Below is an extended version of a review of Jack Ward Thomas’s new set of books originally written for the Journal of Forestry by FHS historian Jamie Lewis. All three books were published in 2015 by the Boone and Crockett Club and each retails for $24.95.
Forks in the Trail: A Conservationist’s Trek to the Pinnacles of Natural Resource Leadership, foreword by Char Miller
Wilderness Journals: Wandering the High Lonesome, foreword by John Maclean
Hunting Around the World: Fair Chase Pursuits from Backcountry Wilderness to the Scottish Highlands, foreword by Robert Model
“My idea of heaven would be to, simply, do it all over again.” Jack Ward Thomas, a wildlife biologist who concluded thirty years with the U.S. Forest Service by serving as chief from 1993 to 1996, closes the author’s acknowledgements at the end of each of his three books with that line. After reading the accounts of his career and hunting trips drawn from journals written over a sixty-five year period, I have little doubt about why he feels that way. I feel similarly about the books, in particular Forks in the Trail and Wilderness Journals in their entirety and parts of Hunting Around the World. When I finished, I wanted to read them again.
In all three, Thomas makes you feel as if you are there with him—and at times, that you want to be there with him—whether deep in the snow hunting elk or recording the day’s events in his journal by fire light. You sympathize over the loss of his first wife Meg and then his long-time hunting companion and mentor Bill Brown, the long-time regional director of the Northwest Region of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, who helped Thomas better understand the emotional and political values of wilderness areas. Thomas is open and honest about these losses and the impact of the ravages of time and hard work on his body and how it affects each new venture into the wilderness. (Older readers will be able to relate; younger ones should take heed!) Each book, in its own way, is an elegy to an outdoorsman’s life well lived and an ode to some beautiful places. Thomas has no regrets that he has hung up his gun because of age and infirmities; he has his memories to look back upon, and now so do we.
Each book is designed to stand alone, but I suggest reading Forks in the Trail first because it covers from childhood through his second retirement and provides the framework and background to better understand events in the other books. It is for all intents and purposes his memoir (which can be rounded out with Journals of a Forest Service Chief, published in 2004 by the Forest History Society). Forks in the Trail—Thomas’s phrase for turning points in his life—covers his childhood in Texas during the Great Depression to the “pinnacles of natural resource leadership”—his appointment as Forest Service chief and then his time as the Boone and Crockett Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Montana.
Starting with Forks will introduce you to deepen the reader’s understanding of why his packhorse trips with Brown into “the High Lonesome” backcountry area—the Eagle Cap and Hells Canyon Wilderness Areas in eastern Oregon—that are the focus of much of Wilderness Journals brought him such joy and unleashed the naturalist-poet inside. Furthermore, in Forks Thomas helpfully explains and discusses the historical background or significance of a fork in the trail, such as a law or policy change, when necessary. The forewords and prefaces of Wilderness Journals and Hunting lack enough information or context for deeply understanding his heartfelt meditations on the beauty provided by federal natural resource management or the night sky in Alaska, or his distaste towards those who pay to hunt on game farms. The other two books supplement and complement Forks, and a few journal entries are split up between books depending on the topics. Each has entries several pages long, though they never feel like they are dragging on for several pages. Most all are a delight to read. Each book ends with an epilogue that offers his reflections on the journal entries and where he is now in his thought process.
Wilderness Journals covers a narrow but pivotal time in Thomas’s life, from 1986 to 1999, when he found himself in thick of the northern spotted owl controversy and then reluctantly serving as Forest Service chief. The High Lonesome became a refuge from the pressures of work, a place to both recreate and “re-create” himself. On several occasions, he recorded the benefits of time spent in the wilderness. One in particular, written while he was chief, captures the feeling and offers a strong defense for maintaining protected wilderness areas, something Thomas strived to do while chief.
It seems a shame that now [the] most common meaning of the word is to “have fun.” The original meaning, the one that appeals most to me, was to create anew, to refresh strength and spirit. For me, there was no other “re-creational” experience that could match a retreat into the wilderness…. Having an experience that fosters re-creation of purpose, zeal, and faith is much more than simply having a good time. For people like me, it is a necessity. Without periodic re-creation, there is danger of diminished spirit, purpose, confidence, belief, and effectiveness.(188)
Wilderness Journals includes two appendices that are journal entries from his time as chief that don’t quite fit in with the main text but make nice additions. They were written around the thirtieth anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act of 1964. On two occasions he attempted to improve the agency’s wilderness management efforts by announcing his intention of turning the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness Area into a single management entity, complete with a supervisor of equal rank to a forest supervisor. He wanted to show that wilderness areas were equal to that of multiple-use landscapes. “Thwarted” by Idaho’s congressional delegation and possibly members of his own staff who perhaps didn’t want to lose power, he concluded, “It is well to remember that changes in the status quo will be resisted and that ‘turf wars’ are with us always.”(260)
Hunting Around World covers from 1986 to his last hunting trip in 2004 in Scotland; the entries on Scotland are the highlight of this book as he waxes poetic about the breathtaking Highlands countryside and falls in love with it. (Bob Model, who contributes the book’s foreword, hosted Thomas on his Scotland trips.) As someone who had studied the ecology of elk for much of his career, Thomas was excited about observing Scotland’s red deer, a member of the same species but a different subspecies. The contrast between hunting styles and rituals is quite interesting—one dresses in a “shooting suit” of tweed and wool when going “a-stalking” in Scotland, for example, and traditionally carries a walking stick to help traverse the uneven terrain. He also hunted in Argentina, Alaska, and other places, and some entries are from his trips into the High Lonesome. So one learns a good deal about the different cultures and attitudes about hunting as seen through Thomas’s eyes. His entries about hunting on game farms and hunting preserves versus a fair chase pursuit offer much to think about on that subject. (more…)