Wildlife in America

by Scott Sadil

I often sense I live in a cultural void. This is no place to analyze my resistance to screen time, whether computer monitor or smart phone or television (if I had one), other than to offer it up as my excuse for why I must be the last writer in America to become aware of Jim Harrison’s posthumous collection of nonfiction, The Search for the Genuine, published last fall, with a rich and eloquent introduction by Luis Alberto Urrea.

Harrison, of course, who died in 2016 at the age of 78, is more well-known for his poetry and fiction, both novels and novellas, a form he gravitated toward throughout his long career.  Here, however, we’re treated to firsthand accounts of his hunting and fishing, his life with dogs, his love of good food and the outdoors, all told in that bold, vigorous and expansive voice that runs through all of his work, a voice Urrea compares to “a big river in flood,” with “currents and undercurrents” that swirl untamed into discussions of “religion, and meditation, ethics, politics, and even lit crit analyses of other writers and their work.”     

(Urrea, I should note, by way of disclosure, chose me and four other writers twenty-five years ago for expenses-paid fellowships at the annual Fishtrap Gathering of Writers, held each summer at the edge of the Eagle Cap Wilderness in Jospeh, Oregon.)

It’s Harrison’s vivid essays from a long and wide-ranging career as a fly angler that may hold the most interest to readers here.  The scope is impressive: Tarpon out of Key West, brown trout in Montana, brook trout on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, billfish in Ecuador, roosterfish off mainland Mexico.  Cameo appearances by the likes of Tom McGuane, Russell Chatham, Guy de la Valdène and other luminaries who belonged to Harrison’s circle of angling pals only add to the richness of these tales.

Yet there’s something else going on here besides Harrison’s Big Life, his capacity for work and sport, his “appetite,” writes Urrea, “for experience, literature, good food, dogs, and unruly rivers.”  Harrison, we come to understand, if we didn’t already know it, was a champion of the planet, a defender of wild places, a spokesman for the untrodden path based on the cold and often cruel realities of nature, not the fluffy or whimsical so-called love of trees or whales or salmon that take us away from what’s really at stake, the enemy we must face head on, as though our lives depended on it.