Less than a week before Jim Harrison passed from our immediate presence, I had the pleasure of sitting at a picnic table at the Wagon Wheel Saloon drinking beer with him, his daughter, Jamie, his bird-hunting partner, J.B. Miller, and my wife, Laurie. Although Jim was likely suffering chronic pain from back injuries, as well as from shingles and gout, he spoke with great affection and gratitude that Jamie had come down from the Livingston, Montana, to spend time with him.
As usual, the conversation drifted between the sightings of birds, the readings of friends’ recent books, the perils of upcoming travel, the follies of getting old, and the desire to have one more good meal among friends. I am relieved to say that when I heard on Easter Day that Jim had died the day before while working on one last poem, I had so recently been given the gift of having seen him sitting outdoors, smiling at his daughter.
It is Jim’s very humanity, humor, and deep love of family, friends, and dinner fare that I will remember the most… along with his poems, hilarious one-liners, Coyote-like characters, and powerful plots as a backdrop to all that burly humanity.
I knew Jim for almost half my life and a third of his 78 years, but we had another improbable but emotional connection: my favorite Lebanese cousin, Fred Piet, had been Jim’s college roommate and hunting buddy at Michigan State University when I was still a kid. It was Jim’s other longtime sidekick from Michigan, cutting horse champion novelist Tom McGuane, who first told me that my cousin Fred had been the one to introduce Jim to his wife-to-be, Linda, in the late 1950s. (Linda was as remarkably talented and as observant of nature as he was, but a far more lovely sight than her rapscallion husband.)
Over their half-century of keeping house together, both of them became fantastic cooks of wild game, fish, and other rustic fare, but Linda had a particular touch for presenting simple but elegant meals to their friends. Much of those winter meals took place during their quarter century of living along Sonoita Creek from November to April. Linda died in October. Even when chefs Mario Battali and Chris Bianco came down to Patagonia in February to fix a memorial dinner to honor Linda’s life and cheer up, Jim, we could sense how low he had been feeling since her death.
The wildest meals that I experienced with the Harrisons were their spring “freezer thawing” dinners in Patagonia, the weekend before they would leave to summer in Livingston. All the game and fish that Jim had hunted himself or been given by neighbor would be taken from the freezer, thawed, then grilled outdoors or slowly-roasted in the oven after a hot, quick searing-in of the juices. One time we were invited over, I erroneously predicted that he would be preparing a couple pounds of hatchet scallops I’d brought back for him from the Sea of Cortez a few days before. But he had immediately eaten those scallops the very night that they had arrived. As we sat down with Jim and Linda and a half dozens of their friends that spring night, I thought I heard his raspy voice announce that we would be having “quail three ways.” When the plates arrived, I realized I had misheard him. Each of us would be sampling all three hunt-able species of quail found in southern Arizona: Gambel’s, Scaled and Mearn’s. They were small servings, but so delicious that most of us would have been immensely satisfied with that much alone.
That’s when Jim announced that the quail were the antipasto portion of the meal, and slow-roasted Texas brisket main entrée was next. Although the duration of the freezer-thawing parties in the Harrison household never approached the 11 hours he invested in his notorious 37-course extravaganza in France, I realized that I would have had to train (or fast) for weeks to have kept up with Jim and his cronies.
But for all the hyperbole and hilarity about Harrison as a performance artist, most of his hours were spent as an extremely quiet, hard-working “blue collar writer” who alternated between brooding depression and contemplative trances. After losing his eye to a piece of glass at age seven, he took refuge in the outdoors, and that is where he found both his off-kilter vision of this wild world we live in, and also the timbre of his unmistakable voice. By the time I first read his poetry and novellas in 1973, the whacked-out brilliance of his voice was already fully formed.
I first found his unforgettable 1971 novella, Wolf, while I was doing fieldwork on wildlife in the Upper Peninsula, where most of it was set. From then on I was sold, hook, line and sinker, on both his prose and his poetry. The Raw and the Cooked, the anthology of his food and hunting stories from Esquire, Sports Illustrated and other magazines, will remain a classic for decades. It was the first great book to take us from detailed natural history and in-depth behavior of fish and fowl in their colorful habitats all the way to the plate without sugar-coating or telescoping a single step.
None of that passive crap: after the trout had been gutted and fileted… No, not on Harrison’s watch.
Harrison was more than just another pretty face, skilled angler, hedonistic hunter, and bizarre story-teller: he had a deeply moral view of the right ways to treat the creatures of the seas, the streams the farmsteads and desert grasslands of this planet, and he minced no words when describing the ugly consequences of treating creation the wrong way. He also admired many of his neighbors in Santa Cruz County, from Abel Murrieta to Ross Humphreys and Susan Lowell. His friends and drinking buddies were from all walks of life.
Jim’s bawdy, cranky, cock-eyed exterior was like a crust that protected a big but breakable heart inside that cared for most every creature, every culture, every woman and man he had ever spent time with; he had so much sensuousness and wit that it would all slop out on the floor if he did not contain it all within that crust.
My hunch is that Harrison will be long be regarded as the finest outdoor writer, nature writer, food writer, and tragi-comic novelist to have ever resided in southern Arizona. He’s up there with Norman Cousins, Alan Weisman, J.P.S. Brown, Phil Caputo, Charles Bowden, Laura Chester, and Richard Collins among Santa Cruz County’s greatest writers. And he will be sorely missed.
While I can easily live without all the calories he periodically foisted upon my plate, and all the alcohol he tried to pour into my glass, it will be hard to live without having another memorable Harrison story come out each year for the rest of my life.
Gary Nabhan is a Patagonia resident and writer of some thirty books of natural history, food writing, history and poetry.