Outdoor writer aims to change his culture

  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 paper.

"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 1996.

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 starboard.

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.

But 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 quote:

"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 developers."

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.

This is 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 sucker-punch:

"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."

It follows 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 irresistible coalition."

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 destruction.

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."

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