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 herand 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 itmyself includedwants 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.