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25 Mar

Wolves, Wildlife, and Politics

MSU Dept. of English.

“Wolves, Wildlife and Politics”

Hannah Community Center

East Lansing, Michigan

March 22, 2012

With Lt. Jason Haines at MSU Wolf Gab.

Despite the focus of this evening and series, I need to tell you that I don’t write books about issues. I write about characters, who live in a certain cultural/geographic context, which gives rise to situations and various issues that then come to bear on the characters. Issues are only strands of the fabric from which the story gets woven.

The ways of journalism I learned here at MSU have served me well as a novelist.

We were taught to strive for objectivity and to keep ourselves, our opinions and prejudices, out of news. I suspect that train has left the station as US journalism has dived closer to the world’s political news model with a yellow tinge – just as it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The Journalism of 1961-65 tried to teach us: how to create and nurture a beat; how to find and protect a source; how to listen for a good quote, which starts us down the road of effective hearing, that is, how to hear not just what people actually say, but how they say it.  (Not to mention what the sources are not saying publicly.) I learned how to do background research here, and how to get involved closely in a story and keep my eyes and ears open. It even taught me to listen carefully to dialogue and to hear the rhythms of language of place and class. Journalism training instilled all this in me, and more and what I took away from here 47 years ago will always be treasured.  

Most of all, we were taught to go get the story. Rick Bragg addresses this in Brown Dog of the Yaak. He wrote: “I think most readers want to see writers, artists charge hard, or move powerfully or gracefully, out of this world — but then turn and come back to some anchor in that art, whether it’s a physical place, or an emotion, or both.”

When you do this as a writer you sometimes hear something like I once heard from an old, but reformed violator. He told me, “If there’s a lot, take a lot. If there’s just a few, take ‘em all.” You would never hear this sitting at your desk. It’s like Captain Kirk at the end of one of the movies telling his helmsman to “Take ‘er out there, thataway.”

            I have been an author since 1985, and over the course of almost three decades my reputation has soared from internationally unknown to regionally obscure. I am by one person’s estimate, the Poet Laureate of Groundlings and the I-Don’t-Read-So-Muchies. My fans are far more likely to borrow my books from the library than to buy them.  Or one person will buy a copy, then pass it around to 30 or 40 other folks. People frequently tell me that while they don’t read much, but they have read all of my books. If true, this is probably a good thing.

Our being here tonight is propitious, the gray wolf having recently been delisted from endangered species status in Michigan. My view on wolves is that they belong in the state, and that our MDNRE should have the power to control problem animals, as they do other creatures. Conservation should never be about popular opinion measure by  superficial polls, or citizens voting on such issues, but about science, in full recognition that scientists will be quick to admit they don’t have all the answers. We either manage our resources scientifically or politically. The two don’t mix well. Nitty-gritty conservation issues should not be decided by voters at large. I take issue with citizens who spend a few weeks in the woods each year and dare tell wildlife biologists how to do their jobs, criticizing them loudly when biologists do something different than the self-appointed experts want.

I write in my Woods Copy series about law enforcement men and women called conservation officers. My stories move all around the state, but focus on the life of one officer in the Upper Peninsula, that place Old Curmudgeon Jim Harrison once characterized as a “wilderness by default.”

The terroir of the UP is always a character in my stories because the weather and terrain up there effect every aspect of life for every individual who lives there, a place where you must stay involved and pay attention.  Above the bridge you have to live life, not let life live you. To reflect this  sentiment I wrote in the U.P.  poem, called,  “90 Miles from The Walmart: “We burn time here, unlike below the bridge, where the reverse obtains.”

Over the past decade I’ve been on 300 – 400 patrols with conservation officers from around the state. I’m approaching a full year of time in CO trucks. These patrols have lasted from four hours to 17 hours, night and day,  in vehicles and on foot, in all kinds of weather, over all kinds of terrain, involving all kinds of cases, from arson and drunk drivers to  search and rescue, suicides, robberies and break-ins, assaults and escaped felons,  not counting all the fish and wildlife matters that take most of a CO’s time. I love this work in part because our state’s officers are every bit as professional and dedicated as the aircrews I flew with in the USAF in the late sixties in a considerably warmer part of the world. Our COs are carefully selected, continuously and rigorously trained, and they have exceptional people skills.

Of 5,000 candidates in the state civil service pool, three or four will eventually make it to duty as conservation officers. Were I to apply, I’d never make the cut.

Conservation Officers are fully commissioned peace officers empowered to enforce all the  laws of the land. Some are also federal deputies, which enables them to pursue across borders. COs work with city cops, county sheriffs, the Michigan State Police, US Fish & Wildlife, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, US Forest Service law enforcement, the Secret Service, Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Immigration, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the FBI.

So why choose a conservation officer for a main character in for my stories?

I found the work interesting, and that little fiction had been done on the subject until C.J.Box and I came along at about the same moment.  His stories are set in Wyoming, mine largely here.

The notion of outdoors, it seems to me, is important for many reasons, not the least being a huge philosophical shift in human values that  has happened over the past century or so: This is the massive flip-flop from conceiving of wilderness as a dark and foreboding mythic terra nullius harboring monsters and death, to something apart and beautiful that somehow helps us define what it is to be human. The result of this philosophical shift is, that rather than conquer, subdue or eliminate the wild ( as was the push throughout most  recorded history) we now seek to preserve and protect.

At this time in the U.S. conservation and natural resources are subjects of widespread and increasing social interest, from a number of angles, and wilderness and wildness are part of the overall picture. Soon there will be a reality show about COs in Maine, and another set in Western Canada.

If one is interested in conservation and the UP, who better to show us than a DNR officer whose life is intertwined 24-7 with the outdoors?

The shift in public value of wilderness and wildness seems to me a major one that hasn’t gotten a great deal of serious academic attention.  I mention this because the status of wilderness bears directly on wolves, which were not so long ago relentlessly pursued with a goal of eternal obliteration. Over the ages, mankind declared war on wolves, sometimes driven by churches and religions. Wolf dens were destroyed relentlessly, whole litters killed.  The animals  were trapped, snared, poisoned, shot from aircraft — killed in every conceivable way, and revulsion for the animals was common in this state, even when I was in high school in the UP, fifty one years ago.

People tend to be for or against wolves. Part of the formula seems to involve a latent level of anti-government, anti-establishment feeling, wherein nothing the government does can be right. Our current political campaigns are filled with such rhetoric and thinking. And it is common thinking in parts of the UP (and other rural parts of our state).

I once explained to my pal God how Americans could say and mean that they love their country yet hate their government, and he didn’t believe me. After trout fishing one night, we went into a bar, and ordered our dinner. I stepped to the bar and ignited a group tirade down the precise lines I had told him about. He was astonished. Still is, I think.

The anti-wolf view still lingers, more widely than one might assume. “I-can-see-Russia-From-Here Sarah Palin, then governor of Alaska, was reportedly “unenthusiastic” about a law to prevent killing wolves from aircraft, whinging to  the media, wolf killing is, “an All-American sport, and a way of life in Alaska.”

Killing them certainly was a long-time business in the Lower 48 and here in Michigan as well, with bounties employed to eliminate several species.

Back in the late 19th century a North Dakota “wolfologist” by the name of Frank Corbin claimed wolves multiplied at the rate of 600-800 percent per year. Corbin claimed to have killed 400 wolves within seven miles of his house, and 1,100 over nine years, by digging dens to encourage females to use them, then catching the pups on fishing hooks, killing them, and “bountying” the pups while leaving his adult brood stock in place to breed more bounty producers. True? Who knows. The status of wolves in Corbin’s day was below that of rats, and there remains today a small, largely secretive group of people of indeterminate size who continue to think this way. 

Go to the U.P. and you’ll see various bumper stickers and signs: “Shoot, Shovel, and Shut Up. “

Or “So Many Wolves, so Few Recipes.”

And “Support Wolves: Smoke One Pack a Day.”

One can never underestimate human creativity in finding ways to manipulate situations to their own purpose. Corbin went around with wolf scalps attached to his coat – to advertise his prowess.

Enmity for wolves seems to have grown out of myth, based largely on lack of actual knowledge, and driven in part by organized and primitive religions.  How we have historically thought about wolves no doubt also grew out of faulty inductive reasoning: generalizing from specifics.  For example, experienced outdoorsmen might tell you that scavengers won’t touch a dead wolf carcass. I have also been told (and read) that dogs and grizzly bears, both of which will eat just about anything, will refuse wolf meat. Microflora will of course destroy a wolf carcass, but nothing else.

So where might that observation lead to in terms of man’s concept of wolves? Both Bible and Quiran mention wolves only negatively and the wolf has been used metaphorically for eons to describe general and specific evils. I’ve seen several wolf carcasses and if they’ve been out a while, they show up as desiccated lumps of fur, guts and blood gone, even the bones untouched by calcium-seeking porcupines. What sort of conclusions were drawn by people seeing such sights?

Some Native American groups concluded that, of all of the great spirit’s things and creatures, only the wolf lacked a manitu or soul, and therefore was deserving of little respect. Our state’s native American tribe, the Ojibwe (Anishnaabe), interpreted wolves differently. Their belief taught that all other animals were created in pairs, but the wolf was the last animal created, and it was created alone. Under this belief system, the wolf was supposed to “walk the earth with man as a partner.”  Now think about how Europeans attempted to eliminate Native Americans, and parallel that with how those same Europeans treated wolves, right into modern times. Interesting parallel. For white folks: Indians and wolves, perhaps same-same? Not being facetious here.

I have tried to paint wolves accurately, and not to anthropomorphize them – yet there is no denying they are smart, attractive, curious, social, family-oriented creatures that have managed to persist despite the onslaught of human loathing and firepower.

I like having wolves back in our state: They were here when we arrived (and I mean Native Americans in this instance), and wolves deserve to have their place here now.

I tend to be pretty hard on hunters in my books because of all the nonsense and shenanigans I’ve seen when I’m out with conservation officers. But I fully support hunting, have no philosophical problem with hunters who follow the rules. I don’t even object to Hundred-Yarders, those clueless individuals who plop their pop-up blinds within 100 yards of their trucks so they won’t get lost, or can get out fast  when fear overcomes them, as it often does.

I saw my first wolf tracks in Idaho near Hoodoo Lake in 1962, saw my first gray wolf in Michigan on the Fox River Road north of Seney in 1998, had my closest experience with a wolf around 2004 on the  Iron River, and heard my first wolf calls last summer in Luce County. Since 1998 I’ve seen approximately twenty of the animals, tracked one that had been poached in Iron County, and helped  find another that died of natural causes, also in Iron County.

I’ve seen live wolves in Iron, Dickinson, Delta, Mackinac, Luce, and Keweenaw Counties. I’ve also seen several wolf carcasses.

Despite dozens of calls from citizens of a dead wolf on the side of such-and-such a road, investigation revealed the following:  coyotes, miscellaneous dogs, cats, foxes, a badger, a raccoon, and two  bear cubs. But not one wolf since I started doing ride-alongs with COs in 2001. Not one, which might suggest a lot of wolf reports in whatever context are better kept in the questionable column. Familiarity may breed contempt. It surely breeds an illusion of knowledge. And the illusion of knowledge sometimes breeds panic and cluelessness.

Wolf Expert Dave Mech once reported he had, over 35 years in the field, had only 15 encounters with wolves without the aid of radio collars or aircraft.

Wolves sing a song of determination and resolve.

So I will close by saying that if you are fortunate enough to see a wolf, count yourself very very lucky.  

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was a positive step for wildlife preservation.

But some species like wolves tend to polarize opinions and when this happens pro-wolf groups try to act in behalf of the animals, but often end up causing largely deleterious effects.

As I said at the outset. I prefer to let science and those who know the science steer the wildlife ship, and keep politics out of it.


20 Mar

The Unseen Side of Publishing

Got the first typeset pages back from my editor and I am going through the pages line by line. When this is done,the pages will go to the proofer/fact-checker and i’ll go through the story again to look at and answer her questions. By mid April there will be a typeset version bound for reviewers, this happening five months before publication. At that point, my work will be done and I won’t have anything to do until the book publishes September 19.
I’m working with the paper typeset pages at the moment, but will then take my work and plug it into the electronic version and shoot it back to my editor. What sort of things does the editor do? In a note I just handled, my editor wrote, “Let’s give the reader a little of Bspcst’s internal thought, rundown of what he gained in this meeting with Geronissi. A little box score of the exchange, since’ there’s not a lot going on. The setting traps thing you mention a few lines after these lines is okay, but still a little too hard to decipher without some of Bspcst’s thoughts to help.” This is a fairly typical comment from the editor, and he’s right. More eyes on the writing help make it smoother and easier for the reader, which is the whole point of the story. Our lady cardinal continues to build her nest ten feet from my work desk. First day of spring, supposed to be 84 today. two years ago on this day, it snowed several inches of wet snow. All this warm weather makes me wonder if bird and critter spring breeding skeds will move up? will have to ask a biologist. I’ll work on manuscript more tomorrow but take Thursday off as we head to East Lansing for a talk and panel discussion on wolves and endangered species, 7-9 p.m. at the Hsnnah Community Hall on Abbott Road. I never eat before a gig, so we’ll grab dinner afterwards. God and his miss us will go along with us. Shanny will stay home to guard the house. What i like at this stage is to re-read the manuscript and feel it working the way I hoped it would. I try to read it with the reader’s eye, managing the technical part of the story, but also trying to feel the flow and impact of the words as they’ve been written. This happens with every book, and I love all the work except for the “appearances’ that take place after the book is on store shelves. To me the book is between the reader and me, a one-to-one communication, not some sort of group grope and explication. The upside of the public stuff is all the interesting people I get to meet. So now it is back to work. Over.

12 Mar

Life and War.

When I left the USAF in 1970, my CO asked why I and my regular commission were  leaving after only five years. I said, “Sir, I’m leaving with five years in uniform, but I grew up in it and have 256 years, more time in than you do.” He was a full bull, looked at me, grinned, and nodded. Looking back, my life has been marked by one thing: War and American troops spilling blood in other nations.

Born in 1943 midway in WW2 (1941-1945); Cold War, 1945-1991;China 1945/1948-49/ 1954/55; Greece, 1947;Korea 1950-53;Lebanon, 1958; Haiti, 1959; Thailand, 1962;Congo, 1964; Dominican Republic, 1965;Vietnam, 1959-1975; Laos 1962-1975;Gulf War I, 1990-91;Bosnia, 1992-1996; Somalia, 1992-1995;Afghanistan, 2001 – ; Gulf War 2, 2003-2011. Some of these were unavoidable, but what the hell is it about us that keeps wanting our kids to die on foreign soil? And not take particularly good care of returning vets, wounded or not?Be nice is some of our jackleg politics could ‘splain this fixation with war to us, yo? In my 68 years there has not been one year without the Cold or a shooting war somewhere, with us in it. Do we want this, and if so, why?

10 Mar

Sadness in the Sun And Night

Woke up to bright sunny morning and call from Bob Lemieux that the original K-Wing, Al Genovy passed away this morning from a rare cancer. Good guy, helped kids. And earlier this week that Don “Padre” and Jean Ingle died in a house fire in Baldwin. Padre, a dean of outdoor writers in the state was an original and will be missed on our rivers. Sad day. I somehow forget that death can come on a sunny day as well as an overcast and gray one.

29 Feb

Books of February.

This past month’s reading list. I’m finishing Rez Life tonight or tomorrow.

Peter  Steinman. The Company of Wolves. [NF]

Malcolm Gladwell. Outliers.[NF]

C.O. Sylvester Mowson. Dictionary of Foreign Terms. [NF]

Lois Crisler. Arctic Wild [NF]

Lois Crisler. Captive Wild: One Woman’s Adventure Living With Wolves. [NF]

Lolita Hernandez. Autopsy of an Engine, and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant. [NF]

Frank Corbin. The Wolf Hunter’s Guide: Tell How to Catch ‘Em and All About the Science of Wolf Hunting. [NF]

Adam Johnson. The Orphan Master’s Son.

Karren Russell. Swamplandia.

James Oliver Curwood. Son of the Forest: An Autobiography [NF]

Isabella L. Bird. A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. [NF]

Marget E. Murie. Two in the Far North. [NF]

Stanley P. Young. The Last of the Loners. [NF]

Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us. [NF]

Judith A. Eldridge. James Oliver Curwood: God’s Country and the Man. [NF]

Don DeLillo. End Zone.

Suzanne Collins. The Hunger Games.

Adam M Soward. The Environmental  Justice: Wm. O. Douglas and American Conservation. [NF]

Two Hearted River Watershed Management Plan. [NF]

Stanley Wells. Coffee With Shakespeare.

Katherine Duncan Jones. Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life [NF]

Suzanne Collins. Catching Fire.

Jim Harrison. The Great Leader.

Howard Papp. The View From The Creek: Notes From Lake Superior’s Ojibwe Country. [NF]\

Trevor Burnard. Mastery, Tyranny & Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and the Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World. [NF]

David Treuer. Rez Life. [NF]

23 Feb

The Past Revisited.

No idea why my mind turned to baseball today, but it did and the memory that washed ashore was one of a hot summer day in San Antonio,  when we Billy Mitchell Bombers took the field in a Kelly AFB Little League game. I was a big 12-year-old, already in the range of six-foot, and my younger brother Jim was playing as a 10-year-old. We were both late-year birthdays, me in late October, and him in early November.

On that day I threw a perfect game, striking out 17 of 18 batters. There were few foul balls and few balls called.  I had one pitch, which was to throw as hard as I could, and on that day, it was more than enough in the toolbox.  Only one player touched me in that game, sending a looping liner into the outfield, where my quiet little brother, (the cerebral one, and a damn Yankee fan) ran down the ball and snagged it for the out.

I remember none of the batters I faced that day, how I did at the plate, or even the final score of that game. All I can see in my mind is Jim making his catch and saving my moment of perfection with his ow perfect moment. There was even a large vertical photo of my catcher and me on the front page of the San Antonio Express after that. Fifty six years later, my only memory of the game is Jim’s catch, and I don’t even remember thanking him, so I’m doing it now.  The lesson of the day was that while one player can overpower, it takes a team to win. Thanks, Jim. Pretty good work, especially  for a Yankees fan.

How long until the  trout opener?



15 Feb

Woods Cops of Olde

Had a telephone call from a retired CO pal this morning who wanted to share some old CO names for the list Randy Clarke and I are putting together, and for the 125 Committee doing the 125 yr law enforcement celebration. I remain astounded by how much we DON’T know about our COs and their history. So here’s a couple. I know the names, but am not putting some of them out here until we vette them properly.

CO Jack Huntley worked the Atlanta -Hillman area probably back in the fifties and sixties. One night he catches two guys shining in the “Grass Farm”  area (well known for shining)and they have two illegal deer and he approaches them on foot to confront them and one of them whacks him on the head with a wine bottle and stuns him. As he lays there trying to recover his senses he hears them talking about where to take him to kill him and dump his body. Officer Huntley recovers his senses enough to scramble to his car to get his gun and a gunfight ensues, during which Huntley hits one of the bad guys in the leg, which will later be  amputated.  The one-legged man committed suicide before coming to trial. The thing is that there are lots of stories like this that never come to the public light, but re-inforce how damn dangerous CO work is. These guys would kill Jack Huntley over two deer? Good god.

There was also an officer assigned to Hillman, who died in a housefire. It was later contended that he had been murdered by some Detroit men he had “offended,” and that they had come north solely to dispose of him. Apparaently the officer’s remains were exhumed, but no charges were ever laid. Still, there is the possibility that this office is yet another who fell in the line of duty. The committe will look into this one.

Finally, a CO of some repute, who eventually rose to chief, was out one night and caught a man with an illegal deer. He drove the guy and the deer to the Justice of  the Peace, justice was done, the fine paid and the officer and the poacher, who were on friendly terms, went to buy a case of beer, then drove out into the woods to quaff brews and shoot the breeze. At some point in the evening, somebody  got mightily  pissed off the other man and a s, brutal fist fight ensued, the violator ending up out cold and the CO with multiple broken ribs. I don’t seek to explain this. I just report it as it came to me. CO’s of old tended to be independent cusses who each did their jobs the way they saw them. They did not have the sort of training officers of today have, and the areas they covered were a lot smaller, and more defined than now.

The first draft of Killing A Cold One (Woods Cop #9) is done. Readers won’t see it until fall of 2013, 19 months hence, at which time I will be getting questions about a character named Gertrude on page 87 and I will have to remind the questioner that the book was done almost two years before and not all the names and events automatically come to mind!


10 Feb

Moose unt Boyds

What’s for dinner? Moose! And speaking of food, the backyard suet is a magnet for downy, hairy, red belly woodpeckers, and flickers (Dollar Butts in da Yoop).

Ready-to-serve moose roast (about 3 lbs)

Browning the moose roast.

Curious flicker. Gorgeous markings.

Flicker on suet

Red belly woodpecker on suet. See the red on the belly? Usually you just see the red head.

Hairy woodpecker on suet. Notice the size of the beak? This is how you differentiate hairy from downy, because their markings are similar. The hairy has a noticeably larger beak and is a larger bird.

10 Feb

Rare Writers

Last night Jambe Longue and I went over to see Jerry Dennis, who was speaking in the Rare Book room at Waldo Library at WMU. Jerry is a fine writer, naturalist, trout fisherman and outdoorsman, and a true Michigander, one who relishes snow! His latest book was published by the U of M Press in 2011. The Windward Shore: A Winter on the Great Lakes. Jerry is the top nature writer in Michigan, and somewhat of an historian for the Great Lakes, which play a role in all of his work. He is both entertaining and highly informative and he gave a great reading to a roomful of people last night. If you haven’t read his work, do yourself a favor and do so. He makes it look easy.

Authors in rarified air...(and formally dressed to boot....)

09 Feb

Mattson and Moose

I got a funny email from one of my CO pals yesterday, and will protect his identity. He and I have done a heap of patrols over more than 10 years and he likes the woods cop books. Here’s the gist of the note, of a kind to make an author chuckle: “I met one of your fans(Don Mattson) who said he located (stalked) you at your house which is in the same neighborhood as his daughter lives. He stopped as I was checking my sled and tightening the cover at a park-and-ride near Koski’s Corner. He said, “Do you put as many miles on that truck as Grady Service does?” I answered, “No and I dont sleep with as many women as Grady does either.” I guess that you paint such a picture that these people think that Grady is a real person and then like an idiot I answer him like Grady is my buddy. I enjoyed the last book but I have to tell you that you shocked me with 2 characters. David Letterman and Joe Heywood. I laughed my butt off Heywood!”

I’m a lucky man to have made the friends I have out there in the CO world. For sure.

Turns out I also got some photos from an Iron County Moose-Vehicle collision last August, I think. The bull weighed something in the neighborhood of 1,200 pounds and was thumped by an 18-wheeler.  Note that the animals huge antlers are still in velvet and there’s only one antler on the head, he other antler apparently ganked by a passerby before emergency troops arrived on the scene.  Thanks to CO Dave Painter from Iron Co for sharing the pix. Glad it wasn’t me who hit the beast. Sheesh. That could really ruin one’s day, eh. When you’re a CO anywhere in our great state, you never know what you’ll have to contend with next.


These fellas did the actual heavy lifting.


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