John Barsness has just released his latest book, Born to Hunt, a collection of essays that ranges from his home in Montana to Africa and the Arctic, along with more obscure destinations like Norway and Ireland.
If you read magazines you surely know that John is one of the most prolific “gun writers” alive, as well as one of the most experienced hunters. What more casual readers may not realize is that John, who started as a poet (and the son of a Montana-born English professor) is one of the most lyrical hunting writers around, as well as one who has truly lived “the life of the hunt” (which is also the title of his last collection of essays). He and his wife Eileen Clark eat more game than anyone else I know, including me — and we eat far more game than domestic meat. They are also both good writers.
This collection, though well-rooted in the Rockies and the north country and alive with elk and mule deer, moose and caribou and grizzly and the ways of the Inuit, roams as far afield as John has — which is to say as far as anyone I know who was not born with a trust fund. If I have one (minor) whining complaint it is that his only mentions of game birds are glancing if elegant asides on such as sage grouse; I’d love to see more bird hunting.But this is a book about big game and food, and maybe as befits a sixty-ish hunter, mortality.
John knows the Real Things and Big Truths. On wilderness, he quotes Teddy Roosevelt saying that Roosevelt “…grew up in the cradle of 19th century civilization, part of an aristocratic New York family, but felt healthy humans needed occasional time with naked nature.” Roosevelt said of hunting and the wilderness that “the wilderness hunter must not only show skill in the use of the rifle and address in finding and approaching game, but he must also show the qualities of hardihood, self-reliance, and resolution needed for effectively grappling with his wild surroundings. The fact that the hunter needs the game, both for the meat and for its hide, undoubtedly adds zest to the pursuit.”
He also knows that real hunting, where you pack everything out, is brutally hard work as well as fun. Eileen has badly compromised lungs because of a rare disease, but is one of the hardest hunters I know. She “…packed half the ewe out on her back a round in her 30-06’s chamber as we hiked through grizzly country smelling like fresh blood. You cannot buy a day like that, or meat that tastes like mountain meadows, or the God’s-eye view from timberline, where the mountains rise in a line from Canada and the prairies disappear in the earth’s curve. The only way you can find that particular part of the Rockies is to climb it yourself, each step like the hard pulse of a mountain’s heart.”
He knows the scarier truths: that when you are out there in the wilderness, asleep in a tent, “…there come memories beyond our five external senses, deeply imbedded reminders that there isn’t much separating us from all that is around us, whether the darkness beyond the fire the stars wavering in the heat waves from the wall tent’s stove pipes, are lions or grizzly bears.” But he knows purely funny truths too, including one that I have noticed myself, birding with an old PH in Hwange in Zimbabwe: “African professional hunters, unlike many North Americans, don’t regard bird-watching as a subversive if not actually wimpy activity. Russell, who shot hundreds of elephant and buffalo on control, proved just as adept at identifying a saddle-billed stork or a cape teal.” There are even nuggets of useful advice and hard-earned knowledge — the skills you need to ride in a horseback pack hunt; the fact, that seems utterly unremarkable to me, that you are as likely to find good meat on a big-racked bull as on a fat doe (I think over-privileged trophy hunters use the cliche of the inedible big bull as an excuse to give away the meat. The more for me!)
Finally there is a poet’s delight in pure writing. To find a big mule deer “…his hard land must be entered softly without breaking the horizon with our bi-pedal stance. We must ease inside — and then sit down, like some high country accountant and pore over the same land again and again, rechecking the same columns of numbers, until we find the big-antlered anomaly in all that tilted space.” Or, on Cape Buffalo “We probed the herd’s perimeter like infantry, armed only with my .416, Russell’s old .458, and just enough adrenaline to make buffalo appear like black holes in green space.
Go to Rifles and Recipes and buy this one. And The Life of the Hunt, and Rifle Loony, and Eileen’s big cookbook (perhaps the most useful game cookbook ever; after all, what other cookbook writer eats no domestic meat?) or, with confidence, just about anything else there.
And here’s John with his latest, post-book buff, taken with that CZ .416, which I sold him a long time ago and he modified to be something like Harry Selby’s– the story is in Rifle Loony.