Teddy Roosevelt was right - about a lot of things

I have a sign on the bulletin space above my desk that says, ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” For me especially, and those who know me well would agree, that’s a good admonition.

The quote is from Teddy Roosevelt. It’s one of many Teddy Roosevelt quotes worth remembering.

From the time I was a young man or more likely an old boy, Teddy Roosevelt has been one of my heroes. Still is, for reasons added to those I found inspirational as a 12-year-old, looking at the rough-riding figure on horseback, riding into the Dakotas to hunt elk, his trusty Winchester rifle (he always shot Winchesters, it seemed) in the saddle scabbard.

I learned that he suffered from asthma as a kid – that there were times he could scarcely breathe, and that his chronic lung condition incited the deathly fear that his labored breathing would become more difficult or even stop. He grew up as what they called sickly in his day. He didn’t – or couldn’t – participate in the activities that other kids took for granted. As another asthmatic, sickly kid, I could identify.

In his youth, or mine, we didn’t have the recent therapies to treat asthma that make life easier for millions of sufferers today. We had home remedies and what now seem like primitive medical treatments. As sickly kids, we had to tough it out.

He pushed back hard against his chronic disease, and to the extent that he could, he triumphed over it. The vision of Teddy on horseback, riding into the wilderness to go hunting, inspired me to do the same. Maybe I would never ride into the Dakotas to hunt elk, but I’d do what I could, pressing hard against my personal limitations to expand them and triumph over them, even on a scale reduced to hunting jackrabbits on foot in the desert.

In my teens I read about Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill, leading his men at the front of the charge instead of following behind and calling it leadership.

He was a hunter; whether he fly fished or not I don’t really know and kind of doubt it, but it really didn’t matter to me then – or now. It was as a hunter in the sprawling wilderness of the American west that he had the vision to set the best of it aside for future generations. He was a conservationist before the need for conservation became readily apparent to the public at large. And as with so many areas of his life and career, he led the charge.

As president of the United States he knew he had great power and great responsibility to the nation and its citizens. He used some of it to set up the National Parks System and establish the US Forest Service.

As a boy he read John Burroughs, a naturalist writer of the era who sparked the young Theodore’s already-set passion for the natural and outdoor world.

Later he would befriend another naturalist writer, John Muir, and work with him to establish Yosemite National Park. Conservationist Gifford Pinchot became the first head of the United States Forest Service, appointed by Roosevelt to guide the responsible use of our vast timberlands.

He knew that our way of life – much less our natural resources - wouldn’t last forever if not protected from greed-driven big business, in league with corrupt politicians in Washington. He foresaw our current corrupt-to-the-core morass when he wrote, “Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no …responsibility to the people. To destroy this… unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of today.”

Who are the statesmen today who would heed and approach this task? Can you name a few, offhand?

Closer to home, what would Teddy Roosevelt say of the open pit mine proposal that now threatens the West Fork of the Bitterroot and everything downstream? Here are some samples:

“Unrestrained greed means the ruin of the great woods and the drying up of the sources of the rivers.”

“The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak, so we must and we will.”

The question for us, here and now, is do we wring our hands and tell each other how awful it is, or do we take stock of what we can do, with what we have now, and get at it?


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