- Stories from Afield: Adventures with Wild Things in Wild Places by Bruce L. Smith
Renowned wildlife conservationist Bruce L. Smith reflects upon his decades-long career studying prominent fauna of the intermountain West in Stories from Afield. In each of the sixteen essays assembled here he shares the local ecological knowledge he has gained while honing his wilderness skills fishing and hunting at a young age and later tracking large mammals while working for the federal government in its wildlife management and conservation efforts. He takes his readers along as he tracks, observes, and assesses mammals ranging from the mountain goats who call the treacherous cliffs of Montana's Bitterroot Mountains home, to the elk who have adapted—and continue to adapt—to human interference within their native Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. All the while Smith highlights the unpredictability of the field biologist's life, recounting such episodes as finding himself stranded miles from the nearest town as a result of a (luckily harmless) helicopter crash, or riding out an avalanche while navigating a steep snowfield, leaving him safe but shaken.
Smith has crafted more than a simple field guide with these essays, however. He is as interested in examining the inherent impulse that drives humans to intertwine our lives with wild things and wild places as in illustrating the specifics of the field researcher's escapades. Accordingly, he traces the development of his own appreciation for the "joy, wonder, and drama" that humans encounter confronting the intricacies of the natural world (x). To be sure, many of his essays focus on the glamorous side of field excursions. In "In the Timber," for example, he conjures memories of singlehandedly hazing a black bear off a young elk kill he hopes to study on Grand Teton National Park's Timbered Island (137). But he [End Page 372] gives just as much space to—and expresses just as much reverence for—the more routine natural encounters he has experienced. In "Big Turtle," for instance, he writes fondly about his discoveries as a young man growing up in western Michigan, exploring marshes, mapping muskrat houses, and catching turtles. Smith's essays thus honor the inborn curiosity that drove him from his beginnings as an amateur explorer and continued throughout his career with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, provoking his fascination with the natural world. Echoing E. O. Wilson, Smith writes, "It doesn't require a grand landscape or wilderness to prime the pump. A nearby pond or anthill will do" (24).
Smith weaves his memories of exploring the rich and wild biotic heritage of the American West into impassioned lessons for his readers—lessons in ecology, discovery, and even humanity. He reminds us of the childlike curiosity dwelling within us all as he muses about the potential for such curiosity to reinforce our connection with wild nature while inspiring us to conserve it. Smith's dynamic reflections confront lay readers as well as educators in the fields of wildlife biology, conservation, and western American natural heritage with a charming account of the driving factors and ambitions that lead individuals to immerse themselves in wild nature and to live in service to wild things and wild places.