Monday, September 28, 2009

Thanks Ken Burns and Douglas Brinkley.

As I spend my first nights of fall with the Ken Burns series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” I read the last pages of my late summer companion, Douglas Brinkley’s “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.” Both works culminate for me a season of life during which I have become quite clear that portraying TR is the right thing for me to do.

When I was a little boy of seven or eight, I discovered that adventure was open to me not only along the wooded banks of Salt Creek but also in books, in stories of heroic lives and in the pages of the volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica that mom brought home from the Jewel Tea.

A love of books and history is a cornerstone of what I do. TR is quoted as saying, “The only thing I like more than books is children.” As a child and an adult, TR was a voracious reader. He wrote some thirty books, hundreds of articles and several histories, including “The Winning of the West” in four parts. After his political aspirations were thwarted in 1912, TR was elected the president of the American Historical Association.

Not only does portraying TR happily require me to read all sorts of history, it leads me to explorations of literature and scientific texts which TR would have raced through in a day’s reading. I can only say that this part of the job is great fun and Brinkley’s book has been one more brilliant work in a long list of book borne adventures.

Now, just as adventure for me as a small boy was to be found within forest and stream, my adventures as TR have taken me to the tops of Mt. Marcy and Katahdin and to the marshes of Mississippi and the mangroves of Florida. As a family, we have adventured from the snow capped mountains and the tropical forest of Washington’s Olympic National Park to the brim of the Grand Canyon and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Trees in Yosemite. I have seen more of this great, big, beautiful country in the three years since becoming TR than in the previous forty years of my well travelled life, and this time I’m taking time to hike and swim and camp and climb. After years of political and public policy work, mostly at a computer behind a desk, the vigorous life on the road has been an elixir.

On issues of conservation, citizenship, duty, preparedness, morality and more, Theodore Roosevelt, eventually Chief Scout Citizen, embodied the Scout Law and Scout Oath before the Boy Scouts even existed. As we celebrate the centennial of the Boy Scouts of America and countless other beneficent and service organizations, I think TR has much to offer modern America in the manner of pointing the right way.

Whether as a public servant or a policy advocate, I always wanted to live a life that made a difference. Bringing TR to life may be just one way that, in the words of the Scouts, I can leave my campground cleaner than I found it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On Being Theodore Roosevelt for Modern Audiences

In November, the National Association for Interpretation (NAI), the nation’s premier organization networking, training and certifying volunteers and professionals in the oral presentation of information for parks, museums, historic sites and more, has invited me to present at their convention in Hartford, Connecticut. The presentation allows me, really for the first time, to blend in some TR performance with a telling of the story of the 2008 TR Tour, my family’s fifty state journey in honor of Theodore Roosevelt’s 150th birthday.

As we travelled the states, we took in many a talk or tour led by a park ranger or docent, and our adventure was the more pleasant and interesting for their presentations and answers. In a way, my experience with the professional and volunteer interpreters helped shape my own ideas on how I perform as Theodore Roosevelt, how I share information and how I answer questions about TR.

During this, my second year as an NAI member, I continue to find encouragement in the admonition, inherent in the interpretive community, on behalf of accuracy and historical honesty. Just as I used to advise political candidates, if the accurate answer is “I don’t know” then say so…don’t make it up.

In the words of the Boy Scouts, “Be Prepared.” The NAI encourages its members to train, to investigate, to research and to stay on their game. Know the material, and to the degree possible, know the audience and the range of needs and expectations within that audience.

In Hartford, I’ll share with NAI attendees some ideas about how to keep the interpretive presentation interesting and vital, and how to expand the mastery of material through the investigation of related topics. For example, the calendar, that is the historic calendar of events related to that site, provides an opportunity to seasonally freshen the presentations. In addition, any site certainly has at least one and more likely has dozens of interesting characters associated with the history of the place or times. Investigating these characters and weaving bits of these lives and experiences into the experience of visitors or audience members is a rich resource for that vital ingredient in oral presentation.

While I travel, I research. My summer travels included the Northwoods of Maine, where TR hiked Katahdin in 1879. I’m glad to say I successfully made the ascent in 2009. Performing for friends along the Indian River in Florida, birthplace of TR’s Pelican Island and the Wildlife Refuge System, I have renewed my own ornithological studies. All the while, Douglas Brinkley’s “The Wilderness Warrior” has been by my side and in my pack.

I look forward to writing more and more frequently about this great adventure that comes as a result of deciding to be the best Theodore Roosevelt I can be. I know that may seem a strange undertaking to some, but I assure you, it has been a very worthwhile and fulfilling thing to get good at it.

When climbing Katahdin, making the top of the Abol Trail, I took in the views from Thoreau Springs, a small and tepid natural spring within view of Baxter Peak. Later, after an ascent up Cathedral Cutoff, I enjoyed a little lunch at the springs on my way down the Hunt Trail.

Thoreau’s old line rang and echoed in my mind: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."----- Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Conclusion, 1854