Sunday, May 1, 2016

Book Review of The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde

When Being a Passionate Preservationist Meant Shooting Lots of Stuff

Naturalists are hunters for science who collect biological specimens for display and skins for study. These early collectors made natural history available to the general populace and played a major role in turning the study into a serious scientific pursuit. In this well-researched book, author Darrin Lunde focuses on Theodore Roosevelt’s passion as a naturalist and his influence on early environmentalism in the United States. The biography concentrates on the years from Roosevelt’s birth to his great African safari after he left the White House, and describes the events and people in his life that turned him into an avid outdoorsman.

Roosevelt came to his love early. Although a sickly child, he grew up in a time of Victorian beliefs that a weak constitution can be overcome by manly pursuits. So with the blessing of his parents little Teddy spent many happy hours rambling through the outdoors, slaughtering animals to skin and stuff. (He became an expert taxidermist.) Roosevelt was a serious student of the natural world, even studying science in Harvard. His decision to enter politics was an economic one; natural scientists made a poor living. Throughout his life Roosevelt surrounded himself with scientists, cultivating their friendships, and later inviting many to the White House.

Nowadays, naturalists are readily identified as preservationists, but not in Roosevelt’s era. He shot hundreds of animals for collections, many whose numbers were already in decline. The rationale being it’s better to kill a good specimen before they’re all gone so people will know what they once looked like. Readers will be surprised to learn how many of his contributions are in collections of the American Museum of Natural History and Smithsonian.

How times have changed. One of the things I liked about this book is that it doesn’t sugarcoat. There is a weird horror in reading the number of animals killed during Roosevelt’s hunting trips and safaris, and yet he and others like him laid the foundation for both the National Park system and conservation movement. Perhaps Roosevelt’s greatest accomplishment was conveying his enthusiasm for the natural world to the general populace through his writings and collection of species for exhibit.

Another interesting aspect is how the notion of preservationist has changed over the years. Roosevelt had no qualms about hunting, even endangered species. He believed predation was a natural part of life. One of the reasons he gave for supporting nature preserves in the first place was so enough big game would be left for his son to shoot when he came of age. “Laws should so far as possible provide for the continued existence of the game in sufficient numbers to allow a reasonable amount of hunting on fair terms to any hardy and vigorous man.”

The book was enjoyable, giving a real flavor for not only the work of early naturalists, but life in the Victorian Age as well. (Victorians also believe nicotine helped asthma and I snickered over Lunde’s appalling description of wheezy little Teddy as a child smoking stogies in bed.) I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Theodore Roosevelt, the Victorian Age, or natural history.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for a review. 

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