Danny Heitman: TR knew the value of nature

Last month, when my 12-year-old son and I joined some other fathers and sons for a weekend of camping near Abbeville, I packed as I usually do, stashing binoculars and a bird guide in my overnight bag in case I wanted to scout the woods for wildlife.

The birding gear remained untouched for the rest of the trip, ignored while I pursued my other favorite outdoor pastime, doing nothing.

While camping, it’s sometimes enough to forgo exploring nature in favor of simply inhabiting it. We ate cheeseburgers grilled on a camp stove, sipped coffee under the shade of oaks, and listened to the whirr of water as it funneled through the small weir of a bayou bordering Lake Lafleur. Our accommodations came courtesy of Palmetto Island State Park, which gets its name from the huge, fan-shaped palms that rise up from the landscape like stop signs, a constant reminder to pause and enjoy the view.

Pausing isn’t what boys do best, so we let the kids exhaust themselves on canoe rides, many of which involved involuntary dips in the lake when the novice boatmen tipped over. The boys ended their day muddy and rank, but happier, maybe, than they would have been if they’d stayed home and played video games instead.

Back at camp, flipping through a magazine as dusk settled over our makeshift village of tents, I came across my favorite picture of Teddy Roosevelt. In the 1905 photograph, the president sits in a folding chair near the entrance of a homely cabin. One hand holds a book, and the other rests on a dachshund that’s settled into Roosevelt’s lap. TR seems a happy camper.

The picture perfectly summarizes Roosevelt’s view that a proper education should involve not only traditional literacy, but ecological literacy, too.

Roosevelt’s been on my mind a lot because I’m deep within the pages of “The Bully Pulpit,” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book about TR and his successor, William Howard Taft.

Goodwin recalls Roosevelt’s 1903 trip to Yellowstone, where, in a decision that would have been unthinkable for a sitting president today, TR planned to spend two weeks among the birds, elk, antelope and black-tailed deer.

Such interludes strengthened Roosevelt’s conviction that government should set aside some undeveloped land for the benefit of future generations.

“Leave it as it is,” Roosevelt said of the Grand Canyon. “The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

Roosevelt’s belief that the best of nature should be held as a public trust would, over time, gain broad support among leaders of all political stripes.

Maybe, as the country tries to bridge its partisan divide, we can once again find some unity around this simple idea: Sometimes, we find our most civilized selves in the wild places that remain.