Before reading this book, I had no idea that Teddy Roosevelt, sometimes loved, often times hated POTUS, really liked to save the remains of the animals he hunted.
When I put it that way, it sounds way worse than it is. For the record, I actually like taxidermy myself, and I have a few animal bones hanging around my house. If you’re a scientist, or you consider yourself a scientist, frequently the best way to get close to nature is to study it first hand. As Darrin Lunde puts it, specimens are important to the field of biology and naturalism in general because they help us learn more about the world around us, and during the time of Roosevelt and his contemporaries, one of the only ways to get close to a specimen meant hunting and stuffing it yourself.
If you’re like most people, you might already associate Teddy Roosevelt with hunting, and for a good reason: he enjoyed it and talked about it easily. You might even remember the origin of the name of the Teddy bear, an incident that Lunde does mention in “The Naturalist.” That said, you probably don’t know the why of Roosevelt’s hunting, which is something Lunde sets out to explain within the book.
Since the primary goal of “The Naturalist” is to explain that Teddy Roosevelt’s hunting had less to do with assertions of masculinity than it did with an active and genuine interest in nature and natural studies that began when he was a child, if you read this book you can confidently say that Lunde does his job. The naturalist-as-a-hunter is maybe not a concept that comes readily to you when you think of modern field scientists, but back during Roosevelt’s day, enjoying nature and learning from it meant actually being in and interacting with nature. For Roosevelt and many others (including John James Audubon), being a part of nature meant taking an active role and hunting.
Lunde, however, is a naturalist hunter himself, so perhaps the championing of Roosevelt and his successes in the field could potentially read as biased. I didn’t particularly get that vibe from the narrative, but at the same time, Lunde early on makes note of similarities between himself and Roosevelt, so make of that what you will.
There were a lot of good things happening in this book, and they’re especially good if you’re a layman with absolutely no working knowledge of how natural history is cataloged. Lunde gives a lot of information about the function of a hunt, some ways in which a taxidermist might choose to work, who the men Roosevelt surrounded himself with were, and the establishment of various museums. At the same time, this information might be overwhelming, and is sometimes more than we need to know. The best I can do to compare it to something else is how in “Les Miserables,” Victor Hugo would go on long histories of, for instance, Parisian sewage systems, and while it does help ultimately to know why a particular naturalist came into his own as a scientist after being an apprentice or student to another, you’d probably be able to get along just fine without that knowledge. Those moments make the book run slower, and not in a, “I want to slow down and really understand the nuances of this passage” way, but a “This is really information dense and I really was just looking forward to hearing about a 12-year-old Teddy Roosevelt keeping the taxidermied bodies of mice in his family’s back room” way. The 245 pages of content reads a lot more like 500 pages.
If you can get through the density of the text, “The Naturalist” is a solid non-fiction read. It takes an angle that not a lot of people have probably thought about in terms of Teddy Roosevelt. You might walk away asking yourself, “Well, what is the difference between hunting for sport and hunting for science? A lion doesn’t really know either way besides the fact that it’s dead,” but I suppose that’s another issue that lies more in the subject than the way the book is actually written. From a lion’s point of view, there is no difference. Teddy Roosevelt might have been hunting big game in order to make sure later generations would be able to see the animals even after they died out, but at the same time, his hunting was in some part contributing to the loss of those species. His trip in Africa later on in life especially demonstrates the arrogant colonialist view that Americans had a right to those animals, dead or alive, even if that results in species native people rely on getting wiped out–but while he wanted to preserve the animals, the existence of primarily white hunters coming to the continent (both Africa and North America) was what resulted in those decimated animal populations to begin with. Yes, Roosevelt and his club of sportsmen did strive towards conservation in the end, but not until after they got theirs. There are significant ethical questions regarding over-hunting and whether or not it’s appropriate to send naturalist hunters into unexplored territories to learn more that are briefly raised, but not really talked about in depth. There’s a difference between playing an active role in nature and deliberately contributing to the obliteration of species.
A note on the typeface of this edition: It’s kind of funky while you’re reading and it goes from one section to the next, since, like many other texts, it uses two fonts, but unlike other texts, the two fonts don’t match, and the one that’s supposed to start each section actually seems a bit thinner than the body text. I normally don’t comment on the type of a book, but it was a weird thing that stuck out to me while reading, and since it was something that did keep sticking out, I figured I might as well mention it.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.