Stephen Fry in America
Somewhere along the line the American love affair with wilderness changed from the thoughtful, sensitive isolationism of Henry Thoreau to the bully, manly, outdoorsman bravado of Teddy Roosevelt.
Maybe. Or perhaps the manly outdoorsmen (and women) pre-dated Thoreau by quite a bit and spent their time clearing out the bears, cougars, and Mohawks (whose tribal enemies referred to them as man-eaters …hmm) so that Thoreau’s sensitive nancy-ass could safely hang out in the woods and spend all that time being thoughtful instead of being scalped and eaten.
It is not for me, as an outsider, either to bemoan or celebrate this fact, only to observe it.
No, simply to mock it with a wink to the enlightened reader who will of course immediately recognize the primitive nature of the non-urban, non-properly Eurocentric American. Might even be Republicans in there! Imagine! Hope I can get out alive to report on this fascinating sub-culture!
Deep in the male American psyche is a love affair with the backwoods, log-cabin, camping-out life.
To think, when one could instead be safely snuggled in civilized Great Britain, where people lock up their lawn furniture and gas grills at night for fear of thieves.
There is no living creature here that cannot, in its right season, be hunted or trapped. Deer, moose, bear, squirrel, partridge, beaver, otter, possum, raccoon, you name it, there’s someone killing one right now. When I say hunted, I mean of course, shot at with a high-velocity rifle. I have no particular brief for killing animals with dogs or falcons, but when I hear the word “hunt” I think of something more than a man in a forage cap and tartan shirt armed with a powerful carbine.
Boar hunting with spears perhaps? What exactly does our intrepid hero think of when he thinks of hunting? No doubt something far more “fair” than this horribly efficient American system.
In America it is different. Hunting means “man bonding with man, man bonding with son, man bonding with pick-up truck, man bonding with wood cabin, man bonding with rifle, man bonding – above all – with plaid.”
Of course. It’s all about the fashion sense. Probably not a single Barbour field jacket in sight with these peasants. Probably haven’t even heard of Burberrys. Might even have bought their gear at – wait for it – Walmart!
I am to be the guest of a group of friends who have built themselves a cabin deep in the woods some 10 or 20 miles from the town of Saranac, NY. Bill and Tom are nice guys, ordinary guys. Hunting for whitetail deer, which is the game they are mostly after, is like fishing for bass, a mostly blue-collar pastime in America. Think of that Michael Cimino film The Deer Hunter and you will get the idea.
Bill and Tom are not, I am relieved to discover, machismo alpha male show-offs, bullies or bigots.
“Relieved to discover.” Naturally. Any Englishman hearing of Americans that hunt dear would automatically assume them to be show-offs, bullies, and/or bigots. Group stereotypes are perfectly acceptable when the group is a) white, b) American, and c) hunters. The definition for bigotry is waived in such circumstances.
They are working men (sheet metal, transport, warehousing, that kind of thing) who pour all of their spare time into maintaining and enjoying their life in the woods.
“Welcome to camp,” says Tom.
The cabin is surprisingly warm and snug when I arrive at six o’clock on a bitterly cold morning. The taxi has never had to negotiate such rough tracks before and I am afraid that I will suffer the humiliation of being towed by one of the enormous pickup trucks that usually roam these pathways. One of the group’s number, Craig, has cooked just about the most fabulous breakfast I have ever, ever eaten. Bacon, sausage, French toast and lots and lots of home-tapped and home-refined maple syrup. All around the cabin are maple trees with pipework stuck into them, like hospital tubes and drips. Round the back is the machinery needed to transform the liquor from the tree into breakfast syrup.
“Now, let’s get you kitted up…” Tom holds up a plaid jacket and an enormous pair of woollen trousers.
I’m sure that’s a direct quote. Some guy in Upstate New York said “kitted up” in a hunting camp.
Naturally. Of course. It wouldn’t do for me to look dignified or sensible.
It also wouldn’t do for you to die of hypothermia but since you’re going to make fun of your hosts as soon as you can get to your laptop there’s no reason to concede they’re interested in your well-being.
I make it very plain as we head for the trails that I would rather not hold a rifle and certainly prefer not to watch anything being killed.
They didn't offer you a rifle of course because they are in New York State and you have no deer license on you and they don't want to lose theirs. And we wouldn’t want to watch anything being killed. We want the bacon and sausage for “the most fabulous breakfast I have ever, ever eaten” to be created without anything being killed. Ever. Terribly uncivilized, that.
My sentimental Bambi-loving self is not keen on the idea of seeing a deer felled. The antlers on the wall of the cabin tell me that these guys, charming as they are, have done a good deal of killing in their time. They are perfectly OK about my reluctance to kill; I think they had sized me up for a sissy the moment I stepped out of the cab.
Hard to imagine, isn’t it?
My role, then, is to skip along with them prattling about life and nature.
And then of course to ridicule them as soon as they see you safely off. Interesting role you’ve chosen for yourself, mate.
“The American relationship with the outdoors,” I say, “the Thoreau ideal. It’s deep in the American psyche, isn’t it? Man and nature. The great paradox of a nation that invades and degrades the wilderness and yet treasures it above all else.”
Guess so, except that we Americans have managed to degrade the wilderness to such an extent there are now more trees, deer, bear, moose, elk, and all manner of other wildlife than there were in Thoreau’s time. How’s the deer population in Britain these days?
“New York State contains this, the great outdoors, the American dream of the woods and wilderness but also the industry, the suburbs, the great urban sprawl and, of course, Manhattan. Maybe New York State is symbolic of all America, embodying both the call of the wild and the call of the street.”
“You’re right. I’m talking drivel. I’ll shut up now.”
But I’m taking notes for when I get back to civilization.
I am happy to say that no deer were killed in the making of our scene. We didn’t even see a deer, which suited me. Instead I enjoyed wonderful hospitality, warm companionship and a good walk in beautiful woodland. I berated myself for having been so afraid.
Yes, what was there to be afraid of? The deer will eventually be shot, or hit by a car, whichever comes first, and either way you’ll be out in no time able to repay the wonderful hospitality and warm companionship by playing a second-rate Borat with a hackney driver’s accent.
But, after a cup of coffee, it was time for a 330-mile drive: I was due to meet another group of potentially terrifying men…
Taps side of nose.
What more needs to be said?