The Quiet World: Saving Alaska's Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960
by Douglas Brinkley
Reviewed by Marc Covert
Few of us are lucky enough to find our lifework; those who do are likely to experience exhilaration, fascination, joy and deep fulfillment in its pursuit, not to mention leaving themselves open to failure, derision, exhaustion or utter despair. So it's safe to assume that Douglas Brinkley does not refer to the Wilderness Cycle, his multivolume history of the United States conservation movement, as "my lifework" lightly.
Brinkley hadn't set out to do a series on conservation when he wrote 2009's The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America -- by that time he had 18 books on U.S. history under his belt, an output to rival that of his mentor, the late Stephen Ambrose -- but it soon became apparent to him that no writer had undertaken a comprehensive, definitive history of the fight to save America's wilderness and wildlife. It was a challenge that Brinkley found irresistible.
In the second installment of his series, The Quiet World: Saving Alaska's Wilderness Kingdom: 1879-1960, Brinkley begins with the great naturalist John Muir's trip to Alaska in 1879 (where he found in its 100,000 active, living glaciers a window to the forces that created his beloved Yosemite Valley), and ends with the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Range (today's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration in 1960.
What makes the scope of this book so remarkable is that Brinkley doesn't limit it to those who wielded direct political or economic power. Painters, poets, writers, scientists, naturalists, mystics and seemingly ordinary people -- all of whom share the distinction of devoting their lives to a great cause, a lifework, no matter the cost -- are given their due as well. Brinkley includes Theodore Roosevelt's ferocious advocacy for the preservation of American wildlife ("Abusers of the land, when attacked by Roosevelt, curled up into a ball, afraid to be poked at under the glare of publicity"), but here TR is just one of many heroes to be celebrated. Take, for example, William Temple Hornaday, whose 1913 book Our Vanishing Wild Life was "a take-no-prisoners assault aimed at saving buffalo, river otters, flamingos and hundreds of other creatures"; or Aldo Leopold, whose posthumously published A Sand Country Almanac has been called a masterpiece, "equaled only by 'Walden.'" Or Rockwell Kent, whose painting, "Resurrection Bay, Alaska" graces the cover. Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums (published in 1958) brought the wilderness movement to a whole new audience in the 1960s; Brinkley writes of Beat poet, former Portlander and Reed College graduate Gary Snyder: "Not since Muir had America produced a visionary so innovative in defense of wild nature."
If one figure looms largest in this book it would be Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a man Brinkley sees as every bit an equal to Roosevelt in iron-willed conservationist zeal. While Douglas wrote elegantly of the wonders of nature in his 30 books and countless articles, he was also, according to Brinkley, "a pragmatist, not a dreamer" when it came to the politics of wilderness. "He understood that with regard to conservation, no important cause was ever permanently won or lost. Every time America went to war, opportunistic companies, capitalizing on national fears and anxieties, claimed that the Tongass should be clear-cut or that Cook Inlet should become an oil field. ... Every new generation would have to fight for the integrity of the Denali wilderness or Glacier Bay."
Timed for release on the 50th anniversary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's creation, Brinkley's The Quiet World has much to teach present and future generations on the importance of preserving a place which, at its very heart, belongs to us all.