Presidential Natural History and Exploration

Can you imagine reading the following headline in The New York Times?

“Former President Bush near death after exploring unknown Brazilian river”

No?  Sounds beyond absurd right?  Well, in 1914, it would have described Former President Theodore Roosevelt nearly perfectly.

For the past few weeks I’ve been listening to the audio version of the book, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard.  The book describes the journey of Roosevelt in 1913 down the totally unknown and unmapped River of Doubt, now the Rio Roosevelt, in South America The book is a fascinating portrayal of a former President who lived life large and advocated a life of hard work, particularly in the outdoors.

After losing the 1912 presidential election as a third party candidate, Roosevelt was shunned by his former friends and colleagues.  By running as a third party candidate, he divided the support of his own party, thereby guaranteeing victory for Woodrow Wilson.  Roosevelt, as during previous periods of difficulty in his life, sought a period of adventure and exploration and found it in an expedition to the Amazon on the heels of a South American speaking tour.  His original plans called for a sightseeing tour of several of the major tributaries of the Amazon River, a journey that, while not mundane by any means, didn’t provide the adventure that the former President sought.

Upon his arrival in Brazil, on an offhand suggestion by one of his hosts, Roosevelt chose to change his plans and explore the Rio da Duvida, the River of Doubt.  This Amazon tributary had been discovered during an expedition to lay telegraph cable throughout the Amazon basin, but that expedition did not have the time or resources to explore and map the region at that time.  Roosevelt, accompanied by the head of Brazil’s Telegraph Communications, Colonel Rondon, the man who first discovered the river, spent the following months traveling down the river.

I won’t ruin the book, as it is an excellent read, but I’ll just say that things didn’t go too well, many people died, and Roosevelt and his son Kermit both emerged from the River near death.  Millard spins a suspenseful, page-turner (or non-stop listener!) complete with vivid descriptions, insight into the personal relationships of the expedition, and tidbits of Amazonian natural history.

This book highlighted not only Roosevelt’s passion for “the strenuous life” but his fascination with natural history and his contribution to science both through this expedition as well as previous trips.  This expedition, sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History, was a journey of exploration but also of collecting.  Ornithologist George Cherrie joined the expedition and despite the hardships of travel, returned with about 3,000 skins of birds and other animals for the museums collections.  Roosevelt contributed numerous specimens from his home at Oyster Bay as well as his previous African safari.

Cherrie recorded in his journal that Roosevelt was always asking about the life histories and habits of the birds and animals they encountered during their journey.  Roosevelt wanted to know everything: what birds ate, where they nested, how they attracted mates, what were their predators, etc.  Roosevelt wanted to know the story of each and every animal that they saw.

It is this curiosity, paired with careful observation, that creates a naturalist.  As wildlife photographers, we have to dig deep into this curiosity and wonder to take our photographs beyond simply pretty postcard to dynamic images that tell a story.  It’s up to us to observe the natural world carefully and find that moment, or series of moments, that tell a story about our subjects.  Through a better understanding of natural history, an intense curiosity, and careful observation we can improve our photography and the images we create.

What are you thinking when you are in the field?  How do you approach your subjects?  Leave your comments below and check out the link to The River of Doubt.

The River of Doubt

The River of Doubt

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  1. Sounds like a really good book. As for your questions, when I’m “in the field” I’m just delighting in my surroundings, mainly. I may look for points of interest highlighted in sunny spots, interesting textures or plant configurations. I listen keenly for signs of animal life. Most of my subjects seem to present themselves to me, rather than the other way around.

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