There is a rainy weather forecast, but we plan to explore Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park, the only national park ever created to honor a president.
I was most interested in the back story of T.R. and how this park came to be. It is a story of grief. I have been taking a griefshare class concerning the recent death of my father. My grief has been expressed overdoing, over committing, and over working. His grief expression seemed like mine so I thought that I would learn more.
“The light has gone out of my life” – Theodore Roosevelt
The blow of Theodore’s father’s death was softened later that year when Roosevelt fell deeply in love with Alice Lee of Boston. Tall, pretty and intelligent, Alice captured TR’s heart so thoroughly that he decided in one month to marry her. They were engaged on Valentine’s Day 1880, a day that would in a few years be a bitter one for TR.
After a European honeymoon, Teddy attended law school and wrote Naval History of the War of 1812 to great reviews. But law and writing were being eclipsed by politics, a vocation that appealed to his competitiveness and sense of civic duty. At age 23, TR was elected the youngest member to the State Assembly.
On February 14, 1884, Valentine’s Day, both his wife and his mother died. His mom died in the early morning while Alice passed away later that same day after birthing their first child two days earlier. Their unexpected deaths plunged TR into an emotional abyss, and that day the avid diarist wrote only “a large X”, and the words “The light has gone out of my life.”
TR was always an unusually energetic person, but his grief threw him into a manic frenzy to pass reform legislation, working at a pace that shocked his peers, and he soon burned himself out.
Roosevelt, the city boy, moved to the Dakota Territory to mourn amid cattle, wildlife, and rough hewn men. Here he could deal with his loss. His two years as a rancher riding his horse “sixteen hours a day” helped him to experience “his own healing, growth, and self-transformation.” He claimed that his self-reflection in seclusion after devastating loss was “the most important educational asset” of his life.
Coping with his loss in his own way, through backbreaking frontier labor and rigorous contemplation, allowed TR to explore the darkest parts of his soul. He emerged from his Badlands experience a changed man. His experience gave him a much more primal and intimate connection with the human condition, and a much greater understanding of the universe and his role in it. From loss can come great, tremendous growth and gain. If we actively let it.
As Rob theorized, if TR’s wife had not died so young and suddenly, we might not be standing in a national park!!
Roosevelt was almost certainly describing his own state of mind in the following excerpt:
“From the upper branches of the cottonwood-trees overhead–whose shimmering, tremulous leaves are hardly ever quiet, but if the wind stirs at all, rustle and quiver, and sigh all day long–comes every now and then the soft, melancholy cooing of the mourning-dove, whose voice always seems far away and expresses more than any other sound in nature the sadness of gentle, hopeless, never-ending grief.”
Roosevelt wrote these words in his 1885 book Hunting Trips of a Ranchman.
Cottonwood trees grow along the rivers. They can be recognized by the dead limbs among the leafy branches. It is a brittle wood, probably better for firewood than for building. The leaves shimmer in the wind like little tambourines and make a gentle noise which is called psithurism.
Rain had fallen and the wind blows. The wind of the Great Plains is constant as I experienced growing up in Kansas. This morning I filled my lungs with the sweet smell of rain which is called petrichor. That fresh smell comes from the change in pressure which allows plants to release their aromatics.