column By: Glen Blackwood | March, 20
Recently while rummaging through the console of my truck, searching for a small screwdriver that I keep there for emergencies, I found a long forgotten CD. This find was not a financial windfall, as it was not a certificate of deposit but an old-fashioned compact disc. The CD was a compendium of Warren Zevon’s music, its tracks having the musician’s popular songs as well as less known tunes. I remembered buying it at a late night truck stop while road tripping East to fish terrestrials on the freestone runs of North Central Pennsylvania. While Warren Zevon’s music and wild trout fishing may not seem compatible, the music provided the companionship and stimulation needed for safe passage.
Finding the CD had distracted me from my task at hand only to open up my eyes to another. With the help of modern technology — my iPhone, iPad and YouTube — the next few hours were spent listening to a variety of songs written and performed by Zevon. Tunneling through this rabbit hole of verse reminded me of a lyrical passage in a natural history book, which prompted my rereading a prominent author’s works.
Michael McIntosh was one of the most prolific and influential sporting writers in recent times. He authored and/or edited 29 books and countless magazine articles. While mainly revered as a “fine gun and shooting” author, he also wrote passionately about sporting art, natural history and bird hunting in a voice that blended boyhood exuberance with scholarly research. This blend, nurtured by a boyhood spent hunting with his father and family in Iowa, was furthered by studying English literature and a short-term career teaching the subject at the college level with an emphasis on William Shakespeare. These experiences allowed him to create a rhythm of writing that was technically sound and lyrically enjoyable. His fresh voice and unique style resonated with sporting readers in the United States and abroad.
McIntosh’s first book, The Best Shotguns Ever Made in America, was published by Charles Scribner’s in 1981 and led the way for his follow-up book Best Guns, which was then published by Countrysport Press in 1989. This work, focusing on double guns, helped jumpstart the modern revival of side-by-side shotguns. The success of Best Guns led to other titles being published by Countrysport Press, including the book Wild Things. This book was published in 1996, and while its subject matter is natural history not wing shooting, this lesser known book is a standout in the author’s body of work. Unfortunately, Wild Things is often overlooked due to the popularity of his gun writings.
In 1989, McIntosh joined the masthead of the now defunct magazine Wildlife Art News. His task was to write a column that profiled various species of wildlife. His column, “Wild Things,” combined a species’ biological information with personal anecdotes, literary quotes and poetry. This column provided him freedom to write with an open vocabulary and mind, unlike the more stringent informative and technical writing of fine firearms. These two factors allow for some of his best and most interesting writing. It is through these passages that the author allows the reader to view the topic through his naturalist eye. To the diehard bird hunting reader, the chapters on grouse, woodcock, quail and “John Ringneck” in the book Wild Things will certainly be enjoyable. For example, he writes in a chapter titled “Different Drummer”:
A ruffed grouse is so called because it wears tracts of broad, glossy-black, faintly iridescent feathers on either side of its neck. Both sexes have them, but the males are larger and more prominent. In an amatory mood, or when putting on an intimidation display, the bird flexes specialized muscles that raise these feathers into a ruff more than any Elizabethan fop ever dreamed of knowing.
Granted, the term “Elizabethan fop” might be antiquated, but that is an apt description and perfectly describes a male ruffed grouse’s neck hackle. Demonstrating the author’s blending of his knowledge of English literature to his outdoor writings, he continues in this passage to write:
As to the balance of their dress, I’ll simply say to my eye ruffed grouse wear the most beautiful plumage of any birds on earth. Every hue of the autumn woods except scarlet and yellow is there somewhere, subtle, muted and ineffably elegant.
While the passages above may demonstrate a romantic view of McIntosh’s writings, the last two paragraphs of the chapter titled “November Song” show his pragmatic and nostalgic views towards pheasants and their dwindling habitat:
Should that happen I can only hope I’m not alive to see it, because he’s too old a friend for me to be comfortable without him, too much part of the boy I used to be. I’d miss hearing the raucous, rust-gate clamor of his springtime crowing, miss seeing his high-tailed sprint through the burnished gold of a cut cornfield, miss the angry cackle of his flush, his wily ways and go-to-hell attitude
And I’d miss trudging carward with my dog at the end of the day, a couple fat roosters making a comfortable burden in my game pocket. At those times my father is always with me and November always sings its old, sweet song.
While writings pertaining to game birds make up a small portion of Wild Things, the remaining chapters are insightful and enjoyable. I found the chapters regarding otters and falcons fascinating. Although I have seen moose in Alaska, the Rocky Mountains and Eastern Canada, I didn’t realize they are three distinct subspecies until rereading McIntosh’s essay pertaining to them. Through the author’s research regarding the various species, he exposes readers to Eastern European folk tales and Native American vocabulary. These informational tidbits add to the enjoyment of the books. Reading these biological sketches demonstrates the author’s detailed eye was not limited to checkering lines and wood to metal fit. His was also the eye of a meticulous observer of Mother Nature and her children.
In the realm of sporting writing and all arts for that matter, sometimes the best products are lost to the artist’s most popular works. For example, Corey Ford’s “The Road to Tinkhamtown” overshadows his other sporting and satirical writings in many readers’ opinions. I am not sure if this is an accurate position, albeit it’s a popular one. With that stated, Michael McIntosh was a skilled writer. He was also a musician who kept a guitar in his writing room. I do not know if he ever robustly strummed Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” or “Hasten Down the Wind.” I do believe McIntosh wrote sporting books in a similar intelligent, observational and melodic fashion. Writings that blended his academic background with his life afield, and Wild Things is his prime example.
McIntosh died Aug. 14, 2010. Wild Things is currently out of print and available on the secondary book market.