A Giant's Shoes to Fill


BHA says goodbye and thanks to mentor,

friend and role model Jim Posewitz

 

By HAL HERRING

 

The first time I met Jim Posewitz was in the late 1990s, when I was immersed in reporting on the controversy over game farming and captive trophy shooting in Montana. Most of what was happening in this battle was playing out in small county-level sportsmen’s groups like the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association, and Jim Posewitz was visiting and speaking to them all. Night after night, he showed up, far from his home; he was everywhere I went as a reporter. His passion for elk and the hunt and the ethics of hunting were so obvious, so plain. And with all his joking and easy camaraderie – he seemed to know everybody and everybody was glad to see him – he was more than just a powerful speaker.


Jim talked like he wrote, with radical simplicity, a sense of humor and straight from his heart with everything extraneous burned away. He gave me my best quote in one of the stories I later published about the game farming conflict and the shooting of captive trophy elk or deer. “It is killing,” he said, “and nothing more. The worst crime is that it prostitutes and trivializes both hunting and wild game animals.” In less public venues, Jim also compared captive trophy shooting with the degrading nature of prostitution. “Some people think that a brothel can be a good thing, too, in some places. But this is Montana. You don’t build a brothel in the church.”


A year or so later, I sought him out for help on a story about conservation easements. He was working out of that little one-room office in the historic brick building in Helena, and part of his work then was studying and fulfilling grants for the Cinnabar Foundation. Of course, he knew everything that could be known about conservation easements, which were under heavy political fire at the time for reasons we won’t go into here.


I got to his office late morning, and we said a friendly hello, but Jim was sitting at his desk, intently watching a television off to the side that was playing a recording of two young Middle Eastern men dressed in elaborate white and bright green robes that were billowing slightly in the wind. They were both speaking Arabic to the camera in a singsong, emotional (and very disturbing) way.


On Jim’s desk was a big book opened halfway, resting on an unfolded map of the world. He tapped the book: “Ever read this? It’s called The Story of Wood.” (I found out later that it was a 2005 book called A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization.) He gestured at the TV. “Those guys are suicide bombers, preparing themselves for their mission.” We watched for a while. “They are in Lebanon,” Jim said. “Look where they are sitting. Look behind them.” Behind them, the wind blew across a barren, dun-colored landscape of broken rock and veins of sand. Small pieces of trash occasionally tumbled into view and were carried away out of sight of the camera. The young men kept on with their prayers or chants or beseeching.

“That’s where the cedars of Lebanon grew,” Jim said. “That was all forest in Roman times, with huge trees. They say in parts of the forest the canopy was so dense that the sun never reached the ground. They cut it all down. Look at it now. Nothing can live there.” He looked genuinely sad for a second, shook his head.

“If that was my land, I’d want to blow myself up, too.”

He cut the television off with a remote. He brightened immediately, the tragic young bombers in that ruined landscape already behind us, work to be done ahead.

“Now, this conservation easements story we talked about. What do you need to know?”

There was so much I’d never thought of, so much, too, that only a biologist could teach about wildlife and fisheries, so much only a person who had worked within government could know, so much that only a father of a rowdy band of sons, a family man steeped in river water and wilderness rain, could ever understand.

 

What I needed to know was pretty much everything and not just about conservation easements. There was so much I’d never thought of, so much, too, that only a biologist could teach about wildlife and fisheries, so much only a person who had worked within government could know, so much that only a father of a rowdy band of sons, a family man steeped in river water and wilderness rain, could ever understand. Maybe more than that, or the sum of all of those, here was a writer who distilled complex ideas and storm-tossed oceans of history into prose so plain that anybody with a basic grasp of literacy could enjoy it. (At the time I was reading Jim’s book Rifle in Hand and I’d discovered a technique called “reading level analysis,” which evaluates the clarity of prose; it showed that Ernest Hemingway, writing The Old Man and the Sea at the height of his powers, had attained the skill to write one of literature’s most powerful novels at a level that could be understood by the average fourth grader. Read any of Jim’s books and you’ll see what I’m talking about.)

My mind was thoroughly boggled. I had come to the source, the great clear spring that had gathered up of all the waters that had come before.
Over the next few years, I did not see that much of him, but I read his books, saw him speak, called him on the phone and was, as they say, “often (and well) advised.”

I got a new adjective from David Stalling, who was the conservation editor at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Bugle magazine when I first started writing for them. Stalling told me, “Jim Posewitz always says he is a Leopoldian conservationist (meaning a follower of Aldo Leopold, the brilliant conservation writer and land manager and author of A Sand County Almanac and other books). I told Jim that was okay – I’m a Leopoldian, too. But we’re living in a new time now – I call myself a Posewitzian.” The word stuck with me. I, too, am a proud Posewitzian conservationist. (So, too, is Land Tawney, who has a thousand times more right to the term than I do, having studied under Jim since, literally, Land was kicking his way along the birth canal.)

What does that mean, really? First and foremost, it means a human being who comes to the study and practice of conservation from the sheer love of the natural world and of their honored place within it. The work that goes towards saving what we love may take place in fluorescent-lit offices or in laboratories, lecture halls, fire halls, high-school gyms in small towns, capitol buildings and county commission meetings. But the source is always outside, in shadowed, silent cathedrals of old-growth timber, swamp waters trembling with the slow movements of fish unseen, flocks of ducks etched in a dawn sky, an elk bugling across coulees in the waning sun of a September afternoon.

It does not mean only fighting the good fight for your hunting and fishing heritage – Jim had no bloodline heritage in hunting or fishing. His forebears came to the U.S. and worked their tails off in coal mines and lumber mills and had no time for hunting or fishing. As he writes in his last book, My Best Shot, there was hardly anything to hunt in Wisconsin when he was a boy, anyway. His first experience of anything like hunting was stalking, gun-less, a pair of beautiful goldeneyes on a creek near his boyhood home, seeing them flush and fly over him as he lay, looking up. He writes that the sight (and the sound of their wings) turned something in him, forged a connection to the natural world and to the proud lineage of men and women who loved it, studied it, fought for it. His outdoor heritage was not one of bloodline but of like souls. And he’d never say it, but he took his place among the very best of them, reaching millions of readers and students in a time in our history that was just as crucial as the times occupied so well by Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Lacey, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, or any of the greats, of any time, in the pantheon.

In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold wrote the famous line: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” There was a time in my life when that quote and the reality it described threatened to rob me of my joy in hunting and fishing and teaching those pursuits to my son and daughter. I was making a living reporting this furious wildlife conflict, that chemical spill, this proposed development on that river, a new threat, another loss; Chronicling the litany of disasters was undermining me. Lucky for me, and for anyone else who wants to read the books, walk the walk and claim the mantle, I’m a Posewitzian. From Jim, and from Jim’s work and life and the fact that whenever I saw him he was just so happy, so excited and funny and full of plans, I learned to live in that world of wounds and love all the best parts of it, all that remains pristine, and all that is damaged and can be restored, healed, made whole and celebrated again, with rifle or shotgun or paintbrush (or absolutely nothing but an open heart) in hand. From barren wastes, with effort and diligence come lands and waters bursting with life. The choice between life and ruin is ours to make. It has been done before, it can be done again, arguing and fighting and strategizing for what is right, saving what can be saved, and never quitting the battle to do the least harm, gaining a foothold for future battles wherever you cannot win outright. (For example, Jim’s successful struggle to save the integrity of Prickly Pear Creek in the face of building I-15, a struggle that resulted in the passage of the 1963 Montana Stream Protection Act – Jim tells the story in My Best Shot.)

What I learned from Jim was that the most positive things on earth, in life, are also the most subversive. Don’t like the way the world is going? Politics got you down? Despair walls us off from the very thing that will save us. There is a joyful energy in the world that is like a mighty river flowing around us all of the time. All we have to do is stop our glooming and step into it. Skip rocks with your sons and daughters and the neighbors’ kids, make mud pies and catch bullheads and suckers and chubs on worms, eat elk jerky, make epic and ill-advised wilderness treks with thrift store gear, climb peaks and small hills and soak in the world with a biologist’s eye and a poet’s heart. Write it if you feel compelled, but never forget to live it first. Get your work done. Fight for what you love. And all the way through it, on good days or bad, laugh uproariously.

Hal Herring is an award-winning journalist, a contributing editor at Field & Stream and the host of BHA’s Podcast & Blast. He has written for a wide range of publications including The Atlantic, The Economist and Bugle. He’s a lifelong outdoorsman, mountaineer, hunter and fisherman whose fans have come to expect deeply reported, thought-provoking stories and essays. Born and raised in north Alabama, Hal lives in Augusta, Montana.

Editor’s Note: Revisit the September 2017 Podcast & Blast, episode 5, where Hal sits down with Jim and Andrew Posewitz and Land Tawney. Available wherever you get your podcasts or at backcountryhunters.org/bha_podcast_blast_episode_5_jim_posewitz.

 

This article first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Backcountry Journal. Join BHA to get 4 issues a year right in your mailbox. 

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