Plains Folk

Outdoor Memories


With another autumn into the record books, it’s easy to become nostalgic about golden days outdoors. Right now I’m thinking about the sunlight on a particular rockpile in a grousy pasture in the middle of North Dakota. Gray days and long nights are an invitation to memory. Perhaps, too, an opportunity to pore through the magazines that have accumulated while you were outside.

This brings me to my stack of Ducks Unlimited, magazine of the organization, Ducks Unlimited. The magazine contains organizational updates and cheerleading and also a lot of technical information – how to call ducks, shoot ducks, cook ducks, train dogs, install a hemi on your shotgun (just making sure you’re reading closely), and so on.

Most outdoor magazines today, like most all magazines today, are designed for people with attention deficits. Everything in them is little boxes and splashy tidbits. They focus on technical matters of a manly sort – ballistics, trucks, tackle – all of it emphasizing performance. None anymore carries the sort of descriptive adventure they did when authors like Hemingway wrote for outdoor sportsmen.

The old outdoor literature of adventure and danger seems to have lost its appeal. I remember a day in early adolescence when Outdoor Life ran a story about a kid, me in my imagination, armed with only a .22 rifle when he encountered a plains grizzly. I won’t tell you the ending, but I was transported.

I learned the aesthetics of outdoor life and outdoor reporting from Harold Ensley-remember him, the Sportsman’s Friend, heading out in his red Ford country sedan, Gone Fishing, and then the organ theme music played? Sometimes old Harold didn’t catch any fish, and so he would start to philosophize and reminisce. Then he might talk about walking barefoot as a boy down to Salt Creek in his native Lane County, Kansas.

There is this other type of outdoor writing that still crops up now and then-the literature of memory. As a historian, I’ve been studying the phenomenon of memory, for individuals and for communities. Sure enough, there is a classic memory piece in the current issue of Ducks Unlimited magazine. It’s by E. Donnall Thomas Jr., and it’s called “A Waterfowler’s Life.”

Don Thomas is a medical doctor, avid outdoorsman, successful outdoor writer, and part-time resident of Montana. He is an author of talent, stature, and grace. That, along with three-score-plus years of field experience, gives him the cred to write reflectively.

Memory writing is inspired by the senses. Thomas invokes the senses, such as “the feel of their sleek (duck) plumage against my fingers.” He recounts his earliest memories of riding on his father’s shoulders to a duck blind. He speaks of duck hunting in terms of “the simple pageantry of the undertaking” – what a splendid and evocative phrase! He recalls family, friends, dogs, and places of memory and affection. There is no fawning sentiment, but much attention to changing perspectives in different stages of life.

How do we account for the continuing presence of memory literature in outdoor writing? Are duck hunters sentimental saps? I’m thinking about that, and old dogs, and maybe about buying a new shotgun.

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