Tom Benjey. Glorious Times: Adventures of the Craighead Naturalists. Missoula: University of Montana Press, 2016. 264 pp. $18.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-9909748-9-5.
Reviewed by Brenda Barrett (Living Landscape Observer)
Published on H-Pennsylvania (July, 2018)
Commissioned by Allen J. Dieterich-Ward (Shippensburg University)
Books on family history are usually a niche market with a limited circle of readers, which is why so many have small publication runs and are often self-published—that is unless the topic is a family as fascinating and rich in history as the Craighead family. In Glorious Times: The Adventures of the Craighead Naturalists, Tom Benjey does a thorough job of exploring the roots of this remarkable family who settled on the land in Central Pennsylvania that became known as Craighead Station. From there, as Benjey documents, the family sent out into the world, but generally not too far out into the world, a solid stream of ministers, businessmen, and public servants, many of whom had a personal and professional bent toward the natural world. The book builds on extensive interviews by Benjey with members of the Craighead family, family letters and correspondence, and articles and news stories of the period.
Despite the author's extensive research, the book would be of only modest interest if it did not include substantial new material about the most famous Craigheads, the twin conservation biologists, Frank Jr. and John, and their younger sister, Jean Craighead George. From their earliest days Frank Jr. and John were pioneers in the field of conservation. They are credited with introducing the sport of falconry to the United States and authored a National Geographic article on the topic while still teenagers. Early in their career they traveled across the country and then around the world exploring the intersection of humans and nature. Both received their PhDs in conservation biology and undertook ground-breaking field research on grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park and in the western Rocky Mountains. They had long and distinguished careers in government and academia. In fact, John recently died at age one hundred in 2016.
It is also important to turn some attention to the twins’ younger sister, Jean Craighead George. While not as famous as her older brothers, George also left a remarkable legacy, with over one hundred publications of children’s and young adult fiction, all with a naturalist bent. I have had conservation professionals tell me that it was her book My Side of the Mountain (1959) that started them on their chosen career. Her later book Julie of the Wolves won a Newberry Medal in 1972, the equivalent of a Pulitzer for children’s literature. This book is noted for its insightful and sensitive handling of themes such as the modern world’s pressure on Eskimo culture and the place of women in society, and more indirectly for the role it played in the debate on wolf reintroduction.
Unlike the rest of her family, who Benjey notes were not “navel gazers by nature,” Jean Craighead George wrote with deep appreciation about her experiences growing up as a Craighead (p. 2). Her semiautobiographical book, Summer of the Falcon (1962). is truly a wonderful coming-of-age story. Like George, my family has deep roots in Central Pennsylvania. Reading her book brought back a time when on the farm a summer evening’s entertainment was sitting outside, conversing in the waning warmth to a background of fireflies, cicadas, and the occasional owl. Her descriptions of the pleasures of exploring this patch of rural America rang true.
Even more powerfully, Summer of the Falcon examines the challenges of coming to grips with one’s female identity. This a theme that George returns to in Julie of the Wolves. She also wrote an autobiography, Journey Inward (1982), that talks frankly of the challenges of single motherhood and supporting a family as well as her deep engagement with the natural world. Unfortunately, both books are out of print, although Summer of the Falcon is available on Kindle. Benjey thus draws the attention to both publications that they so richly deserve.
Glorious Times, then, is a welcome contribution to the story of the most famous Craigheads, placing them in a familial and historical context. However, the author’s evenhanded treatment of all branches of the family was a little frustrating for someone whose real interest is in the remarkable work of the three siblings. I found myself rushing through the book to get to chapters 9, 10, and 11, which focus on their lives, and sometimes felt that the author strained to connect the extended Craighead family to the naturalist theme.
In conclusion the definitive book on Frank Jr., John Craighead, and Jean Craighead George’s contribution to conservation has yet to be written. However, Benjey’s book is very timely, as the twin conservation biologists and their younger sister are being rediscovered as part of a growing interest in conservation heritage. Benjey’s photographs and stories of the family homestead, later the extended family’s summer home, in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, are very evocative of the family’s spirit and love of the outdoors. Today the Craighead House is being restored by a group of committed volunteers. The property is now being programmed with a focus on introducing visitors to its natural setting, with presentations on falconry, water-testing in the adjacent Yellow Breeches Creek, fishing lessons, nature photography, and so much more. Once again the Craighead House will welcome young people to discover nature and have their own glorious times.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-pennsylvania.
Brenda Barrett. Review of Benjey, Tom, Glorious Times: Adventures of the Craighead Naturalists.
H-Pennsylvania, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|