Boys and men who love the rugged outdoors have long had plenty of role models, from James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer to Huck Finn and Teddy Roosevelt. But what about women who prefer woods and swamps to modern society?
Will Harlan’s “Untamed” tells the thought-provoking and occasionally tragic story of Carol Ruckdeschel, who has spent much of her life living on and fighting to protect Georgia’s Cumberland Island and its creatures.
As a child, Ruckdeschel loved creeks, woods and all the critters in them. She once brought a 2-foot snapping turtle home and hid it in the bathtub for a week — and got a whipping. She learned to collect and eat roadkill, took in a baby bobcat and baffled and attracted men with her combination of natural beauty and tomboy toughness.
Harlan skillfully captures the many layers of Ruckdeschel’s personality, from her love of sea turtles to her at times torturous relationships with other strong-willed women, the National Park Service and various lovers. Ruckdeschel shoots one abusive ex-husband dead, leading to endless small-town gossip, and spends considerable time studying the rotting carcasses of sea turtles.
Readers come away with a poignant sense of a gifted woman who could have been a great marine biologist or national environmental figure, except for two problems: One was the sexual discrimination Ruckdeschel faced in the male-dominated South of the 1960s, and the other was her own ambivalence about being anywhere other than the beaches and woods of Cumberland Island.
In that sense, “Untamed” succeeds in telling a moving story not just about the environment, but also about how society limits some gifted women who don’t fit traditional role models. Ruckdeschel isn’t just fighting to save Cumberland Island, she’s fighting for the right to live simply on her own terms: in a swampy shack, foraging for her food, away from much of humanity.
The book has a few minor shortcomings. Ruckdeschel is a passionate defender of sea turtles, but she wasn’t the first or only one to fight that battle. For example, the late University of Florida biologist Archie Carr began his important sea turtle work shortly after World War II, before Ruckdeschel settled on Cumberland Island.
“Untamed” doesn’t aim to be another book about sea turtles, but rather one about how some people are passionately in love with wild places. It’s a profound, inspiring biography of a unique American woman who’s earned her place alongside Huck Finn, Thoreau and other heroic wanderers.