Without a doubt, the United States is a better place because of George Bird Grinnell. Born into moderate wealth and raised in a still-rural oasis of Upper Manhattan, educated by implied entitlement at Yale, he could have moved into a predestined groove among the privileged and powerful of the Gilded Age. But Grinnell took up the cause of all that a hyper-expanding America was destroying: native people, untrammeled land, birds and bison and big bears.
We have the vigorous avian lobby of the Audubon Society, some of the world’s most iconic national parks and several encyclopedic studies of Native Americans largely because of Grinnell. And yet, he remains overlooked among the founders of American conservation. In John Taliaferro’s book, we finally have an exhaustively detailed biography of an inexhaustible man who deserves his place in the pantheon of environmental founders.To the modern mind, Grinnell can seem an old-boy WASP throwback. But it’s best to judge the man by the standards of his day, not ours. Born a dozen years before the start of the Civil War, he lived through nine decades and died just before the onset of World War II. He was among a handful of giants who experienced and helped to shape so much of the young nation’s history, seeing airplanes fly over the empty plains where he’d once hunted bison with the Pawnee.His contemporaries and friends included Theodore Roosevelt, the forester Gifford Pinchot, the photographer Edward Curtis and leaders of the Blackfeet and Cheyenne. He just missed being among the casualties of the last ill-fated campaign of George Armstrong Custer at the Little Bighorn in 1876, after accompanying Custer on an expedition to the Black Hills two years earlier.Grinnell is a lost breed — the Ivy League-educated gentleman sportsman, equally at home in the clubby air of New York’s finest interiors as he was scrambling over glaciers in Montana. To his credit, he was more interested in protecting indigenous American wonders than in bringing home trophies.Grinnell grew up on the former estate of John James Audubon, in what is now the neighborhood of Washington Heights. Though the great American Birdman had died in 1851, two years after Grinnell’s birth, his widow, Lucy Audubon, became a teacher of sorts to the boy who roamed the forested New York precinct. After he brought her a captive red crossbill, Grandma Audubon, as she was often known, set the bird free. He got his first pony at 10 and his first gun at 12.Following the blue-blooded imperatives of his businessman father, he graduated from Yale College in 1870, and added a Ph.D. from the same school 10 years later, with a doctorate in the study of bones. Grinnell’s introduction to a West he would champion for more than half a century was a Yale fossil-finding expedition under the tutelage of the paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh, one of the first curators of the Peabody Museum.“I believed that now I was on the frontier,” Grinnell wrote in 1870, outside Omaha, the kind of exclamation you would expect from an insular member of Yale’s Scroll and Key Club upon a first trip “Out West.” They dug up a great many bones on the Plains, including those from native people’s sacred burial grounds. The person who would become best known as a great friend of American Indians got his start as an Indian grave robber.On a bison hunt with the Pawnee in 1872, Grinnell was lucky enough to see a world that would soon be gone. It stayed with him for the rest of his life. The Indians hunting these beasts, stripped to near-nakedness, using bows and arrows to kill, thrilled him. “Armed with these ancestral weapons, they had become once more the simple children of the plains,” he wrote. “Here was barbarism pure and simple. Here was nature.”Custer showed him a different view of that “nature,” on an excursion into land in the northern Plains that had been promised to the Sioux by treaty. Grinnell served as naturalist for that expedition in 1874, an apparent breach of sovereignty that led to a gold rush, and eventual loss of land that the Sioux considered “the heart of everything that is.” Of Custer, killed two years later at the Little Bighorn, Grinnell would write that he “knew nothing about Indians and was anyhow a harum-scarum fellow.”Grinnell’s own knowledge of three tribes of the Plains — the Pawnee, the Blackfeet and the Cheyenne — would expand with every summer he spent out West. As an author, he was considered the premier ethnologist of these people. But his tone would have made his subjects wince. While advocating for the people of Indian country, while learning their languages, customs and religious ways, and explaining it to the rest of the world, he still sounded like a cultural interloper from Manhattan.He wrote that Indians had “the stature of a man with the experience and reasoning powers of a child.” This sentiment was common among even the most progressive voices of the time. But when considering the alternative — the plunderers, robber barons and overt racists who tried to wipe the native imprint from the land — Grinnell was ahead of his time. “The story of our government’s intercourse with this race is an unbroken narrative of injustice, fraud and robbery,” he wrote in 1892.Taliaferro, an author of five previous books, does a good job defending his subject on this count, noting how Grinnell’s attitude evolved from the romantic to the pragmatic. “The tendency is to lump men of his generation and class in one foul ball of bigotry,” he writes.With his other great lifework, on behalf of the natural world, Grinnell accomplished much. As the longtime editor of Forest and Stream, he went after poachers, pushed politicians to protect the habitat of the creatures his readers loved to hunt, and tried to shame his fellow citizens for what they were doing in the name of civilization. He was largely responsible for the creation of Glacier National Park. And a glacier in those American Alps still bears his name, though it’s shrinking rapidly under the duress of climate change. (Grinnell College, in Iowa, is not connected with him or his immediate family.)In giving Grinnell his due, Taliaferro, a former senior editor at Newsweek, could have put his manuscript on a diet. There is far too much detail about peripheral matters that do little to enhance the character or his passions. The story often lacks momentum. He is coy — annoyingly so — about whether Grinnell, who married late in life, might have been gay. There’s much hinting of “Brokeback Mountain” intimacy in the great outdoors among manly men of means.It hurts me as a Westerner to say that Easterners like Grinnell were better stewards of the big land on the sunset side of the continent than many who lived there. Grinnell helped to block a plan by knuckleheads in Idaho to build a dam in Yellowstone National Park. And his fighting words kept the timber, mining and grazing interests from getting total control over our public lands. Grinnell’s memory lives on in the wild. And with this book, he is given the fresh look that he deserves.Continue reading the main story