Timothy Murphy,1951- 2018; RIP

I cannot do justice to Tim’s many interests and careers here even if it were not late at night. Farmer, businessman; poet and student of poetry, vigorous with unfashionable rhyme and meter (it was said that under the tutelage of his Yale mentor, Robert Penn Warren, he memorized 30,000 lines of Greek and English poetry); adventurer, gay man, gun nut (a 28 bore on the prairie!); Catholic (as another Catholic writer, Michael Gruber, once put it, practicing and trying to be perfect, with no illusions!)

In a just world he might well have been poet laureate, and he was enviably productive too. His cancer diagnosis spurred him into writing at least four extra BOOKS!

He wrote the best poems on dogs of our time, and on our common mortality:

When the returning dove
roosts at your mother’s grave,

Ill bury a box of ash
beside her in the sod.

Vaya con Dios, love,
You were the dog of God.

Our fellow bird hunter, Catholic, and writer Jameson Parker called him “A Predatory Poet in a State of Grace.” Exactly right.

Oh and– for extra cool points: His childhood babysitter was Bob Dylan,

Hunting for “Millenials”

This fine video of deer hunting in Paradise Valley is better than 90% of such stuff:
Wild Harvest from Native Boy on Vimeo.
But it is more remarkable then that, for it is linked to a Huffington Post article, titled “Millenials Must Hunt.

I rather like that imperative– not “can” or even “should”, but MUST. I had reason to cite the link between foodies and locavores to hunting in my recently completed text for the art show, “Wild Spaces, Open Seasons”, but I had no idea how far this way of thinking has penetrated…

Book Review #2: Rifle Looney News

John Barsness and Eileen Clarke seem like such normal people that is hard to realize at first just how unusual their “lifestyle” is. They are ubiquitous in the hunting and gun magazines, more so than any other couple I have known (I dare say I have known many of the sporting couples of my time). John writes technological piece in vivid and comprehensible English. He writes exotic hunting pieces, many of them on the big game of Africa, Europe, and Alaska, that make you feel that even a poor man might get to do these things.

Best of all, he writes of a life of hunting in his native Montana. As he once said to me, in a manner not entirely satirical, “I am a third generation Montanan… academic.” And though I believe that he ended up as I did studying biology, his first published material was a book of poetry. And his mentor in the woods and fields, before he met the old Lakota patriarch Ben Burshia, was the New York transplant Norm Strung.

Eileen’s history is even less likely. She came from New York and studied literature at Missoula. She was also a vegetarian. Needless to say, she got over that. I don’t think she and John ever eat any domestic meat ever, except possibly at restaurants. Furthermore, she has written some of the most important game cookbooks of our time, ones that can delight the sophisticate but explain everything to the rankest beginner. And she is this knowledgeable about everything. I think she is still the only published cook I know who puts enough fat in game sausage. 


They live the life of the hunt, also the title of one of John’s books. They may be the only writers of our generation who have made a decent living entirely as freelance sporting and culinary writers. As publishing changed, they decided that the best way to present and sell their work was by taking ownership and control of all of it, and publishing their own books. You can judge their success by going to their “Rifles and Recipes” website. It’s all there — all the books and cookbooks they have written since they started, and links to other things of note.

Around five years ago, they also started publishing a quarterly online newsletter, Rifle Loony News. At eight dollars for the year, it may be the best bargain in outdoor writing yet. Its eight pages contain some of the best and clearest- headed technical prose on rifles around, presented without the constraints of length that make all magazine writing difficult; all the more so these days, as so-called editors, searching for advertising space, shrink content to 500 word “essays”, captions, and bullet-point lists, all written by young staffers who would probably pay to be in print.

Generally John does most of the technicana, and Eileen the food. But don’t miss Eileen’s gun writing or either of their occasional story-telling. What it is exactly like is sitting down to a long fall dinner with both of them and somehow having a recording of what ensues. It’s too bad we don’t have an audio version, punctuated by Eileen’s whoops of laughter, which stepson Jackson used to claim kept him awake at night, and John’s dry interjections. He may have invented the genre of old-style outdoor writing we called “I knew an old dog who died”. I also remember telling them about how I shot a blue grouse off a limb when I was first dating Libby, at her… request. I opined that women were more pragmatic hunters than men (and perhaps more enthusiastic; when they first visited me more than twenty five years ago, in Magdalena, Eileen mimed her stalk of what I believe was her first pronghorn through a northern Serengeti of everything from mule deer and bison to sandhill cranes, with  prickly pear sticking into her hands).

John looked at this wife and said “Pragmatic? The first seven sage grouse she shot had skid marks on their breasts.” I believe that story is in there too.

So it’s fun, for sure; a hunting life lived 365 days a year. It will make you a better cook, and tell you of new products that are really useful rather than just pushed by marketers. As for rifles: John probably has 80 rifles wandering in and out at a time, though I bet fewer than 10 make his permanent list. He shoots constantly, and while he is the gentlest and most genial of men, he will neither praise crap nor take another’s opinion as truth without testing it for himself. If you read carefully, and are a typical modern hunter, he will save you a lot more than $8 a year while entertaining you in the process.

Rather than searching for quotes, I will give you Eileen’s account of last year’s first volume. “Year six started with Eileen’s feature on brining wild birds and venison (yes, it’s different from chicken and beef) and a to-die-for and easy-to-make Cookie Dough Truffles as well as John’s reports on laser range finders, the CZ Model 452 .17Hornaday Rimfire Magnum, ‘Guns I Don’t Buy Anymore’ and lots more.”

John also has another new book out, Modern Hunting Optics. I’ve hardly had a chance to open it in the chaos of the last two weeks, but I will say that it is the most up to date and comprehensible account of that ever-changing subject that I have seen yet. John also can’t resist debunking cliches. I always thought that the 25-yard sight-in worked, not that I actually did it. We who read more than do need John’s writing to admonish us for intellectual laziness.

It has 200 soft-cover pages and goes for $25 postpaid. Rifle Loony has 264 pages and a color insert as well as black and white illos; it goes for $28.95, media rate shipping. Both are sold exclusively through RiflesAndRecipes.com or from Deep Creek Press, PO Box 579, Townsend, MT 57644; telephone 406-521-0273.

John with Selous buff and CZ .416 which he bought in NM and modified to be like Harry Selby’s– one of his keepers I think…

Book Review #1: Blood on my Hands by Gerry Cox

Gerry Cox — the “G” is pronounced hard as in his ancestor Gerhard — was an administrator at Cornell until recently. In his previous life he was an English professor, who back in the 70’s at least once wrote for the scholarly journal English Literary Renaissance, where I was an editor.  He is also a third generation bird hunter, a big game hunter,  and, most unusually for an academic, a custom rifle maker who once made me an early 20th Century sporter on an SMLE action. As is perhaps obvious, he is also a friend of mine. But that’s not my reason for recommending his book.

Below, Gerry left, John Besse right, in John’s shop in Mag looking a Scott sidelock, once mine, now G’s; SMLE in the style of Empire .

Many of the remaining northeastern hunters started with whitetail deer, and have never progressed beyond the lore of that species. Gerry started late, shooting an antelope in southeast Wyoming after a lifetime of bird hunting. Before his experience, he shared the attitude of many – dare I say it? – upper class northeastern hunters. Bird shooting was socially acceptable; but there was something “wrong” with hunting large mammals– something not spoken of,  that was potent and hard to think about, never mind discuss. Easier to dismiss those who hunted big mammals as “poachers” or meat hunters, the last a pejorative…

This odd diffidence might exist because hunting large mammals was far more important to the evolution of our roving restless species than mere foraging, at least to what our species would become.* And because our larger quarry seemed– is-– more like us, killing and eating big sentient beasts is both more satisfying and more frightening– more “serious”.

In his own words: … I was unprepared for what I actually experienced. After field dressing the antelope, I looked down at my hands and said aloud in shock, “I have blood on my hands.” I didn’t have a clue what I meant: the spoken words simply came out of my mouth. I only knew that this recognition involved something altogether outside my previous bird shooting experiences, something mysteriously important/ I dreamed about blood again and again that night. I felt compelled to learn what this meant.

His quest led him to read every justification of hunting, every philosophical animal rights work, and a fair amount of biology and anthropology. Some of the more symbolic or poetic works seemed to hold far more truth than the “rational” and theoretically objective ones. He reads accounts of aboriginal tribes and discovers why “killing beautiful animals” may not be a sin. He teases the reader with a title like “Putting Animals in Their Place”, finding that their place is not where any of the defenders or enemies of hunting think they are. He discusses altered and enhanced states of mind in history and in the present. He combines the insights of these chapters to show us “ways” for us to see ourselves as interesting animals among other animals; then adds the insights of evolutionary biologists to the mix to show how science weaves still more threads into the pattern.

His penultimate chapter is not a simple synthesis (if there is anything simple about his synthesis!). It is called “After the Kill: Making Meat, Feasting, and Story Telling”. In this one he argues that the last sleepy farewells as the hunters and their families leave the table are as much a part of the hunt — I almost want to capitalize the word Hunt– as the stalk or the kill; it is one whole drama. With the next and last chapter, he brings his account to a close; necessary, but I am still at the table, swapping stories and savoring the last of the vodka.

This has been a hard review to write because I have been reading this book since the first drafts. What could I say that would be new? How about that our friend John Besse, the best amateur gunsmith I know a hunter and backwoodsman with a bias towards the scientific rather than the poetic, has read it twice?

Or I could just give you my very considered blurb: “Gerard Cox has always been a bird hunter. But when he saw the blood on his hands from his first antelope, he was so moved that he began his inquiry into the nature and realities of this “serious business” of hunting large mammals, so close to and yet so different from us. His resulting thoughts build into a volume rich in anecdote (and not without humor), covering everything from the esthetics of animals, through altered states of consciousness, to celebrating the pleasures of feasting with friends. A unique union of the philosophical and the earthily real, it will end up on your permanent bookshelf somewhere between Thomas McGuane and Ortega y Gasset. it is that good.”

Blood on My Hands is now available from Amazon in hardback, paper, and Kindle form, under his real name, Gerard H Cox. I would go for one of the dead trees editions; the cover is nice too.

 *Gerry has a discussion of how having female hunters expands our vision– biology is not destiny but human nature DOES exist– my not Gerry’s point.

Poorest of People Caught in Anti-Hunting Crossfire

In March 2011, a coalition of animal welfare groups opposed to the hunting of African lions petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for protection of this lion subspecies under the Endangered Species Act. FWS responded this week by proposing to list African lions as “threatened” – not the “endangered” status sought by the groups. Still, the groups claim success. It is evident that the sought-after listing is more about stopping the hunting of African lions and less about lion conservation after all.

Unfortunately those who stand to be most impacted by the listing aren’t rich American hunters seeking a trophy, but the some of the poorest people on the planet who live with Africa’s 30,000-40,000 lions on a daily basis. Since this is a proposal for animal conservation, the human equation is largely ignored – with the exception that the proposal notes the continued increase in Africa’s human population further endangers these iconic cats.

Three major factors largely ignored in the discussion are:

• African people have to eat to survive;

• African people rely on their close association with their livestock and wild animals to feed their families;

• African lions kill not only thousands of livestock, but hundreds of African people, each and every year.

Instead, headlines in American media report of the “Last-Ditch Effort to Save Remaining African Lions” and the need for action “Protecting the African Lion From Trophy Hunters.”

Here’s a list of the groups authoring the petition for endangered status:

• International Fund for Animal Welfare,

• Humane Society of the United States

• Humane Society International,

• Born Free Foundation/Born Free USA

• Defenders of Wildlife, and the

• Fund for Animals.

These are not organizations devoted to spending a large portion of their revenues on the ground in Africa to alleviate conflicts between humans and lions. A major motivation for the proposal is the desire to stop trophy hunting of African lions, which the FWS proposal will not do. But what the FWS proposal may do is further jeopardize the already dire future of the poorest residents of Africa.

Single-species protection efforts rarely (if ever) address the core issues of large carnivore conservation – human wellbeing, and in the case of Africa, alleviation of poverty. “The impact of conservation policies on human wellbeing is critical to the integration of poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation,” according to a 2012 paper in Biological Conservation. “Conservation and provision of livelihoods should therefore go hand-in-hand.”

Elephants in India kill people every day. African lions kill more than 100 people each year in southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique alone. People killed in these human-wildlife conflicts are generally from “the weaker socioeconomic sections of society” – the rural poor.

Conservation policies often have the heaviest impacts on the poorest of people, and when there are human-wildlife conflicts such as loss of one cow, it aggravates a family’s existing poverty. Studies have shown that crop-raiding by wild animals in Africa frequently results in a reduction of the overall food supply available to a family. That often means that mothers will eat less to provide nourishment for their children, resulting in her diminished health. Family members become anemic, and people die from lack of sufficient nutrition. If a family member is attacked and killed by a wild animal, and that person is an adult wage-earner, this further threatens the entire family’s livelihood, well being, and potential survival.

In Africa, if an adult male is lucky enough to have an outside job that generates income in a subsistence-based economy, that male wage-earner will spend his days at a paying job, and stand guard over his crops or livestock at night. That means that daytime guarding is conducted by children who are therefore not attending school to better their futures. Many of these daytime guards are killed by predators that hunt during daylight hours: African lions.

To some, the impact of human-wildlife conflicts may seem small on a national or global scale, but “but they give rise to exponentially high costs for the affected individuals and families, many of whom are amongst the least privileged people in the world,” according to the Biological Conservation paper.

The listing of a species as threatened or endangered often leads to the setting aside of more lands to protect that species. When more land is set aside for wildlife conservation, traditional human use such as hunting and livestock grazing are forbidden or restricted. Subsistence livestock producers, or people who depend on bushmeat for nutrition, thus lose use of traditional resources and land. This global trend has resulted in a new class of people aptly termed Conservation Refugees. Google it.

The reliance on bushmeat in Africa includes everything from rats to elephants, and from subsistence use, to providing meat for the urban marketplace. A paper in a 2006 issue of Conservation Biology (“Hunting for Consensus: Reconciling Bushmeat Harvest, Conservation and Development Policy in West and Central Africa”) notes: “Where bushmeat markets are booming, poor rural communities are often mining their wildlife resources to subsidize the protein consumption costs of urban families. The failure of development to provide growing urban populations with secure livelihoods and sustainable sources of animal protein are resulting in overharvesting of wildlife in rural areas and decreased livelihood security of poor rural families who are dependent on a dwindling wildlife resource. Bushmeat harvest is more a survival strategy than a development strategy. The places where species are threatened pinpoint places where development policies have failed, and the future of the rural poor is likely to be threatened as well.”

Those advocating for switching subsistence economies toward ecotourism at least acknowledge the need for human economic viability, but have failed to find an alternative that actually works. Ecotourism is often touted as alternative, but few people impacted by wildlife conflicts receive benefit from such schemes. In one recent study in Africa, only 17% of families were associated with ecotourism, but 65% lost livestock to lions. Other programs offer compensation for certain (proven) losses, but the time and effort required to seek such compensation – especially in poor countries where fraud is rampant – is often too much for the rural poor. Poor and illiterate people lacking social capital are not likely to seek compensation for their losses to wild animals.

We all want African lions to thrive well in the long term. But unless we actually begin to address the core issues involved in human-wildlife conflicts, we’ll adopt policies much as this one, meant to harm rich American hunters traveling to do something many find distasteful (hunting lions as trophies), but the resulting impact may be the death of more of Africa’s poorest people. Until we adopt a new approach, the cost of conservation will continue to be disproportionately high for rural people to bear. For a moral people, the loss of human life should be at least as important as wildlife conservation.