Happy Easter, History fans!
You have probably been shaking your heads, thinking that I already gave up on my resolution! Well, I hate to disappoint you naysayers! In fact, I ran into the age-old problem of the next book syndrome. You finish a book, and then you start ten others until you are satisfied. Well, I finally found one that stuck: Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn.
You might recognize Egan’s name from one of my favorite book reviews, The Worst Hard Time. His story of the dustbowl had me fascinated. And though his account of the great fire of the Bitterroot Mountains is indeed captivating, I found myself annoyed with his portrayal of the good and bad characters from the story.
The Big Burn follows the path of the National Forest Service, which is intertwined with the life of Teddy Roosevelt. In August 20, a huge firestorm took hold of some of the national forests Roosevelt had fought so hard to preserve. In the fire’s wake, however, the public realized the need for the forest rangers and the day was saved. An interesting story, but what I found most compelling was Teddy Roosevelt himself. I knew very little of the man prior to this reading. Egan paints him in such a heroic light that it is difficult not to like him. I tweeted as much only to be chastised by my friend Mandy Ogunnowo, who stated that some Native Americans might disagree. So I dove a little further into his life and found, in the words of Louis Auchincloss, that Roosevelt was a “complex dynamo of seeming inconsistencies.” Indeed, it seemed that Roosevelt was intent on being just that.
The 26th president was born asthmatic, a weakling. He idolized his father whose actions and words had a profound impact on who young Teddy would become. Theodore SR. skipped out on the Civil War because his bride was a confederate supporter from the south and did not want the family torn apart. This lack of action seemed to lodge itself deep within Teddy and create in him a courage that teetered on madness. And even though he seemed disappointed in that single action of his father’s, he nonetheless took to heart his warning that if Teddy did not get his body into shape, his mind would suffer. So the sick young boy took it as a challenge. He charged straight at his weakness, the way he would later bowl over his enemies, and dedicated his time to calithenics, exercise and sports. He became in love with the outdoors and its beauty. An asthmatic outdoorsman. But this was just the beginning of his life of competing oppositions.
Roosevelt eventually found his way into the Progressive party, an extreme wing of the Republicans. Although a man of extreme wealth, his time out in the Dakotas working as a cattle driver and all-around cowboy, Teddy had come to appreciate the difficulties of the “small man.” Part of his progressive stance that would not come to fruition until his cousin Franklin took office decades later was his avocation for child labor laws and demands for minimum wage. He also found the corruption of big corporations and their hand in Congress absolutely appalling. It is difficult in modern day to imagine a Republican with such conviction and liberal ideas. This is part of the reason why he was such a headache for both Republicans and Democrats. He was an idealist and a loudmouth. A deadly combination in Washington.
You might wonder how a politician who bothered so many people and straddled the political could divide ever end up being president. For one, Roosevelt was full of unending energy. He steamrolled from one position to another, annoying enemies as well as making the right friends. But the catalyst that made Theodore Roosevelt a demanding public figure was his role in the fight for Cuba. Many people are familiar with his hand in the Rough Riders and the charging of San Juan Hill. His heroics put his name on the map. What many don’t know is that he had really no business being there in the first place. At the time, Roosevelt held an office position in the navy, a good job, and one that did not necessitate his enlisting in the army. And probably would have been smarter if he had stayed and performed his duties. Haunted by his father’s inaction, Roosevelt would have none of it. He led a group of east coast polo players and dudes from the plain states on a war-winning campaign in Cuba. His notoriety landed him the job of governor of New York, where he met Gifford Pinchot and developed his revolutionary idea of conservation.
Now conservation at this point was a relatively new but not unheard of idea. Made popular by the greatest of nature-writers John Muir, the idea of saving some of the country’s natural resources, forests included, for the sheer enjoyment of the public was gathering a little steam. Teddy loved the outdoors and was a prime candidate to champion the cause of saving the forests. All he needed was some nudging. Enter Gifford Pinchot, another well-to-do man from the wealthy east who fell in love with the western landscape. A man to match Roosevelt’s energy, they bonded in the boxing ring, on the wrestling mat, and on hikes up mountainsides. They both had lost young wives and had been healed by the beauty of the land out west.
Gifford had a plan and he needed someone with power to help him achieve it. The idea was a sort of army or police force, a group of soldiers whose sole undertaking was saving the lands in the west from prospectors, timber companies, miners, and all the others with dollar signs on the brains. National forests for the public. For enjoyment! A bully idea! The national forests appealed to Teddy but probably not as much as taking on the corrupt companies and politicians who were making millions hollowing out the landscape. The two became nearly inseparable. Pinchot served on Roosevelt’s cabinets when he finally secured the presidency. And the two would crusade tirelessly for the public ownership of the resources.
Here I think it is important to point the most glaring inconsistency of Roosevelt’s life. He fought hard in the face of overwhelming aggression for the idea of the national forest. Even after he left office and the hapless Taft sat in the White House, Teddy would give speeches and advocate for sanctity of the land. Yet this noble cause was at brutal odds with his blood-lust towards other life forms. The man loved to hunt and loved to kill. There were unsettling stories that came out of Cuba that whispered Roosevelt was a blood-thirsty maniac. And almost to complete his absurd inconsistent policies, he had, as Mandy was so kind to point out, a frightening indifference toward the Native American population. Here was Teddy Roosevelt, fighting publicly to save forests for the enjoyment of the small man while his progressive policies were consistently stripping away land from native tribes. Why should they get all the good land? That’s exactly what Roosevelt’s enemies were shouting about the national forests! Why should the public be in charge of all this perfectly good timber? And as if taking their land back wasn’t enough, the Roosevelt administration swayed back and forth on their policy for assimilation of Native Americans. At first it was thought that they should do away with the reservations, force the native kids into public schools, and make the Indians part of the USA whether they liked it or not. But not long after they started down this road, they performed an about-face and decided to give them a big ol’ FUCK YOU and take away their citizenship, leaving them completely helpless and shut off from the rest of the country. Egan seemed to have forgotten this side of Roosevelt. Oops!
Egan does, however, give us a villain to root against. The evil Senator Heyburn from Montana who fought just as tirelessly against the national forest as Roosevelt fought for it. There are certainly some nasty things about Heyburn, including his blocking the child labor laws, but I think he was villianized a little too much. It is easy in retrospect to say, “How dare you stand in the way of our beloved national forests!” But at the time, that idea seemed ludicrous. People were striking it rich out west, both in the mines and from the trees. The states of Montana and Idaho, as well as eastern Washington and Oregon, were hardly touched by humanity. At a time when jobs were scarce and immigrants were pouring into the country, why not chop up the land? Money could be made and not just by the already wealthy railroad moguls, but by prospectors and labor men who just needed a steady paycheck. Why would the president stand in the way of progress, of jobs, and of the American dream?
Onto the fire! Here’s the setup: Pinchot and Roosevelt got a bunch of land secured. We are talking millions of acres. But creeps like Senator Heyburn kept any sort of working budget away from the newly formed Forest Service. Pinchot collected as many young men from the Yale School of Forestry as he could. These green boys were given the incredible task of policing, protecting, and maintaining the huge amount of land that was now officially the public’s. We are talking one man overseeing a 30 million acre forest on little to no budget. I smell impending doom!
The rangers had a rough time. The railroad and timber companies laughed at the rangers and operated in open defiance. Small towns popped up within the forests that were filled with gambling, prostitution, and all sorts of debauchery. The people’s forest indeed! So these poor college boys were already exhausted when the driest summer in decades settled down upon the Bitterroot Mountains and the surrounding national forests. The foresters knew that it was only a matter of time before the lack of rain caught up with them and a forest fire would take hold. But they believed that if they were diligent, they could prevent a fire from starting, or at least contain one once it started. What they refused to believe, though, was that fire was a natural and necessary part of the cycle of life in the wild.
In August of 1910, small fires had popped up all over the forests. The underbrush and the trees were so dry, anything could set it off: a spark from the railroad, lightning from an electrical storm. The understaffed and underpaid foresters began their impossible task of fighting off the fires . . . by setting fires. The concept at the time was that fire needed fuel. But if you destroyed the fuel in its path, the fire would die out. DOOM! On August 20 a hurricane-like wind blew from the west and fell upon the Bitterroots, picking up the small fires and turning them into a terrifying firestorm of winds up to 70 miles an hour. Imagine a force that could match the atomic bomb that landed on Hiroshima moving as a galloping fireball, destroying everything in its path.
The majority of Egan’s book looks at some of the foresters and the citizens who lived through the two-day fiery nightmare. Some lived and some died in a horrible inferno. Those who lived were heralded as heroes. And you know what? The American public decided that they never wanted to see anything like that again, so they demanded that Congress pour more money into the Forest Service. Hooray! A happy ending, right? Good lord, no. The fire destroyed millions of acres of first growth forest that Pinchot and Roosevelt had fought so hard to protect. The foresters who tried to fight the fire were killed and maimed, without assistance from the government to pay their medical bills. And could Heyburn have been right when he said that if he had been allowed to cut down the trees, the fire would not have burned them up? What in the world do we make of this story? Egan ends the book by recounting Gifford Pinchot’s last trip out west when he was in his seventies, only to see that even the forests that had managed to not be destroyed being pilfered by timber companies. What the hell was gained? The only thing we can really take away is the gratitude that someone stood up for national forests before it was too late . . . even if it mostly all backfired in their faces. Backfire! Hot dog!
We can take away at least this: Pinchot and Roosevelt both (eventually) gave up popularity and even credibility to follow their beliefs. Pinchot never ceased to fight the corporations and the people who wanted to see his beloved forests into company assets. Roosevelt, who had to compromise his beliefs in order to achieve his political aspirations, eventually split off from the Republican Party and went third party. Political suicide. They were idealists and romantics and both a little screwy. And as dark as some of Teddy’s tendencies were, I still think he is a demanding presence in history and a fascinating example of the complicated human experience. He rolled through life at full steam, seemingly wanting to get things done and not quite caring about what exactly it was he was doing. He was a man of simultaneous opposing beliefs, a complete mystery of a man who was too loud and too large to ignore.
But our thanks should fall at Pinchot’s feet. He was a man who has been all but forgotten in history. A similar ball of energy that constantly had Roosevelt’s ear, his policies and plans are largely attributed to his superior. But where Roosevelt could be found bouncing all over the place, Pinchot stood steadfast in his belief that future generations should be able to enjoy the majesty of America’s wilderness. He believed that places like the Bitterroots and Yosemite could help heal the soul the way it had helped him. And he stood up when it made little sense to do so, just so we could enjoy and appreciate it. Though much of it is gone, we still have bits and pieces around the nation, and much of it is due to Gifford Pinchot. What a guy!
Well that about wraps up this post. I guess I could have just shortened it by saying that Theodore Roosevelt was a total kook, and we lost a bunch of trees in 1910. But where’s the fun in that?