Zane Grey’s Wilderness

Zane Grey’s wilderness adventures are recounted in his several books about fishing. My dad, an avid fisherman, had a first edition of his 1928 stories, Tales of Freshwater Fishing, principally conducted on the wild rivers of Oregon. His writing style is intense, vivid and exciting, as he relates his encounters with the wily steelhead trout in the constantly changing mountain rivers of the state, especially the Rogue. This example of his rich prose style glistens with his motive power:

Our side of the river lay in purple shadow, pierced by golden shafts of sunlight. The bluff across caught the last brightness of the setting sun and beyond; the black slopes of timber climbed in a deep blue sky where huge white and gold clouds sailed. The glancing dark river gleamed like a moving meteor, reflecting the fringed slopes and the white sails in the sky.

Zane Grey, Tales of Freshwater Fishing, –Pp. 173-4

Grey was most content when surrounded by wilderness, whose immeasurable beauty, wildlife and suddenly changeable conditions seemed to reflect his own manic-depressive mood swings.

Zane Grey in his beloved wilderness Photo: First edition

Zane Grey (1872-1939) was born in Zanesville, Ohio, a town founded by and named for his maternal great-grandfather. His own father mistreated and beat him, but his mother tried to make up for this with ample love. He bonded with an old man called Muddy Miser, who became his substitute father and played baseball with him and his brother Roemer (R. C., or Reddy). Young Zane spent five of his formative years in his company. Later the two brothers played baseball for the University of Pennsylvania. In 1905 he married Lina Roth, known as Dolly. Over the years through his many travels, he was often unfaithful to her. Dolly was skilled in editing, however, and she improved his writing skill, managed his career and ran his business. She considered his infidelity, dark broodiness, emotional turmoil and long absences from home “a handicap, rather than a choice.” Nonetheless, he was scrupulously fair and shared his substantial income equally with Dolly.

This compromise afforded Grey the luxury of spending much of his time as a fisherman and naturalist. He sought out the best fishing in freshwater climes and deep-sea locations across the United States and throughout the world. And yet he viewed the landscape with regret, first that he could never visit all of the perfectly beautiful havens of this vast world, and second, that he must leave it for long periods to live in the chaotic, noisy city, a natural environment disfigured by his fellow man.

There is a wistful tone murmuring throughout this volume, like the turbulent, changeable music of the river. He remarks that irrigation dams are a necessity to our growing country. He complains, however, that releases from the impoundments spoil the fishing for a few days with a flood of muddy water, although they cover the fields with thousands of small food fish, which make the very best fertilizer. In addition, he scorns the “half-breed” native Americans whom he observed exploiting the river by clubbing large quantities of river salmon without a fair fight, and not even for their own consumption. He comments, “Somebody should take account of the careless, wasteful, unsportsmanlike destruction of game and food fish.”

Such examples are common all over the United States. That kind of thing is one of the grave defects of our federal and state governments. Who cares? Only…as far as the rivers are concerned, a few sentimental fishermen? But even they should bond together to protect so much of vanishing America for their children. Our country is still young: its boundless resources are not yet gutted; thousands and millions of men exploit what is not really theirs for their own selfish ends. Coal, oil, timber, minerals, the great schools of food fishes, are all natural products of our great outdoors. I do not advocate that they should belong to the government, but the government should see to it that the men dealing with these resources should not gut them and not spoil the beauty and health-giving properties of the forests and the rivers —

Zane Grey, Tales of Freshwater Fishing , P. 211

This was my dad’s copy of the first edition of this book, as witnessed by his name written on half-title page. I’m certain that Zane Grey inspired Dad’s own sense of adventure and whetted his appetite for the numerous fishing expeditions he planned with our family, and me in particular. Like Grey, these trips nurtured his eternal hope of success in catching fish and enjoyment of the outdoors. The author also wrote over 100 novels of the West and wilderness adventure. He originated legends which carried into the radio era, including Tom Mix and, with the help of George Trendler in Detroit, the Lone Ranger.

Zane Grey’s wilderness, by his own testimony, should be an ongoing example to all of an essential approach to conservation. Such passion for the natural world should guide our continued efforts worldwide to slow global climate change and  preserve what still remains of our precious natural wilderness.

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