Following my grandfather’s advice, I just finished reading “The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, A lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History.” I enjoyed it so much I want to quickly share it here and encourage others to read it.
The title leaves little to guess, it chronicles the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s life and his passion for the outdoors as a scientist, a natural historian, and a big game hunter (not necessarily in that order). I was consistently impressed throughout the book by Roosevelt’s passion for and devotion to the careful study of Nature and to a land-ethic that blended his love for hunting with conservation of wild fauna in natural lands. Roosevelt decried the loss of the tremendous large mammals in the west as humans moved in and hunters killed indiscriminately. Interestingly though, his instinct was to hunt those declining species for future study and appreciation. While this might seem counterintuitive, his selective hunting has provided a rich window into these creatures’ natural history for scientists and museum visitors alike for well over a century.
The book was especially exciting for me because I have unwittingly crossed Roosevelt’s footsteps more often than I’d realized. Roosevelt grew up in the Northeast and spent a great deal of his adolescence outdoors, including a particularly formative sojourn into the deep Maine woods. One of his passions growing up was natural history collections. When he was still fairly young, his father helped found the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, a museum I had the chance to go behind the scenes in to work with their collection of lizard specimens. Now, a lot of my postdoctoral research is based in natural history museums. Roosevelt went to Harvard and worked (for a short time) with the Harvard Natural History Museum. Several of his conservation mentors were alumni of Yale and connected to the Yale School of Forestry (one of his science advisors, Pinchot actually helped found FES). One of Roosevelt’s most spectacular adventures was just post-presidency when he went to Kenya and hunted for big game specimens in the shadow of Mt. Kenya to stock the newly created Smithsonian Museum in DC. That’s where I did my master’s research!
The book’s author, Darrin Lunde is a mammal curator at the Smithsonian and so is particularly articulate about the value of collecting museum specimens. There has been some argument in science about the value of killing and preserving voucher specimens, particularly of rare species. This argument has been thoroughly rebuffed (e.g. here and here and I’m happy to provide more!) however I think some of Mr. Lunde’s storytelling, particularly around Roosevelt’s Africa collections trip really nicely illustrates the importance of gathering specimens, the care needed for preserving them in a way that maximizes their scientific use, and the consideration needed for weighing which and how many specimens to take.
This was a great read and I would highly recommend it! Give it a look and tell me what you thought.