Barefoot Biologist

Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island
By Will Harlan
Grove Press, 2014, 307 Pages

When the first few pages of a biography include lines like, “She is as tough as the sea turtle carapaces that line her museum. But beneath that hardened shell is a soft, bruised being,” a reader can’t but proceed with some trepidation. But for those who have the fortitude to soldier on, Untamed offers an unexpectedly intimate account of the swashbuckling life of Carol Anne Ruckdeschel – a self-taught biologist who has spent four decades living in a beat-up cabin on a narrow barrier island in Georgia, fighting tirelessly to protect its nesting sea turtle population.

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Cumberland Island is one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands along the Atlantic Coast. Its virtually pristine ecosystem – stretching over 40 square miles and protected as a national park – is home to a greater diversity of life than a tropical rainforest. Feral horses wander through its moss-covered oak forests, alligators slink through its sulfurous marshes, and, every year, thousands of loggerhead turtles nest on its beaches.

Ruckdeschel first visited this bridge-less island in the late 1960s as a 28-year-old college dropout fleeing the pain of a failed second marriage (with her 44-year-old biology professor). That first visit to the “wild tangle of marsh, forest, and seashore,” where everything suddenly seemed to click into place, would lead to a lifetime bond with Cumberland. She would return four years later, after a three-year stint as a biologist with the State of Georgia and a minor brush with fame, thanks to John McPhee’s profile of her road kill-eating adventures in The New Yorker in 1973. (She was also named as one of Mademoiselle’s Women of the Year in 1974, along with Barbra Streisand and Audrey Hepburn.)

The island would bear witness to much of the drama of Ruckdeschel’s life, including her fight over the fate of the island with other Cumberland stakeholders – the Carnegie and Rockefeller families, and the National Park Service – her increasingly feral habits, and her troubled relationships with several lovers, one of whom she would eventually shoot and kill in self-defense.

Ruckdeschel is, as Harlan writes, “part of a tribe of legendary female misfits who fiercely guarded the creatures of their wilderness nests, often blurring the boundaries between animals and humans.” Even as a child, she had been drawn to the wild. As a three-year-old growing up in Rochester, NY, she would skip Sunday school to feed feral cats. Her curiosity for how living things functioned had her dissecting dead cats with a pocketknife by age six, and bringing home all kinds of animals, including a two-foot snapping turtle, which she hid in her bathtub for a week and got whipped for.

By the time she was a teenager and her family had moved to Georgia, Ruckdeschel had grown into an alcohol-loving, road-kill eating, “hard-bodied hellion,” who confounded the boys in high school. They couldn’t figure “whether to fight or French kiss her.” She was also constantly plotting her escape from the suffocating 1950s suburban life and training for it by camping in caves by the Chattahoochee River and testing her self-taught outdoor skills. These skills would stand her in good stead as a biologist once she moved to Cumberland and began living off the land.

Will Harlan met Ruckdeschel 19 years ago, when he got a job on the island as a Park Service ranger. His colleagues would often describe her as “Carrion Carol” or “the wicked witch of the wilderness,” but when he finally stumbled upon Ruckdeschel “elbow-deep in the bowels of a dead sea turtle,” he discovered a woman who was “a combination of Henry David Thoreau and Jane Goodall.” Despite her lack of college credentials, Ruckdeschel has earned the respect the global scientific community for her research and deep understanding of sea turtles and the many manmade threats they face. Biologists beat a path to her door to study her immense collection of sea turtle shells and bones.

Harlan spent nearly two decades shadowing Ruckdeschel and was given unfettered access to her field notes, personal journals, and photographs. He also conducted many hours of interviews with the people who either loved or hated her. Given the dramatic figure Ruckdeschel cuts, it’s not surprising that Harlan falls prey to some romanticizing, and Untamed reads like a potboiler in places. But on the whole it succeeds in telling a compelling story of an uncompromising woman whose fierce love for wild places and for the right to live on her own terms makes her an American original.

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