Hunting Trips of a Ranchman

WE owe to Margery Fleming the declaration of the profound truth that “ the history of all the malcontents as ever was hanged is amusing,” and the same may be said of all good books about hunting. The fact that this latter taste is so widely diffused is not a little suggestive, for it undoubtedly springs from the continued survival of what it is the fashion or cant of the present day to call the savage propensities of our nature. It does indeed make one shudder a little sometimes to reflect on the extremely artificial character of what is called civilization, that vague and much-bepraised entity which has been laboriously built up through centuries by adding one conventional rule to another, in much the same way as the minute insects of the Pacific construct reefs and islands in mid-ocean. Unluckily, our coral reef is not nearly as strong as that of the animaleulæ. Most persons nowadays seem to regard it as eternal as the heavens and founded on everlasting natural laws. But dash to pieces this mass of conventions, and the savage man leaps forth, with habits and tendencies unpleasantly like those of the days of Attila or Alaric. The wonder is not that our civilization is not stronger, but that it is, notwithstanding its origin and material, so very tough and enduring. Yet at best it is but a veneer, and in every vigorous man there is a lurking wildness, a leaven of the old wolfish spirit which made the Norseman’s paradise a scene of perpetual fighting. If the law permitted it, it is to be feared that a thorough-going gladiatorial show or a good bullfight would draw larger crowds in New York or Boston than any other entertainment that could be devised. We trust that this would not be so, but we should regret to see the experiment tried. In the man of slight intelligence and low education, this survival of the savage instincts and impulses, repressed, but not killed, by the forces of civilization, takes the form of simple brutality. In the higher and finer types, in the majority of people, indeed, they have been greatly modified and controlled. But the tendency exists nevertheless in every vigorous, wholesome man. The do-nothings and the æsthetes, the dandies and the dilettantes, have none of it, perhaps, but it is strong among the men who are doing the work of the world and fighting the battles of humanity. It comes out in the love of danger and excitement, and in the fondness for combat of any sort, which mark the men who are strong and manly. The same propensity shows itself in literature, by the widespread popularity of books of adventure and sport.

Yet after all, a mere dry detail of camp-life, supplemented by lists of slaughtered game, will not serve. We demand something more than this. The general public does not ask that the hunter who narrates his experiences should be a naturalist. To the average reader the scientific sportsman is rather a bore. But we do ask that he should be a lover of nature, and capable of giving us his impressions of something more than his own shots. Add to this a capacity for spirited and faithful narrative, and you have the hunter whose writings every one likes to read.

We cannot say more for Mr. Roosevelt than that he fulfills all these conditions. He gives us a great deal of information in an easy, rather desultory fashion, but, he is never tedious. He has had no adventures which are very perilous to his readers, although they probably were sufficiently so to him, but lie tells his stories in a straightforward and graphic way which makes them always interesting, and at the proper moments exciting. He is very modest about his own ability as a shot and a hunter, but the results show that he has done well. He has the true hunter’s nature, evidently, for he must have been patient, quick, and bold, to kill the game which has fallen to his rifle. He seems to the uninitiated a sufficiently good shot, but one thing is certain: a man who can hit his first grizzly squarely between the eyes at ten paces has an unusually large amount of nerve. Mr. Roosevelt has killed specimens of all the large game of the Northwestern plains, and he has also studied their habits, so that his chapters are most interesting in all ways. It is pleasant to have a closer knowledge of the nobler animals than is afforded by a bald description of their destruction. We like to know them in other situations than the death agony, and this gratification we get here. Mr. Roosevelt also brings home to us incidentally, but very forcibly, one painful fact, — the rapid disappearance of all game before the advance of civilization. Among the pioneers come a rather worthless set of men, who make a business of slaughtering by every possible method all the birds and beasts of the prairies and the mountains which have any value in their flesh or hides. The buffalo which once swept over all these vast regions in countless herds are absolutely gone. The elk is disappearing, and so in a less degree are the different varieties of deer. This annihilation of our game is most melancholy, but it has been going on from the time of the first settlement, and in a few years the work will be complete.

Mr. Roosevelt has given a peculiar charm to his book from his intense love of nature and his capacity to communicate to others his own impressions. The note of the song-birds, the melody of the lark, the call of the elk, the hoarse cry of the wolf, have all appealed to him in their different ways, and found in him a loving listener and a true interpreter. In unobtrusive fashion, also, he has succeeded in making very vivid and impressive the scenery of the land in which he has dwelt and hunted. When we close his book, the great plains in all their strange beauty seem very real to us. We see them in the grandeur of their desolation, parched and arid in summer, or frozen like iron in winter, stretching away on all sides boundless and bare. We go with him, too, among the wild fir-clad mountains, through dark ravines, and down the deep-worn water-courses. We become familiar with the buttes and ridges, broken by the weather into thousands of fantastic shapes, and boldly marked by the strong colors of the different strata of old Mother Earth. Then there are the effects of storm and sunshine, of light and shade, which give to the bold and savage scenery a new face on each succeeding day. All these details thrown in with apparent carelessness render the picture complete, and make the hunting and the adventure much more interesting than they could be in any other way.

There is, however, still another side to the book, which is after all the most important. It is a book by an American about American sport, and is thoroughly American in tone and feeling. There is no attempt to set up a foreign standard, or to ape foreign ways. It is a true product of the soil. It has, moreover, a lasting value, apart from its narrative of hunting trips, in being a faithful account of a most interesting phase of American life, and one which is in its nature evanescent. Mr. Roosevelt gives us a clear conception of the life of the cattle-raiser and cow-boy, and the work that they are doing, which in its methods and magnitude is typically American and of the widest importance as a great commercial interest. The American cattle men, who have developed the business to its present gigantic proportions, follow the trapper and Indian fighter, and precede the farmer in the great task of subjugating the wild lands of the West. They are a bold and hardy race, with their faults and virtues, but they are doing their work efficiently and well, and there is a very picturesque element in Mr. Roosevelt’s well-written account of their daily life. But they are passing away. Farms will soon cover the regions where their cattle now wander at will, and they and all pertaining to them will become things of the past. A great debt is due to Mr. Roosevelt for having preserved in such a charming manner one of the important chapters in the long history of the conquest of the American wilderness.

We have left ourselves a very insufficient space to speak of the more mechanical parts of our subject. The Hunting Trips of a Ranchman is a model of fine book-making. It is handsome in type, paper, and form, and good taste reigns throughout. The illustrations are very numerous, and form an important feature of the work. At the head stand the four etchings by Mr. Gifford, which are most striking and vigorous. Then come Mr. Beard’s drawings of the splendid heads of the large game, which are all good and of admirable workmanship. The rest of the pictures are woodcuts, all good in execution, but of varying degrees of artistic merit. Some are most spirited and clever, but a few savor a little too much of “ fancy pictures,” evolved in a New York studio. The book is almost wholly free from typographical blunders, but there is one of a most unlucky kind. It is to our thinking distinctly objectionable to call a man’s sweetheart his “ sweatheart,” as is done here on page 26.

  1. Hunting Trips of a Ranchman. Sketches of Sport on the Northern Cattle Plains. By THEODORE ROOSEVELT. Illustrated. Medora Edition. New York and London : G. P. Putnam’s Sons. The Knickerbocker Press. 1885.