dogs, environmentalism, fishing, hunting, Jack London, Jim Kjelgaard, nature, nature writing, Why we read, young adult fiction
I gave my nephew a set of four books this last Christmas: Big Red, Irish Red, Outlaw Red (a trilogy of Irish Setter stories) and Stormy, all by Jim Kjelgaard, and then for his ninth birthday, I found two more (the books are mostly out-of-print) Snow Dog and Wild Trek. He’s loved the books, as I figured he would, him being a kid who has spent much of his life pretending he was a dog, or some other animal. Then, after he was done with them, he lent them back to me, and after over 25 years away, I happily immersed myself back in Kjelgaard’s universe.
As a kid, I loved two authors above all others – Jim Kjelgaard and Jack London. Kjelgaard came first – I began reading him when I was about eight, and I read and reread him for the next couple of years until I found The Call of the Wild and White Fang and all of Jack London’s short stories. Kjelgaard is definitely a young adult writer, with story lines that are straightforward, lacking the difficult layering of themes. He writes about young men, mostly all trappers, and their dogs, and his characters are all men. The only woman in the six above mentioned books appears in Big Red, and she is cold, distant and gone in just a few short pages. However, as a kid, I wasn’t worried about the feminist implications of the lack of women. I cared instead about these men and their dogs, because despite the lack of women, or maybe because of it, these stories were unreservedly love stories of men in love with their dogs, and whose dogs love them. These were love stories I could relate to and understand. I read Kjelgaard knowing that he would never disappoint me like the Little House books did when Laura got married and betrayed our tomboy sisterhood. By reading these books I was given a chance to dream a life without bounds, outside of the construct of traditional relationships – of marriage, career and kids. Reading these books solidified my aspirations to be resourceful, tough, brave, loyal and possessing intimate knowledge of the land where I lived. Reading those books taught me how to love the world, because that is the other thing the men loved besides their dogs – they loved their land.
These men were trappers, yes, killing hundreds of animals for their fur every year, but they were also mountain men who loved and lived in the woods. I was troubled by this seeming incongruity when I was a kid, having read of the suffering of animals in these traps, but it was by this trapping that these men ventured into the woods, and still today it is hunters, those men and women who go into the woods, fields and marshes to hunt venison, duck, turkey and quail – that know the land in a way that few of us will ever know. This is something that cannot be overlooked.
In college I went on a NOLS natural history backpacking trip in the Absoraka and Beartooth ranges in Wyoming and Montana, and our primary purpose was to backpack for 28 days, learning the ecology of the mountain environments. However, one of our early lessons was also how to fly fish. Hiking, sleeping and cooking in small groups of four, I volunteered to carry my group’s flyrod everyday, happily accepting the extra weight of it’s PVC pipe carrying case, because that meant that I had first dibs of using it when we got into camp at night. We were graded for the skills we learned that month, and the only skill I “failed,” was cooking, because every night as my group prepped our meal, I was at a trout stream, fishing us our dinner, and my hiking group had fish to eat almost every night, a happy addition of protein to our backwoods, carbohydrate-heavy diets. And while I loved every day of hiking through those mountains, and marveled at the mountain lakes and the sweep of tundra and pine forest, what I remember most distinctly was the trout streams. I remember the lake where I caught my first trout (a small brook trout), the stream where I first caught a rainbow, and the stream I caught my first cutthroat. And of these creeks and brooks and occasional river, I know those waterways with an intimacy unlike anything I have for trails I walked. By acting as the predator, I saw the river deeply – I noticed where the small eddies were as the brook made a slight bend, I saw the hole behind the rock, the overhanging tree cooling the water, the place where the creek pinched together and the small falls that followed.
Of course it is possible to see deeply without killing. Birders seek out their “prey,” with the same intensity as hunters, and a person just returning to the same spot again and again and simply being still in it will see and know that place greater than anyone else. Farmers know their land, and kids know their neighborhoods. Indeed, I worked as a sea kayaking guide for years, and got to know almost one hundred rivers and tidal creeks with varying levels of intimacy. But I know the rivers I fished even a little bit better than the rest, attuned to the snags that slow the water, and holes that cool, and “rocky” oyster bottoms that draw rockfish and bluefish. You do not need to hunt to see, but my point is that by hunting and fishing, one gets the chance to gaze upon the world in a way that the vast majority of people miss. Some of the wilderness’ greatest advocates were and are hunters. Aldo Leopold, the founding father of sustainable landuse was a hunter, Audobon hunted, and Rick Bass, the man who loves his Yaak Valley so deeply that I worry for his health, writes about hunting with as much love as Jim Kjelgaard once did.
The nature writer, David Gessner wrote a blog post recently titled “Mr. Hopeless” (http://billanddavescocktailhour.com/mr-hopeless/#more-2240 about his dislike of purist environmentalists, and he makes a wonderful point. He recently wrote his Green Manifesto, with the objective:
To describe the ways that my own life, and the lives of some people I admire, are connected to the natural world, and the benefits that come from that connection, benefits that are not always obvious.
And in his manifesto, he celebrates environmental hypocrisy. He writes about hope being key, even when faced with the crisis of climate change. And he also argues for the necessity of hypocrisy. As he writes:
Another part is about admitting our own hypocrisy but still fighting on. The best summary of this last sentiment was given by . . . Dan Driscoll, the eco planner who for two decades has fought to clean up the Charles River, adding greenways and native plantings. One day, while we were paddling down that same river, Dan said this to me:
“We nature lovers are hypocrites, of course. We are all hypocrites. None of us are consistent. The problem is that we let that fact stop us. We worry that if we fight for nature, people will say, ‘But you drive a car,’ or, ‘You fly a lot,’ or, ‘You’re a consumer, too.’ And that stops us in our tracks. It’s almost as if admitting that we are hypocrites lets people off the hook.”
I pulled my paddle out of the water to listen.
“What we need are more hypocrites,” he said. “We need hypocrites who aren’t afraid of admitting it but will still fight for the environment. We don’t need some sort of pure movement run by pure people. We need hypocrites!”
We humans are part of this world, and if we are going to save this world it will not be through perfectionism, but by living in our sloppy imperfect ways, but living with a goal of making things better rather than worse. We can strive for consciousness in our living, being aware of our watershed, biking more and eating as locally as we can afford to (but without self righteousness), and lessening our carbon footprint on the world. We can turn off lights and air conditioners, we can reuse and recycle. We can upcycle (a subject for a future blog). But we also must actually LOVE this world in order to save it. We must be allowed to live in it, to hike in it, to hunt and eat from it. We have to be able to live without the constant guilt of imperfection, of feeling that we can never be good enough to save the world on our own, so why even try. It is like going on a diet and then when you slip up, giving up entirely and eating whatever being punitive with ourselves for failure. Perfection gets us nowhere, but love, love in all its forms, love of place, of meat, of vegetables, of dogs, of fathers, of wives and husbands, partners and friends, love for our children, actual real love – that is a power that is real.
One of the reasons I loved London’s books, and Kjelgaard, is the description of the food. Kjelgaard has his men cook breakfasts of pancakes and dinner’s of pork chops, or venison, or brook trout. He seasons his food with butter, salt and pepper, or in the case of Wild Trek, food is seasoned simply by the hunger of survival. Eating to survive, eating as fuel, was also a revelation to me as a child living a comfortable suburban life. The narrator of London’s story “To Build A Fire,” has a bacon sandwhich tucked inside his shirt to keep it warm. London describes it as such:
As for lunch, he pressed his hand against the protruding bundle under his jacket. It was also under his shirt, wrapped up in a handkerchief and lying against the naked skin. It was the only way to keep the biscuits from freezing. He smiled agreeably to himself as he thought of those biscuits, each cut open and sopped in bacon grease, and each enclosing a generous slice of fried bacon.
The simplicity of that bacon sandwich was wonderful to me, as was the idea of eating with such true, real hunger. Of carrying a sandwich next to your skin to keep it from freezing – the using of food as real fuel for oneself. I even wrote a short story built around the idea of describing such a sandwich. The shopping list that Link Stevens gives in Snow Dog is for:
fifty pounds of sugar, two hundred flour, fifty each of rice and beans, thirty of raisins, maybe thirty of dehydrated apricots and peaches. You know what I need: about six hundred pounds all told.
And with that he put in his grub stake order for the next year, everything else he ate he would catch or kill. It wasn’t the gourmet quality of the food, but rather the simplicity of it – the idea that you could quantify your food in such a way and survive on so little, and that food was necessary for survival, as fuel rather than as indulgence.
I am teaching “To Build A Fire” this summer as part of a short story class. I sat down to dinner to reread it and prepare some teaching notes, but was distracted by the meal I prepared of lamb chops and sweet corn. Living alone for the summer, I quickly forgot my manners and tore into meat and corn with my hands and teeth, the juices and butter dripping down my chin and hands. It was the best meal I’ve eaten in ages, made out of five ingredients, lamb, salt, basil (from my herb garden), corn and butter. The dog I am watching this summer dozed through this all, sleeping a few feet from my table, ready to stand and follow me if he sensed movement, but otherwise not concerned with my lip-smacking. I didn’t finish reading “To Build A Fire” during dinner, I’ll have to do that later tonight. But I think my meal was as fine a tribute to Kjelgaard and London as I could have ever conceived. And getting back outside, into the world, and actively loving the world, is an even greater tribute.