The Father of American Conservation: George Bird Grinnell Adventurer, Activist, and Author by Thom Hatch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I am grateful to the publisher for granting me access an advance review copy from Edelweiss. With any history there must necessarily be creative nonfiction to fill the gaps, else we’d be mostly reading a chronological listing of (hopefully factual) facts. The differentiator between poor or merely passable books and one such as this is the writing and this is an engaging narrative. And, unfortunately, with a few exceptions of in text references (mostly to Forest and Stream articles), it is like so many of its genre absent any citations and references. There are no notes in my review copy, and I don’t think there will be any in the final. As such, the reader has to take the content with the proverbial salt grains. Yes, there is an extensive bibliography, but that is of little use in tracking down a particular event, quote, etc. and is disappointingly common. In one example, Hatch quotes Grinnell (within quotation marks, so we assume it is quoted) recounting something Grinnell did not observe himself, prompting the question, was there another source Grinnell had access to? But…that absence is more than less absolved by the content.
This is a rich account of Grinnell’s life, more than the first third of the book recounting his life before his conservationist awakening. Be warned, there are dark narrations in this that should affect anyone sensitive to the heinous atrocities against the First People, treated with the dispassion of a dissociated historian and yet embellished with the excited creativity of a connected storyteller. An example, in recounting a planned butchery of a Sioux village by Custer’s 7th Cavalry, Hatch says of one failing part of the plan that Sioux warriors chased after retreating soldiers with “gleeful whoops”. Really? And Hatch says that the “survivors of the cowardly retreat cowered on that hill four miles away from the death scene for two days…” History is an interesting topic that is more than not treated as definitive, inerrant, objective, and is anything but. I’m sure the coward moniker was an Army brand. Did Hatch write with intentional cultural relativism, or is this just his style? From a sample of one book, I do not know.
Now, once Grinnell embarked on his conservationist track, Hatch, using the same tone and unrestrained literary license, shifts his target; recounting the slaughter of bison in Yellowstone, Hatch deems the butchers of bison fleeing “the carnage” by crossing a river, only to be shot indiscriminately as they emerged from the river, as “assassins”.
Grinnell advocated for Native Americans, an unpopular position then (and some would say even still), using his Forest and Stream platform. And Hatch, with poetic license again, describes a typical Cheyenne day that Grinnell would have likely experienced, concluding with “And then the white man came West, and daily life for the Cheyenne people would never be the same.” Still, Grinnell tried to change perception
I have never been able to regard the Indian as merely an object for study – a museum specimen. A half-century rubbing shoulders with them, during which I have had a share in almost every phase of their old-time life, forbids me to think of them except as acquaintances, comrades, and friends.
His works ran counter to the only other narratives of the time – that of the Army – because since “the Indians could not write, the history of their wars had been set down by their enemies.” (For perspective, I recommend
, US history as told in textbooks of other countries around the world…quite enlightening for the historically myopic American student…and citizen) Grinnell spent a lot of time listening to the Cheyenne stories, something apparently few “white men” actually did, compiling them in The Fighting Cheyennes. Margaret Mead and Ruth Bunzel said none came closer than his (I’m guessing The Cheyenne Indians…the Mead/Bunzel quote only refers to it as “Grinnell’s classic monograph”) to the Indian everyday life.
Hatch used an epigraph from Rachel Carlson for one chapter:
The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we have for destruction.
That’s a wonderful sentiment that I came to embrace decades ago. Unfortunately, there are too many people in this country ascribing the wonders and realities to a supernatural and then giving themselves license to own, ravage and destroy them. Grinnell focused his attention on the wonders and realities of his universe. Hatch does a very good job condensing the prolific writings of Grinnell’s evolution into a few chapters, capturing Grinnell’s distaste for the destruction of his time.
Don’t mistake conservationism for abstention from anything but observation and complete preservation of the environment. Grinnell hunter and fished, and wrote about methods of each. He casually bemoans “an elk or two, a few deer, and a few antelope” were all that he killed on one trip. He did, however, advocate responsibility in each. He recognized that overhunting (and fishing) was unsustainable, even leading to extinctions.
Side note: There are some wonderful photographs that I hope have captions in the published edition.
I decided to largely ignore a subtext of Hatch where I infer from his choice of words on climate change, which Hatch admits is a serious problem, speculating that “Grinnell would not have fallen prey to hysterical claims and skewered data”, and Hatch’s overly simplistic solution of deflecting blame to China and India because “the American people who have made great strides in cleaning up the air and water and are now watching the ozone layer begin to heal” must have been written before the current administration’s decimation of water and air protections (wildlife and Parks protections as well…Grinnell would be mortified, though not surprised at the planned destruction of Yellowstone for minerals, timber and more… primitive parahumans were as common in government in his time as especially now.) There’s a dichotomy here because Hatch does talk about the rollback of regulations on use of lead ammunition and the devastating effect on bird wildlife and other problems with the current administration.
If you are so inclined, as the author notes, you can read copies of Forest and Stream online. I share Hatch’s awe at the boggling volume of high quality material published weekly over 30 years as writer/editor/ publisher and owner! All while writing books, and reading them (a short review of a young and naive Theodore Roosevelt’s cathartic book on ???? Led to a lifelong friendship and partnership)! And Grinnell wrote well. On the St. Mary region of Montana illustrates his romantic, almost spiritual flair:
An artist’s palette, splashed with all the hues of his color box, would not have shown more varied contrasts. […] In the valley were the greens of the deciduous shrubs, great patches of deep maroon of the changing lobelia, lakes turbid or darkly blue, somber evergreens; on the mountainside foaming cascades, with their white whirling mist wreathes, gray blue ice masses, and fields of gleaming snow. Over all arched a leaden sky, whose shadows might dull, but could never efface, the bewildering beauty of the mass of color.
Good stuff. And never enough time to read more of his writings.
For the publisher, I respectfully submit this needs another editorial pass – its obvious polish tarnishes a little with some of the things I caught. I found a few errors in my review copy, which may have already been caught – missing words (page 87, 2nd paragraph first sentence), incorrect verbs (page 71, first complete sentence following the concluding fragment from the previous page, “was” should be “were”?; page 85, third paragraph, first sentence should not be past tense), extra words (page 153, one of the quotes I was able to track down, from Forest an Stream July 2, 1885, last sentence first paragraph, “he could shift sift”, “shift” should not be there, and wasn’t in the original article)
Page 184 Chapter Nine epigraph, should be Blackfoot, not Vlackfoot; page 117 last paragragh “Needless”
Also, quibbling point, page 71, the 7th Cavalry ditty is “Garryowen”, not “Garry Owen”. Page 167, the battleship is Maine, not Main/I> and the date was February 15, 1898, not Feb 12 (number of dead differs in accounts from that stated by Hatch)
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