Rick Bass on Jim Harrison, Last of the Wild Poets

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As it was with the death of John F. Kennedy, many of us who knew Jim Harrison will remember exactly where we were when we heard the news of his passing. I was visiting my youngest daughter in the Texas Hill Country when a friend emailed the news. All weekend — before I'd heard, and then after — I'd encountered a profusion of wildlife. That morning, I walked right up on a foraging raccoon and, a short while later, an opossum, then a blue heron. At dusk, a band of wild hogs, the black piglets no larger than footballs, the boar with curved tusks several inches long. Everything I saw was always just a few steps away. It was like a damned Disney movie.

Sitting with my daughter in the shade of the boulders above the creek that next afternoon, we watched as a giant aoudad — an exotic species of wild sheep that prosper now in the rockiest reaches of the Hill Country — came clattering down through the rocks to within 20 yards of us. It was a gnarly old ram with curved horns, a long beard, and the wild yellow eyes of a goat.

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He never saw us. He walked right on, his hoofs clopping the granite.

That evening, as coyotes were beginning to yip at the base of Hudson Mountain, I went for a short walk in that last hour of light, when the sun is gone and the world is seen only in silhouette. I was drinking a beer on Burned-Off Hill and thinking, in that crepuscular hour, of Jim.

It's an ancient, easy ceremony, but I did it anyway: poured a splash of my beer onto the stony ground in remembrance of Jim — a taste, a gulp, for the earth he had loved so much. In that moment, a hawk came flying low and straight at me. It passed right above me, almost close enough to touch, and on into the darkness. Not an owl, but a large hawk, just like the ones that populate Jim's poems and fiction. The hair on my arms and neck prickled. You don't see hawks at night. Another three beats of darkness fell, another four beats.

I emptied the rest of my can, just in case he was thirsty — he probably was — and then walked on back down off the hill.

I first encountered Jim Harrison in 1980. I was 22, living in Mississippi, working as a geologist in north Alabama — and other than canoeing, all I did was read. I had fallen into the nest of Southern lit, and both of the two great independent bookstores in Mississippi — then as now, Lemuria, in Jackson, and Square Books, in Oxford — were hand-selling the heck out of Jim's new collection of novellas, Legends of the Fall. I refused to buy the book because of the author's bio on the back. The jacket photo showed a one-eyed ruffian lying down in tall grass, possibly buzzed, the caption informing us that: "Jim Harrison, 41 years old, is an outdoorsman and a man of letters." This, coupled with the title, seemed to promise a tedious unscrolling of  blood and matted fur. How could such a brute be "a man of letters?" And anyway, if you were really a man of letters, you wouldn't need to say it, would you?

Finally, John Evans, the owner of Lemuria, gave me the damned book. I read the opening sentences — "Late in October in 1914 three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana, to Calgary in Alberta, to enlist in the Great War (the U.S. did not enter until 1917). An old Cheyenne named One Stab rode with them to return with the horses in tow because the horses were blooded and their father did not think it fitting for his sons to ride off to war on nags" — and subsequently the entire novella, a hundred years passing in roughly as many pages. Would I have been a fiction writer if I had not read Jim Harrison? I can't say. I know only that when I read the first page of the title novella, a switch went off in me: I decided I wanted from that point on to be a writer, not just a reader.

Jim and I began corresponding, going deep into the elements of fiction, but I didn't meet him until 1988, when I moved from my farmhouse near Terry, Mississippi, to the remote Yaak Valley in Montana's far northwestern corner. Jim was under the impression I had moved to Terry, Montana, and called me one morning on my radio phone. He said he was visiting his daughter in Livingston, not too many miles from Terry, and invited me over. "I'm cooking today," he told me, preparing a big Southern barbecue to honor my Southern-ness. My wife and I could not resist. We jumped into the truck and drove 10 hours across the state, arriving just at dusk.

Wearing a white chef 's apron smeared with hot sauce, a glass of red wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other, Jim radiated an immense happiness. We sat by a rushing creek and ate the shit out of those ribs. He gestured toward my old truck and told me it was dangerous to drive on bald tires.

By this time, Jim's hunting days were largely behind him. He was burly, though not yet big. He was not yet in need of a cane. In the 30 years I knew him, I never once saw him lift a gun. He grew up in a hunting family, and hunted and fished well into middle age, but I think a little of it went a long way with him — that it was his early days hunting that helped train in him the mind's stillness required by both hunter and poet. His best passages about nature are not about blood sport but about nature unharmed. When animals die in his books and poems, they do so in but a sentence, and not gratuitously. The woodcock or grouse or deer does so to make its way onto the plate, and the story proceeds.

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Although we both lived in Montana, I saw Jim in France nearly as much as I did in the States. He was a demigod there. At literary festivals, the lines of people waiting to have their books signed by him would stretch out of the theater, onto the sidewalk, and around the corner. Waitresses and movie stars alike loved him not for his brawn or even his mind, I think, but for his ability to listen, and watch. He could talk, for sure, and did, but I loved most watching him listen. People brought him things — fine bottles of wine, great cuts of meat, wonderful cheeses — and he did not dislike this in the least. There are restaurants in Paris, whether small cafes or elegant dining rooms, adorned with a black-and-white photo of a middle-aged squinting one-eyed fat man. We ate in elegant restaurants with long white tablecloths in Aix-en-Provence, and at outside tables along sidewalks, on porches and patios. He loved L'Hôtel de Suède, where a horned owl lived in the heart of Paris.

Whether in one of those places, or in Manhattan at Elaine's (always the lamb), from the minute he sat down he was ready to eat. He would study the wine menu at some length but would order a bowl of olives immediately. In France, he liked that dogs came into restaurants and sat calmly at their owners' feet.

I met Jim during his Hollywood years. He was flush from the success of Legends and had secured plenty of screenwriting work. He was hanging out with his celebrity pals like Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston. It was during those years that Jim taught me something important. He taught me what to say at that awkward moment after dinner, when you want to pick up a check and not argue about it: "I've had a very good year. Let me get this." He uttered this on numerous occasions — in Livingston, in Missoula, in New York, in Mississippi — and it was deft, graceful, possessing the genius of generosity. It bespoke gratitude on his part — acknowledging luck, via Hollywood — while inspiring hope in his companions that they, we, too, might have good years in the future.

It was a subtle, charming sleight of hand: You wouldn't begrudge me the miracle of my luck, would you? And yet it was no miracle.

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To some extent, he spent his life getting ready to die, in the best sense. He wrote poems about how much weight he would lose, in death. He wrote a novel called A Good Day to Die. The strongest characters in his novels always did. He had in fact narrowly avoided death when, in his early twenties, he'd opted not to join his father and sister on a hunting trip and they were subsequently killed in a car accident. It was at that point, he would say, that he became "unhinged": choosing, as ever, the perfect word.

We tend to think of Jim (and friends like Tom McGuane, Russell Chatham, Guy de la Valdène, and Doug Peacock) as a carefree carouser — hard-drinking, hard-living, following his heart's desires and the desires of the flesh. What people seem not to notice is what a brute of a workhorse Jim was. With amazing breadth and depth, he published nearly 40 books during his lifetime — novels, novellas, poetry, essays.

But lately he had been wearing down, and the fun had to be all but gone. His wife of five decades, Linda, had died the previous autumn. He'd endured spinal surgery, shingles, neuralgia, gout, and depression. Yet he kept doing what he had always done, despite the pain. It is no surprise to me that he went out strong, sitting at his desk on a Saturday night, in the midst of a poem. A poet's death.

As I write this, I'm in Seattle on a sunny chill spring morning, looking out at Elliott Bay, at an outdoor table, wishing he was here. The black coffee is steaming, seagulls are squabbling, diesel trucks idle just beyond the fruit and flower stands of the market. In remembrance of Jim, I've ordered one of nearly everything, or as much as I think I can handle. A couple of local oysters — Quilcene, Hama Hama — and a chicken-and-honey biscuit with rosemary and black pepper cream gravy, and, hell yes, I've asked for a fried egg on top. A bowl of potato-leek cream soup with alder-smoked salmon. The dry-rubbed roast lamb potpie. And, for health, a chaste little arugula salad and a slice of Beecher's jack cheese.

Were I a better, larger man, I'd finish it with the French toast, maple bacon, brandy butter syrup, macadamia nuts, and mascarpone, chased with a Bloody Mary that uses house pickles and chili-lime salt. As it is, I have to pass on the toast.

But the day is still young. Lunch, and then, beyond that, dinner, still awaits.

Rick Bass is the author of 31 books. His most recent is the short-story collection For a Little While (Little, Brown).

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