Michigan author, poet and screenplay writer Jim Harrison passed away on Saturday, March 26 at his home in Arizona. In commemoration of his work, we share this interview done by Traverse City author Jerry Dennis with Harrison about writing, Northern Michigan, and the influence of the outdoors.
This piece was featured in the August 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Portraits by Andy Anderson.
From a small farmhouse in Leelanau County, Jim Harrison built one of America’s iconic literary lives. Harrison lived, wrote, hunted and fished in Leelanau County and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula until 2002 when he moved to Montana. (Read Jim Harrison: On Leaving Leelanau County). Now 76, and splitting time between Montana and Arizona, Harrison continues to write timeless and potent work. We asked fellow Northern Michigan author Jerry Dennis to catch up with Harrison, one of his original inspirations, to reflect on life present and past.
It must have been 1981 when I read my first Jim Harrison book. My wife, Gail, and I had just finished college in Kentucky and returned home to Traverse City with our two-year-old son, Aaron, and moved into a tiny camper parked in my parents’ backyard on Long Lake. I was sick of school and wanted to work outside to clear my head while I learned how to be a writer, so I made the rounds of construction companies looking for work as a carpenter. I knew one end of a hammer from another but that was about all I knew. Jobs were scarce and nobody wanted to take a chance on a green college boy, but I was lucky enough to find my way to Paul Maurer Construction. Paul didn’t need any greenhorns on his crew but he needed help in his office in downtown Cedar, so he put me to work filing papers, writing letters to clients, and answering the phone. I did okay at it, probably better than a trained monkey could do, so when an opening for a carpenter’s assistant came up, he gave me a shot.
Of course I had heard of Harrison. I knew he was a poet and novelist, that he had grown up in Northern Michigan, that he had worked in the construction trades while establishing himself as a writer, and that he lived on a farm in Leelanau County, only a few miles from my Cedar office. His book of novellas, Legends of the Fall, had been a national sensation a few years earlier and seemed to have been read by everyone I knew. Gail and I were broke after six years spent alternating college with travel and working throw-away jobs and finally becoming parents of our first son, so it wasn’t possible to buy new books. Instead we shopped at the Salvation Army store on Eleventh Street, where we sorted through musty bestsellers, outdated encyclopedias, and rain-warped romance novels, hoping to find treasures at twenty-five cents each. One of the treasures we found was a paperback copy of Legends of the Fall.
I took it home, opened it to the first page of the first novella, “Revenge,” and was bowled over. I knew by the end of that first page that here was an original, powerful new voice in fiction, unlike any I had encountered in my young but feverish life as a student of literature. I finished the book in a single sitting, went back to page one, and read it again. Then I drove to the public library on 6th Street and checked out all of Harrison’s books. I’ve been a fan ever since.
Not long ago, while giving a reading at a university, I was asked by someone in the audience to name my favorite living writer, and I said, without hesitation, “Jim Harrison.” I hadn’t quite realized it, but the moment I said it I knew it was true. That winter I had reread his magnificent collected poems, The Shape of the Journey, and been astonished at the power and depth of his poetic journey. The book left me with the feeling that Harrison had planned the entire arc of his life’s work, starting with the first book of poems. That feeling has grown more certain as I’ve read the subsequent collections of poetry as well as the Brown Dog novellas—which appeared sporadically during the last five decades and were recently republished in a single collection. The Brown Dog novellas are probably my favorites of Harrison’s work, and not just because they’re set in the Upper Peninsula and feature characters I could have grown up with. They might well turn out to be his magnum opus and will surely be read for as long as anything he has published in his remarkably rich and fecund career.
And what a career. Thirty-six books of poems, novels, collections of novellas, volumes of nonfiction, a children’s book, and a memoir. Add to that more than 20 screenplays, a half-dozen of which were produced as major motion pictures.
For years I’ve wanted to sit down with Jim in a bar or beside a campfire, and talk about his work and his love of the outdoors and his views of the world. We’ve met a few times and exchanged a few words, and although he has always been gracious and friendly, it never worked out to spend time with him.
We conducted this interview by telephone, from my home near Traverse City to Jim’s winter home near Patagonia, Arizona. I wanted it to be a conversation, not an interview, but it turned into a rather strange one. Our cell connection was dicey at best, and Jim often could not hear me, although I heard him loud and clear. If one of us spoke over the other, a momentary lacuna occurred. But Jim was comfortable enough with this shortcoming and adjusted quickly. If he was unable to hear my question, he spoke about whatever came to mind, free-associating in a manner that often reminded me of his written work. Each riff is a kind of oral postcard that vividly describes an aspect of his life and thought. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good way to describe his poems.
We spoke on a frigid day in February, deep in our Russian winter of sastrugi drifts and frigid winds, shortly after the Great Lakes froze over and while ice formations grew to epic size along the shore.
JERRY DENNIS (JD): It’s 10 degrees here in Traverse City, the wind is blowing at 30 miles per hour, and the wind-chill is 35 below. I just spent two hours blowing the drifts from my driveway and another hour shoveling snow off the roof, and now I don’t have any feeling in my feet. How much do you miss Michigan?
JIM HARRISON (JH): [laughs] Not much. I had 65 winters in Michigan. So I don’t miss that kind of thing. We’re in the mountains down here [in southern Arizona]. We get occasional snow, so we get to look at it, watch the dog get irritated with its feet in the snow.
JD: I remember you said once that you had trouble writing in Michigan in winter.
JH: That was a long time ago. I used to get those Scandinavian doldrums. We had to get my daughter Anna a special lamp for artificial sunlight because she suffered from seasonal affective disorder. I always claimed I had post traumatic stress disorder, so I could be like a soldier. Say “PTSD” and people look at you like, really? [laughs]. Years ago I had [Doug] Peacock teach me a bunch of that army lingo so when I lied I couldn’t get caught.
JD: When I was in my 20s I worked with a guy who liked to tell elaborate stories about his combat experiences in Vietnam. But it turned out that he had never even been in the military.
JH: Oh I love that. [laughs]. Phil Caputo wrote what was maybe the best book to come out of Viet Nam, A Rumor of War. He’s down here in the winter now, too.
JD: Caputo has written quite a lot about the Upper Peninsula. He seems to like it.
JH: Yea, he does. I had bird hunting trails all through the U.P. And all my bird-hunting friends would show up there. It was wonderful. You know I had that cabin for 25 years near Grand Marais. It was wonderful to be in Hollywood one morning and the next morning be up in the U.P. What a relief, huh?
JD: I can barely imagine. Do your neighbors in Arizona know much about life in Michigan?
JH: Not much. Only a few of them have been there. The main thing is the water, because we’re always in a state of drought down here, though the creek keeps running. If you’re from a dry state and you see Lake Michigan it’s sort of stupefying. I tell visitors what it’s like being on Lake Superior and just pulling over to drink the water, because there’s no industries for a hundred miles until way over to the Soo. There are those 50 or 60 miles of deserted beach I could walk, watch ravens arguing over a dead fish.
JD: Ravens show up so often in your work that I wonder if they’re a kind of spirit animal for you. You must miss them.
JH: We have Mexican ravens down here, so I’m not too lonely for them. I really got to know the ravens around my cabin [in Grand Marais]. The ravens around here take walks with me, and they hide and scare my wife’s dog. They’ll jump out shrieking. Ravens like to tease animals, you know. I’ve even witnessed—I’ve written about it—a raven funeral in the backyard of my cabin. A raven dropped dead from a tree and the other ravens hung around for about an hour, around it in a circle. When a young raven fell out of my birdfeeder onto his back the other ravens jumped up and down shrieking in amusement.
JD: How was the hunting yesterday?
JH: Very poor. I do a lot of log-sitting because of that spinal surgery last fall. I can’t keep up with the dogs, I shuffle. But I enjoy it because I can take my friend on this private ranch which I have access to. Really beautiful country. We hunt for doves, which I find delicious. And I don’t have to walk for them. You pluck them and grill them over a wood fire. Where did you grow up?
JD: Long Lake, not far from Interlochen.
JH: I remember I came up to the Traverse City Cherry Festival when I was 16. A friend of mine stole his mom’s car and we drove from Reed City to Traverse City. I don’t know what we had in mind. She was a doctor’s wife, had a spiffy yellow Buick convertible. And we rode our bikes up from Reed City to Charlevoix and we went out and camped on Beaver Island for a week, which was fabulous back then, relatively undeveloped.
JD: Great fishing for smallmouth bass in those days, I bet.
JH: Oh yeah, we used to catch them there and around Traverse City, too, in the reed beds. And I’ve fished them near Escanaba, in those big reed beds. We were catching fish there every day on streamer flies, every cast for a while. I brought friends there from Montana and they loved it. You don’t see anybody on it, even on a hot summer’s day.
JD: I know the place, right along U.S. 2. Great fishing. You often describe yourself as an “outdoorsman and a man of letters.” Why is being outdoors so important to you?
JH: Very early my dad would take me trout fishing because you know I’d had my eye put out and I needed extra attention. I remember asking him the difference between animals and us and he said, “Nothing. They just live outside and we live inside.” Which struck me very hard at the time, because I could look at animals and say, “I’m one of you.” The real schizophrenia of the nature movement, if you ask me, was to think you could separate yourself from nature. Even Shakespeare says “we are nature, too.” So there’s this sense of schizophrenia to think you’re different or more important than a bird.
JD: In your writing you’ve mentioned the “mythical underpinnings” that connect us with animals. Is that something you can elaborate on?
JH: Oden, that Scandinavian god, always had ravens standing on his shoulders. Myths, of course, are full of our other creatures. I would see bears almost daily in the U.P. They would wander around my cabin, hog my sunflower seeds, and I got to know a couple of them real well. I’d come home from the bar and a bear would be standing by the side of my driveway and I’d open my window and he’d put his chin on my door sill and I’d scratch his ears. They get used to it. But I’d never feed them near the cabin, that’s where you make a mistake. I’d put a fish on a stump about a hundred yards from the cabin.
JD: People who don’t hunt maybe can’t understand the connection hunters have with animals. The ones we hunt and the ones we don’t. Is that part of why you hunt?
JH: I don’t have my old enthusiasm for hunting but as I said, I love to sit on logs. So I don’t care any more. I lowered my daily kill in Grand Marais down to never more than two birds in one day, so that saved it for me. And always hunting in new places, you know, rather than hitting the old hotspots. So then you get the fun of going to new cover, getting mildly lost, but Peacock had given me his marine-issue compass so hopefully I could get out of there. I find that when you can’t find the car, your dog can … The Cheyenne had a saying, and the Lakota, too: “When your life is tepid and you’re bored just follow your dog and act like your dog all day.” That’s been known to perk you up.
JD: [laughs]. It sure perks me up. And I’ve always thought that getting lost occasionally is therapeutic.
JH: Yeah, I love the sensation, actually. That’s what I liked so much about my cabin in the U.P. It was 35 miles cross country to Newberry, with really not anything in it. An occasional deer cabin. It was fascinating to have that kind of walking for 25 years.
JD: That gets back to the question of why the outdoors is so important to you. Is it partly because of the sense of balance it provides?
JH: An error for writers is self-importance, you know.
JD: I know what you mean. Nature is good at correcting self-importance.
JH: Yea. When I’d get lost in the U.P., I would sort of start drifting. I had a place with about 5,000 acres of sugar plum and dogwood, so I’d go there the last week of May when it was all in bloom. It was just overwhelming, the scent in the air. The dog would even be a little puzzled. Do you go to the U.P. at all?
JD: Quite a lot. In the spring every year with my wife to look at birds and in the summer to fish. And I’ve been going in October for almost 30 years with a bunch of friends to hunt grouse and woodcock. We usually head west of Escanaba.
JH: There’s some nice hunting north of Escanaba, around where the middle branch forms the main branch.
JD: I know that area well. We’ve tramped around in it looking for birds and for brook trout water. 4
JH: The Iron Mountain area too. We’ve had awfully good hunting there. The nice thing about Iron Mountain too is if you hunt all day and don’t feel like cooking there’s three very acceptable Italian restaurants in Iron Mountain, because so many Italian miners ended up in that area. It was fun to get good pasta after a hard day in the woods. We can’t forget food. As I’ve said, eat or die.
JD: So many people like the idea of nature but don’t have much chance to learn about it first hand. Do you think there’s hope for getting kids back outdoors?
JH: I have seen a real resurgence of interest in the out of doors in recent years. I grew up in a farm family, and my father was a professional agronomist, the county agent, so I learned a lot just by exposure, you know.
JD: What about upcoming work?
JH: Well, I just finished a novella called “Eggs,” about a girl who’s in the second grade and is assigned to write a little paper on eggs, for which she has to study chickens, so she sits upon her grandfather’s milk stool amongst the chickens. And later in life when she was really discouraged she took her camping cot out and slept in the henhouse. [laughs]. Why not? You know I have a studio about two miles up the road, and it doesn’t have a phone. Do you work in your house?
JD: I have an office we built in the loft of an outbuilding on our property, an old garage for farm equipment. We call it the stone hut.
JH: That little farm we had in Leelanau was wonderful, because we had a granary about a hundred yards out in back I made into a studio. A “studio” is a fancy name for it. The floor was cold so we put cheap indoor/outdoor carpet down, which made it easier on my feet. It was a nice place to live all those years. Then my wife and daughters took a trip to England to look at gardens and while they were over there they decided we should move to Montana to be near my daughters and grandchildren, because we weren’t seeing them very often. And that wasn’t hard, because I had been there every year since ’68 trout fishing with [Thomas] McGuane, who lives out there.
JD: What’s your life like in Montana?
JH: I live about 15 miles from Livingston. You have a lot of days when no cars come down our gravel road. And the animal life is fantastic, although some grizzlies are moving up toward us from Yellowstone. I don’t really care for that, they frighten the hell out of me. Every year some hunter gets the shit kicked out of him. They’re really a scary bear. I know a guy who trained one and now it’s a pet and goes for hikes with him, this grizzly bear … I helped hunters skin a couple black bears, but I couldn’t kill a bear for any amount of money, because I’ve felt religious about them. Their musculature is so incredible. It allows them to rip stumps apart to search for grubs and stuff. I have one stump up there [in the U.P.] I’ve written about that you can crawl inside and sit up straight. I always thought of it as my church, once I found it. I’ve only shown it to one person. There was this Indian lady whose son was dying of AIDS, so I took her out there, and she spent the day in my stump. She said it was wonderful. Sometimes I peek out of a crack in the stump and see sandhill cranes walking past. So naturally I miss that sort of thing, because when you live in a place a long time you have your secret places, a stump you like to sit on and so on. I told a guy once there’s a beer bottle beside the stump, and he asked why I didn’t pick it up, and I said because the beer bottle conceals the beauty of the stump.
JD: When I was in college I met John Voelker. He used to conceal the beauty of his trout pond by planting broken mufflers along the road that led to it.
JH: Where did you go to college?
JD: That was at Northern Michigan University.
JH: Northern. I like Marquette. I used to go through there every year, eat a bunch of whitefish, walk around.
JD: It’s a great place. But there’s so much to do outdoors, I couldn’t get any studying done.
JH: That’s the beauty of it. I used to love to drive up to Big Bay. Lovely area. I saw Anatomy of a Murder filmed there, and that place was really nifty. And think what a great help I could have been to Lee Remick. I could have taken her camping, huh?
JD: She’d have been great company beside a campfire.
JH: I used to wish that sort of thing. Of course I miss campfires, but you start a fire down here and the whole world explodes it’s so dry. They had some of those huge forest fires in Montana. We were floating the Yellowstone for brown trout, and I told my guide friend, “Look. The sun is in the wrong place.” And he said, “No, that’s the fire jumping from McCloud, where McGuane lives, 15 miles up to Reed Point.” The fire jumped, you know. Really scary. You could hear it. They closed the freeways, but we were fine out in a boat. But that bark beetle that has killed so much timber has made the forests incredibly flammable. I discovered this place [Arizona] about 40 years ago when I was doing a reading tour on American Indian reservations. I was flattered that they sent me, then I found out they couldn’t find anyone else to go [laughs]. So I came through Patagonia then and really liked the looks of it, because I’m deeply appreciative of Mexican culture. I get down there a lot to fish or fool around. Vera Cruz I like a lot. I’ve got a nice book, too, about Mexican wilderness. There’s quite a bit of it, too. Mexicans don’t like to camp because they’re scared of the dark. And whereas I’m scared of the light, huh? My French readers have a hard time believing it—they’re bringing out The River Swimmer next week. They’re trying to figure out why we would swim in a river at night. I didn’t have a good answer. It’s just a delicious feeling of otherness. It’s like walking in the woods naked. I was right on a river in Grand Marais, right on the river, and it was wonderful to hear it around the clock. Water sounds—what more do you want?
JD: You’ve written that you make yourself vulnerable when you write. It’s probably the same as swimming at night in a river.
JH: Oh probably, come to think about it, because of course the writer’s vulnerability can sometimes be obnoxious, I mean tough to handle. Don’t you think?
JD: It’s awful sometimes. For me the worst is at night, when the work is done but you can’t come down from it and can’t sleep. What you’ve called “the reentry problem.”
JH: You have ups and downs. I haven’t had any downs for quite some time. I’ve been really keeping busy and that’s easier. But it can be terrifying. That’s why I started taking those insane road trips. I drove all around the United States for 12,000 miles one year.
JD: And you got some great magazine pieces out of it, I remember. What do you think of the state of the publishing industry today?
JH: Publishing isn’t in very good shape now. I used to do quite a bit of journalism but now it doesn’t pay enough to bother with any more. So it’s really tough, you know. I used to write some informal essays for Sports Illustrated and we could live for two months on what I made from it. Which was wonderful. They would send me to the Keys fishing, and stuff like that.
JD: I love those pieces you wrote for Sports Illustrated. I can’t drive through Kalkaska and see the brook-trout statue without thinking of “A Plaster Trout in Worm Heaven.”
JH: Too bad they stopped doing that and went only to the hard sports, because I think we had quite a following there. You know, I got fired from my food column at Esquire when somebody new took it over. Then two months later they called and said they changed their mind, and I said you’re too late, because I changed my mind, too [laughs]. But that was really a good job. They’d give you six grand for a column that you could write in a day. If you could get cranked up on food, which I didn’t have any trouble getting. I remember the great days when Folgarelli’s moved to Traverse City. It was wonderful. I had a French friend I’d take in there, and he’d say, “This sandwich isn’t possible in France.” [laughs] Yea, it was nice. But he could eat 15 doves. He was a huge guy.
JD: So are your days in Arizona much different than in Montana?
JH: I’ve got a studio about two miles up the mountain in an old ranch house like. I start the day by giving the dogs some dog biscuits, and they’re really grateful.
JD: Like in your poem, where you scatter the whole box of dog biscuits on the floor and the dogs …
JH: Yea, and then they go crazy [laughs]. I just gave some friends some lox and bagels, and I gave my lab her first bite of lox and she seemed to enjoy it. I used to grill a lot of whitefish over an open fire up there [in Leelanau County] that people used to give me, and my setter, her favorite thing, she would never beg but she would sit there looking out the window, and I would give her the skin of a whitefish. What’s it like there today? Snowing still?
JD: Snowing a little, 10 degrees, not much wind.
JH: My daughter called from Montana this morning and said it’s 27 below. That’s horrid. Like you had when Ironwood was 47 below a few weeks ago.
JD: Yea, it’s been a real winter. A lot of people are packing up and heading south.
JH: Oh yea. I remember I think it was in ’95 we had one. And I remember one winter on Christmas morning there was a fly on the screen [laughs]. I loved my neighbor farmer because he had a big John Deere and he could plow our yard and shove the piles of snow over the top of the barn.
JD: If you wanted to come back, you could see the same thing right now.
JH: [laughs]. Well okay, then, have a good one.
Jerry Dennis has published a dozen books, including “The Living Great Lakes” (winner of the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award) and A Place on the Water. His essays and short fiction have appeared in more than 100 publications. jerrydennis.net