Chapter Seven – The Nature Fakers
We don’t know everything that Theodore Roosevelt and John Burroughs discussed on their trip to Yellowstone. After all, they were on the train together for several days and then in the park for two whole weeks.
But one thing they talked about was “nature fakers.”
A month before their trip, Burroughs had had an article published in the Atlantic Monthly, a popular and important magazine, about writers who claimed to write about nature but made up foolish things about animals that simply weren’t true.
Burroughs had always admitted that he was not a scientist, but, even without having studied botany or zoology, he had learned a great deal about nature. In his writing, he tried to educate people as well as entertain them.
But now that books about nature were becoming popular, writers were doing more entertaining than educating, he said.
It was fine, Burroughs agreed, to sometimes write about animals as if they could think like people, instead of just acting on instinct. For instance, one popular writer had written about a porcupine, and how the porcupine walked through the forest without the fearful caution of other animals.
“He did not care who knew of his coming, he did not greatly care who came,” the man wrote.
The writer couldn’t possibly know what a porcupine was really thinking, or even if a porcupine thought at all, of course. But, Burroughs said, everyone understood that, and readers knew he was just describing how the porcupine walked and how it seemed to behave.
The important part was the porcupines really do walk through the forest that way, and so the story was based on facts.
Other writers, however, were just silly. He mentioned a story in which the author, who promised that all his stories were true, wrote that a fox was being chased by dogs and so went across a railway bridge just in time to get to the other side safely before the train came and killed the dogs, who were still out on the bridge.
Burroughs wrote that, even if the fox were really that clever, he would still have needed a timetable to let him know exactly when the train was coming, and a pocket watch as well. The story was ridiculous.
When the article appeared in the magazine, the writers whom Burroughs had criticized were furious.
But his friend, Theodore Roosevelt, was delighted and wrote him a letter congratulating him on it.
That was the same letter in which Roosevelt invited John Burroughs to go to Yellowstone with him.
And they talked about it there at least once. When Burroughs and Roosevelt visited the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the spring snow was still deep and they had to ski to get to a good view of the canyon.
There, they saw a place where an arch of snow and ice had been formed over the river by the wind and water. One of the guides said that coyotes had been seen using it to get across.
Roosevelt turned to Burroughs and joked that maybe one of the “nature fakers” had watched the clever coyotes build that bridge.
But Roosevelt didn’t joke about it when he published his next book, “Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter.” In the book’s introduction, he thanked and praised Burroughs for writing the article, saying “it is unpardonable for any observer of nature to write fiction and then publish it as truth, and he who exposes and wars against such action is entitled to respect and support.”
Like Burroughs, Roosevelt was serious about education, and about teaching people, particularly young people, to understand and appreciate nature. After all, that was why he used to give Burroughs’ books to poor children as gifts, hoping they would someday travel from the slums to see nature themselves.
But, if nature writers lied to them, they might not bother, he said in an interview. Once they found out the stories were not true, they would lose interest in nature.
And it wasn’t right, he said. It was no more fair to teach children that ducklings had to be taught how to swim by their mothers than it would be to teach them that North was South. Most of all, it bothered him that some schools were using the nature fakers’ books in their classrooms.
“As for the matter of giving these books to the children for the purpose of teaching them the facts of natural history – why it’s an outrage,” he told a reporter.
Both men agreed: It was fine to make up stories about animals, as long as everyone knew they were just made up. Those stories were fun.
For instance, Roosevelt wrote, Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Books” were not supposed to be true stories of how wolves and bears and panthers behave. The stories about Mowgli were made-up fun, and we could enjoy them as made-up fun. And nobody ever read “Aesop’s Fables” and thought they were supposed to be about real animals.
Those fun, fictional stories might even make children curious about real animals.
But lying is wrong, and truth matters: If people were going to learn to love nature, and grow to respect it and to want to protect it, it was important for them to learn how it really worked.
The nature fakers who made up those foolish stories, Roosevelt and Burroughs agreed, were undoing all the work of people who truly loved nature and tried to teach people about it.
Next: The People’s Country (conclusion)
Text copyright 2014, Mike Peterson; illustration copyright 2014, Christopher Baldwin
Project funded by the New York State United Teachers, New York Newspapers Foundation and the Wyoming Press Association.
Anyone interested in the corresponding curriculum guide, audio podcasts, graphic organizers and student contest, visit www.nynpa.com/nie/nieserial.html.