Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island

Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island

by Will Harlan


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Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island by Will Harlan

Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia, is the largest barrier island in the United States and one of the most biodiverse places in the world. Celebrated for its windswept dunes, sea turtles, and wild horses, the island is also famous for its human inhabitants. Steel magnate Thomas Carnegie owned much of Cumberland, and his widow Lucy turned it into a Gilded Age playground. Generations later, when Carnegie heirs tried to turn the island into a lavish resort or a national park with millions of annual visitors, another island matriarch, and by far the most unusual, had her say.

Carol Ruckdeschel is one of the wildest women in America. She eats road kill, wrestles alligators, and dissects giant sea turtles—more than any other scientist, ever. She lives in a ramshackle cabin she built herself and is a whiskey-drinking, bareback-riding, modern-day Thoreau, who also happens to have shot and killed a man in self-defense. With only a high school diploma, Carol knows more about sea turtles than most marine biologists, and she wasn’t about to let Cumberland slip away. Untamed is the story of an American original standing her ground and fighting for what she believes in, no matter the cost.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802122582
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 05/06/2014
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Will Harlan is the editor-in-chief of Blue Ridge Outdoors, the country’s largest regional outdoor magazine. A top trail runner and a long-time journalist, his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Adventure, and elsewhere.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Bareback through the ocean ix

Part 1 Wild child 1

Part 2 Turtle island 59

Part 3 Shot through the heart 135

Part 4 Last of the wild 181

Part 5 Beneath the shell 285

Epilogue: Stubborn sand 303

Author's note 305

Acknowledgments 309


A Conversation with Will Harlan, Author of Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island

How did you first hear about Carol Ruckdeschel?

While working as a park ranger on Cumberland Island, I heard rumors about "Carrion Carol," the wicked witch of the wilderness. She had road-kill breath and smashed ticks between her teeth. She lived alone in a ramshackle cabin where she was hiding out from the law after shooting one of her many ex-lovers. She rode the island's wild horses bareback, carrying a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand and firing a pistol in another.

I finally crossed paths with Carol one afternoon while she was dissecting a dead sea turtle that had washed ashore. She studied death to better understand life, she explained. Carol wasn't the reclusive loner I expected. She was warm, friendly, animated, prankish, and downright chatty. She was also the sharpest and most intelligent woman I had ever met, and her passion for the island was contagious.

What compelled you to tell this story? Why now?

I spent 19 years researching and writing this book. Initially, I wrote a few ho-hum magazine features about Cumberland Island, but they barely made a ripple. I finally realized that the best way to tell the island's story was through its most colorful character.

Carol allowed me to shadow her, and I soon discovered that her life was far more exciting and powerful than even the wildest rumors. I've waded into gator dens and chased wildfires with her. I tagged along while she uncovered island secrets, battled with park managers, sipped cocktails in Carnegie mansions, and defended herself in court.

For over forty years, Carol has ignited controversy on Cumberland. She is either heroically worshipped or viciously vilified, although few have actually met her—and even fewer understand her. Carol let me dissect her life with the same scientific scrutiny as the stranded turtles she autopsies. I saw her flaws and vulnerabilities up close. Beneath her hard shell is a soft, bruised being.

Today, Cumberland Island is at a crossroads, and Carol is the lone voice crying out for the wilderness. Her voice has never been more important to the island's future.

Your story is populated with the names of famous and powerful families, including the Carnegies, on one hand, and Carol Ruckdeschel on the other, who have clashed. Why do you think the island generates such strong passions? What's so special about Cumberland?

Cumberland tugs on the heart like the tides. It's such a rare and precious island that nearly everyone who visits it—myself included—wants to possess it. Like jealous lovers, we covet our island mistress and risk everything to fight for it.

Cumberland is one of the last and largest wilderness islands in the country, with windswept beaches, emerald marshes, and ancient, moss-bearded live oak forests. It also has a deep and storied human imprint. In the past century, fierce females (men don't seem to last long on Cumberland) chased off developers and saved the island from strip mining.

Today, the fight over Cumberland pits an influential Carnegie heiress against a scrappy biologist with turtle guts beneath her fingernails. It's a turf war and a class war, a clash of science and society, nature and nurture. But mostly, the island is a reflection of our own divided heart, torn between comfortable lodging and wild longing.

Why is the plight of Cumberland Island important to our natural history? To the U.S.? To the world? What role has Carol played in its preservation?

Cumberland is one of 350 biosphere reserves recognized by the United Nations as a globally significant hotspot of biodiversity. It's home to the largest population of endangered loggerhead sea turtles in the world. It's also within a day's drive of half of the U.S. population.

Can we humans find a way to balance nature and culture? Can we leave a few last scraps of wild nature for the other species with whom we share this planet? Cumberland is an island, a place apart, an ideal laboratory for such an experiment. It's our best chance to get it right.

There are dozens of developed islands, but only a few remaining wild seashores like Cumberland. Carol played a pivotal role in keeping Cumberland wild. In the late 1970s, she spearheaded the effort to designate the northern half of Cumberland as wilderness, and since then, she has tirelessly defended the island from development. She also created a national network to monitor sea turtles, and her research has forced government agencies to protect turtle habitat on Cumberland and across the country.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which protects the rugged, undeveloped character of critical American landscapes. There has been no greater champion of wilderness than Carol Ruckdeschel. She is the voice of the wild.

I know you are also an ultramarathon runner. Are there parallels or lessons to be drawn from running that apply to your writing life?

I composed much of this book on the trail. Its ideas and structure were developed on long, lonely runs, where my best ideas usually germinate. Physical exertion grounds my thoughts and sharpens my writing.

Both writing and running are hard work. There's no secret to either of them. It's one foot in front of the other, over and over. Whether writing or running, I don't think about the far-away finish line. I break the journey into manageable chunks. And there are always unbearably rough patches along the way. Those are the moments that forge the spirit. I either fall apart or dig deeper.
Who have you discovered lately?

Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction is riveting. It's the most important book of the year. Stand Up That Mountain, by Jay Erskine Leutze, gives me hope for the hills I call home. I have been re-reading the works of Charles Frazier of Rick Bass, who fuse the human and natural landscapes better than any living writers. I also especially enjoyed David Epstein's The Sports Gene and Daniel Lieberman's The Story of the Human Body.

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Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
SanKirk More than 1 year ago
It'll take your breath away from the prologue and you'll feel like holding it till the end. This book is about the preciousness of our wilderness areas and the epic efforts of a most inspiring, unbelievably strong and single-minded, woman of our times, Carol Ruckdeschel. It should be read by women as an inspiring role model, by men and women who work for sustaining the diversity of our world and by those who should learn about sustaining the diversity, as well as by anyone who loves beautiful writing. I loved this book…it haunts dreams, inspires, increases daily-living awareness, and makes me grateful for those of Carol’s and Will’s ilk.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An exceptionally well told story of a complex, unique and gritty woman who has defied all odds to fight for what she believes in. It is hard to believe it is a true story. Compelling, well written and engaging. I could not put it down. Harlan knits together not just Carol's story, but the story of the island and the plight of the sea turtle. A praise -worthy first book.
velocireaderLC More than 1 year ago
My husband knows Carol and I've been to Cumberland many times. It is a very special place but I fear for it's future when Carol is no longer able to continue her fight. This book portrays Carol Ruckdeschel as a true hero with grit and dedication so very rare in our material greed driven world. I was captivated from the very first page until the very last. It has stayed with me
Swampgal2 More than 1 year ago
Required reading for anyone  who knows and loves Cumberland Island. This beautifully written story fills in lots of gaps. But beware, you may well be moved to tears -- or better yet-- to action.
efm More than 1 year ago
Amazing woman and her conservation accomplishments all while living like a castaway.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
readerx More than 1 year ago
This was a wonderful book about a fascinating personality.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Untamedwas by far the best written and the most interesting book i've read this year. I list it among my favorite reads. Kudos to carol and her environmental impact on cumberland island. Her lifetime accomplishments and unique lifestyle have raised awareness of the world's need to protect our lands and wildlife. A greatbook one youdidn want to putdown until tbe end
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Cu.ms in you and dies
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Get the hell out of my book!" I say
judyd1 More than 1 year ago
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