did not implement the 9/11 Commission Report to strengthen security at chemical plants because they did not want to incur the costs. He reversed his campaign pledge to label carbon-dioxide a pollutant so it could not be regulated. He censored and revised scientific information that did not support his views. Indeed, apparently not content with the disasters he had already caused, Bush endeavored on his way out the door to provide his industry buddies access to lands contiguous to some of the most beautiful and pristine national parks.

The Constitution conveys considerable power to the Office of the President. Through Congressional action, it is granted even more. Congress and Courts have to exercise checks and balances, but in the end what the "TR comparison to George W" shows more than anything is that it is the character and value-system of the person elected that will determine whether that power will be wielded for the people as a whole, with a strong view of responsibility to future generations, or whether it will be exercised for the fleeting benefit of the few, and to enhance the self-image of weak, insecure and soulless individuals.