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Alden Stevens
October 27, 1958
The 100th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt's birth recalls his pioneering work in conservation—a message still urgent today
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October 27, 1958

The Savior Of Our Wilderness

The 100th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt's birth recalls his pioneering work in conservation—a message still urgent today

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All through his presidency, Roosevelt never lost touch with the literature and study of natural history. He made frequent trips into the field. In 1903 he spent two weeks with John Burroughs in Yellowstone, watching bighorn sheep scramble without a misstep down a precipitous canyon wall, running to identify such birds as a pygmy owl and a Townsend's solitaire—tramping and touring, seeing everything. Burroughs later wrote: "I cannot now recall that I have ever met a man with a keener and a more comprehensive interest in the wildlife about us—an interest that is at once scientific and thoroughly human.... I was able to help him identify only one new bird. All the other birds he recognized as quickly as I did."

From Yellowstone he went to Yosemite for several days with John Muir. This, too, was a memorable trip for Roosevelt, although he was disappointed that Muir, with his great knowledge and understanding of mountains, big trees and glaciers, seemed to know little of wood mice and birds. Muir was as enthusiastic about the President as Burroughs had been; he, too, admired the sharp eye and the professional's careful, sure observation technique.

That same year, Roosevelt joined John Burroughs in attacking Ernest Thompson Seton, William J. Long and Jack London for some fairly lurid, imaginative writing about animals. Burroughs published an article in The Atlantic Monthly—Roosevelt was delighted with it, and said so. He then politely suggested that, on one minor point, Burroughs might be mistaken. "I shall never cease to marvel at the variety of your interests and the extent of your knowledge," replied Burroughs. "You seem to be able to discipline and correct any one of us in his chosen field. My Atlantic paper had some hasty streaks in it."

When his presidency ended, Roosevent promptly set out for Africa. This was partly—but only partly—a hunting trip. Knowing that the Smithsonian Institution was weak in its collection of African animal specimens, he suggested that, in exchange for such specimens, the Smithsonian both sponsor the expedition and send some taxidermists and field naturalists along with him.

"I am much more pleased at making the trip a scientific one with a real object than merely a holiday after big game," he noted with pride.

There can be no doubt that Roosevelt enjoyed practically every minute of the African expedition. His was the joy of the huntsman, but of a new kind of huntsman—one with the purpose of the collecting scientist. He brought back the largest collection of animals ever taken by a single party and made the Smithsonian's collection one of the finest in the world: 5,000 mammals, 4,500 birds, 2,300 amphibians and reptiles and thousands of fish, insects and plants, many of them new species.

Roosevelt summarized his experience in a delightful book, African Game Trails. He followed this work with another, in collaboration with the expedition's zoologist, Edmund Heller; a comprehensive volume—Life Histories of African Game Animals—that was a milestone in its field. The expedition was a solid scientific success that contributed greatly to knowledge of the then still little-known continent of Africa.

Roosevelt's other great expedition, to Brazil in 1913, was a different—and less happy—story. He was 55 years old. The year before he had been shot by a would-be assassin: it was not a serious wound, but it was not so trivial as Roosevelt pretended. He had been defeated for the presidency on the Bull Moose ticket, a bitter disappointment. While his enthusiasm for adventure was as high as ever, there can be no question that his health was far from robust and he was a very tired man.

Preparations for the trip were left mostly to Frank Chapman of The American Museum, which assigned two naturalists to the party: George Cherrie and Leo Miller. In Brazil the Minister of Foreign Affairs casually mentioned an unexplored tributary of the Amazon—the River of Doubt—of which the headwaters alone were known. Roosevelt instantly said, "We will go down that unknown river!"

It was a snap decision, and one that nearly cost him his life. Not only Chapman, but Henry Fairfield Os-born of The American Museum and many others of his friends protested, pointing out that he was making a voyage about which no one knew anything of the hazards, through perhaps the most unhealthy jungle in the world. Replied the old warrior: "I have already lived and enjoyed as much of my life as any other nine men I know; I have had my full share, and if it is necessary for me to leave my remains in South America, I am quite ready to do so."

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