Teddy Roosevelt's rocks: Speak softly and carry a big history

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The recent reviews of Ken Burns’ National Parks film in The Public Historian got me thinking about the NPS site in my hometown, Oyster Bay, Long Island. Sagamore Hill was the home of Theodore Roosevelt for most of his adult life, and it was where he died in 1919. Many years later, it was also the place where I began my career in public history, as a seasonal park ranger. I often return to this site, both physically and metaphorically, when pondering issues in our field.

One of the things that I love about Sagamore Hill is the way it allows visitors to explore both history and nature—appropriate for a site that honors a person who was both president of the American Historical Association and an ardent conservationist. The focal point of the site is Roosevelt’s house, which is filled with trophies from his many hunting expeditions, a dramatic, if not universally appealing display of Roosevelt’s visceral connection to the natural environment. The farm fields, orchard, woodlands, salt marsh, and beach near the house are even more important evidence of the influence of nature on Roosevelt. (Currently, NPS is implementing a cultural landscape rehabilitation project at the site that includes restoration of the historic farm fields and orchard.) Fittingly, other Roosevelt-related sites–Mount Rushmore, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the Badlands of North Dakota, and Theodore Roosevelt Island in the Potomac River in Washington, D.C–share this trait of intertwining historical and natural landscapes.

So what does this have to do with rocks? In addition to Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay is filled with memorials to Theodore Roosevelt and the Roosevelt family. (In fact, I’m writing this post in the town’s public library, which contains a memorial to the president’s son, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who died during World War II.) As a kid, I went to Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School, visited the Theodore Roosevelt Bird Sanctuary, and played on the playground at Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park.

In that park is a curious little memorial that, although not under the purview of NPS, sums up why I think Roosevelt is the perfect link between historical and environmental narratives. It is literally Roosevelt’s story written in rocks. The rocks were collected in the early 1920s, shortly after Roosevelt’s death, from various places where significant events in his life occurred. For example, there is a granite block from Moosehead Lake, Maine where Roosevelt went as a young man to regain his health and a boulder from San Juan Hill, Cuba where his “Rough Riders” made their famous charge for American imperialism. There is also a boulder from the Adirondacks where he learned that McKinley had been shot, another from the Culebra Cut of the Panama Canal, and a piece of anthracite coal from Pennsylvania which was a gift from Gifford Pinchot (see image at top).

Although historians don’t often use rocks as artifacts to interpret history–we generally think, perhaps rightly, that furnishings, clothing, tools, and other pieces of material culture offer more compelling interpretive opportunities–these rocks are strangely captivating to me. I think it’s because I see in them a way to think about history more expansively–almost as a geologist might. They might even lead us toward an approach that some scholars have labeled “Big History.” Proponents of this type of history like to examine things on a grand scale–the really longue durée. (Check out this TED talk from David Christian where he traces the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the Internet in 18 minutes.)

As used in the memorial, the rocks are little more than relics, similar to the handfuls of dirt that people took from the old Yankee Stadium before it was demolished. Yet they represent epochs of earth’s geological history and multiple human histories as well. Thinking of them in this way requires some imagination and a willingness to think beyond their narrow association with Roosevelt and ponder much longer time spans and processes. Imagine using the San Juan Hill boulder to probe the arrival and habitation of Native peoples on the Caribbean islands, Spanish conquest, and American intervention in support of Cuban anti-colonial fighters. The natural history of the island is an essential part of any of these human histories. Similarly, picture using the piece of anthracite coal to explore the exploitation of natural resources, industrial development, the politics of energy, and labor struggles. Indeed, each one of “Teddy’s rocks” is exploding with interpretive possibilities. If given the opportunity, a good park ranger could make these connections come alive for visitors.

As we struggle on a global scale to understand the long cycles of climate change and the consequences of human use and misuse of resources, this kind of interpretive shift may be not only intriguing but essential. For me, it is Roosevelt’s history–as both conservationist and historian–that encourages thinking in this way. Speaking in Jamestown, Virginia in 1907–another appropriate location for thinking about the intersections of human and environmental histories–Roosevelt said, “The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our national life.”[1] For Roosevelt, the “environment” or “nature” did not exist separately from American society. He understood that human history and natural history are inextricably linked.

~ Will Walker

[1] H. Paul Jeffers, The Bully Pulpit: A Teddy Roosevelt Book of Quotations (Dallas: Taylor Publishing Company, 1998), 30. See also, Douglas Brinkley, Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 691-692.

* Many thanks to editor Cathy Stanton for some excellent wordsmithing on this piece.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on “Off the Wall,” the blog of the National Council on Public History from 2010 to 2012.

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