The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde presents yet another side of the complicated Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919). Scion of a wealthy New York family, sickly as a child, Roosevelt’s enduring image is that of a rough and tumble soldier, a politician with a big stick foreign policy and a big game hunter extraordinaire. Lunde’s book focuses on Roosevelt the naturalist.
In 1867, just a couple years before his father Theodore Roosevelt Sr invested in the creation of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Roosevelt started his own natural history museum in the family house. Twelve specimen would soon grow to include hundreds of mice, shrews and birds. Though the museum would soon be relocated by family decree especially after “he acquired a live snapping turtle – an aggressive pond-dweller covered in algae and decorated with a gruesome frill of leeches,” a passion had been borne that would stay with Roosevelt throughout his life.
Roosevelt lived during the Victorian Age. Nature study was common and encouraged especially among his social class. Never formally trained, he would teach himself the necessary skills, including taxidermy. The Naturalist provides unflinching accounts of how natural history museums of that era built their vast animal collections, collections that are scientific boons for researchers today but at what cost? Even then, ethical and moral questions arose around the killing of animals. Though museums in general collected far more animals than he did, Roosevelt took the brunt of criticism later in his life from animal rights advocates as the media reported graphic details of Roosevelt’s big game hunts in Africa.
Lunde is a Supervisory Museum Specialist in the Division of Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He’s clear in his affinity for Roosevelt the naturalist and also in his concern about the growing disconnect between people and nature. At the end of the book he raises questions about the changing perception of what it means to be a naturalist. He points out that “To really understand Roosevelt the naturalist, we need to locate him in the naturalists’ world that he knew — a world that wholeheartedly embraced guns, hunting, and taxidermy as equally important to the naturalist’s craft.”
The book reads like an American Experience documentary and I mean that in the best possible way. The book is chock full of historical facts and details and yet it is not in anyway overwhelming. The narrative flows carrying the reader along on a thought-provoking journey in the life of one of America’s great iconic figures.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this honest review.
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