‘Naturalist’ explores Roosevelt’s life as a scientist, outdoorsman

By Christopher Banner

While we tend to regard Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919, President 1901-08), as a brilliant politician and warrior, he also had a strong bent as an outdoorsman and natural scientist. Darrin Lunde concentrates on exploring these latter facets from his childhood through Roosevelt’s north African expedition in 1909- 1910. Roosevelt was a weak and sickly child, so his father encouraged him to engage in sports and outdoor activities to build himself up and make himself healthy. Hiking, camping, and fishing got him out in nature, which came to fascinate him. When he was old enough, he took up hunting, mostly of birds, but of other wild animals as well. He was an indifferent student at Harvard.

Then he went to law school and went into law and politics, but his heart was with the outdoors and vigorous activities. He became interested in the plight of the western buffalo (bison), which was being wiped out by sportsmen and commercial hunters and which had gone from a population of more than a million to a few thousand in a few years. Other large animals were also regarded as sportsman’s game and commercial hunting animals, and were suffering a similar fate, and Roosevelt felt that he should work to conserve them all. He also became a rancher in North Dakota, near Montana, owning two large ranches and several herds of cattle. He entrusted the daily operations to a manager while he pursued his legal and political careers in Massachusetts and New York, but he visited them as often as he could, tending to both ranching and the hunting and collecting specimens of large animals.

By studying these animals, he became a competent naturalist and mammologist.

As President, he established wildlife refuges and preserved natural areas of special esthetic or biological interest, including Yellowstone Park.

He and some other naturalists established the Boone and Crockett Club, an organization dedicated to conservation of these large mammals; it still exists today.

Roosevelt’s hunting served two purposes: It satisfied his need to be a hunter; it also was a means of understanding and preserving these animals and their environment. He said that he was “fond of politics, but fonder still of a little big game hunting.”

While in his second term as president, he began to feel the itch to go on a hunting expedition, this time in northern Africa. When his term was over, he organized a safari consisting of 250 men, most of them bearers, but it also included the better part of a dozen scientists, several scientists’ helpers, and Roosevelt’s son, Kermit.

His stated purpose of the safari was to collect specimens of animals, both large and small, but he wanted it to be a cooperative conservation effort, so he obtained sponsorship of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and other organizations. They collected large numbers of different species of animals to be sure that they had obtained representative samplings for these museums.

To add to the safari’s legitimacy, he made reporters who followed them stay a respectful distance away and not write up every day’s minutiae, the latest kills, and such. However, Roosevelt was not adverse to having his own publicity, and wrote frequent articles for “Scribner’s Monthly Magazine,” for which he was handsomely paid.

Lunde’s purpose in writing “The Naturalist” was to show us Roosevelt’s lesser known side, which he does admirably. He spends the last third of the book on the safari, but the safari ended in 1910; Roosevelt lived another nine years and was active nearly till his last breath.

In 1913-14 he went on an expedition exploring the Amazon, from which he barely escaped with his life. Lunde gives no reason for stopping his own book where he did. Perhaps it was because Candace Millard already wrote about the Amazonian venture in 2015, titled “Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey” which covered it quite well. Lunde includes 23 photos of the usual suspects and scenes and a few maps showing where Roosevelt traveled. Lunde is eminently qualified to write about naturalists and things of interest to them, for he is a Supervisory Museum Specialist in the Division of Mammals of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

“The Naturalist” is of interest to readers who enjoy biography, American history, Theodore Roosevelt, and many other things.

Christopher Banner is a Manhattan resident and emeritus senior specialist in music at KSU.

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