A long time ago (in college) when I had a borrowed camera on which the knobs were so hard to turn that my thumbs were always red, I learned about aperture and depth of focus. One had to do with light and the lens. The other was the ability to transfer an object into a sharp image on paper.
I suppose, in a general way, depth of focus could also be used to label how much a body knows about something. For me it is the growing up years of the twenty-sixth president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt.
I didn’t narrow to that topic at the beginning. I was just interested in “the biggest character in American history,” as a recent biographer has described him. I knew something of his Rough Rider personality, but not much about the rest of his sixty years, even what he’d done a hundred years ago as highest elected official in our country.
TR speaking in 1902 (www.kingsacademy.com)
After tracking the places he’d lived, people he’d known, and jobs he’d held, I asked more questions. Why was he interested in nature? How could he have learned so much on his own? I looked to primary sources for answers. Mostly, I just kept reading.
I’m still amazed at how much one can learn independently by taking the time to read (Remember the Birdman of Alcatraz?). Reliable websites instantly cough up facts for us, but sitting down with a book and reading it from cover to cover is crucial to our understanding. Bits and pieces add up to information. A book adds up to a conclusion of some kind, even if it isn’t the author’s.
William Henry Harbaugh artfully tells of Roosevelt’s political life. David McCullough reveals family and social influences on a sickly little boy who metamorphosed into a leader. Edmund Morris meticulously chronicles his drive to accomplish, but lets you make up your mind about which factors influenced him most. Another earlier Pullitzer Prize winner, Henry Pringle, seems to have dipped his objectives in acid wash before he started to write.
There are more who used honey. Some were TR’s contemporaries who could call upon their own memories. Since then others have added to the list, among them Stephan Lorant (who assembled a photobiopic), Paul Cutright, Carleton Putnam, Nathan Miller, Kathleen Dalton, and Candice Millard. The thirty-five books Theodore Roosevelt authored himself, including his autobiography, and the subjects he chose, say a lot about him, too.
Theodore at sixteen (Harvard University photograph)
I set out to tell more about “Teedie” between the ages of eight and eighteen than they had (and came pretty close). New leads about his boyhood friends gave me more of the story. Isn’t that true of our own friendships? In the Houghton Library at Harvard University I read a cache of papers from the boys’ nature club which had never been published. I also located photographs of the house he lived in from 1872 to 1884, which no one else did.
With Theodore’s life as the connecting wire, I’ve spiraled a notebook into other worlds — of days gone by and of the outdoors — which you can see in my blog posts. Birds are an obvious tangent. Due to my research, I can tell you scientific names, songs, habits, and the danger they’re in today. Looking closely at movers and shakers of the past, particularly presidents, has been enlightening. It is much easier to remember people and events when you have stories to go with them.
The Lilly Foundation of Indiana continues to give grant funds to teachers like me to make physical searches into all kinds of things — under the headings of history, science, art, music, literature, which also adds to the sum of understanding as we pass the experiences to others.
I discovered much about an interesting American and kept looking. Theodore Roosevelt not my idol, but he is my hero. Looking through any lens, we need more of those.