FAT of the LAND by Langdon Cook [Book Review]

Posted on 18 January 2010 by Cork Graham

Long after I realized there were better ways of making a living than getting shot at, a few years after I had an epiphany about wildlife management being so much more than just about hunting, fishing, foraging, and sound wildlife conservation and ecology in Alaska; I entered outdoor writing through the more traditional forms of print magazines, books and newspapers, and was quickly likened by reviewers to Aldo Leopold.

Having graduated to outdoor writing in the new and burgeoning form of multimedia, I’m still leery of labeling a new author in the same manner as I had been so early in my career, not because of that boost to one’s career (Knowing how hard it is to succeed, I wish every writer the best in their career!), but because of how much it’s also an incredible weight and responsibility, and even for some, can be like a TV or film actor’s typecasting that is almost impossible to get out from under. Yet, when I read Fat of the Land by Langdon Cook, I couldn’t help but think how much, in relation to the urbanized society we’ve largely become in the United States, Cook, 42, is the Henry David Thoreau of his generation.

When I review a book, I’m in search of a number of offerings in that writing: education, entertainment and escape. Few authors can offer all that consistently and keeping it going throughout a book. When they do, it’s a great book!

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Cork Graham subsistence hunting moose and Dall sheep on the Kenai Peninsula, 1990

As someone who lived in Alaska as a subsistence hunter, angler and forager, I’m always impressed with a writer who can take me back to the only place in the world, that I’ve lived in that I can say I’m truly homesick for, much less in a book that isn’t even about Alaska. With nice touches of a personal history reaching back to the East Coast, and often simply because of his beautiful poetic form of honesty, Cook was able to transport me to all the places I love through the window of Oregon and Washington.

Through Cook’s writing, that never once takes the reader over that sickeningly sappy poetic license that amateur writers often attempt, my voyage of escape from the flu I was fighting last week, was amazingly easy. At the open of “Honey, Get the Gun”, I was back on the shores of Clam Gulch, Alaska, in the middle of December, with my then girlfriend, a longtime resident, digging up razor clams. Some would be fried. Others would end up in my favorite “Razor Scampi”. Many were smoked and canned, enjoyed later as boat lunches during commercial salmon season.

For those who may be wondering if Fat of the Land will only appeal to someone who has “gone and done it”, worry not. I was never a fungi fan (but because of his “Confessions of an Amanita Eater”, I am now), nor have I been “Fiddling Around” for fiddleheads; yet, I was still with Cook, rooting for him and his gang when they succeeded, though appalled when he did something that just made me cringe. Yet, through his eyes, I saw what’s really happening for those now starting out in the world of hunting, even underwater, and even when he brought up a controversy in the arena of wildlife conservation that at times seems clichéd: from chapter one to its end, I was still completely vested in the book!

That heart and mind investment started with the hunt for the wild dangerous creature known to many a forager who prowls the shores of Puget Sound, (my great uncle would regal us with how many there were when he was a salmon fisherman out of Seattle just after WWII). If you think I’m being factious, try going after clams with your hands, like the new-to-Alaska, Cheechako I was. All it takes is a finger or hand split to the bone on the sharp edge of the shell to appreciate the common name for siliqua patula, and the practicality of an elongated clam shovel or a tube gun.

Cook talks with authority on the subject of clams, their history, and sadly, their possible future, a topic that can easily be spread throughout other flora and fauna speared, hooked or gathered in Fat of the Land, and which has put me in a quandary as someone who not only enjoys hunting, foraging and fishing, but also teaches others how to do it for themselves—can the wild flora and fauna populations support this, especially as a a human population sees that same wild bounty as an opportunity to overcome ever-increasing prices of food, or draw an income through foraging, in this horrible economy?

Moving deeper into the water, albeit still connected to land by the deck of a pier, was a lesson not only in how to fish for squid, but also how to start learning from those more experienced, and why it behooves everyone to learn an extra language—this hit home when I was eighteen, unlucky, and under harsh interrogations in a Communist Vietnamese prison, unable to string more than three words together from the Vietnamese I spoke fluently as the result of having been an American expat’s young child trying to survive in a Vietnamese-dominated French Catholic kindergarten in Saigon.

Surprisingly, or maybe it’s not, because of the multitude of immigrants who now ply the waters, streams and mountains for game and fish; being fluent in Spanish, French and Korean and having the ability to at least ask someone how and where to do something in Russian, Mandarin, Lao, Thai and Vietnamese, have offered me new techniques and secret places for putting meat, fish and forage on the table. It’s also kept me from getting a bullet in my head as I quickly removed myself from a illegal and dangerous farming venture, because I heard and understood them before they had a chance to know I was there while deer hunting: the amount of wild game that the pot growers (most often kidnapped and coerced by the murderous Mexican drug cartel to sneak illegally into this country) slaughtered and left to rot that was later found by CAMP, was atrocious—Is it any wonder how hypocritical it appears when someone staunchly says they’re environmentalists and ecologists, and yet they light up a joint or bong loaded with marijuana likely grown on illegal pot farms in the national forests and other public lands, turning them into free-fire zones where every living thing is killed through boobytraps and shooting to protect those fields?

The multinational flavor of the foraging community described in Fat of the Land carried to a chapter on shad fishing, notorious for its numbers and fight. If you haven’t caught them before, by the time you’re at that moment in your life where a flyrod and the meditative quality of flycasting calls out to you, you quickly realize it’s time to use “Shad Darts at Dawn”. The stringers become long and heavy with the American shad, immigrants from the waterways of the East Coast, and a boon to those who like to fill their larder, yet not impact the indigenous; but for my tastes, the much better fight on the line and fare for the table, lower-numbered steelhead and salmon.

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Langdon Cook and a full stringer of American shad.

When I cringed it wasn’t the Christmas tree formed of a number of shad on a stringer; nor was it the catching and releasing of steelhead. Hatchery or wild, it really doesn’t matter to me as fish is good to eat from either and money aside (made from an industry that thrives only because of catch and release) when more and more research says that practice of catch and release leads to up to 63 percent accidental kill, and it becomes more and more as salmon farming increases and  the wild strains follow the way of the California condor.

No. It was when Cook and his mentor were becoming “The Inhuman”. I know a bit of what I talk about when it comes to spearfishing. I’ve been a spearo since the early-1980s spearing great seafood meals in the Caribbean, and Pacific. Repeatedly did so until my buddy, Randy Fry, lost his life to a great white shark at Kibbesillah Rock, just off Fort Bragg. The event put a stop to my spearfishing and ab-diving, until right after I returned from a teaching sabbatical in South Korea: I’ve seen people killed in combat, in some very horrific ways, but let me tell you, just imagining a good friend diving into a shark’s mouth and being bit clean through from shoulder to shoulder bring the mind back to its most primordial fears of teeth and claws—It led to a four year hiatus from entering the waters off Northern California as a freediver.

As one who tries my best to make as quick and efficient a kill as possible, and with the least amount of waste, when I read how not only Cook had gone after a lingcod with a traditional pole spear (Though Cooks calls his setup a Hawaiian Sling, a Hawaiian sling is actually a set up with a handle system, that has a hole through which a free-shooting spear is shot, almost like a slingshot), but that his “mentor” Dave, the professor, often hunted lingcod with not just a pole spear, but with the tri-pronged spearhead that pole spears normally come with—I found that atrocious!

It’s one thing, to not know. When someone who is a teacher, a professor no less, doesn’t investigate further, it’s a shame . The problem wasn’t the use of a pole spear: Master Spearo “Shark Man” Manny Puig, is well-known for his environmental work and being a spearfisherman, and especially for efficiently using a pole spear for putting fish on the table—it’s actually more efficient than a speargun, as you don’t lose time reeling in line to get your fish off your spear and on the stringer. The difference is that Puig uses a Hawaiian style barb, which flips open to hold the fish on the spear: for halibut and lingcod, even this isn’t enough.

Lingcod and halibut rank up there as the most easy to lose with a pole spear or a speargun. That’s why those who go after them use either the detachable spear tip, or 5-prong Trident spear. Mentor Dave knew about the best wetsuits to use, and Cook detailed well how it’s more comfortable and efficient to use a 4 mm suit, as compared to 5 mm, to descend, but when he didn’t tell Cook to replace a speartip infamous for losing fish, that just brought me back to how important is for this new generation of hunters, anglers and foragers to get the right tutelage, or else yet another generation will needlessly become fodder for the “antis” movement.

If this new generation does “do the job right”, the benefits to the ecosystem will be multitude: waste will be kept down; populations of hunters and anglers will increase enough that the funds collected through fishing and hunting licensing will once again provide more habitat to support and improve numbers of game and fish on public land.

Right now, because the wealthy pay great fees for prime hunting, the only place with abundant game and fish are  lands that are privately owned. It wasn’t always this way. Before, there were more than enough people who went fishing and hunting, so much so that the departments of fish and game catered more to this group, by improving habitat and stocking. In the process, all other non-game creatures also benefited. If there’s enough good habitat, and stewarding of the land, game and fish populations can be prolific on their own.

It’s for this very reason that I’m in favor of having all coastal dams removed from Baja California to Canada. There are so many other forms of electrical power, and would free up the waterways so that the salmon and steelhead would come back on the their own. Not many know that the largest salmon run in the world was not some river up in Alaska, like the Kenai: the Sacramento River held the largest run, with salmon up to 100 pound netted on the McCloud River. In the 1856, Hutching’s California Magazine actually complained that you couldn’t navigate across the upper Delta and lower Sacramento without being overcome by the stench of hundreds of thousands of spawned out salmon carcasses. Lake Shasta and all the later dammed up rivers, like the Mokelumme and Stanislaus to name a few, ended that.

A wild, healthy salmon on the Rogue River for Langdon Cook

A wild, healthy salmon on the Rogue River for Langdon Cook

Aside from the ill-advised suggestion to use inadequate equipment, what are my thoughts? As I mentioned earlier, I’m in a quandary. When I started hunting, I was a thirteen-year-old, fresh from a previous life as an American expat in Southeast Asia. The hunting and fishing opportunities my father enjoyed at that same age in Spokane, Seattle, and the Midwest, during the early 1940s and the glory days of great opportunity resulting from hunters and anglers going off to WWII that provided a six-year break for game and fish populations, were long gone by the time I blindly searched for the guidance of those who knew what they were talking about and weren’t arrogantly talking through the romance of hunting and fishing were few.

When I found them, I cherished and kept in good friendship with them even as they aged and died. That generation that had to hunt and fish to provide for the table, and had not been barraged by divisive advertising campaigns to separate the hunter from the environmentalist, is quickly disappearing.

Chantarelle success!

Chantarelle success!

Cook has the writing skills, that’re beyond evident. And, he’s honest. He shows what life and death is about in nature, and how humankind was never meant to be removed and simply an observer in the most intimate of all settings: the cycle of life. Where his honesty comes from, is where I hope as he ventures into hunting on land, as he has mentioned on his Fat of the Land (FATL) blog, will spur him to search out the most experienced, and not just rely on those most easily accessible, wrong, and frankly lazy in their own edification (or worse, just disrespectful to the very prey that gives them nourishment), in the assessment of efficiency, as Professor Dave: 200 hundred days a year in the water, according to Cook, but evidently not interacting with those who could have taught him better.

In a nutshell, Fat of the Land is a great telling of a newbie’s entry into the world of West Coast spearfishing, fishing and foraging. It’s unlike so many books that try to romanticize the wilds, something that almost seems a crime, especially when I remember Christopher McCandless’ stupidity in Alaska, only a year after I came back to California. That honesty about Cook’s activities and those around him is what informs, educates and entertains (the humorous anecdotes are priceless and many of you who have ventured forth in your own rite, might easily recognize similar funny experiences). Through this writing, readers don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Through his writing, readers have an opportunity see if the world of living off the fat of the land is feasible or desired.

If you were stuck in bed like me last two week, you’ll feel fortunate to enjoy the escape to the wilds that a writer of Langdon Cook’s artistic ability brings to the page, making it so easy to “be there”, keeping your attention even through the blurred fog of a flu. Once I regain my sense of smell and taste, I can’t wait to try the recipes at the end of each chapter, related to the subject of that chapter, one of which I’ve enjoyed greatly in the past: oyster po’boys! Cook is so on the money, making sandwiches with those big as steaks North Pacific oysters.

As I said at the beginning, I see a new Thoreau in Langdon Cook, and with that amazing skill of capturing natures beauty like a photo, I look forward to him coming easily to the challenge of those ensuing responsibilities in his future books.

For you to enjoy your own copy of Fat of the Land!

1 Comments For This Post

  1. Iso Rabins Says:

    Ive been wanting to get this book, it sounds really great.

    Iso

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