Wednesday, February 1, 2017

VA: Theodore Roosevelt Island and Words of a Great President

TR, twenty feet tall.

It's been calculated that Teddy Roosevelt conserved, on average, 84,000 acres per day while serving as U.S. president from 1901 through 1908. It seemed kind of strange then, at least to me, that this small island in the middle of the Potomac River in the heart of Washington, D.C. with a two mile circular loop trail around a few hundred acres is the best that we could do to honor him. It was a cold, miserable day to hike. I had a bad cold and was miserable but needed the hike. So maybe my disappointment at the start was me feeling low. The rest of me was tired from having tried (and failed) to follow and understand the first chaotic week of an inexperienced and bombastic new president. We're in for a long few years, I worried as I began my walk around the island.

Along the Virginia side of the Potomac River, park at the small, free lot on the George Washington Parkway.

The grayness of the morning played against the muted tones of winter. The river moved swiftly around the upstream point of the island as the trail threaded through a jumble of sharp gneiss boulders. A great blue heron rested in a copse of trees cut from the island by cross-currents. A north wind bore down on the point of the island forcing ducks and geese to shelter behind exposed roots. I was shivering from the inside out with a low grade fever. Press on. That's what Teddy would've done!

Clean and sharp - gneiss outcrop marks the Fall Line.

A moment in gray - Great Blue Heron.

The island reads like a book of American history. Archeological evidence shows the island occupied by Native Peoples who fished and encamped here up until the 1600s. Planters and farmers eventually laid claim to the rich soils and built their homes here. John Mason, son of the Virginia Bill of Rights author George Mason, turned the island into a plantation where enslaved people managed crops, manicured gardens, and a Revival-style mansion house - all gone. During the Civil War the island was appropriated by the Union Army and quartered the 1st United Stated Colored Troops, freemen and escaped slaves who served the northern cause. The cold mist of the morning made it easy to imagine ghosts and long-ago conversations mingled with sounds of the river caressing rocks and roots.

Trail running race thundered across the swamp boardwalk.

Crayfish chimney.

Like many of the river islands I explore closer to home on the Susquehanna, Teddy Roosevelt Island is cut across by the Fall Line that marks the division between the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain on the Potomac. The perimeter trail weaves through an impressive ledge of schist that drives into the river in one direction and climbs into the woods of the island in the other. Everything below this ledge is composed of soft river sediments and swampy ground. It made me giggle to think of the President dragging his many visitors and staff out to the river for his famous nature hikes through swamps and creek ravines. Near here is where Teddy took his customary mile out-and-back swim in the river each morning - in any weather and season. I looked over at the bustling Washington City with its traffic and Capitol buildings while a red-bellied woodpecker chattered and hammered away overhead, raining bits of bark and debris down on my head. 

Cypress and "knees" - adapted root structures.
Waterfowl sheltering in the swamp.

While Teddy is best known as our first conservation president, I've always been interested in what he did after he served in office. Sometimes what former presidents do in "retirement" speaks more to their character than while in service, their lives unclouded by political storm. He never slowed down, and this is no surprise. A life-long naturalist and outdoorsman, he traveled (and almost died) while exploring the mysterious River of Doubt in South America. He hunted in Africa and botanized on the savannas.  He wrote scores of papers on ornithology, natural history, and political science. He remained the people's president and became quite a thorn in the side of Woodrow Wilson who was determined to keep the U.S. neutral during WWI. He was a Progressive through-and-through and, run out of the Republican Party, and served as a candidate for the Bull Moose Party to give Wilson a run for his money. The idea of moose seemed possible to me as the trail moved into the swampy interior of the island. Though evidence of Alces alces americana have never been found in Northern Virginia, there is evidence that shows Paleoindians hunted caribou, moose, elk, and mastodon in other parts of the state at a time when high mountain tundra and cold grasslands were common.

A back swamp basin of the island interior.

Foraging flocks of robins noisily worked their way along the boardwalk.

My cold was dragging me down so I slowed my pace and loitered on the long boardwalk that cut through the swamp. An early morning trail race thundered by - it wasn't even 8am yet! I pulled another fleece out of my backpack and pulled it over my other two layers. I sat and watched a sharp-shinned hawk harass a flock of robins. Gold finches whispered by. A pileated woodpecker went to serious work on the base of a gum tree. Another group of runners bounded past and scared the big woodpecker away. Teddy would have loved observing this amount of early morning physical activity among people of all ages competing in the cold!

Pileated woodpecker work.

I took a side path to the center height of the island where Teddy, twenty feet tall in bronze, is giving one of his inspirational oratories. I sat a long while on a cold stone bench and read some of Teddy's letters to the Kansas City Star, a popular paper with whom he had landed a nice post-presidential writing gig. He had been hard at President Wilson's heels, angry to the point of distraction that America stood by while her allies in France, Belgium, and the UK fought desperately to push back German aggressors. Our country was unprepared for war, either to defend our own shores or to assist friends in need. By the time the U.S. entered the war near its end in 1917, Teddy was ready to lead a battalion into battle (but Wilson's Secretary of War refused him the opportunity). All four of Teddy's sons joined American Forces and one, Quentin, made the ultimate sacrifice in an air battle over France. The loss of his son, said many family friends and admirers, aged Roosevelt by twenty years. Gone was his vitality and youthful enthusiasm for adventure and determined sense of civic service. I tucked the book back into my backpack and walked slowly around the memorial, reading carefully each of the tall stone blocks inscribed with iconic quotes.




The State.

I thought as I walked that it might behoove our present administration and newly appointed officials to make a similar pilgrimage through this island memorial and take in, carefully and thoughtfully, the words of TR. I'll leave these words here, too, from the letters I was reading on that cold stone bench...

The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.  

- TR, Kansas City Star, May 18, 1918


My reading for the day is from the excellent book Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War by J. Lee Thompson (2013). There are a few interpretive signs scattered around the island to learn about its history, but birding here is excellent. Bring binocs and a guidebook!

1 comment:

  1. I just stumbled upon this page and really enjoyed reading your review of TRI. I'm part of local nonprofit, Friends of Theodore Roosevelt Island, that is working hard to improve the island, in part by fighting the many invasive plant species you probably noticed throughout your walk. Stories of positive visitor experiences like yours keep us motivated so thanks for sharing!