The Lessons of Childhood Boredom

So it’s official…I’m a rock star.  How can I tell?  Because I receive fan mail, that’s how.  Global fan mail.  Apparently my blog has taken off in parts of the world where the hunting tradition is far removed from my own comfortable little pocket of Ontario, and people have written me to tell me about it.  Two emails from Japan, one from Singapore, three from the U.S.A., and one from India.  None from Canada yet, but it is obvious that I’m becoming a global sensation that is unappreciated in his homeland.  And I say it is about time.
Of course, my tongue is planted firmly in cheek and my ego is far from that large.  It is flattering to know that, thanks to the international reach of blogging and the Internet at large, that people around the world are reading my diseased ramblings (over 70% of my readership is still in North America, but you just can’t help but go global in today’s day and age).  It is even more flattering that these globally diverse readers subscribe and follow my writing, let alone that they take a moment to ask me questions or drop a line and say they like what they see.  I’ve also gotten hate mail (more on that in a future post) but I guess that is the risk one runs when you put your thoughts and opinions out in the global blogosphere.  So where am I going with all this?  I’m getting there.
One letter I received from a reader in Japan (written in impeccable English I might add…I have friends and coworkers that I wish could write that well) inquired about why I write, where I got my ideas, and when I became interested in writing about hunting and the outdoors.  I actually have not responded to that email yet (I meant to I swear) but I thought I’d put my answer out there with a post instead and kill two birds with one stone.
I’ve always had an interest in reading and writing (not so much with arithmetic, but that’s another story) and at an early age was found to be an obsessively anal retentive speller of words.  So I guess I come by my wordsmithing naturally.  So that covers off the first question: I’ve been interested in the written word for as long as I can remember.
To the second and third points, I can frame these with a flashback.
When I was a much younger person I spent a lot of time visiting the family farm.  We would go there at Christmas for a few days, some years we would spend March Break there, for three or four years before I was a teenager I’d spend a week or two there in the summer, and in the fall we would go there every year for Thanksgiving weekend in October.  These regular visits were also punctuated with occasional weekend trips throughout the year.
With the exception of the week at March Break, most of these trips involved hunting in some way.  In the Christmas season I could be found following my Dad around while he was hunting varying hares with a beagle and .22 rifle.  Thanksgivings were book-ended with waterfowl hunts on the Saturday and Monday mornings (this was before Sunday gun hunting was legal in this part of Ontario), and in the summer we would travel scanning the fields of local farmers looking for woodchucks (a.k.a. groundhogs).  Helping out with chores was also on the menu, from loading wood to occasionally helping pitch hay bales into the barn, there was always lots to do.  Of course, as kids do we also fooled around and got into mischief; some of which was very unsafe.  While playing tag in the orchard in the fading light of a summer evening or tossing a Frisbee around in the front yard were pretty benign, excavating extensive, ramshackle tunnels in the hay loft or tobogganing down huge hills at break neck speeds with nothing but a page wire fence and some hay bales to stop you at the bottom were slightly more reckless pursuits.  I learned to drive a tractor (slowly, jerkily, and overall terribly) in one of those summer trips and I learned gun safety and how to shoot a rifle.  Mostly I learned to understand and cherish the rural and wilderness places of the worlds, and I gained a deep respect and love for the people and animals that call those places home.
So how do these pastoral remembrances factor into an interest in writing about hunting and outdoor pursuits?  I told you, I’m getting there.
Of course with so much to do, it was amazing that a young boy could find boredom, but I did.  Rainy days, blizzards, or days when the air was so hot, heavy and still that you could almost swim through it did not really lend themselves to robust physical activity.  And this is where writing and reading came into play.
The farmhouse was (and to a degree still is) a veritable library of anything that an interested and open-minded person would want to read.  From classic children’s books such as The Wind in the Willows and the Tale of Peter Rabbit to field guides of birds, to huge collections of hunting and fishing magazines, there was a lot to read on the farm.  It helped that television was basically non-existent, with the TV picking up just three channels up until the late-1990’s.  I read Slaughterhouse Five on the farm one rainy summer weekend when I was ten years old, and Brave New World over a series of three very cold days the following Christmas.  But most of all, and most pertinent to the question of my acquired interest in outdoor writing (finally!) I remember the collections of magazines: piles upon piles of back issues of Outdoor Life, Field & Stream, and North American Whitetail to name but a few.  I read these voraciously; and most, if not all, of the issues were from the golden age of outdoor writing.  Jack O’Connor, Ed Zern, Nash Buckingham, Robert Ruark, and dozens of other seminal names in outdoor writing became my would-be mentors.  These were authors who just wrote hunting stories. 
They told you what happened to them when they were hugging trees in an Arkansas swamp waiting for mallards, they took you on a deer hunt through the swamps, forests, and fields in the Deep South, or they dragged you reluctantly into the taiga on a grizzly bear hunt.  One tale that sticks out particularly in my mind was a story by Jack O’Connor that related his adventures hunting Bighorn Sheep in the Rocky Mountains.  You felt the ache in his hamstrings as he slogged up and down mountains looking for a ram, and you could smell the cowboy coffee percolating in the cookhouse tent in the crisp mountain mornings.  While it was not a book I read at the farm, as a boy I read my father’s copy of Death in the Long Grass by Peter Capstick Hathaway and it profoundly affected my outlook and ultimately writing style with its true adventure tales of the unpredictability and excitement of being a professional hunter and game ranger in the heart of Africa.  I’ve never looked at hippos the same way since I finished that book.
Ready for the rant part?  Good.
These writers just simply told the stories they had lived through.  They were all brilliant; they spun a yarn that combined great descriptive prose with relatable life experiences, and all without so much as a whiff of the pedagogical ego of the self-appointed ‘expert’ that is seemingly so prevalent in almost every magazine article you can read today.  Somewhere along the line it seems as though market research indicated that people bought magazines not for entertaining tales that they could relate to but rather they wanted a ‘professional’ to tell them how to do things, where they ought to go to do it, and what they should buy to do it with.  The exigencies of profit and sales have ambushed and killed the hunting story, and by extension the type of author that wrote them.  Not to sound reactionary or alienate the outdoor writing community (a club that I am not a part of anyways…I doubt they’d want me after this anyhow) but no one out there at the major magazines, and yes I still read them, can hold a candle to the writers of the my father’s generation in terms of their ability to arrange an engaging hunting story.  Jim Shockey was close, but he doesn’t do much writing anymore.  The rest are too busy telling you what guns to shoot, how to shoot them, and what decoys/calls/clothing/boots you absolutely have to own in order to be ‘successful’, items that not coincidentally are marketed by the primary sponsors of whatever publication you happen to be reading.
Whatever happened to figuring it out for one’s self through old-fashioned trial and error?  Furthermore, whatever happened to a story about going out, spending some time in the wilderness, and maybe shooting dinner or catching a fish?  When told by a more skilled craftsman than I’ll ever be this kind of story was once wildly popular…why not now?
Of course, tips and tricks have always been a part of the hunting publication.  In the old Outdoor Life they had field guides galore, and I clipped and memorized most of them.  I still know how to read a compass or build a lean-to tent (skills I learned from those field guides) but my field-dressing of a deer is still something that requires some supervision (not that I’ve had much practice…I am admittedly a generally atrocious deer hunter) and the This Happened to Me! section of the same magazine gave further insight into some things to do in the field via the shared relations of everyday readers.  The department editors had a couple of paragraphs (far less than most of them currently do) and they usually just gave their opinion on something they were familiar with or related a story that may have happened to them themselves.  This has given way to oodles of what I call ‘niche editors’.  Instead of an overarching Hunting Editor that had a little knowledge about everything you now have a Turkey Hunting editor, a Gun Dogs editor, a Deer Hunting editor, a Bow Hunting editor, etc, etc all portioning out their expertise from their fiefdoms.  I’ve historically found this at best repetitious and sometimes even condescending to the point of insult.
Sorry, things got a bit opinionated there…I could go on and on but why bother?
Let’s circle the wagons back to the question from our loyal Japanese reader and try to wrap up this literary diarrhoea.
To recap, in response to your email, I’ve always loved reading and writing, and I have a long-standing family tradition of hunting and time spent in the outdoors so this blog has sprung out of an unholy marriage of those two loves.  In terms of my ideas, I guess I’m just trying to do some justice (albeit in a small, and awkwardly ham-fisted fashion) to an area of writing that has become watered-down and mediocre in the last twenty-odd years.  I write about things that I enjoy, and I try to enjoy writing about them.  Almost nothing is off-limits and I want what I put out there to be interesting to the reader…so all that goes into where my ideas for what I’m writing come from.
Thanks for the letter, and thanks to all the others who tune in here regularly, write me encouraging words, and generally keep me going in this endeavour.

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