“Leave it as it is,” Teddy Roosevelt told an assembled crowd on the rim of the Grand Canyon, May 6, 1903. “You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.”
Thus is the mission statement, more or less, of the national park system, of environmentalists, of conservationists. With those five words, Roosevelt gave the coming stewards of the America’s wild spaces a rallying cry.
Of course, to leave wild spaces truly as they were was largely impossible by the early 20th century; the nation had waged wars against the Indigenous inhabitants for a century by that point. Roosevelt seemed to view them as a nuisance to be cleared away.
Nevertheless, it was largely Roosevelt who introduced the concept of protection of the environment, of nature itself, to the American presidency and body politic as a whole. And it is to Roosevelt that naturalist and prolific writer David Gessner turns in his new book, Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness (Aug, 2020, Simon Schuster). Gessner admires Roosevelt, clearly, which makes his honest examination of the problematic aspects of Roosevelt’s legacy even sharper.
If you’re familiar with Gessner’s books—he’s probably best known at this point for All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West—you know he’s concerned chiefly with telling the stories of unusual characters, unusually drawn to the wilderness in ways that have helped shape how we view such spaces today. His new book is no different, and traces not only what Roosevelt brought to the early days of American conservationist thought, but also wrestles with how that same legacy should be interpreted in 2020.
Below is a conversation with Gessner, reproduced here with permission from Gessner and the book’s publisher.
Q: We’re living through scary and uncertain times, with the rise of nationalism, COVID-19 and its vast fallout, and accelerating climate change. So why Roosevelt now? What is it about his worldview and personality that are enlightening for today?
David Gessner: The COVID-19 crisis, like the climate crisis, has its roots in our relentless destruction of the natural world, which makes Roosevelt stunningly relevant today. Imagine what a difference it would make to have an energetic, empathic man, and who read a book a night and trained to be a naturalist, in the White House right now. Imagine Roosevelt, a deep believer in science, leading the fight not just against the virus but against climate change. This trust-buster, who took on oil and railroad monopolies at the peak of their power, would not flinch at the idea of tackling the fossil fuel industry.
Roosevelt showed how one person, through their vision, work, energy, and charm could change the country’s course, a truth we are seeing through a dark funhouse mirror at the moment. His ascension to the presidency was greeted with fears similar to those that greeted Trump’s, but through empathy, study, and openness he grew while in office; his was a movement toward largeness not smallness. He was also, more than anyone who ever held this country’s highest office, a lover of nature and someone who understood that there are worlds beyond the human world. It was this love, and this understanding, that drove him to save wilderness as no president has before or since.
When you first planned this road trip in Roosevelt’s shadow, what did you hope to learn or experience? What surprised you most?
I wanted to get back to a landscape that was vital to me when I was young and a landscape that had since taken on deep political import. In 2016 I contributed to a book about the Bears Ears wilderness in Utah that was part of the appeal to Obama to designate this land as a national monument. Red Rock Testimony was distributed to all members of Congress, and when Obama declared Bears Ears a monument before leaving office I experienced a sense not just of elation but of empowerment.
That land was ripped away on October 27, 2017, which happened to be Theodore Roosevelt’s 159th birthday, when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, standing in front of a portrait of Roosevelt, announced that the Bears Ears monument would be drastically reduced. That was the day my cross-country trip following Roosevelt’s ghost was born. I wanted to find out if TR was still relevant, if he could help inspire me, and us, to environmental action. What surprised me was how almost every place I visited and almost every person I talked to had a Teddy story. This was one dead president who was very much alive. The great nature writer John Muir once wrote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” This, I discovered, was particularly true if the thing you picked up was Teddy Roosevelt.
What does “leave it as it is” mean to you? With environmental degradation and climate change so advanced at this point, does that phrase suffice?
Leave it As It Is could be the take-away lesson of our current crisis. Make no mistake that this is an environmental crisis and that it is our relentless environmental devastation, our unwillingness to leave it as it is, that has both released animal pathogens and spread them around the globe. As David Quammen writes: “Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behavior are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly.”
Obviously in the age of climate change the environmental fight has grown more complicated. It’s no longer as simple as saving a plot of land or even a single species. We are told the old idea of thinking globally and acting locally is out of date. But saving places and leaving ecosystems as they are is still the single most important thing we can do for our world. We are preserving not just those places but hope. These places contain animals and plants but also possibilities and options for the future. The book ends with my flying over the American West in a small single prop plane and while I saw plenty of environmental devastation I also saw vast spaces and the possibility of re-wilding that land. One of the only hopeful aspects of the pandemic has been this idea of re-wilding as we have watched wildlife reclaim the land when we withdrew. Miraculous things can happen if we leave things as they are.
Are Roosevelt’s, and all of our, contradictions with regards to the environment relevant? He killed thousands of animals for sport, yet saved the buffalo from extinction. Today, over 4 million people visit Yellowstone every year bringing traffic jams and contributing to carbon emissions in the process. Should we be more pure? Is that possible?
Roosevelt also knew a secret that few human beings, let alone presidents, have ever learned: that a world exists beyond the human world and that anthropocentrism is our most stubborn prejudice.
I’ve spent most of my career fighting against environmental purity in books like Sick of Nature. I, like lots of people, sometimes get tired of being hit over the head with a cudgel called Climate Change. A friend of mine, who was responsible for bringing native plants back to the Charles River, once said: “We are all hypocrites. We drive our cars or fly in planes and so throw up our hands. But we need hypocrites. We need more hypocrites who fight.”
Roosevelt was just that sort of great fighting hypocrite. Yes, he shot many animals and had many flaws and foibles. But he also knew a secret that few human beings, let alone presidents, have ever learned: that a world exists beyond the human world and that anthropocentrism is our most stubborn prejudice. His many days in the wilderness taught him to understand the world of nature and he grew to love wild places. His efforts to save these places grew out of that love. In this he is, despite his flaws, a fine model of both a nature lover and an eco-fighter.
How do you reconcile Roosevelt’s treatment of Native Americans with the admiration you have for him?
Even if we extend historical empathy, there is not much good to be said about Roosevelt’s attitude toward Native Americans. It is true that he grew to respect individual Native Americans, some in the Rough Riders, and to learn about Native culture, but overall the record is not a happy one. There is a tendency among biographers to bring up a flaw of their subject and then make an excuse for it. I try to just let it stand.
That said it is a confluence, not a conflict, that is at the heart of my book. The confluence is between Native American ideals–ideals of the land as sacred and of using the land for ceremony and the gathering of sacred plants–and the American park and monument ideal, which, however flawed, led to saving millions of acres from development or private ownership. The confluence of this ideal is exemplified by the five tribes using the Antiquities Act to save the historically sacred land that is Bears Ears and in the person of Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk. While Trump’s attempt to reduce Bears Ears has been devastating, this fight is not over. And it is in this fight that I find not just this confluence but the spirit of Roosevelt and the hope of a more vibrant environmentalism.
What does the idea of the American West mean to you? And does that idea match the reality? Did it ever?
The West for me, as it was for TR, is a land of hope, a theater for heroics, and a place to be re-born. After a bout with testicular cancer, I moved west at 30, driving an unregistered Buick Electra cross country and all but crying when I saw the Rockies. Teddy moved to the Badlands after the death of his wife and mother, and threw himself into a life of work and nature. It is not an exaggeration to say he was re-born there.
That is the romance of the West, but the reality is darker. Cows and cowboys are part of the TR myth but he gradually began to see that cows, and wealthy ranchers like himself, were part of what was destroying the native ecosystems. Land is still leased for next to nothing by ranchers in the West, essentially vast handouts from the federal government, which makes the West a rugged, beautiful, and wild welfare state.
Much of that land is in terrible shape today, cowburnt and soil poor, but for me and many others the West remains a hopeful landscape. And those vast landscapes still hold possibility and great beauty, which makes saving them, and their “geography of hope,” even more vital.
Theodore Roosevelt was an incredibly wealthy New Yorker with a massive ego and personality, who became President largely due to his own myth-making. Yet, writing this book I constantly thought to myself, Theodore Roosevelt is everything Donald Trump is not. Where in their similar early lives did their paths diverge?
At one point in the book I imagine a fist fight between the two and though Trump is taller I put my money on the one who boxed in college and studied jujitsu in the White House. Both men were New York City-born, famous for eating ravenously, and known for having small hands (really). More to the point Roosevelt shared some bullying, bombastic qualities with the current president, and in his use of power he was not above a similar bellicose bluntness. TR, like Trump, was a sinkhole for attention; his daughter Alice Roosevelt famously said “He wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding, and the baby at every christening.”
But Roosevelt was, in the words of Wallace Stegner, “a grower.” By the time he ran as a Bull moose candidate he was putting forth a platform that would make Bernie blush, and was called “a traitor to his class.” How and why did he change? Well, he had a model of a good man and public servant in his father, who he deeply respected. He was also an avid student, always learning, starting with his studies of animals and birds. Later, as Mayor of New York, he toured the slums with Jacob Riis, whose famous book’s title, How the Other Half Lives, succinctly describes what Roosevelt was learning. Empathy, then, was what really changed him. He could be stubborn, contradictory, prejudiced, imperialistic, but he was also open to change and to learning from and understanding others.
How would this book, and your ideas on conservation and nature, be different under a different administration?
Well, this book was born of Trump. After his election I kept reading quickly written pieces that were a reaction to some awful thing he had done the day before, and I wanted to write a deeper longer rebuttal to a repugnant part of him that, obscured as it was by the rest of his distractions, is not singled out often enough: his obliviousness to the natural world and his relentless aiding of its destruction.
I’m not sure Biden is the answer but perhaps he will stop the bleeding. But we need more than that. We need a new Roosevelt who, as TR did in the fight for public lands, doesn’t just fight but creates a new arena and a new language for the fight. We need to be inspired and to understand that this is the fight of our lives. I sometimes dream of a future politician, a rough-and-tumble Westerner, a hunter maybe, or at least an outdoorsman of the sort Interior Secretary Zinke claimed to be, who could make environmentalism seem less precious and crunchy and who could bridge our differences, and who could remind us that the land is our common ground.
When confronted with a global emergency–a contagious and lethal new virus—much of the world summoned the strength to massively shift human behavior to confront it. The harms of global warming are less immediate than COVID-19, but no less dangerous. Do the last few months give you more or less hope for the fight against climate change?
I have no illusions about the massive challenge ahead. But a couple things about the last few months have given me hope. The tools we learned during one crisis are the tools we need in the larger crisis. The solutions that have been forced upon us—traveling and consuming less—are solutions to the climate crisis too. Even more hopeful has been watching the way that nature has responded to our human time-out—the mountain lions roaming the snowy streets of Boulder, Colorado and the view of Mt. Everest suddenly visible from a village in Punjab–and equally hopeful is the delight human beings have taken in seeing this re-wilding. Delight in nature, which TR embodied, is an underrated part of the environmental fight. We need to love something to protect it.
Personal and local reasons for hope should not be underrated. But for a larger hope we need political muscle and political vision. We need a true leader who, like Roosevelt taking on the trusts or saving land under the Antiquities Act, could envision and articulate, and then do, things that had never been done before. We need someone who can wield language like a sword and can awaken us to a less-obvious crisis but one that could have even more dire consequences than the virus.