Mother Nature's son, with a big stick

During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt created enough federal bird reservations, national game preserves, national forests, national parks and national monuments to have saved 234 million acres of American wilderness from being despoiled. According to Douglas Brinkley, author of a new biography that focuses exclusively on Roosevelt's exploits as a naturalist, "History still hasn't caught up with the long-term magnitude of his achievement."

It's not hard to see how this aspect of Roosevelt's life has been overlooked. For one thing, it has been hidden in plain sight; his lifelong love of the outdoors, fascination with nature and obsession with hunting figure in every biographical portrait. For another, he spent his hugely eventful life and presidency being extremely busy with other matters too.

And then there's the ambivalence Roosevelt prompts in historians trying to understand his attitudes toward nature. Brinkley cites "a left-leaning bias against aristocratic hunters" and confusion about Roosevelt's hearty bloodlust as further barriers to a full and fair understanding.

To compensate, "The Wilderness Warrior" adopts a deliberate type of tunnel vision. It cherry-picks the nature and conservation stories out of the vast panorama of Roosevelt's life. That's not to say that Brinkley has come up with an abbreviated biography; far from it.

"The Wilderness Warrior" can seem thick as a sequoia as it catalogs all the specimens Roosevelt studied, bird calls he analyzed (the white-throated sparrow's "uu," as opposed to its "uuu"), jaunts he took, beasts he bagged and remote, exotic places with which he fell in love. By way of documentation Roosevelt wrote many books, approximately 150,000 letters and unpublished journals on which Brinkley has drawn.

The prologue to "The Wilderness Warrior" promises little drama, given that Roosevelt sustained a consistent attitude toward natural wonders throughout his life, and that his crusade against feather poachers in Florida is treated as a whiff of the excitement to come. This chronicle seems poised for many digressions, since it must establish Roosevelt's relationships with the most important naturalists of his day: the Sierra Club founder John Muir, the poet John Burroughs, the forestry expert Gifford Pinchot and assorted luminaries from the U.S. Biological Survey, the American Ornithologists Union and branches of the Audubon Society.

But for the patient reader Brinkley's fervent enthusiasm for his material eventually prevails over the book's sprawling data and slow pace. He clearly shares Roosevelt's rapture for mesmerizing settings like the North Dakota Badlands (where Roosevelt had a ranch and where Brinkley's family spends its summers). He conveys the great vigor with which Roosevelt approached his conservation mission. And he delves into the philosophical contradictions inherent in a man whose Darwinian thinking led him both to revere and kill the same creatures. Even as he celebrates Roosevelt's many bold moves to preserve tracts of land, Brinkley acknowledges his subject's complex motives. "It's hard to escape the feeling that Roosevelt enjoyed creating national forests and national monuments in part because it was rubbing his opponents' faces in his wilderness philosophy of living," he says.

As for the politics implicit in that statement, "The Wilderness Warrior" skips over politics and other aspects of Roosevelt's life to a degree that can be downright peculiar. There are many passages about bears and wolves here -- but only two paragraphs on the events that won Roosevelt the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize.

Although Roosevelt's presidency ended 100 years ago, Brinkley finds ways to make his presidential portrait a timely one. Beyond underscoring the environmental urgency of the causes that Roosevelt championed, "The Wilderness Warrior" also describes a vigorously hands-on president, eager to fight more than one battle at a time, accused of socialism by the businessmen with whom his policies (like trust busting) interfered and dismissively labeled a celebrity. Epithets notwithstanding, big crowds came to Washington to celebrate his inauguration and chant his three-syllable last name.