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‘Untamed’ captures woman conservationist

This image released by Grove Press shows "Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island." (AP Photo/Grove Press)

This image released by Grove Press shows "Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island." (AP Photo/Grove Press)

Boys and men who love the rugged outdoors have long had plenty of role models, from James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer to Huck Finn and Teddy Roosevelt. But what about women who prefer woods and swamps to modern society?

Will Harlan’s Untamed tells the thought-provoking and occasionally tragic story of Carol Ruckdeschel, who has spent much of her life living on and fighting to protect Georgia’s Cumberland Island.

As a child, Ruckdeschel loved creeks, woods and all the critters in them. She once brought a 2-foot snapping turtle home and hid it in the bathtub for a week – and got a whipping. She learned to collect and eat roadkill, took in a baby bobcat, and baffled and attracted men with her combination of natural beauty and tomboy toughness.

Harden skillfully captures the many layers of Ruckdeschel’s personality, from her love of sea turtles to her at times torturous relationships with other strong-willed women, the National Park Service and various lovers. Ruckdeschel shoots one abusive ex-husband dead, leading to endless small-town gossip, and spends considerable time studying the rotting carcasses of sea turtles.

Readers come away with a poignant sense of a gifted woman who could have been a great marine biologist or national environmental figure, except for two problems: one was the sexual discrimination Ruckdeschel faced in the male-dominated South of the 1960s, and the other was her own ambivalence about being anywhere other than the beaches and woods of Cumberland Island.

In that sense, Untamed succeeds in telling a moving story not just about the environment, but about how society limits some gifted women who don’t fit traditional roles. Ruckdeschel isn’t just fighting to save Cumberland Island, she’s fighting for the right to live on her own terms: in a swampy shack, foraging for her food, away from much of humanity.

Untamed doesn’t aim to be another book about sea turtles, but rather one about how some people are passionately in love with wild places. It’s a profound, inspiring biography of a unique American woman who’s earned her place alongside Huck Finn, Thoreau and other heroic wanderers.

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