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153 Poet of the Prairie John Madson was a legend among those of us who were learning to write about the outdoors in the early 1970s. Brimming with Earth Day enthusiasm, we strove to infuse wildlife conservation and environmentalism into the standard blood-and-guts stories that headlined a staunchly conservative hook and bullet press. In Madson, the acknowledged master of outdoor writing at the time, we discovered a hero who could catch a fish, sight in a rifle, name the wildflowers, and, with a deft stroke of his pen, turn a sunrise over the prairie or a campfire under spreading oaks into pure poetry. Madson grew up along Iowa’s Skunk River, where he learned to love prairies and the rivers that watered them. He also had a deep appreciation for sturdy pioneer stock like his Norwegian grandparents, who had settled in the Upper Midwest. Yet as much as he admired these stern, unyielding immigrants, young Madson grew into manhood watching the last of Iowa’s wilderness plowed up for fields of corn, and in many ways I believe he mourned the passing of the wild more than he admired the civilization that tamed it. This love of nature led him to Iowa State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology and a master’s degree in fisheries biology. 154 Poet of the Prairie Madson’s studies at Iowa State provided a solid foundation for a young man whose flair for writing dovetailed nicely into outdoor reporting for the Des Moines Register and a job editing the Iowa Conservation Commission’s magazine,Iowa Outdoors. Eventually John left the conservation commission to work for Winchester-Western’s conservation department. His job, as he described it, was to “promote professional game management and wildlife biology.” John attacked the task with his typewriter,producing booklets about the majority of North American game animals. I first encountered these marvelous little publications when, as a young staffer on the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s magazine Outdoor Oklahoma, I sought research material for the features I was assigned to write. Stuffed in our files were John’s minipaperbacks detailing the lives of animals ranging from white-tailed deer to cottontail rabbits, and when I started reading I found I couldn’t stop. Rather than dry textbooks, these were living prose, and I found that I wanted to collect every one and read them over and over. This led to even more rummaging through the files, searching for even more Madson to read. In doing so, I discovered that the man who could turn the life history of a mallard duck into classic prose also wrote prolifically for the best natural history publications of the period—Audubon, Smithsonian, and National Geographic. Audubon in the early seventies produced a stunningly beautiful magazine edited by Les Line. Line sought to tell the conservation story through inspiration rather than page upon page of persistently bleak environmental horror stories, and he did this by building a stable of contributors that included the nation’s best nature writers and photographers. At the top of the list was Iowa’s own John Madson. John’s magazine articles covered topics ranging from tiny Platt National Park in my home state of Oklahoma to his abiding love of unplowed prairie. Each entry was typical Madson—a tongue-incheek pinch of humor, lyrical sentences, down-to-earth appreciation for his subject matter, and a stylistic sense that enabled him to paint vivid word pictures without seeming grandiose. When John Madson wrote about the outdoors, his words were like a magic carpet ride. The sounds, the smells, the bite of the wind were all wrapped up in his words, and the reader knew that this was a writer who had lived and loved those things he wrote about. Eventually Madson’s work began to appear in books. Out Home was a 155 Poet of the Prairie collectionofstoriespennedformagazinesincludingOutdoorLife,Sports Afield, Guns and Ammo, and Audubon between 1961 and 1977. The twentyone essays were classic Madson, celebrating forgotten stretches of riverbank alive with migrating ducks and geese, wicked winter storms, frozen marshes, and the winged aura of that Upper Midwest import, the ring-necked pheasant. Another collection of essays, Stories from under the Sky, examined wildlife from badgers to shrews and dogfish to water bugs. The Madson book that drew national attention was John’s classic Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie. Published in 1982 and still in print today...


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