History Friday: Theodore Roosevelt on Historical Recollection and “joy, just for joy’s sake”


Theodore Roosevelt, wrote many excellent books, including A BOOK-LOVER’S HOLIDAYS IN THE OPEN (1916). I have this book on the Kindle app on my phone and I read it at odd moments. Every page of it is good, with many quotable passages. I will restrict myself to one.

At one point TR describes the fauna of the pleistocene epoch, as revealed by the bones extracted from the La Brea tar pits: “All these great creatures wandered in herds to and fro across the grassy Californian plains and among the reaches of open forest. Preying upon them were certain carnivores grimmer and more terrible than any now existing.”

He then speaks of the joys of the man who in his imagination can call up vividly images of the past, and then launches into an excursus about the historical visions which are conjured to mind when visiting Aden and Gibraltar:

Surely the thought of this vast and teeming, and utterly vanished wild life, must strongly appeal to every man of knowledge and love of nature, who is gifted with the imaginative power to visualize the past and to feel the keen delight known only to those who care intensely both for thought and for action, both for the rich experience acquired by toil and adventure, and for the rich experience obtained through books recording the studies of others.
Doubtless such capacity of imaginative appreciation is of no practical help to the hunter of big game to-day, any more than the power to visualize the long-vanished past in history helps a practical politician to do his ordinary work in the present workaday world. The governor of Gibraltar or of Aden, who cares merely to do his own intensely practical work, need know nothing whatever about any history more ancient than that of the last generation. But this is not true of the traveller. It is not even true of the politician who wishes to get full enjoyment out of life without shirking its duties. He certainly must not become a mere dreamer, or believe that his dreams will help him in practical action. But joy, just for joy’s sake, has its place too, and need in no way interfere with work; and, of course, this is as true of the joy of the mind as of the joy of the body. As a man steams into the Mediterranean between the African coast and the “purple, painted headlands” of Spain, it is well for him if he can bring before his vision the galleys of the Greek and Carthaginian mercantile adventurers, and of the conquering Romans; the boats of the wolf-hearted Arabs; the long “snakes” of the Norse pirates, Odin’s darlings; the stately and gorgeous war craft of Don John, the square-sailed ships of the fighting Dutch admirals, and the lofty three-deckers of Nelson, the greatest of all the masters of the sea. Aden is like a furnace between the hot sea and the hot sand; but at the sight of the old rock cisterns, carved by forgotten hands, one realizes why on that coast of barren desolation every maritime people in turn, from the mists that shroud an immemorial antiquity to our own day of fevered materialistic civilization, has seized Aden Bay—Egyptian, Sabean, Byzantine, Turk, Persian, Portuguese, Englishman; and always, a few miles distant, in the thirsty sands, the changeless desert folk have waited until pride spent itself and failed, and the new power passed, as each old power had passed, and then the merciless men of the waste once more claimed their own.
Gibraltar and Aden cannot mean to the unimaginative what they mean to the men of vision, to the men stirred by the hero tales of the past, by the dim records of half-forgotten peoples. These men may or may not do their work as well as others, but their gifts count in the joy of living. Enjoyment the same in kind comes to the man who can clothe with flesh the dry bones of bygone ages, and can see before his eyes the great beasts, hunters and hunted, the beasts so long dead, which thronged the Californian land at a time when in all its physical features it had already become essentially what it still continues to be.

The sentence beginning “As a man steams into the Mediterranean …” is nothing less than magnificent.

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 6.50.14 PM




The frontispiece of the book is this painting:


The caption says: “From a painting by Theodore B. Pitman in possession of Colonel Roosevelt. On the brink of the Grand Canyon.” TR provides a few further words about the painting in the book: “The frontispiece I owe to the courtesy of Mr. Theodore Pitman, a fellow Harvard student of Archie’s, whom we met on Buckskin Mountain; being both a hunter and a lover of the picturesque, he was as much impressed as we were by the scene when a cougar stood in a pine, with the Grand Canyon as a background.”

If you would like to know more about this scene, the first chapter of the book is called A COUGAR HUNT ON THE RIM OF THE GRAND CANYON, and it tells the story.

13 thoughts on “History Friday: Theodore Roosevelt on Historical Recollection and “joy, just for joy’s sake””

  1. I know more about cougars than I care to admit and would actually call myself an expert of sorts. They are fascinating animals. That hunting method depicted in the painting is exactly the same as they use today when a nuisance cougar is harassing locals/eating their pets. You have to find the cougars “circle” or route that it travels and time it, then be there at that time to intercept with dogs. The cougar gets treed, then you shoot it. Today they tranq, collar (for tracking) and move them sometimes. This is fine for research, but upsets the male who already has that territory. Nothing is perfect but better then that cougar eating fifi. However, people are stupid and feed the cougars, but I am starting to veer into a screed so I will stop.

  2. The cougars around here in southern California are into eating people. We have had a few instances recently. They especially like children.

    They are also willing attack more than one adult a day.

    Hjelle was bicycling along a wilderness trail when a mountain lion sprang from the brush, pounced on her back and dragged her off by the head as fellow bikers threw rocks at the animal and tried to pull her away.

    The animal finally ran off, leaving Hjelle — a former Marine who works as a fitness instructor — bloody and near death.

    Her husband is an oral surgeon here and he came to the hospital to see her just before she went to surgery for her injuries. When he saw her, he fainted.

  3. We had a cougar roaming around a neighborhood a few years back that the CPD shot. There have been others spotted in the north and NW burbs. After that first shooting, all the Unibomber-wannabes came out of the woodwork and threatened to go all Earth First on Chicago.

    It seems the loons come around every now and then to project their fantasies on the Midwest. This week it was the dreaded Black Sites of the West Side Gulag Archipelago.

  4. That cougar actually walked all the way from South Dakota, through Minnesota and Wisconsin to get to Chicago. They are amazing animals. I doubt the credibility of the other sightings. I keep a pretty close eye on cougar activity in Wisconsin and I haven’t seen any reports of them in the southern half of Wisconsin in a very long time. That is pretty much the only way they can get to Chicago.

  5. You’re probably right. I drive through a forest preserve on the way to work, and I’ve seen coyotes running around. They seem to be hanging around in more and more abundant numbers. It wouldn’t take much to mistake them for cougars in the dim evening light. We’re also seeing more foxes around which apparently can get pretty aggressive with small pets.

  6. Yep, nothing any further south than Lincoln county for 2014:
    Not saying that it couldn’t happen, but extremely unlikely for no sightings any further south than that and to have one pop up in the Chicago area.

    Up here in rural Wisco, the coyote and fox population is also booming, however in the sticks where I live, there is unlimited season on them as they are treated as pests (and rightly so) so I don’t think there will be a major problem around farms since the farmers will just shoot them (like I have done). However, in the city of Madison, you can’t legally discharge a gun so I can see there being an issue there eventually, as well as in other cities. The worst problem as I mentioned with cougars is that people feed the “cute” animals and then wonder why they are seeing the family cats and dogs disappear.

  7. Holy crap, that’s why I follow this page. Accountants in Maximum Security, Cougars in the Chicago suburbs! No cougar sightings here in metro Atlanta fortunately…that I know of, but Coyotes, indeed. Saw one in a park a while back, and heard them cackling a week ago or so, real close by. Unfortunately, I can’t open up with the .308 in the subdivision, (folks be thinkin’ they back in Queens) and worry that the bastards are so close. I can imagine anyone “feeding” a cougar, though. On second thought, yeah I guess I can: http://www.foxnews.com/story/2003/10/05/man-houses-tiger-alligator-in-harlem-apartment/

  8. A friend of mine, an orthopedic surgeon, lives to the east of my home in a development that borders on the National Forest. He used to jog on a fire road that bordered the community. One morning about 6 AM, he saw a mountain lion sitting behind him watching. He jogged closer to home after that.

  9. A cougar here got killed by a pickup when crossing the street downtown. I expect there are more in the hills, moose and other large animals are returning. A hundred years ago people grazed sheep in the mountains and bear and other predators were killed off. The sheep are gone and, like many parts of rural America, areas far from town have become depopulated.

  10. There are loonies who want eventually to reintroduce wolves and bears to Britain. Their present bright idea is to start with the lynx. The european lynx is rather bigger than yours but, even so, I don’t suppose it’ll kill many sheep; or children.

  11. Here in S Fla (or SW Fla in my case) there are state supported efforts to help the cougar survive. To get home I drive about a mile of highway that has high chain-link fence on both sides of the road put there in an effort to keep the animal from being run down. Apparently, according to TV ad spots, a lot of the big cats have been run over recently; probably a good sign for those interested in re-introducing them.

  12. California was home to many cougars and then the state banned hunting them. I remember in 1960, when my wife’s parents lived in the mountains in a high priced area called Bel Aire. I hiked down the hill from their house one time and found the carcass of a deer that a cat had killed and partly eaten. There were cougar sightings all the time. That was before the ban.

    Now, they are all over. Coyotes are also plentiful but they adapt very well to living with man. People who put out dog food are partly at fault but pet cats are another good food source for them. I would see small packs of four to six when I walked my dog early in the morning. He is 85 pounds but I know people who have had small dogs and cats snatched from around their feet.

    The golf course I used to play in San Clemente had bobcats. Also lots of rattlesnakes. They do keep down the rates so I don’t mind them as long as I see them first,.

  13. “As a man steams into the Mediterranean …”

    That is great.
    I was thinking about something after the beheadings in Libya. The one idea that immediately came mind was Carthago delenda est.

    I wonder if TR would agree?

Comments are closed.