Having penned the obligatory memoirs of his presidency, as well as weighty books on the Mideast, the "golden years" and the art of negotiation, Jimmy Carter, in "An Outdoor Journal: Adventures and Reflections," turns to the first love of his youth and the refuge of his stormy adult life: the primal world of hunting and fishing.
The nation, it must be noted, has not been waiting breathlessly for this event. Carter was hounded from office like a wounded hare, and, until the recent tentative stirrings of political rehabilitation, he has exceeded even Richard Nixon as the elder statesman Americans most wanted to forget. Now, in this year's bloody open season of partisan politics, the Carter presidency is once again fair game.
Why would Carter, as high-minded and work-driven a President as we have seen in many decades, write a book about what he does for recreation? To his credit, Gerald Ford has thus far spared us a treatise on golf; Ronald Reagan, a ghostwritten, "morning in America" paean to clearing brush. Why can't Carter just keep his encyclopedic knowledge about fishing rods and the like to himself?
In the opening sentence of "A River Runs Through It," a classic reminiscence of growing up in Montana, Norman Maclean writes: "In my family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing."
Much the same could be said of Carter, a fly fisherman later in life but already an angler at age 4. " 'Why do you hunt and fish?' I'm often asked," begins Carter in this cheerful and sometimes revealing memoir. The remainder of "An Outdoor Journal" elaborates on his intriguing answer: "My father and all my ancestors did it before me. It's been a part of my life since childhood, and part of my identity, like being a Southerner or a Baptist."
In a series of deft and nostalgic strokes, Carter evokes his Depression-era childhood in Plains, a farmer's son with ready access to woods, fields and streams where young Jimmy learned to hunt from his father and to fish from the likes of Rachel Clark, a black neighbor who worked in his father's fields. Of his father, he writes: "He seemed to love me more and treated me as something of an equal when we were in the dove field, walking behind a bird dog, or on a stream."
The boy tests himself, tastes failure, learns how to stalk game and outwit fish, to endure physical hardships, to give his quarry a sporting chance, to kill only what the Carter family or neighbors can eat. The lessons stick with him: Not only does Carter enter manhood with an intimate knowledge of and passion for the outdoors, but the experience has gone a long way toward forging the man who will become President--his stoicism, doggedness and code of fair play in a world that may not play fair.
True to its subtitle, "Adventures and Reflections," most of Carter's book recounts numerous hunting and fishing experiences during Carter's adult life, ranging from Camp David to New Zealand, from Switzerland to Alaska. Speckled with wry wit (Sample: "All were avid fly-fishers except Amy (Carter), who, not yet mature, still believed there were higher priorities in life"), these accounts also inform with Carter's formidable layman's knowledge of natural history.
One begins to realize how rare a President was Carter in the latter half of the 20th Century--a man whose early and persistent exposure to outdoor life helped define an ethic. Though Carter touches modestly on his record as an environmentalist, not since Theodore Roosevelt has a President boasted such first-hand acquaintance with the natural world, nor regarded its fate with such personal concern. By comparison, Reagan's link to the outdoors is pure Hollywood--a celluloid cowboy. Unlike Reagan's, Carter appointees, such as Elliot Richardson as U.S. ambassador to the Law of the Sea conferences, were never foxes guarding the chicken coop. Viewed through the acrid vapors of the Reagan era, the achievements of Carter and his appointees in such areas as ocean protection and the preservation of Alaskan wilderness remain impressive landmarks.
Readers who oppose hunting will not feel at ease in these pages. But Carter moves quickly to try to disarm critics: "I have been made to feel more at peace about my hunting . . . because of my strict observance of conservation measures, including the deliberate protection of overly depleted game and the initiation and support of programs to increase the population of species that seem scarce." An avid turkey hunter in Plains, Carter stalks ducks in Arkansas, ruffed grouse in Michigan and quail in Texas, painstakingly revealing his techniques and freely admitting his failures.
But failure is only transitory. By the end of each of his hunting or fishing expeditions, Carter always succeeds, invariably after educating himself about his quarry and its habitat, tenaciously doing battle until he can claim victory.