by Christopher Camuto
Donald C. Jackson has quietly become a strong presence in Southern outdoor literature. I know of no other contemporary writer whose interests are so well balanced among the preoccupations of a naturalist, a hunter, and a fisherman. (His Wilder Ways was reviewed in November/December 2013.)
The son of a preacher and a teacher who was raised in the country in Kentucky and Arkansas, Jackson became a biologist of considerable standing without ever losing touch with his roots. Indeed, the underlying theme of Deeper Currents: The Sacraments of Hunting and Fishing (University Press of Mississippi, hardbound, $26) is that there are strong, instructive connections between the truancy of a young boy running trotlines and a professional biologist who, decades later, studies the evolutionary ingenuity of the flathead catfish he once sought as that young boy. An essayist of considerable skill, Jackson conveys at every turn the idea that one has to experience nature in order to know it. A mess of outraged catfish slapping around the bottom of a johnboat is a good way to start.
Jackson conveys a wealth of fishing and hunting experiences in the pages of this fine book, ordinary experiences rendered in extraordinary ways. The energy and vivacity of his boyhood memories glow at every turn: “We prowled and probed, afoot, afloat . . . slipping through the forests and along the waterways, fishing, hunting, rambling.” Jackson pays high homage to “the purple plastic worm”—so far as I know, a unique achievement in literature—in a fine essay on boyhood bass fishing. And he turns in a classic essay on coon hunting, another neglected subject. The essay “Three Rifles” is a model of how the memory of beloved hunting firearms can become an important part of one’s life. When he is not pursuing the obsessions of his formative years—“deer, ducks, squirrels and an occasional rabbit”—he marvels at the dance of woodcocks, explores old barns, tinkers with tractors, and imprints on “everything ‘Southern’: the climate, the hills and creeks and bottoms, the lakes, tupelo and cypress swamps, the hunting and fishing, and the prevailing undercurrent of independence, self-reliance, community and—most particularly—the region’s propensity for eccentricity.”
Jackson does not romanticize the South, and he doesn’t lather on the folksiness as some writers do. There’s no veneer here—just a fine account, in first-rate prose, of a life lived close to nature, whether he is hunting his 50-acre farm in Mississippi or waiting in a duck blind along the Stikine River, or off on professional work studying rivers in Malaysia and East Africa. Although his reflections run deep and tend toward the ideal of spiritual fulfillment suggested by the book’s subtitle, those thoughts are well earned. His sense of the sacramental is accessible to anyone who loves woods and fields, rivers and lakes, whatever their beliefs. With Jackson, as with many serious nature writers, what is tangible in nature and what is transcendental—however you choose to think of that—are intimately related and mutually dependent: “They lead us deeply into the realms of both material and spiritual wealth.” See more at www.upress.state.ms.us.
In The Ghosts of Autumn: A Season of Hunting Stories (Skyhorse, hardbound, $27.99), Joel Spring makes fine use of a familiar genre. “Raised in the flat farmland of western New York,” Spring is, like Donald Jackson, a creature of place and season. This collection of essays takes us through his thoughtful, well-observed hunting life in Western New York, in the Adirondacks, in Maine, and elsewhere. Spring pursues game with the casual intensity of the lifelong hunter. There is a pleasantly opportunistic rhythm to his long autumn that stretches, as it does for many of us, from the kick of squirrel hunting in bright, leafy woods to the intensity of deer hunting against the somber grays of November. The autumn that unfolds in Spring’s capable hands is considerably enriched by the “ghosts” of memories that inhabit Spring’s woods—the dogs and guns of the past, memorable hunting incidents that bring successes and failures to mind, and of course, the characters and quirks of companions who have enriched his days afield. Spring’s detailed attention to squirrel hunting is refreshing—he has a talent for depicting the eastern woods and the habits of animals at any scale of interest. He is a good naturalist—as any hunter should be—and his prose reflects the true hunter’s devotion to noticing as much as possible about the life of the woods. He pays homage to his dogs and his bird-hunting days and recounts duck hunting with equal enthusiasm, until the end of the season coalesces around the demands of deer hunting.
Spring’s roots, like Jackson’s, are deep: “I’d cut my outdoor teeth in the mountains of the Adirondacks. When I was barely old enough to walk, my parents took me up Goodnow Mountain—not very far from Nobleboro. When I was a child on vacation with my parents, and later, a teenager, I caught toothy, smiling northern pike in the cold, deep reaches of Loon Lake. At night, we fished for bullhead with my grandfather. . . . Still just a kid in my twenties, I brought my own daughters to Loon Lake.” You get the idea. This fine book is well haunted by memories set in a vivid, quietly exciting hunting season that has many moments of revelation and deep satisfaction. This volume contains some of Spring’s excellent black-and-white photography, a nice counterpoint to his fine prose. More at www.skyhorsepublishing.com.
Ed Van Put writes angling history as meticulously as he ties the Adams fly he is famous for preferring when fishing the Beaverkill and the Delaware. His second—revised and updated—edition of The Beaverkill: The History of a River and Its People (Stackpole Books, hardbound, $39.95) deepens his work on the storied Catskill River in several ways. He discusses new information on the origin of the rainbow trout introduced into the Beaverkill in 1875, an heroic strain of fish to eastern anglers. In addition to augmented detail on other matters from newly unearthed sources, this volume contains a superb addendum, “Flies with Ties to the Beaverkill.” These pages contain photos, recipes, and the intriguing histories of flies associated with the river. Van Put’s research has gotten him well beyond the familiar—the Hairwing Royal Coachman, the Cross Special, and Rat-Faced McDougal. He has ferreted out the origins of the Davidson Special, the Monsignor, Sill’s Special, and the Katterman, the last of which traces to a barber in Walden, New York, in the 1920s. Van Put takes scholarly pride and pleasure in such details. This new edition is a fine excuse to return to a classic text in angling history. Like many great trout rivers, the Beaverkill is the stuff of legend, but its actual history in the hands of a scholar-angler like Ed Van Put is even more interesting and thought provoking. Buy it at www.amazon.com/Beaverkill.
Another angling reprint of interest is A Concise History of Fly Fishing (Rainstone Press, softbound, $19.95) by Glenn Law. This elegantly illustrated, small-format volume has long been a favorite of mine. Writing with the engaged clarity E. B. White would have admired, Law takes the reader through the milestones of angling history, “the common touchstones of the sport, the things we need to know about.” Originally published in 2003, this book remains the best recent introduction to the subject. The artwork and plates reproduced within its pages are a wonderful part of that history. More info at www.amazon.com/Concise-History.
Chris tends a wild woodland property and the hours of a writing life in central Pennsylvania. The author of several books and a columnist for Trout, he teaches at Bucknell University, where he is a senior fellow in the Environmental Residence College.