Writers & Company

Jim Harrison on collecting memories and communing with nature

The author of Wolf and Legends of the Fall talked to Eleanor about how nature, cooking and Mozart shaped his life. (Originally broadcast in 1994 and 1998.)
From the archives: Jim Harrison discusses his long career and his relationship with nature. (Kurt Markus/ Grove Press)
Listen to the full episode52:51

American novelist, poet, screenwriter and outdoorsman Jim Harrison died at the age of 78 on March 26, 2016.  The author of Wolf and Legends of the Fall always had a close connection to nature, often through pursuits like hunting and fishing. He was also a gourmet cook and something of a gourmand — he once ate a 37-course lunch. He was a gruff writer at times, saying things like "I like grit, I like love and death, I'm tired of irony." But alongside that gruffness was a sophisticated and erudite writer — one who published about 40 books including prose, poetry, essays and memoir, and had his work translated into 27 languages.

Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Harrison in 1994, and again in 1998. His most recent novel, The Big Seven, is coming out in paperback this month, and his latest collection of poetry, Dead Man's Float, was released last year.

ON THE PHILOSOPHY OF ONE OF HIS MOST POPULAR CHARACTERS

Brown Dog comes from a different period. I used to have this illusion that time and remote areas prepare you for the world. Our moms used to think that kind of thing. Well, it doesn't prepare you for the world at all! Brown Dog says he doesn't like the TV because it seems like it's barking at you. And his opinion is that people have too many things happening to them and there's not enough space. There aren't those long, eventless days where you just are simply alive. Sometimes I tell my wife I have to take a car trip and collect new memories — I like to drive around at absolute random for weeks on end, through the United States and parts of Canada. Or else I feel trapped, like you feel when your life is completely planned for months in advance and you think you're not getting enough oxygen.

ON KNOWING WHERE YOUR FOOD COMES FROM

I've mostly been a trout fisherman and a bird hunter. I just think, as the saying goes, if you have to eat two or three times a day, why not do it well? My mother wasn't a particularly good cook, but starting around 19 when I was hitchhiking around the country it occurred to me that everybody got to eat more interesting stuff than we had up in Michigan. So I got obsessed. I grew up in an agricultural family and I never distanced myself from where the food comes from. I think it's quite natural. 

ON COMMUNING WITH NATURE AND NOT TALKING TO DOLPHINS

What I use to detox myself from the public world is a lot of walking in remote areas, but I also use Mozart and Rilke, so I suppose if you find yourself properly attuned and you spend a lot of time around [wild animals], you have at least the illusion that you're communicating with them on some fundamental level. I'm not going to get goofy about it, like you have all these poor souls who think they're communicating with dolphins and so on... the dolphins don't need to talk to them. They should know that right away.

Jim Harrison's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the interview: "Vigilante Man," composed by Woody Guthrie, performed by Ry Cooder, from the album Into the Purple Valley.