Based upon a friend’s request, I am providing a copy of one of my term papers written specifically about George Washington Sears (Nessmuk.) Admittedly, it’s a bit long for a post and some SmoothingIt.com followers may find it, for lack of a better word, boring. If you are interested in Nessmuk, literature, or nature writing, perhaps you will find this paper interesting, enjoyable, and educational. Hopefully it will present Nessmuk’s writing to you in a new light. Regardless, I’d love to hear your thoughts and/or opinions about this post.
When considering nature writers, most readers, whether for scholarly endeavors or entertainment, immediately envision Henry David Thoreau. Those readers more familiar with nature writing may also consider Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry and many others. Nature writing is a broad category that can include a wide variety of styles and philosophies.
Nature writing is broadly described as “having either nonhuman nature itself as a subject, character, or major component of the setting, or … a text that says something about human-nonhuman interaction, human philosophies about nature, or the possibility of engaging nature by means of or in spite of human nature” (Murphy 1). The nature writing genre is typically divided into several sub-genres. Popular among these sub-genres are personal essays, natural history essays, and outdoor adventure writing. However, one form of nature writing is often excluded from literary criticism and scholarly work. This form, which is written as outdoor instructional literature, has yet to be defined or even properly named. However, this outdoor instructional literature provides insight into nature, environmentalism, and philosophy.
George Washington Sears was a prominent outdoor writer in the late 19th century. He published an educational outdoors manual as well as a book of poems and a large collection of correspondence detailing his outdoor adventures. Although unique, his writing style is eloquent, stimulating, educational, and entertaining.
George Washington Sears’ Woodcraft and Camping is a classic example of nature writing that is a favorite among outdoorsmen but is ignored by literary critics and scholars due to Sears’ use of an instructional format as opposed to a first-person philosophical narration.
George Washington Sears (December 2nd, 1821 – May 1, 1890) was a prolific writer and outdoorsman who spent a vast majority of his life traveling in the forests of Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Florida and Brazil (Adirondacks 3-10). Sears’ first outdoor adventures took place in rural Massachusetts where he befriended a group of Native Americans. These Native Americans, or Indians, as he titles them, mentored him and taught him woodcraft throughout his childhood. This Native American interaction influenced Sears tremendously as evidenced by his pen-name, Nessmuk. Sears took this pen-name from his Native American boyhood mentor (Forest Runes viii – x). The pen-name is so often used that many readers know George Washington Sears only as Nessmuk.
George Washington Sears’ writing was first published in 1860 in the New York City Sportsman’s Newspaper, Porter’s Spirit of the Times. From 1870 to 1871, Sears served as the editor for a local newspaper, The Tioga County Agitator. After leaving his editor position, Sears ceased writing and pursued other careers. However, in 1880, he began writing short stories and “how-to” articles for Forest and Stream magazine under the name Nessmuk. He immediately became the authority for camping, hunting and fishing instructions and recommendations (Adirondacks 3-8). This authoritative status would lead to additional publications in outdoor writing.
In 1883, George Washington Sears was invited to contribute to popular fly-fishing advocates and sportswriters Charles Orvis and A. Nelson Cheney’s Fishing with the Fly. Sears contributed a chapter titled Trout: Meeting Them on the June Rise. However, Sears was not a fly fishing expert and his writing reflected his lack of expertise. It was poorly received by the book’s editors, readers, and critics (Adirondacks 8). As of this analysis, Fishing with the Fly is freely available from a variety of internet sources.
In 1884, Sears published his most popular work, Woodcraft and Camping. Woodcraft, as it is often abbreviated, is an instructional book detailing camping and outdoor advice for those not financially capable of hiring an outdoor guide. It covers topics such as: camping gear, keeping comfortable while outdoors, campfires, camp cooking, fishing, canoeing, and a detailed account of one of Sears’ long adventures through the wilderness. “Woodcraft is full of practical camping advice, some of it, of course, outdated, but much of the advice is in stories – the way Native Americans preserve and transmit to their young their ways of doing things” (Encyclopedia 319). This story-telling technique is an obvious reflection of Sears’ Native American mentors.
Forest and Stream magazine continued to publish Sears’ short stories throughout 1885. However, his health began to decline in that year and he ceased his outdoor adventures. Instead of spending time outdoors and writing short stories about his adventures, Sears dedicated himself to writing his final publication (Adirondacks 9). Forest Runes is a compilation of Sears’ poetry with a lengthy prose introduction that relates his experiences in the wild as well as portions of his life story. When discussing the potential success of Forest Runes, Sears writes of his critics, “I trust that the sparrow-hawks of criticism, who delight equally in eulogizing laureates and scalping linnets, will deal gently with an illiterate backwoodsman who ventures to plant his moccasins in the realms of rhyme. Maybe they will pass me by altogether” (Forest xi). For his readers, Sears simply states, “If it happens that a thousand or so of these (fellow woodsmen) have a curiosity to see what sort of score an old woodsman can make as an off-hand, short-range poet, it will be a complimentary feather in the cap of the author (Forest xi). Based upon these passages, Sears indicates that his writing is intended for readers as opposed to literary critics.
Woodcraft and Camping is currently available as a free download from various sites on the internet. At present, it is not copyrighted so it is available to virtually anyone with a computer. This fact has had a significant impact on Sears’ readership and popularity. For years, woodsmen have looked to Sears for excellent outdoors advice as well as enjoyable reading. This is exemplified by one of the most popular woodsman of today, Dave Canterburry. Canterbury has become prevalent among woodsmen and outdoorsman for his role in the television show Dual Survival as well as through his woodcraft school and his videos published on YouTube. Canterburry states, “as you guys know, I’m a big fan of George Washington Sears, or Nessmuk” (Outfitters). Canterbury’s business also sells recreations of Sears’ hatchets and knives.
Even with Sears’ popularity among woodsmen and outdoor enthusiasts, his writing has been essentially overlooked by critics and scholars. In fact, it is difficult to find any scholarly writing concerning Sears or Woodcraft and Camping. The causes of this lack of scholarly analysis are unclear. However, Sears’ writing voice, his philosophical and environmental views, and his instructional format could have possible influences on this omission. Therefore, a thorough analysis of Woodcraft and Camping is essential to understanding Sears’ writing and its absence within literary canons and scholarly studies.
Throughout his writing, George Washington Sears proves his prose writing ability. This is most obvious when considering his sentence structures and use of nouns, verbs, and adjectives to show readers an idea as opposed to simply stating it directly. This “show, don’t tell” methodology is widely considered the criteria for creative writing. Sears demonstrates this “showing” or imagery throughout Woodcraft and Camping. As he writes of making a primitive camp, instead of simply telling readers that it is cold but that they have the capabilities of making a warm camp, Sears shows this concept by writing the following passage:
It is easily and quickly made, is warm and comfortable, and stands a pretty heavy rain when properly put up. This is how it is made: Let us say you are out and have slightly missed your way. The coming gloom warns you that night is shutting down. You are no tenderfoot. You know that a place of rest is essential to health and comfort through the long, cold November night. You dive down the first little hollow until you strike a rill of water, for water is a prime necessity. As you draw your hatchet you take in the whole situation at a glance. The little stream is gurgling downward in a half choked frozen way. There is a huge sodden hemlock lying across it. One clip of the hatchet shows it will peel. There is plenty of smaller timer standing around; long, slim poles, with a tuft of foliage on top (Woodcraft 15).
Sears continues this imagery as he details the night in the shelter he describes. As opposed to simply writing that the reader will have a warm and comfortable night, Sears uses sentence structure and imagery to provide the reader with a sense of understanding. Sears continues,
Ten o’clock comes. This time has not passed tediously. You are warm, dry and well-fed. your old friends, the owls, come near the fire-light and salute you with their strange wild notes; a distant fox sets up for himself with his odd, barking cry and you turn in. Not ready to sleep just yet. But you drop off; and at two bells in the morning watch when you waken with a sense of chill and darkness, the fire has burned low, and snow is falling. The owls have left, and a deep silence broods over the cold, still forest. You rouse the fire… The smoke curls lazily upward; the fire makes you warm and drowsy, and again you lie down – to again awaken with a sense of chilliness -to find the fire burned low, and daylight breaking. You have sleep better than you would in your own room at home” (Woodcraft 16-17).
In Woodcraft and Camping, Sears often uses a basic pattern of prose to provide an exceptional passage that highlights his message. Within a series of longer sentences, Sears writes a short imperative sentence. This basic prose pattern is illustrated in the passage, “Take it easy, and always keep cool. Nine men out of ten, on finding themselves lost in the woods, fly into a panic, and quarrel with the compass. Never do that. The compass is always right, or nearly so” (Woodcraft 12). Additionally, this command uses “never” as a power word that not only provides exceptional reading, but also illustrates the importance of orienteering and map reading in the wild.
In addition to using short sentences to provide depth and dramatic statements throughout his prose, Sears also uses short paragraphs to draw attention to specific information. Written between two longer paragraphs detailing the impediments of carrying too much gear into the wilderness, Sears provides the following short paragraph, “Go light; the lighter the better, so that you have the simplest material for health, comfort and enjoyment” (Woodcraft 5). Another example of Sears using short paragraphs to emphasize specific information occurs as he describes the process of making coffee within a section on food and cooking. Sears begins his instructions for making coffee with, “To make perfect coffee, just two ingredients are necessary, and only two. These are water and coffee. It is owing to the bad management of the latter that we drink poor coffee” (Woodcraft 44). Sears follows this paragraph with a digression on brewing coffee when camping. The second paragraph is filled with details. However, the first paragraph draws attention and illustrates to the reader that when traveling miles in the wilderness, it is wise to leave the additional condiments at home.
When considering the use of cohesion, rhythm, and voice, it is evident that in Woodcraft and Camping, Sears often adheres to widely accepted grammatical standards. Sears uses this cohesion, rhythm, and voice to enhance the reader’s appreciation of the text. In Woodcraft and Camping, Sears writes “I hope no aesthetic devotee of the fly-rod will lay down the book in disgust when I confess to a weakness for frogging” (Woodcraft 11). He then follows with “I admit that it is not high-toned sport; and yet I have got a good deal of amusement out of it” (Woodcraft 11). This is a clear example of the known-new contract as Sears indicates in the former sentence that many avid sportsmen consider fly fishing a legitimate sport and would likely not approve of frogging. However, he then proceeds to agree with the first sentence by admitting that it is not “high-toned sport” but provides new information that he has found it quite enjoyable – indicating that the reader may as well.
When considering Sears’ writing voice, it is apparent that he dislikes writing in the first person and avoids it when possible. This dislike of the first person narrative is evident throughout Sears’ writing and is even expressed in the introduction to his book of poetry, Forest Runes. Sears begins this introduction with a humble and understated “It is a sad necessity that compels a man to speak often or much of himself. Most writers come to loathe the first person singular, and to look upon the capital I as a pronominal calamity” (Runes v). Sears often uses the third person “the writer” (Woodcraft 24) and “the Old Woodsman” or “O.W.” (Woodcraft 35) to reduce the first person singulars within his writing. However, Sears chooses the first person singular where it best applies to his stories or recommendations. This is exemplified in Chapter VIII of Woodcraft and Camping where Sears writes “Remembering Pete’s two brown-eyed “kids,” and knowing that they were ague-stricken and homesick, I made place for a few apples and peaches, with a ripe melon. For Pete and I had been chums in Rochester, and I had bunked in his attic on Galusha Street, for two years” (Woodcraft 52). This passage is one of many where Sears chooses to use the first person singular to add a personal involvement within his text.
Sears also implements the passive voice throughout Woodcraft and Camping. This passive voice is used exceptionally well and serves to shift the focus of his sentences and change the topic of his writing. This is evidenced in a passage where Sears is detailing a campfire he built in the Pennsylvania wilderness. Sears writes, “Two stout stakes were driven at the back of the fire, and the logs, on top of each other, were laid firmly against the stakes” (Woodcraft 25). The passive voice of this sentence allows a transition to the subject of the stakes. Sears continues, “The latter were slanted a little back, and the largest log placed at bottom, the smallest on top, to prevent tipping forward” (Woodcraft 25). Sears uses this passive voice methodology throughout Woodcraft and Camping. When detailing an outing where he served as amateur wilderness guide, Sears writes of his fellow campers’ activities, “A very leisurely aesthetic, fragrant occupation is this picking browse. It should never be cut, but pulled, stripped or broken” (Woodcraft 39). In this example, Sears writes of the “picking browse” in a passive voice to introduce the topic for the next sentence.
Throughout Woodcraft and Camping, Sears demonstrates a mastery of power words. These words convey strong emotions or have a superlative quality (Grammar 112). Sears demonstrates this mastery with the sentences: “…they are, at the start, an unendurable torment” (Woodcraft 13). “They do it hurriedly, almost feverishly, as youngsters are apt to do at the start” (Woodcraft 36). “Unendurable” and “feverishly” are both power words that Sears uses to aid readers in understanding how detrimental insects can be on an enjoyable outdoor experience.
Sears uses adverbials and adjectivals extensively throughout Woodcraft and Camping. This usage lends an amount of readability and poetic style to Sears’ work. Adverbials and adjectivals are especially present in the following passage: “When it is past midnight, and the fire burns low, and the chill night breeze drifts into camp, they still do not rouse up, but only spoon closer, and sleep right on. Only the O.W. turns out sleepily, at two bells in the middle watch, after the manner of hunters, trappers, and sailors, the world over” (Woodcraft 40). These advectivals and adverbials provide a level of imagery that allows readers insight into spending time in the wilderness with Sears himself.
In Woodcraft and Camping, Sears writes with a robust lexicon that is direct, concise, and readable, while also including foreign language phrases that add an intellectual appeal. Sears text includes the Latin “sine qua non” (Woodcraft 8), the Italian “dolce far niente” (Woodcraft 41), the Latin “ad libitum” – as opposed to the more modern “ad lib” usage (Woodcraft 45), and the French “qui vive” (Woodcraft 64). Furthermore, Sears often uses the Latin-derived scientific names for wildlife. Sears writes of Salmo fontinalis as opposed to brook trout (Woodcraft 10) and Micropterus dolomi as opposed to smallmouth bass (Woodcraft 30). These scientific names further demonstrate Sears’ inclination to portray a robust and intellectual lexicon.
Philosophical interpretations of nature are primary elements of nature writing (Lyon 276). Sears provides these interpretations of his personal philosophy throughout Woodcraft and Camping. However, his philosophies are not presented in a personal narrative as is common with many nature writers. Sears’ writing reflects a more subtle method of presenting his philosophies where they are interwoven into his instructions and short stories. This is evidenced by the statement, “About the only inducements I can think of for making a ten days’ journey through a strong wilderness, solitary and alone, were a liking for adventure, intense love of nature in her wildest dress, and a strange fondness for being in deep forests by myself” (Woodcraft 52). Sears further states after witnessing a large herd of deer, “As they passed the summit and loped down the gentle decline toward heavy timber, they began to scatter, and soon not a flag was in sight. It was a magnificent cervine army with white banners, and I shall never look upon its like again” (Woodcraft 57). Although presented in an unconventional format, Sears’ philosophical passages reflect a deep love of nature as well as a realization that nature itself is slowly disappearing.
George Washington Sears also meets the environmental criteria of nature writing. Environmental writing is almost universally accepted within nature writing (Lapkoff). In fact, examples of environmental writing can be found throughout the works of renowned nature writers like Thoreau, Leopold, Muir, Austin, and Abbey. In Woodcraft and Camping, Sears provides considerable insight into environmental concerns and the effects of industrialization on the environment. This is most obviously evidenced by Sears’ description of a stream being polluted by a tannery. Sears writes, “Of course, this is progress; but, whether backward or forward, had better be decided sixty years hence. And, just what has happened to the obscure valley of Marsh Creek, is happening today, on a larger scale, all over the land. It is the same old story of grab and greed” (Woodcraft 42). This passage clearly demonstrates Sears’ philosophies concerning industrialization as well as its pollution of the environment.
Sears also demonstrates his environmental concerns regarding hunting, fishing and trapping. Although Sears was an avid sportsman who enjoyed the previously mentioned sports, he makes an obvious effort to conserve fish and wildlife and never take more than needed. Concerning his hunting and fishing practices, he writes, “My sporting ardor sank to zero. I had the decency not to slaughter game for the love of killing, and leave it to rot, or hook large fish that could not be used” (Woodcraft 52). When detailing a long trek across the Michigan wilderness, Sears indicates that he could have taken a large number of game but “It seemed wicked to murder such a bright, graceful animal, when no more than the loins and a couple of slices from the ham could be used” (Woodcraft 55). During this same long trek, Sears describes an encounter with a black bear. “(He was) … such a fair shot. But I could not use either skin or meat, and he was a splendid picture just as he sat. Shot down and left to taint the blessed air, he would not look as wholesome, let alone that it would be unwarrantable murder” (Woodcraft 56). Sears later explains his views on illegal hunting. “This is the moral: From Maine to Montana; from the Adirondacks to Alaska; from the Yosemite to the Yellowstone, the trout-hog, the deer-wolf, the netter, the skin-hunter, each and all have it their own way; and the law is a farce – only to be enforced where the game has vanished forever. Perhaps the man-child is born who will live to write the moral of all this – when it is too late” (Woodcraft 42). Not only does this passage indicate Sears philosophies on illegal hunting, it also demonstrates his views on the very laws being broken.
When considering Sears’ instructional format, there are few comparisons in nature writing literature. A cursory review of the highly esteemed nature writers, Thoreau, Abbey, Leopold, or Muir, provide no examples to examine. The majority of these authors’ works are first-person narratives with romanticized ideals about nature, the environment and man’s relationship to it. These romanticized narratives have a tendency to lead readers away from nature itself (Buell 11). Although this type of narrative is widely accredited by literary scholars, it fails to teach readers how to enjoy nature for themselves.
In contradiction to this romanticized view of nature, Sears assures readers that nature can be a deadly enemy. Sears further explains that only by learning to conduct yourself properly, can the reader enjoy nature safely. “In Woodcraft, Nessmuk’s attitude toward nature is based on practical experience, not on the romantic notion of a welcoming and protective Mother Nature” (Encyclopedia 319). Instead of philosophical narration, Sears provides readers with the skills and knowledge to visit nature and contemplate their own philosophies. To explain this logical approach to nature writing, Sears provides the following passage:
There are men who, on finding themselves alone in a pathless forest, become appalled, almost panic stricken. The vastness of an unbroken wilderness subdues them, and they quail before the relentless, untamed forces of nature. These are the men who grow enthusiastic – at home – about sylvan life, outdoor sports, but always strike camp and come home rather sooner than they intended. And there be some who plunge into an unbroken forest with a feeling of fresh, free, invigorating delight, as they might dash into a crisp ocean surf on a hot day. These know that nature is stern, hard, immovable and terrible in unrelenting cruelty. When wintry winds are out and the mercury far below zero, she will allow her most ardent lover to freeze on her snowy breast without waving a leaf in pity, or offering him a match; and scores of her devotees may starve to death in as many different languages before she will offer a loaf of bread. She does not deal in matches and loaves; rather in thunderbolts and granite mountains. And the ashes of her camp-fires bury proud cities. But, like all tyrants, she yields to force, and gives the more, the more she is beaten. She may starve or freeze the poet, the scholar, the scientist; all the same, she has in store food, fuel and shelter, which the skillful, self-reliant woodsman can wring from her savage hand with axe and rifle” (Woodcraft 54).
Sears provides the information and instructions to train men to be these skillful and self-reliant woodsmen that he describes.
When comparing George Washington Sears’ Woodcraft and Camping to other nature writers’ scholarly acceptance and their acceptance within nature writing literary canons, Sears’ lack of inclusion must be caused by his format as opposed to his writing style, his philosophical views, or his environmental concerns.
As demonstrated, Sears writing is widely popular and endorsed by some of the best-known woodsmen of our time. He writes with poetic prose that adheres to widely accepted grammatical standards. He uses sentence and paragraph patterns to provide rhetorical effects similar to other, more prominent nature writers. He also uses cohesion, rhythm, and voice comparable to the more accepted nature writers. And Sears demonstrates a mastery of sentence rhythms as well as a mastery of adverbial and adjectival usage.
Furthermore, Sears interwove personal philosophy throughout Woodcraft and Camping. This philosophy is similar, and often more practical, than other nature writers. However, it isn’t presented in the narrative form found within the majority of nature literature.
Sears also provides insight into late 19th century environmentalist ideals. He further demonstrates an early understanding of the future problems that industrialization and contemporary society are causing to the environment. This environmental philosophy is similar, and perhaps better developed, than many other nature writers.
Although Sears’ popularity, writing style, and personal and environmental philosophies are commensurate with modern definitions of nature writing, Sears instructional format is uncommon among nature writing and is rarely accepted within literary criticism. This instructional format has essentially omitted Sears’ Woodcraft and Camping, or any of his other works, from being widely accepted within scholarly organizations or literary criticism.
By omitting Sears from the nature writing literature canon, literary critics are denying readers and students an interesting and in-depth look at an exemplary nature writer as well as an insight into the thoughts, opinions, and philosophies of outdoorsman in the late 19th century. Although slight when compared to the many volumes of literature available to readers, this denial represents a loss to scholarly institutions as well as to literary criticism. However, readers continue to enjoy Sears’ work and will likely do so regardless of scholarly or critical opinions.
Regardless of the instructional format used, based upon the findings and conclusions of analyzing Woodcraft and Camping, George Washington Sears’ writing should be further considered among scholarly institutions as well as literary critics. Ideally, this would lead to an in-depth study of Sears’ works in their entirety. This in-depth study should be conducted by a variety of disciplines to include linguistics, literary criticism, and philosophical and environmental studies. After a more in-depth study, perhaps the “Old Woodsman” will gain the appropriate recognition and become well-known as a thought-provoking and insightful nature writer.
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