Friday, May 13, 2011

TR and John Muir

Here's an intriguing contrast to my two LBJ pieces this week. I wrote this on our "other" 20th century bipolar President for mcmanweb in 2002. These days, I would have written a much longer piece featuring a lot more of TR's oddball behavior, such as his giving up his day job as a rising political star in the New York legislature and reinventing himself as a cowboy in the Badlands (I kid you not). But this should give you enough to go on ...

"We do not intend our natural resources to be exploited by the few against the interests of the many."

Believe it or not, a Republican President said that, Theodore Roosevelt. TR was not your average President. According to Kay Jamison, who needs no introduction, speaking to a 2002 Johns Hopkins conference, Teddy Roosevelt was "hypomanic on a mild day." He suffered from depression, and mental illness ran in the family, including a brother who had to be institutionalized and a son who committed suicide. He wrote 40 books, and read a book a day, even as President.

The context of Dr Jamison’s talk was exuberance, which was the title of her next book in progress (since published in 2004). We have "given sorrow many words," says Dr Jamison, "but passion for life few." Exuberance, she says, "takes us many places," with "delight its own reward, adventure its own pleasure." But exuberance and joy are also fragile, "bubbles burst, cartwheels abort," all part of the yin and yang of emotion, as "joy with no counterweight has no weight at all."

TR came into the world in 1858 "a full-blown exuberant." According to a Harvard classmate, "he zoomed, he boomed, he bolted wildly." A journalist said that after you went home from a meeting with the President you had to "wring the personality out of your clothes."

In 1903, TR teamed up with fellow exuberant, John Muir, for an extended hiking trip in Yosemite. Nature was Muir’s deliverance from his strict Scottish immigrant upbringing. Someone described his writings as the "journal of a soul on fire." He literally spoke in tongues to wildflowers, and his constant stream of letters to lawmakers ultimately attracted the attention of the twenty-sixth President of the US.

"Any fool could destroy trees," Muir wrote. "They can’t run away." Muir saw God’s immanence everywhere in nature, particularly in the mighty sequoias. "Unfortunately, "God cannot save trees from fools," he observed. "Only the government can do that."

TR was a committed conservationist long before he met John Muir, but after the Yosemite trip he marshaled his exuberance with new urgency. When TR assumed office in 1901, half of the nation’s timberlands had been cut down, the buffalo and other species faced extinction, and special interests were teaming up to lay waste to huge tracts of pristine wilderness.

Thanks to TR, five national parks were created, along with 150 national forests, 51 bird refuges, four national game preserves, 18 national monuments (including the Grand Canyon which later became a national park), 24 reclamation projects, and the National Forest Service. Significantly, TR extended the concept of democracy to include future citizens, arguing that it was undemocratic to exploit the nation’s resources for present profit. "The greatest good for the greatest number," he wrote, "applies to the number within the womb of time."

In 1912, a would-be assassin shot TR in the chest. Faced with the prospect of premature death, he remarked, "No man has had a happier life than I have led; a happier life in every way."

The deaths of his first wife and mother on the same day followed by a grieving period that lasted two years seemingly belies that statement, but personal realization has long been recognized as the reconciliation of opposites, and the same applies to John Muir, as well, who wrote he only went out for a walk but stayed out till sunset, for "going out was coming in."


Lizabeth said...

He also pushed for anti-trust laws and restrictions on big business. One can only wish there was someone like him in the Republican party today.

John McManamy said...

Spot on, Lizabeth. TR would definitely be a Democrat today, as would Lincoln, as would Ike. Even Reagan would fail to fit into today's Republican party.