Murder or Mercy Killing 3

The Nature Conservancy’s Matt Miller, is one of the most innovative writers around. His book  Fishing Through the Apocolypse  includes tales of fishing for minnows,. Here he says everything I wanted to say, and more :

“I have a similar feelings. My dad, almost 80, has been in disbelief and perhaps mourning. He has read both of these magazines (plus Sports Afield) for his entire life. He is at best a casual outdoorsman; he enjoys deer camping, plinking guns, a walk in the woods, but could hardly be considered serious. Still, he read every issue of the “big 3” cover to cover. My grandfathers, both very serious hunters, also read them. One worked in factories and one on the railroads. Both had houses with bookshelves and piles of magazines. One had an 8th grade education, he rarely if ever hunted outside his county, and yet those magazines were a great source of enjoyment.


“I think this hints to a perhaps a deeper change that is affecting magazines like Outdoor Life and Field & Stream. You will not find this now. I say this with no disrespect to factory workers, but if you go in a factory worker’s home today, you are very, very unlikely to find a stack of magazines or a bookshelf. It would be rare for me to go into a friend’s home in my youth and not see Outdoor Life. Today the opposite is true.


“I have many thoughts on this, most of them probably useless. Why did these 2 venerable magazines go away? Partly for predictable reasons. I see it as similar as to other news and magazine publishing. A combination of declining readership plus corporate management is deadly. Faced with declining readership, the corporate owners cut stories that ensure the readership declines even more rapidly. Short-term profit is valued over loyalty to readers or building a better publication. I could see this happening with Outdoor Life and F&S; the publications went to a quarterly schedule, there were fewer features, etc.


“A recent story I read about baseball made the point that the league “was abandoning a declining but loyal fan base in favor of a larger, younger but entirely theoretical fan base.” I think this applies to outdoor magazines as well.


“Overlooked in many analyses is a trend I see in outdoor sports: The shift from hunting and fishing as being a part of life to being a “brand lifestyle.” This may make sense only to me, I recognize. But it’s real. Thinking again to my grandparents, hunting and fishing were woven into the fabric of their rural lives. They were generalists. They hunted and fished a lot, and for a variety of reasons. But they weren’t “brand ambassadors.” They almost never even took photos of their times outside. They owned a good rifle, good boots and a Woolrich coat, but they didn’t buy much.


“Very central to the outdoor experience was the story. This cannot be overstated. Hunters like my grandfathers grew up valuing a good story. So, even though they may not go hunting in Alaska, they still loved a yarn spun by Russell Annabel.


“Certainly stories will always be central to hunting and fishing, but the telling has changed.  Now a story is “curated” for social media, with matching $1,500 camouflage outfits, bloodless quarry, a perfect scenic backdrop. The story takes a backseat to merchandising. And not to sound like an old grumpy guy, but there is a degree of arrogance demanded by this format. Whereas I grew up idolizing outdoor writers, now it is most important to portray yourself as being the original trailblazer. I went to a lecture by a well-known personality who specializes in hunting for food, someone who has undoubtedly done good things in this regard. But I was struck by how he actually believed he INVENTED game cookery. He made statements about him popularizing squirrel! I grew up eating squirrel, as did nearly everyone I knew in central Pennsylvania (and other regions of the US).


“Related is specialization. I think general outdoor magazines were ultimately doomed in this environment where outdoor interests are very, very specialized. Again, my friends and neighbors growing up may have lived for deer season, but they would still read about African safaris and survival adventure stories. Now, whitetail hunting itself (which I love) has become almost unrecognizable, with food plots, endless trail cameras, stands, scoring systems, etc. So if you run a story on beagles, the whitetail nut is completely disinterested. If you try to cater to the whitetail guy, then there is very little for someone like me. In fact, Outdoor Life was going this way, a fact remarked on by my friends and relatives who are still readers.


“II would be impossible to overstate the influence these magazines had on me. Before I could read, I would spend endless hours with them. My family did not consist of travelers. It was these magazines who ignited that in me. I wanted to go to Africa, to the Amazon. In high school, I would read and reread everything Tom McIntyre wrote. I would study his stories on rat shooting and alligators and the unpleasant people you encounter on safaris. I wanted to follow in his footsteps. And while my life and career went in a slightly different direction, the influence is still there. I am likely the only employee of a non-hunting conservation organization with a taxidermied kangaroo that I shot (actually, not even many hunting writers can likely make this claim), but it works for me.”


Murder or Mercy Killing 2

I have heard only from Tom MacIntyre and Dave Petzal so far but I have been firmly corrected. Not on my central thesis- that something historically important has happened, and nobody is paying attention—- but  on the specific and real facts of the matter, which my memory had totally screwed up. What is more, I  was so sure of myself that I didn’t even do any research.

Dave wrote:

Tom: I think Steve needs to check his facts.

Field & Stream (not Field and Stream) was begun in 1895. Outdoor Life was started in 1898. This is a lot longer than 75 years.

The last paper issue for each appeared in June, 2020. In the case of F&S, it was the magazine’s 125th anniversary issue. 

Angus Cameron was indeed Jack O’Connor’s Editor at Knopf. He did not edit or publish Al McClane, who was published by Holt, Rinehart, & Winston. I doubt that  HRW would sell Knopf reprint rights. What does Steve mean Cameron “got O’Connor into” the NYT and The New Yorker?” Neither of those publications would touch a gun book wearing rubber gloves. When? Cite.

Both magazines continue to publish websites, and F&S, at least, is putting out regular complete issues, albeit electronically. They no longer exist in their historic forms, but they do exist. 

The transmogrification of magazines from paper to 01010101 has been going on for years now, and I have no doubt will continue. What we are looking at is the greatest transformation in reading since Guternberg arrived. “

I thanked him humbly,  and resolved to put in the corrections,as I am doing here.But I thought I had him on one thing: Angus Cameron, Jack’s editor, was a friend of mine in his old age, and  I had  a copy of a certain letter.

Unfortunately, it didn’t say what book they were talking about. Tom replied:

“February 12, 1938, brief, lukewarm–Jack didn’t write it tough enough–review in The New Yorker, pg. 75, of O’Connor’s Boom Town.  No Rifle Book yet.”

Then:  “Bingo!  April 26, 1947, Hunting in the Rockies, review, The New Yorker, pg. 99.”

Dave was merciless: “No, I said firmly. A gun book is about guns, such as The Hunting Rifle, and says so in the title. That’s what I mean. “

Tom: “I take your point; it just seems a little blanket to me, that’s all.  The New Yorker not only reviewed “Giving up the Gun” by Noel Perrin–a history of the Japanese voluntary rejection of firearms in favor of the more elitist sword, until Commodore Perry got them to change their minds–they also ran a good bit of it before the book’s publication.  Something like the New Yorker archive is a cruel mistress.  She does not respond to demands, but must be approached with suasion.  I guess I’m saying, it maybe not be impossible, but highly improbable that they did not slip up somewhere, sometime, and let a piece on guns, or a review of a gun book, get into print.

Tom: “Just so I understand, The New Yorker has never published a review of a book about guns?”

Dave: “This is impossible for me to answer. I would have to check back to 1925, and read every issue. I can’t imagine them doing it, as guns are…distasteful. I checked to see if they had reviewed Chris Chivers’ The Gun, since it’s history, and he works for the NY Times, but no. Nice people don’t own guns, or use them, or read about them..”

Enough. I am still going to miss those magazines….

Steve Wright R.I.P.

Steve Wright was my friend, and one of the most contrary people I ever knew. He was born in Georgia, a self – described””Redneck” from a respectable background, a tattooed biker who rode a Harley and dipped snuff. He was also a confirmed Socialist politically (the only other hillbilly socialist I know is the musician Steve Earle, who remind sme a little of Steve.).

Steve W  had a good act . He had a PhD in biology, and  had bee the Game Commissioner 0f two states, Idaho and Vermont. He was also the president of Sterlnng Colleege, where Anniee Proulx and I ran the Wildbranch Writing Workshop for  almost a decade.

I remember one speech he gave where he brought all  his contradictions together. He had just had brain surgery, and  was not at all shy . t. He got up to the podium in his leather jacket and straw cowboy hat, spat into his ever- present  spit ,up,  and introduced himself, saying “I ain’t drunk. I just had half my BRAIN removed, which I guess qualifies me to be president of this college!”

He visited us in Bozeman after the Sturgis bike rally once,  and a busybody neighbor called the cops and told them we were harboring a meth dealer. The cop was amused to see that , instead, he was the President of Sterling.)

I lost track of Steve ,and was trying to get back in touch with him when I found out that he had died, “with” Parkinson’s. ” I was suspicious , as  I always am when I see that locution. People don’t  ever die from Parkinson’s; they always die “WITH  Parkinson’s.

Years before I met him, I had read a piece in theGray’s slushpile I by Steve, called “How To Shoot Your Dog.” It was really a rather kindly piece, advocating that you kill your dog when she has become old and feeble  by shooting her in the back of the head when she is on her last great point.

But it bothered me; the dog might never feel a thing, but what about the hunter’s memories? I said to Lib, “I bet this guy kills himself someday”.

I would rather remember happier times, watching Steve  admire e a rare e 2 trigger 16  bore very early Browning Superposed that belonged to a woman he knew., or clog dancing with the poet Janisse Ray, the  Swamp Witch.

Murder, Mercy Killing, or Suicide??

Last month, two of the most important outdoor magazines ever, Outdoor Life and Field and Stream ceased to exist. They might hang around in some electronic form or other for a while, but make no mistake; they are gone. They covered the outdoor scene for seventy-five years or more, with Field and Stream doing the upscale end of the scene and Outdoor Life the blue collar. Despite this, everybody read both of them.  They featured writers who, at least in their time, became famous. These included Robert Ruark, Corey Ford, Jack O’Connor, Gene Hill, Lee Wulff, AJ McLean, and many others.

Angus Cameron, the legendary editor at Knopf, published many of these writers in the Knopf Borzoi series. He was Jack O’Connor’s editor and got his Rifle Book into the New Yorker and the New York Times. The writer’s names were household words, in a way that never seemed to happen in magazines on other subjects. And now we don’t even get an announcement of their deaths in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.

These magazines taught several generations of boys not only how to be sportsmen, but how sportsmen should act. And now they’re gone. I do not understand this. Is it that all their fans are dying or dead? It is certainly very not a desirable demographic. I have a theory that something is happening to all paper magazines. I will examine this in the next two weeks, and ask the opinions of a few veteran “Outdoor Writers”, including Hal Herring, Tom McIntyre, John Barsness, Matt Miller, Jim Babb, Terry Wieland, and Seth Norman— some very different perspectives. And more, and worse…


A horrified Lucas Machias sent me this link and several other sources confirmed it : A band of chimpanzees in a reserve had killed and eaten two young gorillas.

Lucas was as horrified as the writers, who stressed that this had never happened before. I am more cynical, as I suspect other people who have worked in zoos, are.

To make a short generalization: chimps are assholes. Faced with choices they always do the evil thing. Chimps regularly hunt and kill monkeys and a recent report is out about chimps killing an albino chimp apparently because it was different. They killed the gorillas because they could, and I bet it will happen again.

Gorillas are basically peaceful souls, if a bit morose (they are also vegetarian and wouldn’t eat a chimp anyway).

As far as I know, bonobos are very nice, and so are orangoutangs, although there are disturbing reports about adolescent male orangs practicing rape. Gibbons, though true apes, are more like monkeys in their behavior.

But as far as I’m concerned, chimps are assholes. In none of the other species a tame individual has ever ripped a woman’s face off. On a more benign level, consider two of the chimps I knew. One would shit in her hand and throw it at you; the other, more creative and younger, used to pursue you with shit, rub it on your pantleg, and then grab a dairy brush and spank himself with it laughing hysterically. He also could be far more dangerous — he ripped open the arm of a young girl so badly she needed stitches when her idiot mother tried to put her in the chimp cage when an escaped tapir was running hysterically around the main paths.

Of course, we share about 90% of our DNA with this Caliban. Sigh. (Actually the woman proved it true: she sued the zoo for letting a veterinarian sew up her daughter only to find he was the head of pediatrics at Mass General consulting on apes.)

Tim’s Excellent Adventure

In 2010 Tim Gallagher went to Mexico to investigate the plight of the Imperial woodpecker. Various border hands I knew, like Chuck Bowden and J P S Brown (who had owned a ranch in the Sierra Madre) warned us that it might be a very dangerous trip. Tim went anyway, and encountered ecological devastation and deliberate biocide. His email to us when he escaped was the most harrowing I’ve received from someone in the field.

I thought he had it made for an adventure book but his 2013 book, Imperial Dreams, for whatever reason, showed little of this danger. I asked Tim if I could publish the email and he immediately agreed. Here it is, with his permission, for the first time.


March 26, 2010


Those guys are completely correct in their assessment of Mexico. It’s incredibly dangerous now. I made five trips there in the past 12 months, and each time it became noticeably more hazardous. But the level of danger took a quantum leap when I sent to Durango. I’m grateful just to be alive and well. That day we drove out was amazing. We spent almost five hours driving alone through a virtual war zone that we were warned not to go through without an escort. We did have something set up with a “friendly” drug lord and the director of the area’s forestry unit, who were supposed to meet us at 10:00 AM in the village of Guacamyita, high in the Sierra Madre, and accompany us to Durango. But this being Mexico, they didn’t show up, so we had to go it alone. We spoke with a middle-aged local man, who everyone called “the Judge” – and he did have some civic function in the area. He said Carnelio, the drug grower and prominent local citizen who was to accompany us, was supposed to have come back two days ago but didn’t show. The Judge has a quite blase attitude about our concerns. He said a few trucks had gotten through that week, so perhaps it would be okay. There had only been a few houses burned in the past few days, but no one was killed. Then he said, “You will get there at best.” (Of course, I wondered what the other options were – the “at worst” or somewhere in between.)

We weighed our options. Two-and-a-half weeks earlier when we had arrived in Durango, the situation was already becoming horrendous. At 5:30, the afternoon before we ledt for the Sierra, there was an enormous explosion not far from our hotel, followed by sirens. It turned out someone had fired a rocket-propelled grenade at another hotel where a lot of federales were staying, and it rattled our windows. WE had met with Julian Bautista, the forestry unit director, at  his office earlier in the day and been introduced to Cornelio and his associates. Julian was great. He gave a speech to these guys about how important and historic the work was that we were doing and that they should be proud to help us. We gave them the whole song and dance in his office, showing them the movie of an Imperial Woodpecker that was taken virtually right in their neighborhood and various photos from Dr. Rhein’s 1956 expedition. They were very impressed and said they would escort us into the Sierra.

Julian planned to drive a third truck with his forestry unit insignia on the side. Originally we had planned to drive two trucks, but one of them had Sinaloa license plates and no insignia, and Cornelio warned us against taking that truck. Basically, everything bad in the Sierra seems to originate in the State of Sinaloa – many drug kingpins from that set up shop in the Sierra about 20 years ago, and everyone hated them. This really panicked Marco, a biology instructor from the Universidad de Mazatlan, who was supposed to come with us. He has a strong Sinaloa accent. He was already nervous because a massacre had just taken place along the Sinaloa/Durango state border, with more than a dozen people killed, including women and children. Anyway, we were supposed to leave for the Sierra at 4:00 o’clock the next morning.

At 10:00 that night, Martjan Lammertink (an ornithologist from the Netherlands who is now at Cornell) came into our room ashen faced and said that we would probably have to call off our expedition. Juliano had received an anonymous call from someone who knew about us coming to the Sierra, including the times of our coming and going, and wanted to know exactly who we were and where we would be staying. Juliano and Cornelio wanted to meet us 10 minutes later in the Plaza de Armes, the huge plaza across from the old Spanish cathedral, only a two-minute walk from our hotel. Marco was trembling visibly at the thought of this, and Martjan and I also felt sick. We had already lost two Mexican biologists, who had dropped out of the expedition at the last minute because of the danger. Now Marco was wavering. The only other people going with us were two field techs from ProNatura Mexico – Oscar, who was 26, and Manuel (our driver), also from ProNatura, who we later found out was only 16.

The scene at the Plaza was crazy. The place was surrounded by armed police. They weren’t stopping or hassling anyone, but I think they were just trying to establish a police presence after the grenade attack. Of course, we didn’t know if their presence made things better or worse. What if someone fired another grenade at them. As we walked across the dark plaza, every approaching person made us tremble. Then Martjan and I suddenly broke out laughing giddily, because the whole things seemed like a scene in a movie. There were even a half-dozen or so people on the other side of the park, pounding out an African rhythm on conga drums. The whole thing put our nerves on edge. (And one funny thing, I had planned to secretly tape-record our conversation in the park and had hit the record button as we were leaving the hotel, then put the recorder in my shirt pocket. As we were walking across the plaza, Martjan noticed a bright red glow coming from my pocket so I had to turn it off. I’m sure those guys would not have been happy if they thought I was wearing a wire!)

Julian showed up about 10 minutes late, followed by Cornelio, dressed in his purple shirt and jeans with pointy lizard-skin cowboy boots and a white cowboy hat with a small silver buckle in front. I remember after leaving Julian’s office that morning, Marco had said, “Those guys are up to their eyeballs in drug trafficking. You don’t wear clothes like that and drive a fancy truck like that on the money you can make honestly in the Sierra.” And it turned out he was right.

Cornelio said that because these anonymous people knew we were driving there at 4:00 in the morning, we should trick them by going earlier at 2:00. Julian didn’t like it. He said, “The devil walks at that time of night.” He suggested leaving at 6:30 and driving during daylight hours, and that’s what we did. (Marco, like the other two Mexican biologists, pulled out of the expedition, leaving just Martjan, and me and the two young Mexicans.) During our drive through the mountains, another truck came right up behind Julian’s truck and stayed close for awhile. Then it drove past his truck and the one I was in and pulled right beside Cornelio’s truck for a few tense minutes before speeding off ahead. A short time later, we all stopped in a small mountain village. Cornelio was visibly shaken, which disturbed all of us. He had seemed so cool through everything that happened earlier. He said the men in the other truck were well armed so we had to be very careful. (Turns out a local official from the next village over had been assassinated just ten days earlier, and perhaps Cornelio was afraid he might share that fate.) We spent two terrifying  hours driving through the mountains on those terrible roads before Cornelio stopped and told us we were now in safe territory. That was a great relief, but at the back of our minds, we were all dreading going back over the same route a couple of weeks later. And it didn’t help when we got to Cornelio’s house and he went inside and came out holding what I think was an Uzi. He smiled at me and said, “Por coyotes,” then slipped it under the seat of his truck. I’m sure he wouldn’t make the mistake of going anywhere unarmed again.

During the next two weeks we  had a few disturbing encounters.  We ran across some marijuana patches and two opium patches, but it seemed okay. We were more or less under Cornelio’s protection. And he advised us to leave one day early, on Friday instead of Saturday as we had planned, in case those people were waiting for us. But he said not to go alone and that he would definitely accompany us.

So that brings us back to the drive out of the mountains. After getting the word from the Judge, I put my passport and wallet in my pockets (and also a notebook with copious notes I’d taken on the trip.) I also took the memory cards out of my cameras and my digital tape recorder and put them in the hip pocket of my pants. I figured we had about a 50-50 chance of having some bad encounter, and I thought if they were just garden-variety highwaymen, they might just take our vehicle and everything in it and leave us standing in the road. If anything happened, I didn’t want to lose all the work I’d risked my life to get. I also had the grim thought that, if everything did go bad, at least they’d be able to identify my body, and maybe my wife could use my notes and photographs to write the book for me. (Looking back, I can’t believe I was thinking things like that, but at the time I was dead serious.)

And I did have some awful fantasies on that endless drive out of the mountains – a truck blocking the road; men wearing black balaclavas rushing out from the woods pointing AK-47s at us. Anything seems possible. The road was so bad, in many areas we could only drive three or four miles per hour, not as fast as you can walk, so an ambush would have been easy to accomplish. I began looking back at my life, and I regretted so much. I thought about my wife and all the years we’d spent together – and how sorry I was that I’d never really expressed to her how much she means to me and that she would never know that I was thinking of her at the moment of my death. And I thought of my kids and how sorry I was that I wouldn’t be able to watch them all grow to adulthood and be there to help them. It’s funny how danger can focus your mind like that.

We drove in silence for a couple of hours, not even playing the lively Mexican CDs with their wild singing and brassy trumpets that Oscar and Manuel had brought with them. We didn’t see another vehicle until a huge old flatbed truck came lumbering along the other way, carrying a bunch of ragged Tepehuane Indians on the back – old men, women, and children, huddled like refugees in the cold mountain air. They stopped and spoke with us. The woman sitting next to the driver said the road was very dangerous further down the mountain. Then she said, “God may help you,” and she crossed herself.

The next vehicle we saw was a beat-up old white pickup truck coming toward us. It was moving erratically – slowing down; stopping; then lurching forward hesitantly. As it came near us, the driver kept as far to the other side of the dirt road as he could from us. We peered in at the two Mexican men in the truck as they drove past us, and they had the same terrified looks on their faces as we must have had.

As we passed another village with a tiny cabin where they sold various basic necessities, Martjan surprised everyone and suggested stopping there for some snacks. We shrugged out shoulders and said “Si, bueno.” He bought everyone some cookies and some small boxes of guava juice, and it completely broke the tension. “This is, how do you say it, your last meal,” he said to me. “Don’t I get a last cigarette, too” I said. We all laughed.

The drive was unimaginably long, and particularly disturbing as we drove past three burned houses what had been in perfect shape on the way up. We’d also seen a man walking down the road with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. We were giddy when we finally reached the paved road. Oscar and Manuel pushed a Mexican CD into the player, and we all sang loudly, laughing with relief as we blasted along the rest of the way to Durango.

The next morning, Martjan and I met Julian in the Plaza. We were planning to have breakfast together. He almost broke down when he saw us, and hugged us both tightly. He said he had been so worried about us and felt guilty that he had told us a couple of months ago that things were safe in that area. A tide of violence had been rising just as we arrived and was cresting as we did our work in the Sierra. He really hadn’t wanted us to go, he said, but when we told him in the plaza that we still wanted to go, he felt committed to help us. But then he found out he couldn’t get a forest unit truck to take up to us and that Cornelio was still in Durango and wouldn’t be there to meet us. He said if he could have gotten  in touch with us, he would have told us to take the other route from Guacamayitas–the same route he had told us was far too dangerous two weeks earlier. He said that just the day before, someone had been abducted and held for ransom from the very village where we bought our cookies. He didn’t know what to do. He said he and his wife got on their knees together on the night before we left and prayed for our safety. He knew he would never be able to forgive himself if we had been harmed in any way. 

You have no idea how great it felt a couple of days later when we landed in Houston. It’s another world in Mexico, and I’m so glad to be back in my nice warm (safe) office.