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“my Dear Selous…”
A long-buried series of letters to an African game hunter reveals T. R. as half thinker, half boy scout
April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
Your letter made me quite melancholy—first, to think I wasn’t to see you after all; and, next, to realize so vividly how almost the last real hunting grounds in America have gone. Thirteen years ago I had splendid sport on the Big Horn Mountains which you crossed. Six years ago I saw elk in bands of one and two hundred on Buffalo Fork; and met but one hunting expedition while I was out. A very few more years will do away with all the really wild hunting, at least so far as bear and elk are concerned, in the Rocky Mountains and the West generally; one of the last places will be the Olympic peninsula of Oregon, where there is a very peculiar elk, a different species, quite as big in body, but with smaller horns which are more like those of the European red-deer, and with a black head. Goat, sheep and bear will for a long time abound in British Columbia and Alaska.
Well, I am glad you enjoyed yourself anyhow, and that you did get a sufficient number of fair heads—wapiti, prongbuck, blacktail and whitetail. Of course I am very sorry that you didn’t get a good sheep and a bear or two.…
Do tell Mrs. Selous how sorry I am to miss her, as well as you. I feel rather melancholy to think that my own four small boys will practically see no hunting on this side at all, and indeed no hunting anywhere unless they have the adventurous temper that will make them start out into wild regions to find their fortunes. I wasjust in time to see the last of the real wilderness life and real wilderness hunting. How I wish I could have been with you this year! but, as I wrote you before, during the last three seasons I have been able to get out West but once, and then only for a fortnight on my ranch, where I shot a few antelope for meat.
You ought to read Hough’s Story of the Cowboy and Van Dyke’s Still Hunter .…
Now, to answer your question about ranching; and of course you are at liberty to quote me.
I know a good deal of ranching in western North Dakota, eastern Montana, and northeastern Wyoming. My ranch is in the Bad Lands of the Little Missouri, a good cattle country, with shelter, traversed by a river, into which run here and there perennial streams. It is a dry country, but not in any sense a desert. Year in and year out we have found it took about 25 acres to support a steer or cow.…
Roosevelt abandoned the impersonal approach not long after, in a letter dated January 17, 1898, when after the customary chat on sport and nature-writing he continued, “I am very much interested in my work here, and I have a wife and six children, so I couldn’t travel all over the world anyhow; but now and then I do very sincerely envy you…It doesn’t seem to me that there can be a much happier life than one spent going through the waste places, in all parts of the world, after big game.”
In Roosevelt’s next, written on February 3, he speaks again of personal matters in a passage that might have been written by one of his small sons: “For the last three or four days we have had cold weather, and a good deal of snow, for Washington, and I have been practicing with skis in consequence on some of the neighboring hills. It’s great fun.”
Evidently Selous let down the bars in his turn and divulged personal news of his own, for in a letter dated February 15, between the ordinary passages on books and shooting, Roosevelt comments,
I am delighted to hear that Mrs. Selous expects to have a child, and I congratulate you both with all my heart. After all, there is nothing that in any way comes up to home and wife and children, in spite of the penalty one has to pay for having given hostages to fortune. I know just exactly how you feel about the “two hearts.” Having a wife and six children, of whom I am very fond, I have found it more and more difficult to get away. For the last eight years, indeed, my hunting trips have merely been short outings. I am of course very much interested with my work here; but I cannot say how I long at times for the great rolling prairies of sun-dried yellow grass, where the antelope stand and gaze, or wheel and circle; for the splintered cottonwoods on the bank of some shrunken river, with the wagon drawn up under them, and the ponies feeding round about; for the great pine forests where the bull elk challenge, and the packtrain threads its way through the fallen timber. I long also for the other wilderness which I have never seen, and never shall see, except through your books, and the books of two or three men like you, who are now dead. It may be that some time I can break away from this sedentary life for a hunt somewhere; and of all things possible to me I should like to take this hunt among the big bears of Alaska, and try to work out their specific relationship. But I don’t know whether I shall ever get the chance; and of course this sedentary life gradually does away with one’s powers: though I can walk and shoot a little yet. Politics is a rather engrossing pursuit, and unfortunately with us it is acute in the fall, at the very time of the best hunting…
I am glad you like to chat with me even by letter. Ever since reading your first booik I have always wanted to meet you. I hope I may have better luck next year than I had this.