Reviewed by Philip K. Jason
When the celebrated nature writer, Harry Middleton, died in 1993, he left behind scores of uncollected periodical pieces published in such places as Field and Stream, the New York Times, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Sports Illustrated, and Southern Living – this latter magazine the home of Middleton’s “Outdoors South” column from 1984 until the beginning of 1991. Readers can applaud the dedication of Ron Ellis, who has brought together this generous selection of Middleton’s writings titled In That Sweet Country. If you enjoy hunting, fishing, and the great outdoors, you’ll want this book.
Harry Middleton knew the wild places and creatures of the American South with the intensity of a lover. As an outdoorsman, he was a patient observer, and his acute observations, transformed into a graceful and rhythmical poetic prose, bring us the full rush of his reverence for nature. For Middleton, man’s best self emerges from an intimacy with other living things and with the natural habitat.
The average Middleton piece is only about four pages of highly condensed and meditated experience. Several are character-driven narratives about exemplary figures, such as his grandfather, who taught him that fishing “was a way for man to connect with the natural world,” and that “if life could be touched, it would feel something like a fast-running mountain stream.” Middleton has a fine touch for characterizing detail and for presenting his characters engaged in rituals of outdoor life in ways that make the activities metaphors for all that life throws at us and has to offer.
This fine author can freeze a stretch of dawn or dusk along Southern rivers and creeks like no one else. He paints the interplay of light and shadow, cloud and leaf, breeze and current, putting his readers into the sensory moment just before a fish pierces the river’s surface to feed or at the instant that beating wings and a raucous call break the mountain silence. His words fill canvases, displaying the rich colors of various woodland seasons for our awe. When Harry Middleton describes a day on the river, it becomes any and every reader’s day.
For Middleton, the relationship with the myriad creatures that swim and fly is ultimately more important in the beholding than in the actions of catching or killing. And yet, the cycle of wait, cast, catch and release is a pattern and pulse that he spins into shorthand for all of life’s business.
At the center of Harry Middleton’s heart, the engagement of his imaginings, reveries, and special knowledge, is the addictive enterprise of fly-fishing. He overlays majesty and magic upon the fisherman’s gadgets and gear; the painstaking care of lures, rods, and reels; the honed instinct for finding the perfect intersection of time and place to cast his line; and the endless study of and respect for the brown trout against whose wits he measures himself.
Middleton writes: “The fly-fisherman comes to a mountain stream and knows it as he knows a good friend. With loops of line over its shiny surface, he stitches together a lifetime of fast water and irrepressible trout.”
Reading Harry Middleton is the beginning of learning such truths. For writers, reading Harry Middleton is also a lesson in transforming the experience of the receding outdoor world into the highest art. In That Sweet Country: Uncollected Writings of Harry Middleton,selected and introduced by Ron Ellis, is published by Skyhorse Publishing. Put it in your knapsack.
Middleton also authored five books about fly fishing.