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Grays Best

A Pine Marten Ate Lord Jim Print E-mail

Wherein is discovered the restorative power of literature—on the menu, in the tent, in the dizzying  heights of the tree stand.
by Kurt Cox
From the September/October 2011 Issue

Getting an epic-sized backpack and myself deep into the wilderness is pure muscle memory, because I’m sure not in bear-hunting condition.

Life interfered with my preparations, as it has a way of doing. I’m a year older, too. That didn’t used to matter.

I’m relieved to find camp undisturbed by bears since last year. But something smaller has crawled inside my cache, destroying my spare boot inserts, sandwich bags, trash bags, a chunk of my pillow, and all four edges of a foam seat cushion that now looks like a big piece of bread with its crust torn away.

Critters tried to get into the cookie tins, too, where granola bars have spent 10 of the last 12 months. It’s all porcupine damage except for a series of fine perforations that, up here, could only have been made by a pine marten.

And there are holes in a plastic container. Inside is a soggy half-roll of toilet paper and my paperback of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. I’ve got more toilet paper, but I’ve only got one book. The needle-like holes staple the pages together, making page drying difficult.

I need this book. Reading in the tent at night helps settle my mind. Conrad’s story about British merchant seamen is a slice of escapism that helps me not think about how many bears will walk through camp each night. Plus, having a book can make being tent-bound in a snowstorm tolerable.

Carrying Lord Jim to camp turned out to be a better choice than I ever dreamed. Bought from a used-book store for a half-dollar, Lord Jim came west with me four years ago. Who knew that this paperback, no thicker than a deck of cards, would get me through four seasons worth of hail, rain, snow, midday heat, and bedtimes that come much earlier here than in the city?

It’s partly because, at the end of a long day of hunting, sleep comes easily. But it’s mainly because Lord Jim is a slow read. The language is beautiful, which is amazing because, according to the introduction, English was a second language for Conrad. But the book is woefully short on action. I don’t think it would have made the best-seller list in the 21st century.

Lucky me, my copy has bonus words. A previous owner named L. Patterson has written on the margins of nearly every page. And before Mr. Patterson cast this novel-in-a-bottle into the maelstrom of the used-book market, he was kind enough to record on the inside cover that the test will be on Thursday and it will have 10 factual questions and three essay questions. He has also underlined 30 percent of the lines on each page. Inside the back cover, he lists elements of the dogma taught in high school English: “White = purity, innocence, cleanliness. Black = evil, guilt. Conflicts—all four in this book: himself, society, man, nature.” Sorry. I think Conrad’s only hidden meaning is his desire to showcase his English. Any other hidden meanings can just as easily be found in Green Eggs and Ham.

Over the past four hunting seasons, I’ve averaged two paragraphs per night before my eyes began closing in the middle of sentences. How do I remember each August what I’ve read the previous September? Well, I really haven’t needed to because I’ve yet to detect a plot. But is my skinning knife less of a functional tool because I can’t remember how I last used it?

A statement this critical of a classic probably needs some defense. So here’s how I view it: Sometimes you hit the couch for some downtime and turn on the TV. Nothing’s on. But your main purpose is rest, not quality programming. So you watch whatever’s on, no matter how dull it is. That’s me, except instead of a couch I’m stuck in a tent until dawn. And so far (in my very subjective view), the book seems to be about two guys who sit in a tavern thinking uneasily about what the other is thinking. Then, once a page, one of them actually speaks. I submit this representative paragraph:


All around everything was still as far as the ear could reach. The mist of his feelings shifted between us, as if disturbed by his struggles, and in the rifts of the immaterial veil he would appear to my staring eyes distinct of form and pregnant with vague appeal like a symbolic figure in a picture. The chill air of the night seemed to lie on my limbs as heavy as a slab of marble.


“I see,” I murmured, more to prove to myself that I could break my state of numbness than for any other reason.


Tucked into my mummy bag, I find more damage: gnawing along two edges. I’m relieved to find Mr. Pine Marten’s appetite for the classics was satiated with the rind; only margins are missing and not words. Perhaps he mistook it for a banana. The edges are fully yellow, while the inside is still grayish white. He probably didn’t notice the book’s unfruity aroma until he got past the plastic bag. It smells of the dark back aisles of a used-book store: mothballs, dust, mildew. And now weasel saliva as a binding agent. I fall asleep wondering if pine martens carry hantavirus.



Three weeks later, nights are getting colder. And Lord Jim has become a page-turner now that I’m a quarter-inch from its end. Heck, I may finish it before the winter snows chase me out of here. With the story no longer a sedative, I read until my arms are too cold to hold the book outside the sleeping bag.

But there’s a new threat to Lord Jim’s survivability. My wife, Denise, has packed into camp for some R&R. She makes the tent much warmer, and she’s a base-camp manager worth having. But I still want to read a little before falling asleep. So I reach for my book and my headlamp and begin reading. Then I feel her eyes on me. Denise didn’t pack a book. And she wants one.

She tries to move closer so she can read over my shoulder. But it’s a small tent, and our shoulders are already shingled together. All she can do is move her head a couple inches closer. But that’s not enough. She pulls the book toward her. But, like the tent, the book is small. Now neither of us can make out the words. And cold air is spilling into the sleeping bags. This isn’t going to work.

I once made the mistake of telling her about the time I was tent-bound with a buddy in a whiteout near the top of the Athabasca Glacier. We had only one book, and were trapped for two days. So I would read a chapter, tear it out, and give it to my buddy. Knowing this, Denise says, “Let me have some.”

“No,” I say, without meeting her stare. This isn’t some spy thriller I’ve owned only a few days. This is Lord Jim. My Lord Jim. I can no more rend this book than I could a family pet or a favorite pair of boots. Denise must not understand how much this book and I have been through together, because she won’t let her idea go. But then, she did help pack out my elk last week. And a tent in the wilderness is one of the worst places to get cross-threaded with your spouse. So I grudgingly reached for my pocketknife.

Lord Jim became the Lord Jims, or perhaps the Lords Jim. Denise is happily reading pages 1 through 232, minus the front cover, which has become detached. A travesty, as it contains the only picture—a surreal collage of square-rigger, Jim, waves, and blood. My portion looks like what the pine marten would have left had Lord Jim tasted like pine squirrel. With no binding, I can no longer hold the pages open with one hand. Without a binding, a book isn’t a book. It’s large confetti.

Plus, the knife slipped. My pages are all missing a chunk. It looks like an origami arrowhead was removed from the book’s lower third. Denise finds the missing piece on the tent floor, but because I don’t have a third hand to hold it, I now have to make up the first word of seven sentences on the odd-numbered pages and the last word of seven sentences on the even-numbered pages. So page 233 now appears to contain the following passage, with the invented words underlined:


One wonders whether this was perhaps that ice cream opportunity, that last and satisfying test for which monkeys always suspected him to be waiting, before he could tattoo a message to the impeccable world.


Go figure. Denise likes the book from the start. “He writes like women think,” she tells my disbelieving ears. “He goes on and on about thoughts, not words. It’s think, think, think, and analyze, analyze, analyze.” She concludes the night’s lesson in both English Lit and Women’s Studies, and I wonder why Mr. L. Patterson didn’t write that in the margin.

The alarm goes off five hours later, and I pack for the day’s bear hunt. I’ll be spending days in a tree stand hung above my elk carcass, and Lord Jim is going with me. Committing to hunt from a tree stand is similar to being tent-bound, except that falling asleep can be dangerous. The book should be useful up there. Plus, I don’t want to wait another year to read the ending. I have only 30 pages to go, but the season has only seven days left. And what will become of Lord Jim when I finish? A relaunch into circulation? No: It will become part of my personal library. Besides, a used-book store would only throw away a book that appears to have passed through a wood chipper.

Lord Jim and I spend all day in a spruce tree. From 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., the book keeps me attentive and stationary on our shoulder-width platform 25 feet above the forest floor. Bears circle us at a distance, but never pass within range.

I climb the tree again the next day, and after another 12 hours I’m worn down. It hurts to sit. It hurts to stand. I get vertigo if I read for more than five minutes. I rig an additional sling under my armpits so I can nap occasionally. It’s getting dark and cold. If anything’s going to happen today, it will be soon. Then I see the bear coming.

I’ll let Joseph Conrad (mostly) tell what happened next:


“He was silently shadowing the mountainside with a still, far-away look of fierce yearning for the elk carcass below, with his nostrils for an instant dilated, sniffing the intoxicating breath of wasting opportunity. Ah, he was an imaginative beggar! He would give himself away; he would give himself up. I could see in his glance darted into the twilight all his inner being carried on, projected headlong into the fanciful realm of recklessly heroic aspirations. He had no leisure to regret what he might lose, he was so wholly and naturally concerned for what he might fail to obtain. He was very far away from me who watched him across only twenty yards of space. With every instant he was penetrating deeper into the impossible world of appetizing achievements. We were alone but for a vague bony form prone upon the ground that, being looked at, came into focus, malodorous, daylight backing away silently. He got to the crimson-fringed rib cage at last! A strange look of beatitude overspread his features, his eyes sparkled in the light of the alpenglow burning around us; he positively smiled! It was getting late, but I did not hurry my guest. ‘Steady, steady,’ I murmured. I started forward, scraping the tree. I closed and opened my curved fingers, and my hand had an eager and cruel flutter. The arrow had penetrated to the very heart—to the very heart. He bounced off the ground as if a mine had been exploded behind his back, and half disappeared before he alighted, flying on his feet to leave me a startled heart and racing mind.


“I heard him out with my hands cupped behind my ears, and I had another glimpse through a rent in the limbs in which he moved and had his being. The rising moonlight spluttered within the wall of trees, and that was all I had to see him by; at my back was the dark night with the clear stars, whose distant glitter disposed in retreating planes lured the eye into the depths of a greater darkness. While the pungent odour of decomposing ungulate enveloped me suddenly with an atmosphere of foreboding in the cool, pure darkness of the night, the headlamp had been put on in the dark timber. My candle glimmered solitary in the fir gallery, and the pine trunks had turned black from pediment to capital. On the vivid stars the high corner of Dagger Peak stood out distinct across the Milky Way, as though the sombre pile had glided nearer to see and hear. Finally a mysterious instinct seemed to guide me to his cocoa body, and in this quiet mountain valley the youth within him had, for a moment, gleamed and then expired.”


I work past midnight skinning, quartering, and caching the meat. Back in the tent and in my sleeping bag, I take a pen and squeeze a note of my own onto the margin of Lord Jim. Next to the second paragraph of page 254 I write, “K. Cox killed a bear while reading this page.”

At home waits a used copy of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It’ll be packed into camp next season. Already I’m wondering what might eat it. n


Kurt Cox is a writer, geologist, mountain climber, sailor, and artifact diver, but only when it isn’t hunting season. He lives with his wife, Denise, in Panama City, Florida.



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