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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

 

Jack Ward Thomas served as chief from 1994-1996. (FHS Photo)

Jack Ward Thomas served as Forest Service chief from 1993-1996. (FHS Photo)

“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.

JWT_FitRStarting 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.

JTW_WJWilderness 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)

JWT_HuntingHunting 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…)

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Have you ever been in an urban forest and had the feeling that you were off in the wild because you could no longer hear any cars? Did you find yourself on a river trail and felt as Emerson did when he wrote, “In the woods, is perpetual youth”? Or have you been in state park, turned on a trail and thought, “Geez, I’m in the wilderness!”? I can answer “yes” to all three of those questions. Here in the Durham area we have Duke Forest, the Eno River, and Umstead State Park, respectively, to explore and escape to. I find being in the forest—and what feels like wilderness in this increasingly urbanized region—is often restorative, if not transformative.

Scholars will tell you there are both legal and cultural constructs of wilderness. While Duke Forest, Eno River, and Umstead State Park are not, by legal definition, wilderness, such places do give a sense of being in wilderness. In many ways, it comes down to perception, to paraphrase William Cronon from his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” These are places where I, too, experience what he calls “the sacred in nature”—places near my home.

Duke Forest, Umstead Parks, and the Eno River, where this was taken, are very popular with the Durham running community.

Duke Forest, Umstead Park, and the Eno River, where this was taken, are very popular with the Durham running community. During the 2012 Eno River Race, I experienced both “the sacred in nature” and the profane as I forded the cold river.

Wilderness, in all its many constructs, was celebrated around the United States on September 3, 2014, when its supporters commemorated how the legal construct of wilderness has been protecting the cultural one for 50 years. It was on that date in 1964 that President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, which created the National Wilderness Preservation System, the most extensive system of protected wild lands in the United States. Since its signing, the law has continually inspired people to protect wilderness and enjoy it, too.

As someone who studies the history of forests and how humans interact with them for a living, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in and write about both legally designated wilderness areas in Montana and places that are wilderness areas in all but legal standing, like in Maine. So it’s more than a little ironic that as someone who enjoys running and hiking wooded trails, I’ve not visited any of North Carolina’s twelve federal wilderness areas. But it’s fine with me. I have Duke Forest, the Eno River, and Umstead Park, even though they aren’t on that list. It doesn’t alter my enjoyment of these places—if anything, it makes me appreciate them all the more because they remain wooded oases in this rapidly urbanizing area.

What these local places have in common with federal wilderness areas is how they came to be protected and cherished spaces. The history of each involves someone at some point looking at a landscape, whether it was abandoned agricultural fields in need of restoration (like Umstead) or a forested area in need of protection (like Joyce Kilmer-Slick Rock Wilderness in western North Carolina), and deciding that intervening on behalf of the public was a greater good for the land.

In the case of what would become federal wilderness areas, the effort was led in large part by Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, and Howard Zahniser, whose story isWild_by_Law_(DVD_cover) the focus of the Academy Award­–nominated documentary film Wild By Law by Lawrence Hott and Diane Garey. All three men were leaders of the Wilderness Society, an organization formed in 1935 by Leopold, Marshall, and six other men to counter the rapid development of national parks for motorized recreation. The Wilderness Society supported projects like the Appalachian Trail but opposed others like the Blue Ridge Parkway because roadways like it were built at the expense of wilderness. (The tension between access to wilderness and protecting its integrity that led to the Society’s establishment is still a divisive issue today.) Zahniser, the executive secretary of the Society from 1945 until his death in 1964, carried forward the torch lit by Leopold and Marshall by writing the Wilderness Act and serving as its strongest advocate. The efforts of these and many other people have led to the protection of countless beautiful areas.

At just under an hour long, Wild By Law is a great introduction to this turning point in American history. Last September, a day after I addressed a community meeting in Wallace, Idaho, where people are struggling to make a living in a region surrounded by wilderness both protected and perceived, I hosted a screening of the film at the Durham County Library and a question-and-answer session. The discussions in both towns reminded me that passion runs high on the issue of wilderness protection, and that the issue is and will remain a complex one, but for good reasons. It means we still care.

I encourage you to seek out this film and any relevant history books (there are too many to list here) and then to reflect on 50 years of the Wilderness Act and all that it has done for what President Johnson called “the total relation between man and the world around him.” I also hope you’ll start visiting wilderness areas—however you wish to define them.

In large measure, wilderness is all a matter of perspective. Where do you think this was taken?

In large measure, wilderness is all a matter of perspective. Where do you think this was taken? On federal, state, or private land? In a designated wilderness area, or in my backyard? Does it matter?

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Before I left to join the Thoreau-Wabanaki Journey on May 26, I had planned to write a blog post that would tie together the 150th anniversary of the publication of Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods with George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature and the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act. The pièce de résistance would be posting it in time for National Get Outdoors Day on June 14. (As if those weren’t enough signs from Above about what to write, Mark Harvey’s new book on Howard Zahniser, architect of the Wilderness Act, arrived in the office today. It opens with a quote from Thoreau’s “Chesuncook,” the second essay in The Maine Woods.) After all, paddling through wilderness in northern Maine would offer the perfect opportunity for bringing these themes together in one essay.

But when friends ask me to tell them about the canoe trip down the Penobscot River, I find I’m at a loss for words. They are stunned by this. Usually when I start talking of history or recent travels they remind me at some point that they have a plane to catch next week or it’s time to schedule a root canal. But my trip leaves me unable to really describe what I saw and did. And that, perhaps, was the point of the trip. It was for the experience of being in wilderness, not to document it through writing or photographs. Though I tried to do that, I found my enjoyment increased greatly once I stopped trying to interpret or capture it for others or even for myself. To intellectualize or deconstruct wilderness is to miss the point of being there. The reason for being there was to be there—to be present in the moment, to experience it, with all my senses. Thoreau told me why I was there when he wrote in his journal, “The value of any experience is measured, of course, not by the amount of money, but the amount of development we get out of it.” It took a day or so for me to come to this realization. I was initially so focused on documenting the trip that I was limiting my experience. Everything changed with this epiphany.

So, perhaps the question I should answer is, what did I experience?

Quiet. In the wilderness there’s a level of quiet that cannot be found anywhere else but there. We had a couple of days where we heard no mechanical sounds—no cars, no airplanes, no cell phones. No hum of a refrigerator or air conditioner. The quiet would be broken by sounds I now desperately miss: the murmur of rapids or of conversation coming from another boat or tent, the excited shout when someone spotted an eagle soaring above or a muskrat swimming about us, the cursing of the cold in the morning or the mosquitoes in the evening. Yet even the negatives became positives. Is there any greater sound on a cold morning than hearing “Coffee’s ready” or after swatting away bugs while setting up the tent than “Dinner’s ready!”? After returning to what we came to call “uncivilization” and getting in a car, I couldn’t stand to have the radio on and preferred having the window down so I could just hear the wind. (Perhaps “window” should be spelled “wind-oh!” to truly reflect that delightful feeling of hearing the wind rushing by.) We had long stretches on the river where I’d only hear the sound of paddles entering and exiting the water. But, oh, the quiet! I cannot find it in Uncivilization. This is why we have the Wilderness Act, to provide a place to escape to, to protect Civilization from the Uncivilized.

An emptiness that filled my soul. It felt like there were probably fewer people living in northern Maine now than when Thoreau traveled through there some 160 years ago. The area seems devoid of people. When talking with a native Mainer afterward, I described the region as a “big empty.” He immediately understood this as the great compliment I meant it as. So often we hear people say they want to “get away from it all,” when in fact they mean they want to go to a place that is not their home or office. Usually this means to some other building—be it a vacation house or hotel or resort. Whereas in the middle of nowhere, in the Big Empty, I truly was away from it all. Being “inside” meant being in a tent and the “bathroom” had some of the best views imaginable. We spent three nights on islands that only three weeks before had been under water. Initially intending to post to social media during the trip, I quickly realized this was impossible and put my cell phone away, shoving it to the bottom of my bag. I hoped we wouldn’t have connectivity until the last day. It was a little depressing that we had it before then.

Being on the river led me to not only embrace but to understand Thoreau’s exhortation in Walden: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.” Time on the water brought about that simplicity; my “affairs” were reduced to three—eat, drink, paddle. Eat everything offered to me whether I like it or not, drink as much water and coffee as possible to stay hydrated, and paddle hard and straight to get where we needed to go. Granted, we were well provisioned, so unlike Thoreau I didn’t worry about getting by on hard bread or the modern equivalent, dehydrated foods, or having to forage. (However, one night we supplemented dinner with ground nuts harvested from around the campsite. Quite the tasty luxury!)

But, simplicity! Why worry about inclement weather or being in wet clothes? These are things I couldn’t control, so why fret or grouse about them? As HDT said of traveling in Maine, “You soon come to disregard rain on such excursions.” One of the most relaxing afternoons was spent sitting under the forest canopy during a thunderstorm that drove us off the river. (Sit and listen to a thunderstorm and tell me it’s not relaxing.) We often quoted Thoreau from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers: “Cold and damp? Are they not as rich experience as warmth and dryness?” The simpler things became, the happier I became. Emptying my mind of worry filled my soul.

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Thoreau is right: Cold and damp is as rich an experience as warm and dry.

The Hudson River landscape painters were right. I came away from the trip understanding that some Hudson River School painters captured reality in their works. Sanford Gifford, Frederick Church, Albert Bierstadt, and others make great use of light to draw the viewer’s focus to a particular point in a painting. But until now I’d thought what they depicted on canvas could never have occurred in nature, that they were exaggerating the contrasts between light and darks places. I was disabused of this on my first morning in camp.

The view that proved my suppositions all wrong. Though that's not Mount Katahdin in the background, the effect is the same as in Church's painting.

The view that proved my suppositions all wrong. Though that’s not Mount Katahdin in the background, the effect is the same as in Church’s painting.

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“Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp” by Frederick Church (1895) (Wikimedia Commons; painting is at the Portland Museum of Art)

And I experienced humbleness. It’s good to be reminded that you can learn a whole lot by opening your eyes, ears, and mind. Like a good way to predict the weather is to actually look at the sky! Whoa. I know, right? Who thinks of that nowadays, what with instant weather apps on their phone? But sure enough, after we spotted a cloud formation called a “mare’s tail,” we had rain within 24 hours, just as the old local saying said we would. Or that the smallest of obstacles—like a single rock in the river lurking just below the surface—can upend a boat. Or that experts are considered experts for a reason. I experienced this time and again with our lead guide, who ensured that 52 people made it through the trip without injury, as well as with the two professors who served as Thoreau experts and with the members of the Penobscot Indian Nation who shared their intimate knowledge of the area and their history with us. I remain in awe of all of them, and stand humbled before them, as I do the landscape they love and shared with the rest of us.

To see an immersive multimedia journal of the trip produced by the Maine Board of Tourism, check out “The Maine Thing Quarterly.” Yankee Magazine sent two photojournalists to document the trip and featured their work in the March 2015 issue. Dreamscapes, Canada’s premier travel and lifestyle magazine, made “Maine’s Untouched Beauty” the cover article of their Fall 2014 issue (click here for a PDF version). The Maine Woods Discovery team organized the trip and their site has more about it, too, including team leader Mike Wilson’s reflections on the trip. After the trip, Canoe and Kayak magazine picked up on the idea and recommended the Penobscot River as a “feature destination.” The article used photos from the trip taken by one of the trip participants Chris Sockalexis. CBS’s “Sunday Morning” visited during the first half of the trip and filed this report on the trip. 

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