A celebration of a significant 19th-century environmental activist.
Hatch (The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer: The True Story of the Battle of Little Bighorn, 2015, etc.) offers a thorough, but undistinguished, biography of George Bird Grinnell (1849-1938), known by his contemporaries as “The Father of American Conservation.” The author asserts that Grinnell “has not enjoyed the acclaim of other early conservationists,” but he was the subject of a fine, recently published biography, John Taliaferro’s Grinnell: America’s Environmental Pioneer and His Drive To Save the West, (2019) which covers essentially the same ground as Hatch’s more concise book. Both authors chronicle Grinnell’s evolution from Wall Street financier to eminent naturalist, his advocacy for Native Americans, his friendship with Theodore Roosevelt and others concerned about the environment, his editorship of Field and Stream, his founding of the Audubon Society, his prolific publications, and his many expeditions into “the untamed wilderness.” Neither author is able to offer intimate details about Grinnell’s personal life: for example, his sudden decision, at the age of 53, to marry a “young Boston widow,” 24-year-old Elizabeth Curtis Williams. Hatch emphasizes Grinnell’s “continuing growth as an advocate” for Native Americans, whom he considered “downtrodden” victims of governmental fraud. In Grinnell, writes the author, Native Americans “encountered not merely a sympathetic ear but a man who truly desired to tell an accurate story and offer a vivid yet unembellished portrayal” of tribal culture. Hatch boasts that his biography is “not only timely but has a chance to make a substantial difference” by alerting readers that natural resources “are under siege.” In the final chapter, he exhorts readers to preserve Grinnell’s legacy, to trust in the “wonders of science to develop a solution to climate change,” and to ensure that “civilization, commercialization, and conservation” can flourish together. The concerned public may “have more influence than we may think,” Hatch writes, “but it must be used wisely and properly.”
A middling biography that serves as a useful reminder of an exemplary champion for the Earth.