A Wilderness Original: The Life of Bob Marshall, 2nd Edition (Mountaineers Press, 2014)
By James M. Glover
Reviewed by Cameron M. Burns
My wife and I lived in Montana in the early 1990s, and I always wondered why this guy named Bob Marshall was so heralded. Not many people get a million acres of wilderness (fifth largest in the U.S.) named after them. Heck, I’d like to name a few million acres after people who deserve the credit but will never see it.
Well, this 2014 reissue of a 1986 biography—A Wilderness Original: The Life of Bob Marshall—explains it. Bob Marshall was and remains arguably the biggest advocate for wilderness the United States has and will ever see.
His feats in wilderness areas proved his obsession with the natural world. He explored the Brooks Range long before most, and studied the local population that lived there. He rambled in Montana’s mountains for three years while studying trees. And he had a massive thirst for hiking—up to 40 miles a day. When he was just a youngster, he and his brother George and Herb Clark were the first to summit all 46 peaks in the Adirondacks over 4,000 feet.
This book, first published nearly 30 years ago, tells the story of Marshall’s forebears’ move from Bavaria to New York in the mid-19th century and much about his father’s life, which ultimately influenced Bob’s (loving wilderness, community involvement, and no interest in the trappings of wealth, etc.)
When this writer’s family emigrated from Australia to the US in 1978, we landed in Syracuse. Some of my first climbing experiences were in Tasmania. Then, weirdly, starting in 1978, in the Adirondacks. My father and I did a 4-day tromp through the “Dacks,” and it was one of the best things I ever experienced.
This was Bob Marshall’s land. He loved (as we all do) and wanted to see it preserved as well as it could be preserved.
In 1935, Marshall formed the Wilderness Society with Benton McKaye to “battle uncompromisingly for wilderness protection all over the United States.” And the Society went on to do many great things in many great places.
This book is a fairly straightforward narrative—Marshall’s family history, his father’s devotion to wilderness and ethical concerns, and his academic and professional career—but what comes through and stands out in Glover’s tome is the unbridled love of wilderness that Bob Marshall had. As a youngster, he hated being outside after dark. But he pushed himself to go out and wander the forests near the family compound in the Dacks. If he’d only hiked 36 miles on a certain day, he’d often go out for an after-dinner walk to make it an even 40.
Although I call this book a “fairly straightforward narrative”—from a reader’s perspective—it has the three qualities that are a must to the art of biography and something that many biographies lack. One, the guy (Marshall) is a real character. Too many biographies are of the ilk that up-and-coming politicians write (“I’m here and this is what I believe” even though they haven’t done sh*t to deserve the public’s attention). Marshall’s definitely worthy of your eyes. Two, Glover’s writing is carefully crafted. I’ve read too many things in magazines and books where it’s quite apparent the author didn’t understand grammar, syntax, typography, and pretty much everything else (hell, I cringe when I read my own work from 30 years ago). And three, it’s an enjoyable story. In many bios the plot gets simply lost, as the expression goes, and a memorable character gets overrun by bad storytelling.
Glover, a writer’s writer, told me he hadn’t zeroed in one Marshall at first.
“When I was around 30 or so I was casting around for something substantive to write about,” he told me via email. “I was teaching college courses in outdoor recreation [at Southern Illinois] and was (and still am) an avid wilderness adventure enthusiast. Anyway, around 1978 or ’80 or so, I happened to read an article about Marshall in Backpacker magazine by Roderick Nash, and also read about Marshall in Nash’s famous book, Wilderness and the American Mind. So I began to dig around for more info on Marshall, with the vague idea of maybe writing a book about him. I didn’t realize, when I first began, quite what a compelling personality he had, and how important a historic figure his father had been, and how strongly committed Bob was to what we sometimes now call “social justice.”
Sure, Jim, his father was important, but mostly because he produced this great soul who was absolutely addicted to wilderness and willing to do everything in his power to preserve it.
It’s a remarkable tale about a remarkable man that, if you’re like me, has hovered in your hazy subconscious for years. This book brings him to light.
“I have to thank Marshall himself for making the book however interesting it is,” Glover told me. “He continues to seem to me one of the most compelling personalities in American history, even though he’s not well known outside environmental and wilderness adventure circles.”
Respect the writer, respect the subject, respect the words.
Read the book.