I met Will Harlan more than 15 years ago on Ossabaw Island, off the Georgia coast, at a gathering of Southern nature writers (see www.southernnature.org). For a long weekend retreat, we were paired up as roomates, which he had requested having recently read my Walden Pond-like memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods.
Will was a force of nature even then, with his love of Thoreau and running several miles every day in training for his passion for running marathons. He was a couple of years or more into the writing of an environmentalist book of non-fiction about the fight for the preservation of Cumberland Island, which was only a stone’s throw to the south of Ossabaw. In the years to come, I read several versions of that manuscript as he struggled to “get it right.” That book was never published.
Instead, as the years flew by, Will became focused on the life of Carol Ruckdeschel, whom he had met and had spent significant time with as an apprentice to her self-sufficient life skills and her battle to protect and preserve the habitat and lives of ancient sea turtles there on Cumberland. Lord only knows how many days, weeks, months Harlan has spent on Cumberland Island with Ruckdeschel and running on the beaches. But the proof is in the pudding, as they say, and Harlan’s page-turner “pudding” is some of the best I’ve ever read.
While the title of this book is Untamed, it is the subtitle that tells the story of what is inside these pages — The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island. The first lines of Harlan’s prologue give one a hint as to just who the book’s protagonist Carol Ruckdeschel is.
(Carol shot the wild hog roaming the dunes and gutted it on the beach. She cooked the meat over a campfire as the first pinpricks of starlight pierced the sky. She had not slept in two days, and her eyelids grew heavy as the food settled in.)
Harlan follows this little introductory story with a more objective biographical assessment of Ruckdeschel:
Carol Ruckdeschel is the wildest woman in America. She eats roadkill, wrestles alligators, and dissects dead sea turtles that wash ashore. She lives on a wilderness island in a ramshackle cabin that she built herself, and she eats mostly what she hunts, gathers, and grows. She is a hard-drinking, gun-toting, modern-day Thoreau who is even more outspoken in protecting her Waldenesque island.
From my perspective and after having read Untamed, I found that Ruckdeschel comes off as a combination of Jane Goodall and Annie Oakley. This is no exaggeration on my part. Harlan, too, refers to Ruckdeschel as “the Jane Goodall of sea turtles.” While living the life of an action hero, she is, as Harlan points out, “a self-taught scientist who knows more about sea turtles than most PhD biologists.” This is the story of a woman who “mostly prefers the companionship of wild creatures to human ones and who tromps the island in search of alligator dens and turtle nests. She likes a hard drink every evening and is as tough as the sea turtle carapaces that line her museum. But beneath that hardened shell is a soft, bruised being.” To further put things in perspective, in a conversation I had recently with a Southern writer friend of mine in an effort to describe this book and its main character, I let slip with an epithet saying, “Carol Ruckdeschel makes Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eustas Conway (The Last American Man) look like a wimp.”
In these pages, Harlan reveals the kaleidoscope of paradoxes that comprise his larger-than-life real-life action hero. He says that she is “brutal and benevolent, savage and sympathetic, cutthroat and compassionate.” These character traits are played out in a biography that reads like a good novel, in dramatic contrast to the lifestyles and world views of her neighbors — the Carnegie and Rockefeller families that have populated the island for several generations — in battles over such issues as land development and tourist traffic. The plot line conflict of this book, then, is, as Harlan puts it, “… the fight over Cumberland Island that pits influential Carnegie and Rockefeller heirs against a scrappy turtle biologist who rides bareback in shark-infested waters. Will one of the wealthiest families in America be stopped by a dirt-poor naturalist with turtle guts beneath her fingernails?”
In a book ready-made for nature lovers and lovers of crime noir novels alike, Untamed delivers. With more internal and interchangeable plots and subplots than a Dan Brown filmscript, there is also a great love story. Bob Shoop, who arrived on Cumberland Island and was enamored of living a self-sufficient life in the wild and had become Carol Ruckdeschel’s “apprentice,” falls in love with her and she with him. For a number of years they live in the same compound and are partners in the wild work that availed itself to them there on the island. In a lovely and wonderfully written snapshot of their love affair, on page 209 Will Harlan writes:
That night, they replayed the day’s adventures over popcorn and margaritas on Carol’s porch. Between their rocking chairs, an orb weaver spider had stretched an enormous silk web, an architectural work that rivaled a Carnegie mansion in its intricacy and Carnegie steel in strength. Carol wedged shims beneath the rockers to prevent them from disturbing the web. She and Bob sat in the unmoving rocking chairs and watched a straw-yellow moon rise over the trees.
In direct contrast to the story of Carol and Bob Shoop is that of Louie McKee, a surveyor and real estate salesman and resident of Cumberland Island. Here, we have a tale of lust, alcohol and obsession that evolves and erupts into a murder mystery. Agatha Christie or her Inspector Poirot couldn’t have written a better script.
So, what can I tell you about this book without giving it all away? That Carol Ruckdeschel was a friend of Jimmy Carter? That she is drop-dead gorgeous and highly intelligent? That she actually lived out what Thoreau only wrote about in his wildest dreams? That she is the target of hate mail and violent threats? That more than 53,000 sea turtles drowned in shrimp boat nets last year in the United States? That at age 72, Carol Ruckdeschel continues to study sea turtles, wade into gator holes, and fight for wilderness on land and in the ocean? As the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. Or maybe this sentiment is better put by Ernest Hemingway: “Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”
In our case, the “he” is a “she” and the details of Carol Ruckdeschel’s life have distinguished her from most other humans. Yes, it’s in the details and the humor. Carol Ruckdeschel, while being extraordinary, is also very human with normal human desires. From the book which is comprised of hours and hours and pages and pages of Will Harlan’s note-taking and interviews, this:
“I never go hungry,” she said, “but what I wouldn’t give for some ice cream.”