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A Father's Day Tribute to Gramps

Stefan Bechtel is the author of ten books, including Mr. Hornaday's War: How a Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper Waged a Lonely Crusade for Wildlife That Changed the World. A founding editor of Men’s Health magazine, his work has appeared in Esquire and the Washington Post, among other publications. 

Bigstock-sunset-in-the-woods-15081113For every childhood summer as long as I can remember, my family went to visit my grandparents in a bucolic mountain town in upstate New York. To my brother and I, this was roughly equivalent to a yearly prequel to heaven. Almost every morning, we two boys would tag along behind our grandfather, like a couple of rollicking puppies, as he walked down the hill from his house, across the railroad tracks, and down into the deep woods along the river.

My gramps was a fierce-looking man with a thick shock of white hair, who wore workingman’s clothes and long johns even in hot weather. His pocketknives, and all his tools, were stropped to a lethal sharpness at all times. His temper could be equally sharp. My brother and I feared him as much as we adored him, as if he were one of those alarming Old Testament prophets glaring out of some ancient family Bible.

Once we got down to the river, the air would be loud with birdsong, you could smell the dank rush of wild water, and the old man would periodically kneel before some odd disturbance in the mud and the grass, trying to puzzle out the mystery of what had taken place there the night before. Though he never really talked it very much, it was my beloved “grampie,” Earl S. Krom, who taught me to love the woods.

BECHTEL-MrHornadaysWarWhen I first encountered William Temple Hornaday, while doing the research which would eventually lead to Mr. Hornaday’s War, I was struck by how much he reminded me of my grandfather. In fact, my memories of grampie became a kind of magic door into the personality of Hornaday, bringing him alive,  as if he were rising up like Lazarus out of those dusty archives of his letters and papers at the Library of Congress. By the end of the nearly two years I spent working on this book, Hornaday had become so vivid that I could practically smell the sweatstained collar of his hunting shirt, after a couple of days afield. I could almost hear his voice, both the bombastic shouting voice he used in public,  and the sweet, confiding whisper he used in his private letters to his wife Josephine, who remained the love of his life for sixty years.

Hornaday was very much a 19th century man, born on a farm in the Midwest in 1854. My gramps was also a 19th century man, born on a farm – everybody was born on a farm in those days – in 1889. Neither one of these men were the least bit cuddly, modernized or “metrosexual” (at least, not in public). In fact, they were both cranky and cantankerous in the same sort of way; difficult, ornery, intimidating. Both men were fundamentally at odds with this world in many ways – though my granddad mostly just grumbled, and Hornaday actually left the world profoundly changed from the way he found it. 

Most of all, both men seemed to come alive when they were outdoors, in some remote hunting camp, close to the sound and smell of mud, bark, moss, leaves, boot leather and wild nature. Hornaday, who spent much of his very public life wearing a suit, once wrote Josephine that “if you should actually see me when I come from hunting when out in the jungles, I fear you would refuse to even look upon me again… It shows a depraved taste, I know, but it does my heart good to wipe everything on my pants.”

But, like all of us, both Hornaday and my grandfather had their shortcomings and blindnesses. I particularly remember one day when my grandfather brought along a .22 rifle on our walk down to the river. Usually he carried nothing more than a walking stick or a berry pail, but on this particular day he was armed. And when he spotted a big owl in a shade tree down by the river, he laid the gun on a fencepost, aimed, and – to my absolute amazement -- squeezed off a shot. Luckily, he missed, and the owl went silently winging off, like a gigantic moth. But for years afterwards, my brother and I were both astounded by this. If you saw something beautiful, why would you shoot it?

Because, if you grew up on a farm in the 19th century, that’s what you did. That was the 19th century view of the nattural world. Though my grandfather loved the woods, he also believed that certain “varmints” -- hawks, owls, crows, woodchucks, snapping turtles and any number of other living things -- deserved to be destroyed. And, of course, nature was considered to be a limitless resource: If you shot an owl, a thousand more would appear to take its place. (These attitudes are hardly confined to ancient history.  As recently as the 1950s, if you shot a bald eagle in Alaska, you would not only not be fined or imprisoned, you’d get a bounty from the state government. That’s because people thought eagles were destroying the salmon fishery, and killing lambs. According to one Alaska historian,120,000 bald eagles were killed in Alaska’s bounty program before it ended in 1953.)

These were the kinds of attitudes Hornaday also grew up with, but which he spent fifty years of his life fighting to change. (Yet even Hornaday himself, the great conservationist, was not free of such notions.  Based on studies of the contents of their stomachs, he believed both the sharp-shinned hawk and the Cooper’s hawk deserved to be destroyed, because of their special appetite for domestic poultry.)

One key difference between my grandfather and William Temple Hornaday was that Hornaday not only changed the world, he also changed himself. As a young man he was a specimen collector, rifleman and taxidermist, who brought down more than his fair share of birds and game. But as he ranged further and further into the world’s remotest places – Borneo, the Malay penninsula, the Orionoco – he began to realize that even in these far-flung places, wherever wild nature made contact with human habitation, birds and animals were in full-scale retreat. And if the natural was in peril in Borneo, the entire natural order, everywhere, was at risk.  Hornaday saw this long before most other people did, and as a result his attempts to educate the public were often bitterly contentious. People – especially hunters – just didn’t believe him when he said that birds and game were in grave danger.

My granddad, much as I loved him, never really changed. He never really saw that his predatory relationship to that owl in the tree would have to change if the complex web of nonhuman life on the planet was to be kept safe. Still, he did bequeath to me a love of the wild things and wild places that has carried through to this day. And for that – as well as his injunction that I always keep my pocketnife sharp -- I will always be thankful.