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In 1907 Teddy Roosevelt swung his big stick at nature writers
who he believed were corrupting the minds of the nation’s youth.

By Barney Nelson

From the late 1800s through the early 1900s Americans eagerly devoured anything connected to nature. A form of science based on “collecting” became a favorite leisure pastime for the wealthy. Birdwatching was done with a shotgun and women’s hats bristled with feathers. Homes were filled with exotic plants, butterfly collections, trophy animal heads and beautiful bits of nature.

Nature also represented patriotism. “Our” nature, Americans could boast, was better than Europe’s. Our fall leaves were more colorful, our wildlife bigger, our mountains more scenic. Like children competing over whose father is tallest, Americans were playing a childish game of one-upmanship—with nature.

As the growing U.S. population took its toll on natural resources, “wild” bits of nature became more and more precious. In 1799 the last bison was killed in Pennsylvania. The last elk in New York’s Adirondacks was killed in 1834. The last Labrador duck was shot on Long Island in 1878 and the last wild passenger pigeon was killed in Ohio in 1900. In 1890 the frontier officially closed and almost overnight “pretending” to be a frontiersman became the national pastime. National parks sprang into being and hiking and hunting clubs were formed. Theodore Roosevelt himself helped organize the Boone and Crockett Club in 1888. In what soon became a “wilderness cult,” wealthy and prominent grown-ups competed seriously for the title of noblest savage, posing for formal photographs in their “hiking gear” and “hunting outfits.”

Riding the wave of this nature popularity were many of the nation’s authors. Henry David Thoreau, almost a total failure in his own day, was republished and began steadily climbing the charts. Living writers also posed for formal portraits in their hiking outfits and began to compete with one another for wildest lifestyle. John Muir called Thoreau’s “Walden” a “mere saunter,” and he “could not guess” why people regarded Thoreau as a hermit. Muir stared down bears, gloried in earthquakes, clung to swaying pines during thunderstorms, rode an avalanche down a mountain, crawled behind a waterfall, and even wrote with eagle feather quills using ink from giant sequoias.

Jealous after hearing Clarence Starr King praised for a daredevil climb of Mount Tyndall, Muir said, “When I climbed Tyndall, I ran up and back before breakfast!” On another occasion, he said that when he climbed Mt. Rainier, he didn’t even “mean to climb it, but got excited and soon was on top!” He conveniently seemed to have forgotten the packhorses, campstools, and well-organized 12-man expedition which climbed Rainier with him. Roosevelt too, tended to “forget” the cook and packers who went with him and Muir into Yosemite and wrote about “just the two of us alone in the wilderness.”

At the other end of the spectrum of wild nature writers was kindly old John Burroughs. Not as flamboyant as Muir, Burroughs’ persona was created more along the lines of Thoreau, writing about the birds in his backyard. He based his claim to “wildness” on his closeness to nature through observation. Although he climbed no mountains, he was such a part of nature that a bird once built a nest in his hat.

At the time the nature faking controversy began, Muir and Burroughs were revered as the nation’s top naturalists. Then two upstarts began selling more books. Ernest Thompson Seton’s “Wild Animals I Have Known” went through 16 printings in less than four years, and the Reverend William Long’s children’s books replaced Burroughs in the nation’s schools. So in 1903, kindly old gentle John Burroughs published a blistering attack on counterfeit nature writers. He had no quarrel with outright fiction and fantasy, he said, but aimed his barbs at writers who claimed to be writing “true” stories based on close observations of nature. His primary targets were Seton and Long. The nation’s president amazingly got involved with Burroughs’ controversy and coined the term “nature faker.” The media loved the fight. They dredged up numerous scientific errors made by Burroughs and Roosevelt, attacked Roosevelt’s hunting, and supported Seton and Long. Political cartoons abounded.

The Reverend William Long was the primary target of Burroughs and Roosevelt in the nature faker controversy. Long was a Harvard-educated Congregational minister and should have been honest. He was hotly defended by

[John Muir] said that when he climbed Mt. Rainier, he didn’t even “mean to climb it, but got excited and soon was on top!” He conveniently seemed to have forgotten the packhorses, campstools, and well-organized 12-man expedition which climbed Rainier with him. Roosevelt too, tended to “forget” the cook and packers who went with him and Muir into Yosemite and wrote about “just the two of us alone in the wilderness.”

his parishioners and fellow clergy, yet, reading his words today, we find him just a tad over the edge. He claimed to have seen muskrat, beaver and bear set broken bones and bandage chopped-off paws with pine pitch, spruce resin, or clay. He watched fishing birds catch small fish and release them unharmed into small ponds where their young could practice fishing with guidance from the adults. One oriole, he claimed, tied twigs together with string and then swung the frame from a stout branch using, in his words, “a reversed double-hitch, the kind that a man uses in cinching his saddle. Moreover, the birds tied a single knot at the extreme end lest the marline should ravel in the wind.”

Their other primary target, Ernest Thompson Seton, founded an Indian craft club for boys which eventually became the Boy Scouts of America. A prolific writer of popular animal stories, including one about a “king” wolf, Burroughs objected to Seton’s claim that he once saw a fox jump on a sheep’s back and ride it for several hundred yards in order to confuse the dogs that were on its trail. He watched another fox lure hounds onto a railroad trestle where they were killed by a passing train. In one essay entitled, “Natural History of the Ten Commandments,” Seton argued that all creatures were required to obey Biblical commandments and that promiscuous animals (rabbits) or polygamous animals (elk) were punished by God with diseases and infirmities.

One of Seton’s ardent defenders is Julie Seton, a descendant and college professor, who says, “Seton challenged both literary and scientific traditions by creating stories that were intended to be a hybrid of literature and natural history,” and that Burroughs’ main objections included anthropomorphism, a lack of scientific method when gathering the information, and presenting stories from the animal’s perspective. She says that in 1907 a symposium between naturalists and scientists was held to clear the air and the result was “castigation of Long, vindication of Seton, and the implicit endorsement of Burroughs’ standards for natural history writing.” She says it is “interesting to note that many behaviors identified in Seton’s animal stories have been found to be true in the scientific sense. For example, wolves are known now for their single mate-for-life behavior and their attention (or devotion) to their families.” However, her statement here supports the questionable Seton idea that animals must keep God’s commandments, but this wolf behavior has not actually received a stamp of authenticity from wolf experts.

Numerous other writers were drawn into the fray, including Jack London. Although Muir was ignored by the controversy, his pen, too, was far from clean. All of his wild adventures, of course, happened while he was alone, so he had no witnesses. Possessing such physical immunity to cold that he could climb mountains in the dead of winter with no food, jacket, or water, he also watched bucks fearlessly lead females to safety and claimed that wild animals were “as free from disease as a sunbeam,” never weary or sick, always clean and elegant. He even credited wild sheep with the ability to appreciate beauty.

Although Roosevelt supposedly dealt a fatal blow to the nature fakers in 1907, it seems to be the other way around. Seton and Long remained on best-seller lists, and Roosevelt was defeated in his reelection bid in 1912.

Perhaps the greatest nature faker didn’t even appear on the scene until after Roosevelt’s defeat. On August 10, 1913 Joseph Knowels called a press conference (discreetly hidden behind low bushes) and plunged totally naked and unarmed into the Maine woods to live off the land. Periodically, he corresponded with the media by writing with charcoal on birch bark. He reported that he had been able to obtain fire by rubbing sticks together, was feeding himself on berries, trout, partridge, and venison, and had been able to lure a bear into a pit and club it to death in order to make himself a warm coat. On his periodic visits to civilization, Harvard physicians reported the excellence of his physical condition and his paintings of wild animals sold like hotcakes. Eventually it was discovered that all along he had been living in a snug cabin stocked with canned goods hidden back in the trees. By that time though, his book, “Alone in the Wilderness,” had sold 300,000 copies!

The public’s taste for animal stories and wild men has not abated. Many years after the nature faking controversy, Seton was still publishing a “rash of titles.” He and Jack London both adopted the nickname “Wolf” for the remainder of their careers. Long’s books remained popular and were used as school textbooks as late as 1957. In answer to a 1986 “Reading is Fundamental” survey, then-President Ronald Reagan named William Long’s “Northern Trails” as his all-time childhood favorite, too good for kids to miss!

According to Ralth H. Lutts in his excellent summary of this humorous controversy, “The Nature Fakers: Wildlife, Science & Sentiment” (Fulcrum, 1990), nature faking is still rampant today. He says it is nature faking that causes people to spend millions of dollars to save three dying whales trapped in Arctic ice or create movies like “The Bear” about an adult male grizzly adopting a cub.

As a matter of fact, as people become more distanced from nature, their ability to tell fact from fiction diminishes and their taste for fictionalized nature increases. Jack London’s wolves and dogs in “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” often derisively called “men in fur,” are more popular today than ever. In 1995, a national magazine published the face of Farley Mowat, author of “Never Cry Wolf,” on its cover. Mowat appears with a computer-enhanced long nose, symbolic of Pinocchio’s lying ways.

Dr. Barney Nelson is a writer, photographer and teacher. She lives in Alpine, Texas.

“I grow savager and savager every day, as if fed on raw meat!” —Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862

 “The poor reptile [rattlesnake found in his cabin] was desperately embarassed, evidently realizing that he had no right in the cabin. It was not only fear that he showed, but a good deal of downright bashfulness and embarrassment, like that of a more than half honest person caught under suspicious circumstances behind a door.” —John Muir, 1839-1914

“Beside my path in the woods a downy woodpecker, late one fall, drilled a hole in the top of a small dead black birch for his winter quarters. My attention was first called to his doings by the white chips upon the ground. Everyday as I passed I would rap upon his tree, and if he was in he would appear at his door and ask plainly enough what I wanted now.” —John Burroughs, 1837-1921

“At first he [woodcock] took soft clay in his bill from the edge of the water and seemed to be smearing it on one leg near the knee. Then he fluttered away on one foot for a short distance and seemed to be pulling tiny roots and fibers of grass, which he worked into the clay that he had already smeared on his leg. Again he took some clay and plastered it over the fibers, putting on more and more till I could plainly see the enlargement, working away with strange silent intentness for fully fifteen minutes, while I watched and wondered, scarce believing my eyes. Then he stood perfectly still for a full hour under an overhanging sod, where the eye could with difficulty find him, his only motion meanwhile being an occasional rubbing and smoothing of the clay bandage with his bill, until it hardened enough to suit him, whereupon he fluttered away from the brook and disappeared in the thick woods.” —Reverend William Long, 1867-1952

 “[The mother fox’s] only thought had been to set him free. All means she knew she tried, and every danger braved to tend him well and help him to be free. But all had failed. Like a shadow she came and in a moment was gone, and Tip seized on something dropped, and crunched and chewed with relish what she brought. But even as he ate, a knife-like pang shot through and a scream of pain escaped him. Then there was a momentary struggle and the little fox was dead. The mother’s love was strong in Vix, but a higher thought was stronger. She knew right well the poison’s power; she knew the poison bait, and would have taught him had he lived to know and shun it too. But now at last when she must choose for him a wretched prisoner’s life or sudden death, she quenched the mother in her breast and freed him by the one remaining door.” —Ernest Thompson Seton, 1860-1946

 “Full into the firelight, with a stealthy, sidelong movement, glided a doglike animal. It moved with commingled mistrust and daring, cautiously observing the men, its attention fixed on the dogs. One Ear strained the full length of the stick toward the intruder and whined with eagerness. ‘That fool One Ear don’t seem scairt much,’ Bill said in a low tone. ‘It’s a she-wolf,’ Henry whispered back, ‘an’ that accounts for Fatty an’ Frog [missing dogs]. She’s the decoy for the pack. She draws out the dog an’ then all the rest pitches in an’ eats’m up’.” —Jack London, 1876-1916

 “I aimed for one of those hideous eyes, missed far enough to clip a piece of skin from the top of his skull and to whet his appetite for my gore. My bullet seemed to give him an added impetus; for, with almost a single bound and a blood chilling screech, by the time I had put another cartridge into my single-shot rifle, he was practically on top of me. Fortunately his spring had landed him short, and in another instant I had very nearly blown his entire head off. He was a monster.” —Teddy Roosevelt, 1858-1918

Spring 2002 Contents | Git Home!

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