By: Ron Ellis, ed.
Reviewed by: Scotty Merrill
Skyhorse Publishing, 2010
In the sometimes macho world of outdoors writing, rarely does one writer flatter another by selecting and publishing his work. But with the publication of In That Sweet Country Ron Ellis has chosen to thus honor Harry Middleton, a former senior editor of Southern Living, by collecting thirty-five previously published essays and one poem.
Harry Middleton died prematurely at forty-four in 1993 after a prolific two-decade writing career in which he published numerous essays on every outdoor subject from trout fishing on little known southern streams to the natural beauty of the lowly firefly. He also managed to publish five books, perhaps the best known being The Earth Is Enough.
In That Sweet Country consists primarily of short essays originally published in Middleton’s Outdoors South column in Southern Living during the 1980s and early ’90s. However, a few were taken from such diverse publications as The New York Times, Field & Stream, Fly Fishing News, and Gray’s Sporting Journal. The one poem, “Buffalo River Sequence: a Poem,” was first published in Sierra. While most essays take a southern U.S. setting (primarily Arkansas, Louisiana, Virginia, and the Smoky Mountains), he occasionally wanders off to other venues such as New Brunswick’s Miramichi River, the small unnamed trout streams of Colorado, and other points north and west.
Locale though does not seem as important to Middleton as his central theme: the love of the natural world as best experienced through fly fishing and through quietly observing the beauty of the earth and its creatures. Like his esteemed predecessor, Robert Ruark, the dean of outdoors writing in the twentieth century, Middleton centers much of his writing around a somewhat mythical grandfather who patiently teaches a boy to fish, hunt, canoe, camp, and generally mature into a respectful lover of all things wild and beautiful.
Typical of his kind, he is guilty of occasionally bogging down his reader in the finer points of fly fishing or turkey hunting. For example, he can devote an entire essay to the detailed virtues of the old fashioned bamboo cane fly rod or the underrated brilliance of the common crow. However, one finds it easy to forgive Middleton’s over-exuberance in light of the deep love of nature that each essay imparts. It is as if he is trying to introduce Thoreau and Emerson to the world of outdoors sports. This seems to be the ideal book for the outdoorsman to slowly digest one essay at a time by lantern light while camped on a sandbar in some small river. Aug 2010
Scotty Merrill is a retired contractor and active fly fisherman in South Alabama.