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Jim Harrison

(11 December 1937 – 26 March 2016)

“On Saturday night, my oldest friend, Jim Harrison, sat at his desk writing. He wrote in longhand. The words trailed off into scribbles and he fell from his chair dead. His strength of personality was such that his death will cut many adrift. He was seventy-eight years old and had lived and worked hard for every one of those years,” American writer Thomas McGuane wrote in the New Yorker.

Another writer friend wrote: “The day they found Jim dead, our friend Phil Caputo was called over to say goodbye before the medics moved him: Jim was “on the floor of his study, where he’d fallen from his chair, apparently from a heart attack.” Phil wrote. “He’d died a poet’s death, literally with a pen in his hand, while writing a new poem.”

Jim Harrison was known to the world as the author of the novella Legends of the Fall (1979), which received critical acclaim and was made into a 1995 Hollywood movie. He had also authored several screenplays for Warner Bros. and other studios. Harrison was much, much more than the world knew him to be. The obituaries called him ‘Mozart of the Prairie’ and ‘The Last Lion’.

Considered one of the great writers in American fiction, Harrison nurtured a love for the wilderness, showcasing it throughout his working life, spanning some 50 years, till his death last month at his home in Patagonia, Arizona. He wrote more than 30 books – and penned poetry, essays, interviews, screenplays, criticism, and reviews in addition to his fiction.

Harrison spent much of his writing life in a rural cabin near Michigan, where he was born, and was often compared to Ernest Hemingway, who also hailed from the Midwest. Perhaps it had to do with their reputation for seeking adventure. Blinded in one eye in an early childhood accident, Harrison set many of his dramas in isolated, imposing landscapes of the American west. His characters were rough-hewn and tended to have clear moral perspectives.

“In my lifetime,” Harrison is reported to have said during an interview with Outside magazine, “the country has gone from being 25% urban and 75% rural to 75% urban and 25% rural.” Curiously, Harrison is gone at a time the world is faced with an increase in what is called ‘ecosystem distress syndrome’, which causes a familiar place to be unrecognisable by climate change or corporate action: the home becoming suddenly unhomely around its inhabitants.

When the celebrity chef and writer friend, Mario Batali, once bought him a line-caught Pacific salmon and some dungeness crab from far away, Harrison looked over Lake Michigan and said, “You know, Mario, it’s kind of funny that you needed an airplane to bring us something that out here in the real waters where we’re living right now, we could have found something twice as delicious.”

After his death, Batali, wrote in Time: “He loved everything that you could forage, everything that you could find locally, everything that you could fish, hunt, catch, trap. His biggest joy in travel wasn’t eating the luxury items, it was eating the peasant food and the local ingredients.” It’s an important message for humanity.

Jim Harrison is no more. But his books about man's relationship with wilderness remain with us.

-- Editor

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