Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press


The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island

by Will Harlan

The story of a rugged island and the remarkable woman who has spent decades fighting all takers—including the Carnegies, commercial shrimpers, and the government—to preserve its precious wilderness and save the sea turtles who nest there.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 336
  • Publication Date March 03, 2015
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2385-5
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $18.00

About The Book

A New York Times Bestseller

Carol Ruckdeschel is the wildest woman in America. She eats road kill, wrestles alligators, rides horses bareback, and lives in a ramshackle cabin that she built herself in an island wilderness. She’s had three husbands and many lovers, one of whom she shot and killed in self-defense. A combination of Henry David Thoreau and Jane Goodall, Carol is a self-taught scientist who has become a tireless defender of sea turtles on Cumberland Island, a national park off the coast of Georgia.

Cumberland is the country’s largest and most biologically diverse barrier island—over forty square miles of pristine wilderness celebrated for its windswept dunes and feral horses. Steel magnate Thomas Carnegie owned much of Cumberland, and his widow Lucy made it a Gilded Age playground. But in recent years, Carnegie heirs and the National Park Service have clashed with Carol over the island’s future. What happens when a dirt-poor naturalist with only a high-school diploma tries to stop one of the wealthiest families in America? Untamed is the story of an American original standing her ground and fighting for what she believes in, no matter the cost.


“Carol Ruckdeschel isn’t quite your mother’s idea of a role model, but she is my idea of an inspiring woman. Her gifts are many, her commitment resolute, her contribution world-class. And boy—as you’ll read—has she had fun. What a story! It’s as beautiful as the island she loves.” —Carl Safina, author of The View from Lazy Point and A Sea in Flames

“Now this is an adventure story. Untamed is the true-life saga of a brilliant, beautiful woman who became her own tall tale. Just to survive, Carol Ruckdeschel had to become as elusive and mysterious as the creatures she first set off into the wilderness to study. Hunted by her enemies, stalked by an ex-lover, living off the land, Ruckdeschel found herself locked in a battle of wits to stay alive and pursue her scientific passion. This is no Sad Girl on a One-Year Quest for Love and Backbone; Carol Ruckdeschel is on a mission, and she’s smart and lethal enough to deal with anyone who tries to stop her.” —Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run

“Vivid. . . . Ms. Ruckdeschel’s biography, and the way this wandering soul came to settle for so many decades on Cumberland Island, is big enough on its own, but Mr. Harlan hints at bigger questions. Who does this island belong to? The Park Service, the Carnegies, Carol—and, for that matter, the turtles? What is the difference between stewardship and ownership? Carol Ruckdeschel found a home as the latest in a series of women who have tried to protect Cumberland Island. The difference being that, rather than being a Carnegie, she is a benevolent invasive species of one.” —Max Watman, Wall Street Journal

“The true and inspiring story of a rugged island and the remarkable woman who has spent decades defending it.” —Publishers Weekly

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.” —Kevin Begos, Associated Press

“Harlan’s narrative is engaging and always forward-moving. Characters leap off the page.” —Orlando Montoya, Connect Savannah

“A true action hero, Carol Ruckdeschel is using her powers of insight, persuasion, and personal commitment to protect a wilderness island off the coast of Georgia. She’s not just bemoaning the tragic decline of the natural world that sustains all life on earth, humans and turtles included. She is also putting her own life on the line to save what’s left. Thanks to Carol, there is hope for wild creatures who have preceded humankind by hundreds of millions of years—and hope for an enduring future for ourselves as well.” —Sylvia Earle, record-setting oceanographer, National Geographic explorer-in-residence, 2009 TED Prize winner, Mission Blue founder, Time‘s first Hero of the Planet, and author of The World Is Blue

“Harlan intimately and expansively profiles a fearless Southern island dweller. . . . A moving homage and an adventure story that artfully articulates the ferocities of nature and humanity.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Get ready to inhale steaming carcasses, gun smoke, and salty sea air. Harlan has a magic touch for storytelling. He rings out every sensory detail in this compelling sketch of a controversial, no-holds-barred life.” —Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic writer and New York Times bestselling author of Unlikely Friendships

“The best way to tell environmental stories, to get people to really pay attention to the real life risks out there to nature, biodiversity and the planet’s future, is not to fill them with gloom and doom but to hang them on a great character. Carol Ruckdeschel is a GREAT character!” —John Bowermaster, award-winning journalist, author, filmmaker, adventurer, and six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council

“Wild country produces wild people, who sometimes are just what’s needed to keep that wild cycle going. This is a memorable portrait.” —Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, winner of the 2013 Gandhi Peace Award, founder of 350.org

“Deliciously engrossing . . . Readers are in for a wild ride.” —Karen Chávez, Citizen-Times (Asheville)

“An engaging, illuminating read.” —Miwa Messer, Everyday e-book blog

“This is going to be a winner. I loved it—and was even choked up a time or two by Carol’s passion to save wild Cumberland. An ‘undertow of awe’ sweeps beneath the entire story. As Carol’s life reveals, the battles for wilderness are many and the victories are short-lived, but ultimately the fight comes down to one thing: pure, unwavering love.” —Brooke Williams, author of Halflives: Reconciling Work and Wildness

“Open this book to the brine of salt marsh, the musk of turtles and sea breezes, and the astonishing story of Carol Ruckdeschel. From the first line I was captivated by this biography of a fierce and enigmatic passion for wildness, mesmerizing and beautiful. May we all learn something of love from it.” —Janisse Ray, author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

Untamed is not only a page-turner but also a show-stopper. Its engaging protagonist, Carol Ruckdeschel—a combination of Jane Goodall and Annie Oakley—is kaleidoscopic in her paradoxes: ‘brutal and benevolent, savage and sympathetic, cutthroat and compassionate.’ Harlan has written an environmental classic that belongs on the shelf alongside Carson, Leopold, Muir, and Thoreau. This crafty, adventurous biography reads like a good novel and leaves readers in tears. It’s a tale of an American hero told by an American hero, and the collaboration is luminous.” —Thomas Rain Crowe, author of Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods


A New York Times Bestseller
Winner of the Langum Malott Prize
One of Amazon’s Top 100 Books of the Year
A Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick for summer 2014
A Southern Indie Bestseller (#14, 6/22/2014)
A Daily Beast Best Nonfiction Book of 2014
One of the ten “Books All Georgians Should Read” for 2015
An Advisory Council for the Georgia Center for the Book’s “Books All Georgians Should Read”


A giant sea turtle heaved her ancient body out of the water and onto the dark island beach. She crawled into the dunes, dug a nest with her flippers, and began dropping ping-pong ball—sized eggs into the hole.

Carol crept closer. She waited until the turtle had finished burying her eggs. Then she grabbed the turtle by the rim of her shell, hoisted the edge of her 300-pound body skyward, and flipped her onto her back. The turtle hissed.

Carol stapled tags into the turtle’s flippers and measured her shell: 219 centimeters, one of the largest ever recorded on Cumberland Island.

The turtle crawled back into the ocean. As Carol watched, a lonely trickle of wind grazed her cheek. The beach was dark and deserted, and so was she. Feverishly, Carol stripped off her clothes and waded out to the turtle, still awash in the surf.

She straddled the turtle’s massive shell and held onto the front edge, riding bareback into the wild waters. The sea turtle—slow and heavy on land—was swift and buoyant in the ocean. Carol felt lighter, too.

Her fears lifted.

Then the turtle began to dive. Carol gulped one last lungful of air and pressed herself against the turtle’s shell as they went underwater together. It was quiet, the water was inky, and Carol’s lungs burned, but she held on and went deeper still. Down here, she felt raw and real. She tightened her grip on the turtle’s shell and held on as long as she could.