Years ago, while researching Walking Home Ground, I visited Aldo Leopold's shack and nearby Leopold Center, and I still follow their Facebook page. Recently I learned that they were transcribing Leopold's journal—its thousand-plus manuscript pages already viewable online—for print publication. The organization invited volunteers to help with the project. I quickly applied and quickly received a link to 20 manuscript pages online and a set of guidelines. Perusing Leopold's handwriting immediately reminded me of having done this kind of task before.
At a display in Central Michigan University's Clarke Historical Library, I'd encountered the manuscript of an Isle Royale journal. Our daughter Becky would be working on the island that summer and we would camp there for a week and so I read it. On Isle Royale we wandered locations where the journalkeeper and her husband lived in fall 1848, ending on December 30. Although the journal was credited to C.C. Douglass' second wife, Lydia, I discovered it had actually been written by his first wife, Ruth. It took me a while to learn when they had left the island and what had become of her.
In 1998, I published my edition of "Time by Moments Steals Away": The 1848 Journal of Ruth Douglass, my introduction much shortened by press editors, but still absorbed by the text and by the personality of its author, I felt obligated to uncover the full background of Ruth Edgerton Douglass, resulting in a second book, Recovering Ruth: A Biographer's Tale, a blend of travel, biography, and memoir, published in 2003. The two books had an impact of me: editing Ruth's journal altered the direction of my scholarship; composing the memoir altered my sense of identity as a writer.
My title for that first book comes from Ruth's final entry. The journal's calendar format was designed for business, each page divided into three separate sections and no Sunday entries provided. She skipped many dates until they reached the island. At year's end, she claimed the need to "reflect upon the fleetness of time, with its many changes, and that every rolling year adds another to our age, and draws us nigher to Eternity, and we might well say with the Poet,
'Time by moments steals away,
First the hour and then the day!
Small the daily loss appears,
But it soon amounts to years:
Thus another year has flown,
And is now no more our own.
Forty-eight! Old year! So thou
Hast for aye departed now.'
I have no idea if "the Poet" is anyone other than Ruth Douglass herself and confess to doggedly writing an annual New Year's entry in my own journal ever since.
The illustrations in my edition of Ruth's journal include that an image of that final journal entry. It's challenging to read in the small size allotted to it, but even without a magnifier it's still legible. That's not always the case when you're reading old manuscripts and some adaptation is often required. The older the manuscript, the greater the chance of finding out-of-date spellings and letter formations, not to mention unfamiliar terms and allusions or random errors in word choice. Since editing Ruth's journal I've sometimes transcribed portions of other writers' manuscripts. It usually requires adjusting to the idiosyncrasies of individual writers.
In my own handwritten journals, I tend to print, a habit I picked up from my father, but when drafting an early sketch of something in longhand that I know may eventually be revised and re-revised (or abandoned), I tend to scribble in a cursive script other readers might justifiably curse at. The longer I work on it, the less legible it becomes; sometimes later I have more trouble transcribing my own handwriting than I have with a stranger's. I'm pretty sure Aldo Leopold's journal entries are principally thoughts he expected only himself to read, recording clues to his reactions at the time, allusions to information he thought worth keeping. He would expect to be able to read his own handwriting, fill out his own abbreviations, understand his own allusions.
I self-published my grandmother's newspaper column years ago, thinking it would be good to have it out in the world, to have her descendants know they could connect to them whenever they wanted. Somewhere I have a file folder with my mother-in-law's handwritten poetry gathered inside, poems I meant to transcribe and print to pass around to family members. It might be past time to unearth that folder and complete the transcription.
Aldo Leopold's handwritten journals are viewable online. It will be good to expand their accessibility into print. They won't be as popular or as influential as A Sand County Almanac but then, they don't have to be. I think I need to volunteer to transcribe another 20 pages soon.
Root, Betsy. How to Develop Your Personality. Edited, with an Introduction, by Robert L. Root, Jr. Glimmerglass Editions, 2012.
Root, Robert. Recovering Ruth: A Biographer's Tale. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.
Root, Robert L., Jr. "Time by Moments Steals Away": The 1848 Journal of Ruth Douglass. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998.
Root, Robert. Walking Home Ground: In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2017.