Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Pursuing the Panda: A Remarkable Woman Explorer's Expedition of Love

From the book Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, Alicia Potter author, Melinda Sweet, illustrator
Alfred A. Knopf (Random House Children's Books imprint), 2012

Pandas, those adorable emblematic emissaries of China, are revered the world over by young and old alike. Once upon a time, not very long ago, pandas, like many other wild creatures, were prized mainly for their trophy pelts. Even the great conservationist Teddy Roosevelt's sons were proud to gift a stuffed and mounted giant panda specimen to the Chicago field museum in 1929.  

The elusive panda was regarded as a somewhat mythical creature, which added to its mystique and lure.  How ironic that proof of the iconic creature's death seemed to be required to prove it's existence!

In part what separates this expedition from others was the instinct to preserve not only the animal's legacy, but it's life, as shown in the opening excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Mrs. Harkness:
Ruth Elizabeth Harkness (21 September 1900 – 20 July 1947) was an American fashion designer and socialite, who traveled to China in 1936 and brought back the first live giant panda to the United States - not in a cage, or on a leash, but wrapped in her arms.

Ruth Harkness returns to the United States with Su-Lin

Su Lin, whose name meant "a little bit of something very cute" became an instant celebrity, instigating an outpouring of "Panda-monium," a phenomenon confirmed by newspaper headlines the nation over.

In and of itself, the story of the discovery of the first panda cub to arrive on our shores is thrilling and page turning. What adds an extra dimension is the fact that the woman who achieved this feat was the most unlikely of explorers. Her husband, a Harvard graduated, "Rooseveltesque" gentleman adventurer, had undertaken the original panda search shortly after their marriage. Two years into the trip, fighting the Chinese bureacracy as well as failing health, he died of  throat cancer (his bride had not even known he will ill!), his mission in limbo. 

Bill Harkness' young widow, Ruth, chose to channel her sorrow in a remarkable way: she would continue her late husband's quest herself, her pampered urban lifestyle notwithstanding. (She was reportedly quoted quipping that she would not walk even a block, she'd hail a cab.) 

To fulfill this aim it was crucial to listen not to the many naysayers surrounding her, counseling a more rational course. Instead, this fashionable and seemingly lightweight lady of means determined to listen to her heart. She somehow managed to draw on inner resources of resolve, fortitude, and faith to make it happen, when logic and the prevailing wisdom told her: no way!

Ruth Harkness and Su Lin in China

She tapped 22 year old Quentin Young, an already seasoned purveyor of museum specimens in the wild, of Chinese/American heritage, who helped her map out a 1,500 mile trek along the Chinese/Tibet border. She fashioned a wardrobe, hired 20 people to cook, carry gear, and otherwise enable the effort, and set out, covering up to 30 miles of rugged terrain per day. Incredibly, she attained her goal in an astounding four months!  The rest, as they say, is history, including how the lady and the panda became an American social and media phenomenon.

Ruth Harkness' efforts helped further the cause of conservation. An entranced public became more educated about the need to protect, rather than poach, the panda. The episode also provided closure for her personal grief: before leaving China she scattered her husband's ashes and gifted her wedding ring to Quentin Young to give to his fiance.  Harkness published her diary, The Lady and the Panda, in 1938, and returned to China with a second panda. She died at age 46 in 1947.

Below are links providing additional background to this lovely but little known story. Mrs. Harkness and the Panda is cataloged as a J (junior level) book in our local library system, designed mainly for upper elementary aged readers. However, this 59 year old librarian who loves animals, love stories, and tales about unlikely ladies who take chances and beat the odds, recommends it most highly to one and all.  



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