A Review of History Afield

history afield

Today, a brief review of Robert C. Willging’s History Afield: Stories from the Golden Age of Wisconsin Sporting Life.  Even if you’re not from Wisconsin, and even if you don’t spend your time hunting, fishing, or heading up north to the resort (old-timey or otherwise), you’ll still find History Afield an entertaining read.  It offers a fascinating glimpse into a time gone by.

(Before going further, I should acknowledge that this is the second time in a row I’ve reviewed a book by someone I know; last time it was Stephen Bodio’s A Sportsman’s Library.  In my defense, I can only quote Bodio’s introduction: “In 1993…  I was accused of writing something nice about someone I knew.  I had, and will.  My argument goes like this: First, the world of outdoor writers, even the larger world of letters, is a small one.  Sometimes I think we all know each other. So, I will not give a good review to a bad book by a friend.  I will bend over backwards to be fair to those with whom I have had disagreements. I will not give a bad review to someone I do not like.”  Words to live by.  But next time I review a book here, I promise it will be one written by a stranger.)

Each chapter of History Afield is a short vignette that stands alone; this would be a great book for readers with short attention spans.  I began by skipping around; every night I sampled a few chapters here and there before bedtime.  But before long I found myself returning to the beginning and reading straight through the 19th and 20th centuries.

In 1875, before catch-and-release had really caught on, one trout fisherman reports “Spite of the day’s conditions, though, we could compute sensations of pleasure to an aggregate of one hundred and forty-five, for the party, those being the figures of joint capture.” The group ate trout for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Although most members of the party were dry-fly purists, the bass fisherman among them found that pieces of a passenger pigeon killed earlier worked wonders on the river’s trout.

Fast-forward a century, and the sport of trout fishing had become a bit more genteel—and more popular than ever among the wealthy elite.  Which brings me to History Afield’s chapter “The Summer White House on the Brule.”  This is a story from my own neighborhood, one with which I was already familiar.  Still, I learned several new tidbits.

George W. Bush was often criticized for the amount of time he spent on vacation during his presidency.  But he had nothing on Calvin Coolidge, who spent the entire summer of 1928 trout fishing on the Brule.  He stayed at a friend’s estate, one that still stands; I’ve paddled by it many times.  With him came an entourage of 60 soldiers, 14 house servants, 10 secret service agents, and about 75 reporters.  On rare occasions he traveled the 30 miles or so into Superior, where he’d set up his “summer white house” at the local high school.

(At the east end of Superior, there’s still an establishment known as President’s Liquors.  I’ve heard various rumors about how it got its name.  I’ve also heard rumors that since 1928 at least a dozen other presidents and vice presidents have spent much briefer vacations fishing the Brule in undisclosed locations.  The most recent, it’s rumored, was one with whom it was reportedly safer to fish trout than hunt quail.)

As he does with many of the vignettes in History Afield, Willging ends this one by placing it in a larger context: “After his term expired, Coolidge withdrew from public life. Distressed by the Great Depression, he died in January 1933, a little more than four years after the summer of the White House on the Brule.  Perhaps some foggy recollections of those carefree days spent on the Brule were passing through Coolidge’s mind when, on his deathbed, he uttered his last words: ‘I feel I no longer fit with these times.’”

Other celebrities appearing up at the resort, and sometimes even out on the water or out in the woods, included Bob Hope, Gypsy Rose Lee, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, up here in northern Wisconsin for well-deserved vacation in the summer of 1946.  He spent the week fishing for muskies with his four brothers (who knew!).  Although he’s vaguely recognizable, the photo otherwise looks like just another snapshot of five proud, smiling geezers at happy hour, posing on the dock with their big fish.  One of the brothers, not Ike, is wearing a pair of really cool sunglasses.

Several of these stories hint at a broader societal trend—shorter vacations and less leisure, even for those with money.  In 1875, wealthy lawyers and businessmen from Chicago reached their favorite fishing spot in the north woods of Wisconsin after a sixteen-hour train ride, two days in a horse-drawn wagon, and a day or two in a birch bark canoe.  But it was all part of the adventure; they were, after all, spending an entire month away from the office.  (It’s worth noting, of course, that average worker of 1875 didn’t have that luxury; it was only in the mid-20th century that the rest of us would begin enjoying vacations in the north woods.)

In a later chapter Willging interviews Tim Ross, a resort owner whose business has been in the family for generations.  Ross tells of families in the 20s and 30s still staying for up to a month.  They’d arrive with an entire staff, including their chauffeur.  But another chapter, “Pastika’s Sport shop: Ninety Years of Muskies and Minnows,” mentions the trend toward shorter drives and shorter vacations.  “Through the 1940s and 1950s, people still came up to Hayward for two weeks or more,” said Pastika.  “But I remember when it began to drop down to a week, and then to three- or four-day weekends.”

Willging writes that “despite catalogs and websites, the shop started by Charlie Pastika in 1921 is still a big draw for tourists in the area, a ‘must-stop’ destination because of its history.”  History Afield was published in 2011, and Pastika’s closed its doors just last year.  Every year, more of the people and places Willging describes are passing; he interviewed many of his sources just in time.

If you’d like a glimpse into their world, you can get your copy of History Afield here.

© 2013 Al Cambronne


A Review of Stephen Bodio’s A Sportsman’s Library

A Sportsman's Library

Today…  A review of Stephen Bodio’s new book A Sportsman’s Library: 100 Essential, Engaging, Offbeat, and Occasionally Odd Fishing and Hunting Books for the Adventurous Reader.

But first, before going any further…  A small disclosure and a serious warning.  I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Bodio’s other books, and I’ve occasionally visited his blog.  Then a couple months ago I discovered that A Sportsman’s Library and DEERLAND would both be released by Lyons Press on the same day.  So I got in touch, and since then we’ve traded books and traded a few e-mails.  That was fun, and it turned out we enjoyed each others’ books.  This will not, however, influence what I write here.

As Steve writes in the introduction to A Sportsman’s Library, “In 1993, reviewing books for Fly Rod & Reel, I was accused of writing something nice about someone I knew.  I had, and will.  My argument goes like this: First, the world of outdoor writers, even the larger world of letters, is a small one.  Sometimes I think we all know each other. So, I will not give a good review to a bad book by a friend.  I will bend over backwards to be fair to those with whom I have had disagreements. I will not give a bad review to someone I do not like.”  Words to live by.  And write by.  I have, and will.

That’s the small disclosure.  Now here’s the serious warning.  If you hunt or fish, and if you also read, then this could be one of the most expensive books you ever buy.  Although its cover price is only $18.95, the problem is with all those other books you’ll be wanting to buy after you’ve finished this one—the 100 mentioned in the title, but also a couple dozen more “honorable mentions.”  Consider yourself warned.

A Sportsman’s Library: 100 Essential, Engaging, Offbeat, and Occasionally Odd Fishing and Hunting Books for the Adventurous Reader.  Now there’s a subtitle you can sink your teeth into—and one letting us know from the beginning that this will be more than just another “100 best” or “100 most significant” list.  This is going to be a fun list.  Bodio also notes in his introduction that most hatch-matching and how-to books haven’t made the cut.  He does, however, make a few exceptions.

A small number of predictable standards do make the list—Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, and Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, to name just three.  But others are more obscure alternatives.  To supplement The Compleat Angler, for example, there’s the Dame Juliana Berners 1486 classic The Book of St. Albans: A Treatise of Fishing With an Angle.  And then there are dozens of obscure oddities that fulfill the subtitle’s promise of being “engaging, offbeat, and occasionally odd.

Chronologically, Bodio’s picks range from Emperor Frederick II’s 1244 The Art of Falconry to Timothy Murphy’s 2011 Hunter’s Log.  Most are from from the 20th Century, and many are from a time when the idea of a literate—or even literary—book about hunting or fishing was not a surprising notion.  It was a golden era when stories about hunting and fishing—long stories, with few or no photos and many thousands of words—earned writers serious money when they sold them to magazines like Audubon, Sports Illustrated, Atlantic, and The New Yorker.

Alas.  Those days are gone.  But the words remain.  And Bodio’s own words of insightful, erudite, and occasionally curmudgeonly commentary make A Sportsman’s Library a fun read and way more more than just a simple list.  He’s read widely, and he’s written on many of these topics himself.  He’s led quite an interesting life, and he’s someone who really has “been there and done that.”  He was definitely the right person to write this book, his “book of books.”

I suppose if I’d read widely enough to make this sort of list, mine would have been slightly different.  I’d have omitted a few titles and swapped in others.  I suspect that’s true for most readers, and part of the fun was discovering a few books I’d have otherwise never stumbled across.  Bodio did, after all, choose the title A Sportsman’s Library rather than The Sportsman’s Library.

To sum up: A Sportsman’s Library was a delight, and is best described by the words in its own subtitle: “Essential, Engaging, Offbeat, and Occasionally Odd.”  I mean that as the highest compliment.

Although it’s now springtime, another long winter is coming soon.  I’ve already checked, and there won’t be much on TV.  So I suggest you buy a copy of A Sportsman’s Library now.  Read it once for fun.  Then read it again.  This time take notes, make a shopping list, and start planning ahead.

© 2013 Al Cambronne


DEERLAND Now Available for Pre-Order

DEERLAND cover image (60 KB)

I want to thank you for the support and encouragement so many of you have offered as I’ve been pitching, researching, and writing my book about the major role of deer in the environment and in American culture.  It’s been a long road, and now the big day is almost here.

On April 2, Lyons Press will release DEERLAND: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness.  With only a few weeks remaining until my book’s launch, I’m asking for your help in making DEERLAND a success.

Although I’ve been blessed with great early endorsements and reviews, this is only my second book.  My first, written with co-author Eric Fromm, was Gut It. Cut It. Cook It.: The Deer Hunter’s Guide to Processing and Preparing Venison.  While I’m proud of that book, and while it continues to do well, it’s in a different genre and aimed at a different audience.  In a sense, I’m almost starting over as a first-time author.  That makes it challenging to help DEERLAND find the audience it deserves.

Pre-ordering DEERLAND before the launch date will help build momentum among bookstores, libraries, and the media. (You’ll also get a substantial discount.)  I’m asking for your help with these simple steps:

1. Pre-order your copy (or copies!) today.  You can click on any of the links in the upper-right corner. 

2. Share this information with your friends, colleagues, students, classmates, book clubs, and any organizations of which you’re a member.  Promoting the book on Facebook, Twitter, and your other social networks is also greatly appreciated. 

3. If you’re a blogger or member of the media, please spread the word among your readers, listeners, or viewers.  If you like, I’ll be glad to put you in touch with my publicist at Lyons so you can request a review copy.  (You can also find her contact info by visiting my Press page.) 

The U.S. is now home to 30 million hungry deer—100 times more than were here a century ago.  When we see all those deer out in the woods, most of us believe it’s a measure of the forest’s health.  It is, but in exactly the opposite way we think.  All across America, overabundant deer routinely devastate ecosystems and alter entire landscapes.  DEERLAND traces the story of how we got here and asks tough questions about what it will take to restore the balance we’ve disrupted.

I’ve also asked tough questions about the rapidly changing gear, tactics, and values of today’s hunters—and about what role those hunters will continue to play in 21st Century America.  And when it comes to deer, are hunters part of the solution, part of the problem, or both?  Rest assured, however, that DEERLAND isn’t just about hunting.  It’s a much larger environmental and cultural story.  (To learn more, please take a moment to explore my website and check out a few more blog posts.)

Whether you’re a hunter, a gardener, or a birder, and whether you care about the environment, the deer in your back yard, or the shrubbery they just ate, DEERLAND is an eye-opening read that will change forever the way you think about deer and the landscape we share with them.

I’ve shared some of the advance praise for DEERLAND on my Home page.  I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as those readers did.  Thanks to all of you for your continued support!

Best wishes,

Al Cambronne