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Book Review

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

Will Harlan, 2014, Grove Press, New York

Untamed, as told by biographer Will Harlan, is a gripping true story of eco-heroine Carol Ruckdeschel. "Carol Ruckdeschel," Harlan tells us early on, "is the wildest woman in America. She eats road kill, 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 Waldernesque Island." In self-defense, Carol shot and killed a "lover.". As you read on you, understand her to be more an impassioned courageous fighter for wilderness preservation than a gun- toting cowgirl. Her story is an iconic epic in the modern clash between the forces of conservation and diversity and those of exploitation. Depending on how tamed or not your perspective, she is an eco-heroine or a whacko.

Her “Waldenresque Island” is Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia. Cumberland Island is one of the world’s most biologically diverse islands and an important nesting spot for sea turtles. In no small part due to Carol’s efforts in 1972 Cumberland Island was designated a National Park. Untamed reveals many layers to Carol’s remarkable story. Her courage and passion helped save the island from development and to gain it National Park status. This struggle brought her into direct and bitter conflict with such diverse adversaries as the Carnegie and Rockefeller families, National Park Services, tourists and poachers. If Harlan’s opening comments spark your curiosity to read the book, you will not be disappointed. You will learn much about Carol the person and the self-taught marine biologist and how passion and unflagging courage can make a difference. You may learn more about yourself and where you fit in the struggle.

Untamed raises essential questions about labeling as a means of social control. Why think Carol, a whacko? A lot of people do. How else can you explain a woman who does such bizarre things as eat road kill, shoot suitors and scare off turtle egg poachers at gunpoint and more? Who determines by what standards and for what purposes that another earns the "scarlet letter" of tagged deviant? There is a long history going back to Socrates of dissenters being labeled, devalued and punished by bullying, shunning, persecution and even death.

Carol embraces and defends the natural world's diversity and its beautiful, tactile, spiritual force as an essence never to be replicated by museums, zoos or aquariums. Untamed will gift you the image of Carol in the red glow of the setting sun riding the back of an enormous sea turtle from the shores of her island into the sea – two sentient beings intricately connected in a vast seemingly endless universe of union and mystery. In her contribution to our inaugural issue, Ali Fields too reminds us of such beauty[1], as she tells of a student who with fellow students hiked to the top of a high peak along Wyoming’s Wind River. There they viewed the "…setting sun send a line of cottonwoods aglow. A light rain fell, making the leaves sparkle. One of the students turned to Ellis (the group’s leader) and asked, ‘Bob, what role does beauty have in education?’ “How beautiful. How important it is to share this beauty, this spiritual intimacy with our children and they with theirs to ensure perpetual stewardship of our natural world.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

John P. Terry


John P. Terry, founded the Gulf of Maine Institute in 1999. John was Editor-in-Chief, CYD (Community Youth Development) Journal from Aug. 1994 to Nov. 2002. John has broad teaching and administrative experience at the university level including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1969-1984, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, 1985-1992, and Union College, Schenectady, NY, 1964-1969. John received national recognition in 2006 when selected as Civic Ventures,’ Lead with Experience Program 2006 Purpose Prize Fellows. He is also a 2008 recipient of the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment Visionary Award.

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