Teddy’s eye was on the warbler

by zunguzungu

I don’t know how important this is going to be in my final argument about Teddy Roosevelt, but it’s becoming tantalizingly interesting to think about the difference between Teddy Roosevelt’s naturalism and his ego-ideal as a hunter. For example, I’m only about two hundred pages into Douglass Brinkley’s just published The Wilderness Warrior: Teddy Roosevelt and the Crusade for America — so I don’t want to pass judgment on it yet — but a weakness of the book so far, it seems to me, is that it is dominated by one side of his fundamentally contradictory approach to the issue of nature and the environment.

Brinkley stresses, quite rightly, the charming extent to which Roosevelt loved birds, snakes, lizards, trees, moss, crabs and every other beautiful, interesting aspect of nature he could get his hands on. And this is useful to remember about him, and I‘m glad to have the wealth of detail Brinkley brings to this side of his personality; there are a lot of stories here I’ve never heard before. But there is a real contradiction between the side of Roosevelt that was interested in nature as nature and the side that was interested in the environment as repository of resources to be used. At the most basic level, after all, hunting and ranching (and Roosevelt was both) are about taking resources from “nature” and converting them into use or market value: whether you domesticate a cow and butcher it or shoot a deer, what you are doing, on a very practical level, is taking a “wild” animal and turning it into meat that can either be used or sold to be used. Yet this kind of evaluative calculus, however, has no purchase on the chestnut-sided warbler that Roosevelt supposedly burst into a cabinet meeting brimming with enthusiasm over having just seen.  You cannot put a market or use value on such a thing. On what terms, then, did Roosevelt value it?

When Brinkley sidesteps this contradiction, I think he misses something important about Roosevelt. It is one of things that makes Roosevelt charming to me, that he wasn’t bullshitting when it came to being deeply, deeply interested in nature. Even though he was deeply invested in thinking about how to use nature, I have come to believe that he was genuinely passionate about nature as a thing which was, intrinsically, not a thing to be used. Teddy Roosevelt’s eye was on the warbler; the president of the United States really was incredibly stoked to have seen an out-of-season summer bird in February in DC.

It’s hard to take anything too seriously when it comes to TR’s political persona, of course; the man was a master politician because, as Eric Rauchway nicely notes, he was

“…not only smarter and cannier than most presidents, he was also smarter and cannier than most historians. It doesn’t do to take him too much at face value. He might not have meant what it sounded like he said, and what he did probably had more than one purpose. That business of playing a cowboy wasn’t just about breast-beating machismo; it was about finding out the nature of work, and working people.”

It’s true that, as we are increasingly learning, a lot of stuff in the environment is much more “useful” than we ever dreamed it was, and Roosevelt was, relative to his time and place, way ahead of the curve in that regard. But that caveat “relative to his time” is important: I think he didn’t value things like a chestnut-sided warbler because he thought they really were useful. He valued them, in significant part, precisely because they were not valuable.

This is why, for example, Jonathan Rosen’s NY Times review (from which I poached that lovely picture) oversimplifies in saying that Brinkley’s “subtitle is telling — the crusade for America, not “wild America” — because for Roosevelt, living forests and petrified forests, bird preserves and buffalo ranges were essential for the country’s survival as a moral and military power.” A big part of who TR was, it is true, was informed by a social Darwinism that believed — as I wrote yesterday — that the American/white race needed to fight its way to supremacy over resources (to be used) in order to reproduce and continue to exist. We have to get and use before others do. But a big part of him just wasn’t about that at all, and though the relationship between Roosevelt the bird-watcher and Roosevelt the big game hunter slash settler colonialist in Africa is still not clear to me, the man was large and contained at least those two contradictory elements.

It is telling (to me at least) that Brinkley has so little time for Roosevelt’s time in Africa in his book. And while I’m focusing on African Game Trails, the book he wrote there, because we can see TR the hunter and social Darwinist imperialist most clearly in how he writes about Africa, a truer portrait of the man has to include the ways being a hunter dis-implies being a birdwatcher, and vice versa, a conflict that I’m increasingly thinking is visible all across his writing (if only by his efforts to argue that the conflict doesn‘t exist).  

I’m working on bringing my blogging and my “real” writing closer together, and in this vein, I offer you this piece of writing that I was bashing my head against this morning:

…while he went to Africa to hunt big game, TR the naturalist was a bird lover, obsessively interested in the abstract details and classification of animals of especially the humblest sorts. This side of him is not completely absent in African Game Trails; his seventeen page appendix on “Protective Coloration in Animals,” for example, illustrates exactly his fascination with aspects of the natural world which lacked any particular utility, an interest verging on an obsession which he had from his childhood. In fact, that appendix functions as a positive argument for the very thing it actually represents: as an argument that the protective utility of coloration schemes had been vastly exaggerated by its proponents (TR felt that coloration schemes in the animal world were only very occasionally of positive evolutionary value), the appendix demonstrates his utterly disinterested scientific interest in details of the natural world which were of no use whatsoever, to the animals themselves or to human society (valued, in fact, because they were valueless). He’s interested in the issue of animal coloration precisely because it isn’t of protective (and therefore evolutionary) value.

Such material, however, forms the excluded appendix in a narrative that is otherwise interested precisely not in useless beauty and birds but rather in the very usefulness of hunting animals, animals that he values by specific reference to their social utility. In this sense, while he does preface his narrative with an expression of how “there are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness,” revels in “the strong attraction of the silent places,” and rhapsodizes on “the awful glory of sunrise and sunset in the wide waste spaces of the earth,” this preface is placed before the main narrative, just as the appendix is placed after. By contrast to those constitutively excluded sections, the main bulk of the book is interested in the banal, domestic details of how hunting becomes settlement, a project of converting (most of) the world’s waste spaces into settled human society and which, appropriately, it turns out that he can find many, many words to describe. Put most succinctly, “hunting” and “naturalism” diverge in Roosevelt’s philosophy, and African Game Trails is primarily interested in the former, to the exclusion of the latter.

To put a slightly finer point on it, I hope, I think this distinction between hunting and settling is a way into thinking about how gender informs how TR thinks about Africa (or vice versa):

“To put it even more sharply, naturalism is to hunting as the erotic is to reproduction, an anti-utilitarian interest that gets rendered “legitimate” only by reference to its social use: just as the pleasure of sex was, in the official Victorian mind, an adjunct to and enabler of its social value of making children, Roosevelt’s interest in nature as and for itself might add zest to the practical duties of converting it into settled society, but the latter always has to take official precedence.

This is not, as it happens, an abstract comparison. More than anyone else, Roosevelt himself linked imperial expansion to organic notions of an evolutionary battleground in which race war was conducted precisely through reproduction, in which actual violence was always an adjunct to and enabler of the propagation of the white race. Not only was manly imperial expansion a way of combating the slide into effeminate decadence which civilized society produced, but it demonstrated the very virile success of the race itself: by social Darwinistic definition, the race which expanded was the fittest to survive.”

Which leads me to this, kind of amazing, quote from a speech he gave on natural duties which I’m now working out what to do with:

“Poverty is a bitter thing; but it is not as bitter as the existence of restless vacuity and physical, moral, and intellectual flabbiness, to which those doom themselves who elect to spend all their years in that vainest of all vain pursuits—the pursuit of mere pleasure as a sufficient end in itself. The willfully idle man, like the willfully barren woman, has no place in a sane, healthy, and vigorous community. Moreover, the gross and hideous selfishness for which each stands defeats even its own miserable aims. Exactly as infinitely the happiest woman is she who has borne and brought up many healthy children, so infinitely the happiest man is he who has toiled hard and successfully in his life-work. The work may be done in a thousand different ways —with the brain or the hands, in the study, the field, or the workshop—if it is honest work, honestly done and well worth doing, that is all we have a right to ask. Every father and mother here, if they are wise, will bring up their children not to shirk difficulties, but to meet them and overcome them; not to strive after a life of ignoble ease, but to strive to do their duty, first to themselves and their families, and then to the whole state; and this duty must inevitably take the shape of work in some form or other. You, the sons of the pioneers, if you are true to your ancestry, must make your lives as worthy as they made theirs. They sought for true success, and therefore they did not seek ease.”

There’s some projection here, I suspect, and in the line I bolded, an effort to displace onto society’s miscreants a moral critique he’s trying not to level at himself. The idea that hunting was anything other than a pursuit of useless pleasure was a critique that made him furious, exactly because it struck so close to home. But I would also give TR at least a little benefit of the doubt in that I think he was also struggling honestly with his own pursuit of pleasure, with the fact that he became a naturalist because birds gave him useless pleasure. I do think he sometimes struggled to think honestly about how to make that pleasure useful to others, and while I disagree with most of answers at a very basic level — the phrase “willfully barren woman” says a lot, and this essay ends in a resounding chorus of “let’s conquer the shit out of the Philipines” —  I do like him more than I would because he tried.