In late 1800s Minnesota, outdoor-types interested in hunting and fishing read Forest and Stream. A modest little monthly published in New York City, the magazine was chock-full of hunting stories, tips on how to hook a big one, and natural history pieces on topics from squirrels to dinosaur bones. The premier outdoor magazine, it was edited by George Bird Grinnell, a New York blue blood and Yale graduate.
Grinnell was an unlikely man for the job, save for this: As a child, he had grown up next door to John James Audubon’s widow, Lucy Bakewell Audubon, and had attended her school. She and her two grown sons had a tremendous influence over him. Upper Manhattan was partially wooded in the 1850s and Grinnell learned to hunt, fish, ride a horse and bird watch.
In John Taliaferro’s new biography, “Grinnell: America’s Environmental Pioneer and his Restless Drive to Save the West,” we learn about the boy who roamed the patch of woods that came to be known as Audubon Park and what happened next in his singular life.
After graduating from Yale, the young Grinnell followed his heart and not his father’s wishes. He became a type of Forrest Gump, witnessing the glory and fading of the West. Accompanying Yale paleontologist O.C. Marsh on a dinosaur-collecting trip one summer, he participated in the notorious “Bone Wars.” He rode with Gen. Custer and the 7th Cavalry out to the Black Hills in 1874, under the guise of expedition naturalist. He spent a summer with Capt. William Ludlow accessing America’s first national park, Yellowstone, and saw firsthand the damage being done to a supposedly protected area. He hiked in what would become Glacier National Park at a time when few features bore white men’s names. He witnessed a Thunder Pipe ceremony among the Blackfeet and developed a growing awareness of and sympathy for Native people, which later led him to record interviews and advocate for fairness and justice for the ill-treated Plains tribes.
As Grinnell matured and found his voice, Forest and Stream became his mouthpiece. Initially through adventure accounts of hunting buffalo on the Plains and extolling the wonders of geysers and mudpots, to more political pieces, such as advocating for the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and establishment of the National Bison Range in Montana, today one of the oldest national wildlife refuges.
His affinity for the open landscape of the West became an affinity for the Plains Indians, especially the Blackfeet and Cheyenne. Year after year, he spent summer vacations interviewing them, recording their stories and a way of life whose days he correctly saw were numbered. His Eastern contacts — like Theodore Roosevelt — were friends in high places, and he called upon them to craft honest agreements with the bands, so that they would prosper within the confines of reservations.
In Taliaferro’s book, and viewed through 21st-century eyes, Grinnell comes off as a flawed advocate. He considered the tribes only partially civilized, and paternalistically chided a Blackfeet elder that in hay season on the reservation, men should be working, not dancing. Still, in the era of the controversial Ghost Dance, Grinnell was a white who was supportive and appreciative. His 1897 recordings of Native songs, made with an Edison gramophone, are priceless. Grinnell’s own voice is on the recordings as he introduces the singers, and it is described as “deliberate, assured, proper.”
Emphasis on “proper.” Grinnell seems to have been a man who was tightly buttoned up. It is easy to make his acquaintance through his many and varied causes. His deep, intimate core remains essentially unknowable. Very few letters to family members — his parents and siblings — exist. In part this may be because the entire extended family lived in a compound at Audubon Park for decades. He married late at age 52; there were no children to inherit his personal correspondence, and it was not preserved.
“Grinnell” does not provide a good understanding of how an upper-crust New York boy evolved into a vocal environmental advocate, but the book has other strengths. Grinnell’s life spanning the years 1849 to 1938 is essentially the same time frame as the birth and flowering of the initial conservation movement. Beginning with Audubon’s vivid bird portraits, which brought the beauty of American birds to the public, and to which Grinnell was uniquely privy, he saw the expansion of the impulse to preserve the wonders of the continent. He knew the major players — Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot (the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service) and naturalists John Muir and John Burroughs. His pen was part of the chorus. And his legacy lives on in what they were able to save.
Author Sue Leaf lives in Center City, Minn.