Friday, March 24, 2017

RIGHTFUL HERITAGE: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America By Douglas Brinkley, Harper, 744 pp, illustrated, $35

Roosevelt stops at Artists' point in Yellowstone National Park.

Biographers of presidents, in days gone by, attempted to tell their subject’s entire life, often in multivolumes. Robert Caro’s “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,’’ for example, is a superlative account in four books with a concluding fifth planned — but it is an exception to the rule. Nowadays publishers want shorter works, for shorter attention spans.

Authors, pushing back, are increasingly opting for what is called “partial biography” — a single significant volume focusing on a particular aspect, angle, or period of the subject’s life. Douglas Brinkley’s “Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America’’ belongs to this new strain — and illustrates just how potent it can be, both as biography and history. For not 999 out of 1,000 Americans, I would wager, is aware just how much we owe FDR for his crusading efforts to save and improve America’s forests, trails, parks, refuges, and natural habitats. Think 3 billion trees planted, crucial landscapes saved, from the Okefnokee Swamp to the Olympic Mountains — and more acreage conserved (118 million) than the size of California!

FDR’s four lifelong passions were ornithology, stamps, sailing — and silviculture, or tree management. Already as governor of New York he had begun to promote conservation, but it was the Great Depression that, ironically, gave him the chance to put his vision of sustainable land use into effect on a national scale.

As Brinkley makes wonderfully clear, Roosevelt was not merely the inheritor of his uncle Teddy’s passion for wilderness, hiking, and matchless vistas; he was among the first national leaders to see from the start that forestation meant water and soil stabilization, in good times and bad.

“Rightful Heritage’’ is broken into four sections: the first takes readers from FDR’s birth to his ascension to the presidency, and the other three chronicle his efforts while in office. At more than 700 pages it is a long book yet its very size reflects both how much conservation was a part of his life and the breadth of his achievements — especially given the myriad simultaneous problems he faced, nationally and internationally.

Growing up in the Hudson Valley Roosevelt had learned at an early age how to manage land; thus, when his father died while FDR was at Harvard, his mother Sara gave him responsibility for the farm and 600 acres of land around the family home in Hyde Park. It was the beginning of FDR’s lifelong obsession with trees and the importance of trees to the environment.

FDR’s greatest contribution to the preservation and management of American nature came during the New Deal: His “Tree Army,” or Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), not only planted billions of trees but built many thousands of recreational facilities, from roads to trails and cabins, and helped so many young people (over 3 million) without means get through the Depression positively.

Until you read the book it’s difficult to comprehend just how skillfully, and with what narrative brio, Brinkley manages to tell this story of one man’s single-minded odyssey, aided and abetted by men like Harold Ickes and FDR’s uncle Frederic Delano.

Perhaps he is a little quick to absolve FDR from the ecological downsides of some of his schemes. He acknowledges, for example, that, thanks to “fertilizers, industrial sludge, dredging, chemicals, and sewage” the waterways of the Deep South were, “ecologically speaking, made worse by the New Deal,” yet quickly passes on to more forestry. But Brinkley’s admiration for the leader’s devotion to the land is clearly sincere, and FDR’s story is surely a unique and hitherto neglected one, fully deserving of such a big canvas. Right up to the end, Roosevelt, despite his paralyzed lower limbs, was looking outward and onward — ultimately dreaming of global conservation policies, not just domestic, as he steered the United Nations into existence in 1945.

To me the most moving moment of “Rightful Heritage’’ comes, however, when Roosevelt flies to Tehran in late November 1943 to meet Stalin for the first time. Embroiled in a global conflict, his health compromised, the 61-year-old was, Brinkley recounts, still “appalled by the ecological abuse” he saw from the sky. “Of course,” FDR wrote the young shah, who had hosted the summit, “I do not pretend to know Iran well on account of the shortness of my visit, but may I write to you about one of the impressions I received on my air trip to Tehran? It relates to the lack of trees on the mountain slopes and the general aridity of the country which lies above the plains. All my life I have been very much interested in reforestation and the increase of water supply that goes with it.”

What a president! What a book!

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