T.R. And The “Nature Fakers”

PrintPrintEmailEmail

There is no doubt that Roosevelt’s later championship of the conservation cause stemmed from his youthful devotion to natural history, extended and matured by his later observations in the West of soil erosion, economic exploitation of natural resources, and the rapid destruction of game animals. At one time, indeed, he thought seriously of becoming a professional biologist, but was put off by the emphasis at Harvard, during his undergraduate years, upon the laboratory approach to natural science—the embalming, the microscopy, and the dissection of tissues and embryos. It was an uncongenial approach to the young New Yorker who kept live animals in his own living quarters.

“Few men have accomplished more toward the protection of wild life,” wrote the biographer Henry F. Pringle, yet “the hunter caused the naturalist to do strange things.” There was a wolf hunt in Oklahoma, conducted in a blaze of publicity. In the early igoo’s cougars were taken in Colorado, bear hunts carried out in Louisiana and Mississippi, a grizzly located and shot in the Bitter Root mountains, and the buffalo herd reduced by T.R. in Dakota Territory.

The reaction of a considerable segment of the general public to Teddy’s hunts and exultant writings about them is suggested in Wallace Irwin’s pseudonymous Letters of a Japanese Schoolboy, by Hashimura Togo , concerning Roosevelt’s African safari. In this book Irwin described “the man-chewing tiger” as saying in “Japanese” English before the hunt:

I are instruct to be standing neath cocanuts with very tigerly expression of angry rage. Growls from me. From underbush suddenly leap outly 72daredevilish hunters armed to teeth with photographer’s supplies. Snap-snap —I snagger back, riddled with kodaks. In vainly I endeavor to escape, but … I are surrounded by James Creelman, Jacob Riis, Dave Grame Phillips, Jack London, Bat Masterson, W. K. Bok, Arthur Brisbane & other desperate scouts famous for shooting wild game @ 25c a word and 500 for hard ones. Trembling in 4 lims & tail I am interviewed & compared to Thomas F. Ryan. All are complete then, except the Finish … One man steps forthly … “Hon. Ted,” say Hon. Riis, “this are Hon. Tige” … “Dee-light!” say Hon. Roosevelt (84 for this word) and step hackly to 30 pace. “Head little to right, please” … and Crack-Jordan rifle are placed to elbow. “Bang!” … say rifle & I give up my sinful soul with a mean snarl.

There was in fact ambivalence and complexity in Roosevelt. He set aside one hundred and forty-eight million acres of forest timberland, established over fifty wildlife game preserves, doubled the number of national parks, and set up sixteen national monuments including Grand Canyon. Yet he always rode with rifle in hand. This was a point that the Reverend Mr. Long pushed relentlessly in his riposte.

Throughout the summer of 1907 the newspapers headlined nature faking. Some leaned toward Long; others agreed with the President. Some, like the Kansas City Journal , cried a plague on both your houses, and said it was time for Roosevelt to get back to the task of being the nation’s Chief Executive and for the preacher to look after his Sunday-school class: “Brave business this for the head of a great nation and a minister of the gospel.” The Boston Transcript called attention to what it termed a kind of odium biogicum that produced “the peculiar quarrelsomeness of the nature-lovers.” One scholarly writer did some research and came up with an item of historical information. If the nature-faker issue got into politics, he said, the Democrats could point with complacency to their President Thomas Jefferson. In his Notes on Virginia he had undertaken to refute not mere popular authors but the great French naturalist, Buffon, who in his Histoire naturelle had developed a theory of biological degeneracy in the New World.

One odd consequence of Roosevelt’s effort to curb the dissemination of improbabilities about the natural world was a flood of new yarns and reminiscences showing that animals were capable of flexible behavior under special circumstances. One Englishman described a tug-of-war between a rogue elephant and five crocodiles which he had witnessed in South Africa. There was a heavy crop of stories about cats that had adopted motherless chickens, and hens that adopted motherless kittens. A faithful dog, when the house caught fire, seized the rope of the dinner-bell and sounded the alarm. Perhaps the prize should go to the black bass in a New Jersey reservoir that so admired the skill of a certain fisherman that he regularly rose to take whatever fly the fisherman happened to use; while the fisherman, with equal urbanity, so admired the grit and punctuality of the bass in hitting his line that he always threw him back into the water. Another commentator thought that Teddy should have been lenient with Long as an extension of the principle enunciated by Grover Cleveland, former President and expert sportsman, that “no true fisherman will deny the truth of any story told by any other fisherman.”