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Mountain Man, the Story of Belmore Browne

Mountain Man, the Story of Belmore Browne. Robert H. Bates. Amwell Press, Clinton, N.J., 1989. 470 pages. 33 color paintings, over 100 black-and-white reproductions of original art, 22-page photographic insert. $47.50.

The title goes on to read, “Hunter, Explorer, Artist, Naturalist, and Preserver of our Northern Wilderness.” It’s the book we have been waiting for, and upon first perusal, can instantly understand why we have been waiting for so long. Browne was an advocate of simplicity and resourcefulness as the ultimate means for elegant survival in the natural world. Pulling this work together required a great amount of resourcefulness, and certainly was by no means simple. But typically, Bob Bates has made it appear so, and succeeds in his goal of letting the central figure reveal himself through selections from his considerable volume of work in many fields. Organizing the myriad pieces from books, diaries, letters, stories, paintings, sketches, interviews, and personal acquaintance, Bates has managed to capture the essence of a life, well lived, by a man whose desire was to go where nobody had ever been, to hunt animals unknown to any museum, and to draw it all from life!

The acknowledgements alone read like a “Who’s Who” of adventurers, and the Forward will probably result in enticing many readers to make a pilgrimage to Dartmouth College in order to get a good glimpse of the rest of the illustrations archived there. Thirty-one color reproductions of Browne’s paintings appear in Part Two, and numerous black and white photographs and illustrations are sprinkled throughout the pages. The color reproductions show the broad ranging interests of the man, and his considerable skill in presenting both the common and probably the unfathomable—for the time—natural scenes of the natural world. We can understand the Remington-quality paintings filled with men on horseback, galloping after game, and the Turner-like landscapes, with canoes, hunting, and fishing motifs. When we see pack horses on glaciers, dog sleds in the Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier, and canoes under full sail beneath the high peaks of Canada and Alaska, the presence of the artist’s depth of understanding, and his view of our place in the scheme of things, leap from the acid-free pages on which the paintings have been reproduced.

In the early chapters of the book, we are introduced to Browne’s early years, spent on the Continent, in New England at private boys schools, and on expeditions for the American Museum of Natural History. A youth spent hunting, fishing and sketching led him to an early start in the realm of illustrated book publishing. One complete chapter is devoted to his first book, Guns and Gunning, completed in 1905 when he was 25. Here is a work we want to have a copy of, even though the review presents us with so much information about it. Under this title, given by its sponsors the J. Stevens Arms and Tool Co., Browne filled the pages copiously with sketches and went well beyond practical information. He put forth his philosophy on hunting and living in the wilderness—and how to behave there. For those who might have some concerns about the hunting theme that was so much a part of Brown’s life, the total picture must be reviewed. In one chapter, title “The Rusty Side of Rifles,” the distinction between hunting and killing is carefully made. In Browne’s mind, those interested in a long shot rather than a long stalk, and those who use a scope instead of an open sight—or better yet, a bow and arrow—are not really involved in the sport of hunting. When he describes bear hunting, we are reminded of the predominant theme in Faulkner’s short story The Bear. Only when you go out alone, without a high-powered rifle or scope, and only when you have met the animal on its own terms, which includes the crucial element of danger, is the activity acceptable. One of Browne’s arguments for creating McKinley Park was that it, unlike Yellowstone Park, was a natural game refuge, and would surely be needed in the face of the game herds “melting away” under the hunters’ guns. Browne the hunter is bound to be likened to Teddy Roosevelt, hopefully in the positive sense, and Browne the naturalist can’t help but remind us of Adolph and Olas Murie. The game Browne brought back for the dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History, The Boston Museum of Science and others, as well as the lore he gained from his observations, sketches, and eventual paintings has provided invaluable information to science, government, and those of us who enjoy the three dimensional museum experience.

Six chapters and 100 pages are devoted to the events surrounding Browne’s encounters with Mount McKinley from 1906 through the 1912 attempt. The readers of this journal know the story well, or wouldn’t admit to it if they didn’t. For those not fortunate enough to have read The Conquest of Mount McKinley, by Belmore Browne, here is an opportunity to have the best of both worlds—the essence of the book and the fine editing and commentary by Bates. The great Cook hoax is chronicled, and the subsequent attempts to reach the summit are captured with quotes and summary descriptions. Brad Washburn’s Forward emphasizes Browne’s love for the wilderness and his ability to galvanize a team effort, pointing out that Browne became admired not for his records but for the “quality of his undertakings.” This comes clearly to light in this section.

The brief Epilogue which ends this section is about his marriage to Agnes Sibley (including a honeymoon, à la sourdough expedition—including a sixty-pound sack of beans), and the shift into his career as an artist, whose works were soon in great demand. He also continued writing. A series of “boys” books, the Mount McKinley book, and eloquent testimony for the establishment of the Park came during the decade, along with three children. We learn of his work, his service to others, and his devotion to his family.

The final 200 pages are a collection of Browne’s articles, some of which are here published for the first time. Bates has selected a fine cross section to show us the warmth, enthusiasm, and unassailable knowledge of this Renaissance man. Whether describing dogs or how to outfit yourself, his keen observations and yet another quality, essential for thriving in harsh environments, his sense of humor come clearly into focus. Each story is to be read and savored before going on to the next. When will a complete anthology be ready?

We will all have received the advance notice from the publisher by now. If any copies of the first edition remain and you think you might want a copy, it might be well to move quickly.

John E. Williamson