Naturalist Book Nook

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

untamedcoverCarol Ruckdeschel grew up along the Chattahoochee River in Georgia and immersed herself in nature from a very early age.  She became the ultimate extreme naturalist, learning to eat D.O.R. (dead on the road) critters, constantly exploring and searching and learning from nature, even discovering a new species of salamander, and has remained a colorful, controversial character.  She is acquaintances with Jimmy Carter, has gone canoeing with him and enlisted his help to protect a long stretch of the Chattahoochee River.  The New Yorker wrote an article on Ms. Ruckdeschel, and shortly thereafter, Mademoiselle magazine named her one of its “Women of the Year” …. a designation and attention that she did not want in the least.

Over the course of time, she ended up visiting Cumberland Island, one of the most bio-diverse barrier islands on the east coast, and they took hold of one another.  Cumberland Island (12,000 acres) was bought by the Carnegies in the 1880s. They built a handful of mansions, and it was a playground not only for the Carnegies but the Rockefellers, Coca Cola heirs, etc.  You may recall that John Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette pulled off their secret wedding on the island.

It was many years later, many life experiences later, before Ruckdeschel returned to establish herself on the island.  She was always seen as an outsider by the island descendants, but somewhat accepted to a certain point, having a close friend or two, but she became a radical, visible presence and voice for nature and protection of Cumberland.  Ultimately, she was disliked, vilified, and shunned by the entrenched islanders because of her views on how to protect the island.  It didn’t help that she shot and killed in self-defense an ex-boyfriend (a descendent of one of the elite families) who had abused her and ultimately stalked and threatened her.

Although she fought for all of nature and wilderness on the island, her main mission was to save sea turtles from the islanders, politicians, shrimp fisherman, US Navy and the National Park Service.  The turtles were her life’s work.  For 40 years, she compiled the most thorough sea turtle stranding data anywhere in the world.

Carol Ruckdeschel next to a loggerhead turtle shell, 2007

Carol Ruckdeschel next to a loggerhead turtle shell, 2007. More photos here.

Ruckdeschel has given it her all, and then some, and has accomplished much to secure wilderness area for the northern end of the island.  Unfortunately, some of her major efforts were overturned by US Congressman Jack Kingston (R-GA, 1993-present).  The National Park Service, hardly ever an ally of hers, in the end revoked her licenses to continue her turtle research.

Harlan, editor in chief of Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, spent nearly two decades off and on with Ruckdeschel and provides not only an intriguing story but also an overview of the devastating changes in wilderness areas, the oceans … our planet.  An extremely informative and well-written book but an emotionally difficult read about species at the edge of disappearance.  Upon turning the last page, I immediately joined

Penny Warren, November 2014

An excerpt from Untamed of an extraordinary experience …..

“Driving back to her cabin, Carol passed the same dead armadillo in the road from a few days earlier.  A bed of leaves now surrounded the carcass.  Puzzled, Carol pulled over for a closer look.  The armadillo was wreathed by laurel leaves.  How did those get there? she wondered.  The carcass was in the middle of a pine forest, but the nearest laurel trees were a half-mile away.

armadillo.resizedShe looked closer.  Within the wreath, twigs were neatly arranged in a pattern around the dead armadillo.  Then she heard a rustle.  Hiding in the palmetto, a female armadillo watched through the fronds.  She had been tending to her mate in something resembling a burial ritual.

Carol hunkered down behind a tree and observed.  Eventually, the armadillo crept over to her partner, twigs and foliage in her mouth, and continued cloaking him in a leafy shroud.  Was this armadillo mourning like her?  Carol was awestruck.  ……”