How Not to Get Eaten by a Bear
Also, how to not get eaten by a cougar
Review by John Bear
There’s something decidedly Zen about outdoors writing; the man vs. beast simplicity, all the complications of modern city life stripped away.
America came from the wilderness. Early settlers lived out in the country, because that’s all there was. Coincidentally, the people who lived here first also lived out in the country, then the country further west, then further west, and so on.
Even if we now live in cramped, polluted cities, the middle of nowhere is in our blood. The average American male likes to think he could survive a fight with a cougar, or at least fend off lecherous mountain people (or is it just me?). The great outdoors will always be a popular theme in American literature because it’s part of our culture. And it’s an important genre for folks to read these days, as the wilderness is disappearing, mostly from humans trashing the planet they live on.
Sweetgrass Mornings, by Slim Randles, takes place in several different middles-of-nowhere, such as Alaska and the High Sierras, places chock-full of danger but flush with wonder.
Randles serves up stories, thoughts and reflections on being a hunting guide, mule packer and general outdoorsy fellow. Within the first 30 pages, he is nearly eaten by a cougar, then a grizzly bear.
Interesting grizzly bear fact: They like eating piles of moose guts left behind by hunters.
Interesting grizzly bear fact: They like eating piles of moose guts left behind by hunters. They like to let them rot for a few days, sitting and waiting for the entrails to get that just-right ripeness.
Even more interesting grizzly bear fact: They would rather eat you if you are standing near said piles of moose insides. A good way to tell if a bear is waiting for his moosey goodness is to look up in the trees. If the birds aren’t going for it, walk away. Just walk away.
Confession: I almost stopped reading at the outset. The introduction contains two mystical and/or philosophical American Indian references. Cherry-picking from other people’s cultures always seemed cheap to me. America is awash with dumb people who hang dreamcatchers from the rearview and are suddenly shamans. I’d leave it out.
Complaints: The writing in Sweetgrass Mornings would benefit from a little tweaking, perhaps the cruel blade of an editor. Randles phrases his sentences in ways that seem redundant. For example, he mentions drinking coffee, “straight and black.” So it’s black. This may seem like nitpicking, but extraneous words appear and tend to slow down the stories, which are engaging, sometimes fascinating glimpses into a world this city slicker rarely treads. His writing style is torn between two worlds: sometimes he appears as the newspaper and magazine writer he is, and that tone bleeds through the more cowboy-leaning prose, causing an uneven feel.
Even more interesting grizzly bear fact : They would rather eat you if you are standing near said piles of moose insides.
I found myself wanting for better explanation sometimes. Randles addresses “you” at times and assumes that you’re already aware of the story. At one point, he begins to describe the sound a bear makes (sorry, hung up on bears today) when it’s about to eat you for treading on the aforementioned aged moose guts, then pulls back, leaving it vague and up to the reader to imagine. I feel like I have to borrow Lady Gaga’s meat dress, head for the hills and find out myself. Murderous bear noises are something I would like described in detail, lest I end up eaten.
Sweetgrass Mornings isn’t without its flaws. The writing is problematic stylistically but the subject matter is genuinely engaging. Randles has apparently written a plethora of these books and writes numerous newspaper columns. He appears to know his stuff; I only wish he shared more of it.
Caveat: There is cowboy poetry in here.
Some people like cowboy poetry,
They say it tells the truth,
Me, I’d rather trim a grizzly’s toe nails
From the confines of a phone booth.
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