The French novelist Gustave Flaubert, who seems like he’d know about these things, wrote that there are only three things in the world that are infinite: “the sky in its stars, the sea in its drops of water, and the heart in its tears.”
Life of the party, that Flaubert. But he was onto something: grief and sorrow often come hand-in-hand with a fresh view of the world around us as we search for explanation in the natural world. It’s why the Romantic poets, sad dudes in Europe like William Wordsworth and John Keats, wrote a lot of bummed-out nature poetry; it’s why the Transcendentalist poets, sad dudes in America like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, went into the woods and described it, at length. It’s why that dadgum Where the Red Fern Grows leaves you casually sobbing for hours — the combination of love, death, doggos and the earth.
So it is no surprise that two key environmental institutions in America were created in the wake of immense pain.
Teddy Roosevelt was just 22 when he got engaged to his wife Alice, on Valentine’s Day 1880. The young couple married that fall, and T.R. was #lovingit. In his journal, he wrote: “I am living in a dream of delight with my darling, my true-love.”
But just four years later, the future President found himself in a tumultuous moment. Alice had given birth to a daughter, the Roosevelt’s first child, on February 12, 1884. Joy! But the birth had revealed Alice’s kidney failure and her situation rapidly deteriorated. Alice died two days later, on Valentine’s Day, the anniversary of their engagement. The real kicker is that Roosevelt’s mother, who had been living with them, also died that morning, due to typhoid fever.
Roosevelt, understandably, was distraught. He was 25, an orphan, a widower, and a brand-new father, and he could not handle it. He threw himself into his work, and never spoke about his late wife to anyone, ripping entries about her from his diary and burning them, save for one:
After he gave all he could to the Republican Party’s efforts in the 1884 election, Roosevelt headed West. Out on the frontier, where mere survival was a challenge, he could forget his grief and focus on the environmental wonders that lay at his feet. He got all hopped up on nature and cattle and wildlife, writing for magazines and publishing three books about hunting and living in the wilderness.
Luckily for us, he also got all hopped up on conservation efforts. He was a hunter, but he was worried about threats to bison and elk populations, and the health of the ecosystem. He wrote:
We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.
When he became president in 1901, he established the U.S. Forest Service and declared over 230 million acres as “public lands,” to be protected and conserved, including 150 million acres of forest. He also created 23 National Parks and a Federal Bird Reserve, the legacy of which is still around today. When Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service into existence in 1916, there was already an established set of lands to protect and a precedent for government oversight through the Department of the Interior.
Roosevelt had a special desire to protect Arizona’s Grand Canyon:
I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. I hope you will not have a building of any kind…to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.
Even before Roosevelt became president, Benton McKaye was a young man following in many of T.R.’s footsteps. Though born into drastically different circumstances, McKaye found himself having similar thoughts about conservation:
Why is it that the beauty of nature must be spoiled by Man? Man, though the highest of beings, is, in one [sense], the lowest, never contented until he has spoiled all the beauty of nature in his power by cutting down vegetation, killing animals, and even cutting down hills when he has the power to do so …
While Roosevelt had been born into wealth and political power, McKaye grew up in poverty as his father’s failed business ventures moved McKaye and his six siblings all over New England. And yet, their lives intersected: McKaye was living in Cambridge around the time Roosevelt attended Harvard, and indeed McKaye followed Roosevelt to Harvard, graduating 20 years after him. McKaye spent some time working for the U.S. Forest Service, which Roosevelt had created. The year 1912 found McKaye in Washington D.C., leading a group of environmental activists he called the “Hell Raisers,” shortly after Roosevelt had launched the Progressive Party and lost the election to Wilson. All of these parallels of places and interests, and yet, the tie that binds these two men most is membership in a club no one wants to belong to: McKaye, like Roosevelt, became a widower in the prime of his life.
McKaye had met the women’s rights activist Jessie Stubbs in Washington, and the couple married in 1915 while pursuing their causes: her, women’s suffrage, he, conservation. She had organized a hike from Washington to Albany, New York, marching for the right to vote for women.
But in April 1921, Jessie took her own life, jumping into the East River.
McKaye was ruined. He could barely identify the body. He completely shut down. Like Roosevelt, he coped by erasing her from his life, rarely mentioning to anyone that he was ever married at all.
And, like Roosevelt, he threw himself into his work. He had kicked around the idea of a hiking trail going up the entire eastern part of the country, to promote conservation and environmental appreciation, and to improve development and opportunities for Appalachia.
The memos that he wrote outlined a plan for what would ultimately become the Appalachian Trail, a feat of regional planning that incorporated wins for environmentalists, the tourism industry, local businesses, and the communities along the trail. He published this in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, and the New York Post wrote about it with a full-banner headline: “A Great Trail from Maine to Georgia!” It was opened in 1923 but took about 10 subsequent years to fully complete the planning and mapping.
From overwhelming grief, to commune with nature and create a lasting legacy – McKaye had much in common with Roosevelt, though their success was rooted in sorrow and loss. They took their sadness to the great outdoors, and made them greater.
Today, the U.S. Forest Service administers over 154 national forests. The National Park Service manages 59 parks and nearly 400 other sites. The Appalachian Trail runs for over 2,000 miles, through 14 states, 6 national parks and eight national forests. And, as luck would have it, all three Sistorians currently live along it: Caroline, near the top in New Hampshire, Eleanor in Pennsylvania and Corinne at the bottom in Georgia.