The Insightful Sportsman: Thoughts on Fish, Wildlife and What Ails the Earth, by Ted Williams.
Camden, Maine: Down East Books, 1996. 299 pages, $14.95 trade
"The hard thing about writing
real conservation pieces is not finding material, but finding
editors who dare to publish it consistently," says Ted (Edward
French) Williams in his preface to this, his first book. It's a
long-overdue collection of 30 magazine articles, essays and
exposés spanning 1981 to 1995, all with updates as of
Similarly, the hard thing about reading
real conservation pieces is that they are apt to be bad news
delivered in a somber tone.
But part of Ted
Williams' genius, like Edward Abbey's before him, is that he's
never boring and frequently funny. This talent for making readers
laugh while spooning out bitter medicine has earned Williams a
loyal readership and, increasingly of late, a growing flock of
daring editors, even in the hook-and-bullet press, where you
wouldn't expect them.
Outdoor journalism, acting
from enlightened self-interest, has a long affiliation with
conservation. Teddy Roosevelt, among the most prolific
conservationists the world has known, was an avid sportsman and a
renowned outdoor writer. Aldo Leopold, arguably the greatest
conservation thinker and writer America has produced, was an
enthusiastic outdoorsman. More recently, however, the outdoor
media's political ballast has drifted steadily
Logically, you'd expect the sporting
press to be leaders in proselytizing for the preservation of
wildlife and wildlands - the love objects of their readers' hearts.
Sadly, today's highly competitive, industry-dominated,
gadget-ridden fin-and-feather media often come across as
self-serving, amoral and just plain stupid.
one sporting publication deserves special applause for regularly
publishing environmental exposé as courageous and biting as
any you'll find in even the greenest of conservation journals. That
would be Fly Rod & Reel, for whom Williams writes the column,
"The Angler's Environment." I
"As a hunter and
fisherman, it has long grieved me that especially prominent among
Americans who don't read much and don't think much are sportsmen.
There is not a single interest group more easily seduced by
politicians working against its interests. If you're a senator or
congressman or even a president, all you have to do is mouth the
litany about how lovely it is to wet a line with Junior and how
vile are anti-hunters, and you'll have sportsmen filling your bath
... The Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus is a front for politicians
pushing the agenda of air and water polluters, clearcutters, oil
and gas extractors, agribusiness habitat wreckers and wetlands
Audubon - which has run Williams'
column "Incite" and his hard-hitting features for so long now it
would scarcely be Audubon without him - published the majority of
essays in The Insightful Sportsman. Other overtly "nature"
publications represented in the book are Wildlife Conservation and
Living Bird. Moving farther afield, Gray's Sporting Journal (which
Williams once edited) plus Trout, Atlantic Salmon Journal and Fly
Rodding for Bass all stand and deliver.
not to imply that The Insightful Sportsman, the collection's title
notwithstanding, contains nothing but green-tinted sporting prose.
The lead piece, for example, is a 10-page indictment of the
water-wasting, water-polluting lawn-care industry, concluding with
a five-step sidebar on "Planning a Natural Yard."
Ted Williams' conservation and outdoor writing
- the latter with its feet always planted firmly in the former; the
former frequently finding its inspiration in the latter - is a
refreshing antidote to the Alston Chase school of ax-grinding and
conspiracy theory. Williams is a political loose cannon, and just
when you think you've got him figured, he'll slip you a
"I refuse to
wear my Colby College necktie because the mules thereon bear such a
resemblance to donkeys that I am commonly mistaken for a Democrat.
Not that I am proud of being a Republican. In fact, the only
Republican presidential candidate I have ever voted for was Nixon,
who remains the closest thing we have had to a proven environmental
president since Teddy Roosevelt ... the dereliction of the
Republican leadership has enabled the Democrats to prance around
like Doris the Recyclasaurus at the throwaway-container lobby's
annual "Keep American Beautiful" party ... But, as a group, the
Democrats don't care about the earth either. On average, they post
environmental voting records of about 50 percent, a flunking grade
in any school I ever attended."
naturally that Williams' name has become an expletive in certain
true-believer circles. Which is exactly how he wants it. If there
is a theme in this collection, it is a plea for political unity
among all of us who profess to love wild nature. As Williams quotes
one researcher, if America's 15 million hunters and 50 million
anglers were ever to join forces with environmentalists, they would
comprise "60 to 70 percent of the population, an absolutely
Slowly and of
necessity, things may be moving that way, with the more intelligent
and reasonable elements of both the sporting and green camps - with
Williams a leading mediator - gradually coming to understand that
they risk losing everything by continuing to snipe at one another
while ignoring the looming common enemy of habitat
Because of his fierce independence
and refusal to toe any party line, Williams' 27-year career as a
conservation writer has often been lonely. "We are the misfits," he
writes of himself and fellow sporting conservation writers, "the
pariahs, Yeats' weird, wandering Aenguses with fire in our heads
who stumble after silver trout and glimmering girls when white
moths are on the wing."