A biography of a 19th-century naturalist who worked tirelessly on behalf of America’s wilderness and Native American rights.
Beginning in 1870, with his first trip west, George Bird Grinnell (1849-1938) evolved into one of the most prominent conservationists in America, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and many native tribal leaders. He campaigned to establish national parks, the Audubon Society, and the New York Zoological Society; edited the long-running journal Forest and Stream; founded the Boone and Crockett Club, whose mission it was to preserve large game; and published many ethnographies of Plains tribes. Drawing on 40,000 pages of correspondence, 50 diaries and notebooks, and an unfinished autobiography, Taliaferro (All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt, 2013, etc.) thoroughly—and with due admiration—documents the life of “a man of worthy causes.” He acknowledges, however, the limitations of his sources: “Possibly Grinnell was simply too busy and proper to indulge in self-reflection. Or was there something he wanted to avoid reflecting upon?” Although the author hints at “secrets,” he reveals little about Grinnell’s intimate relationships with friends and family, including his wife, whom he suddenly married in 1902. A photographer, she energetically accompanied him on his trips west, where he exulted in freedom from the commercial world of New York and experienced the “magnificent drama” of events such as the Pawnee buffalo hunt: “the most momentous, the most defining experience” of Grinnell’s life. “There is something rather horrible in the wild and savage excitement that one feels under such circumstances,” he said of another hunt. Taliaferro portrays Grinnell evenhandedly as a man of his time: Seeing the oppression suffered by Native Americans, Grinnell urged recognition that they “are humans like ourselves”; still, he “hewed to the prevailing anthropological wisdom that Indians were only midway up the ladder from savagery to civilization.” Grinnell’s life, Taliaferro aptly concludes, “was a study in romanticism, evolution, and progressivism.”
A fine biography of a significant environmental champion.