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  • May 8th, 2020


By Joel M. Vance


Picture this: a moonless night in the Arkansas Ozarks, stars twinkling overhead, perhaps a distant call of a whippoorwill, a group of unshaven men gathered around a campfire which is slowly crumbling into glowing embers, the music from a guitar and mandolin having silenced because it is time not to listen to Jay and Ralph playing “Life Is Like a Mountain Railway” in perfect harmony, not to fashion rough edged stories of hunts past, or to do what most think rough edged men do when gathered in hunting camps (tell rowdy and profane lies to each other) but to listen to John Madson read an essay written a century earlier about the capricious Missouri River.


This was not a stuffy lecture in a stuffy lecture hall in a stuffy college, delivered by a stuffy professor who had delivered the same stuffy lecture to countless inattentive and bored students for decades—this was John Madson, raconteur supreme, mesmerizing his audience—and, to John, his audience was any number from one to a thousand or more (and I wouldn’t have been surprised to find that for John an audience was himself if an idea occurred and there was no one around to hear it).


It was a quarter of a century ago that John Madson left us heartbroken to entertain the angels with stories told only as John could tell them. The Arkansas woods may still have wild turkeys and knots of unshaven hunters gathered around campfires at night, but I am certain that there is no one in those fire lit circles being entertained by words of magic and stories that only Madson could tell.


John’s literary legacy is very much a family affair. His wife, Dycie, whom he met in college, was a talented illustrator. She illustrated John’s books and his son Chris, now retired as the editor of Wyoming Wildlife magazine, has created a reputation of his own as one of the most talented, thoughtful and perceptive conservation writers operating today. Chris has only one blot on his otherwise unblemished reputation— he is the only member of the vaunted Arkansas turkey camp gang ever to actually shoot a turkey. We threatened him with banishment for spoiling our spotless record of futility, but when he exhibited penitence and groveled enough, we let him back into our hapless gathering.


The Arkansas turkey camp was the brainchild of Jay Kaffka, a sprightly Arkansan whose great joy in life was serving as camp majordomo and woodlands chef. Jay didn’t hunt; he fussed around camp when he wasn’t playing backup guitar to the sweet mandolin of his friend Ralph Philbrook. One memorable day, Jay furnished the material for that night’s campfire story. In the midst of preparing  dinner, Jay swatted at an annoying insect and ran a Rapala filet knife completely through his bicep. John insisted that they go to town to have the wound checked out by a doctor.


The doctor examined the knife wound which miraculously had missed veins, arteries, or any other essential body parts and asked suspiciously, “you boys getting along all right out there?” En route back to camp they needed to replenish the camp water supply and stopped at a ramshackle cabin where an old man sat on the deck cradling a 22 caliber rifle with which, he said, he was shooting sparrows off his martin house. “The house was full of holes,” John said, “so he couldn’t have been very successful at it.  “He looked to be about two heartbeats away from a massive stroke. I asked if we could get any water and he said to help ourselves from a rusty pump. The water didn’t look any healthier than the man and I asked if it was all right and he said ‘Ah bin drinkin’ it all mah life and it ain’t hurt me none yet.’”


And there, with appropriate flourishes and judicious editing was that night’s campfire story.


John Madson was born in Iowa in 1923. He served in the  Army Air Corps in World War II and once told an enthralled group of us in the Arkansas turkey woods about trying to kick loose a bomb that had failed to release. It’s not considered wise to land a bomber with a live, unexploded bomb lodged in the open bomb bay. It’s also not conducive to longevity to be the airman delegated to hang over the open bay and try to kick loose the unexploded bomb. John did it and returned from the service to get a wildlife biology degree from Iowa State in1951. He edited the Iowa Conservation Department magazine  from which experience came a series of essays that later were collected into his first book “Stories From Under the Sky” published by the Iowa State University Press. For years I would order multiple copies of the book to give as gifts to people I thought would appreciate John’s incomparable writing about nature and conservation.


In a short essay from “Stories” John examined his approach to nature. He placed himself somewhere between Thoreau and a cynic who said when someone told her they were going for a walk in nature, “well, kick a tree for me.” John wrote “ Nature transcends love, goodness, malevolence or evil. It is simply a primordial force—shining, aloof and brooding, a vast sweep of power too awful to be imbued with human emotions, virtues or mistress. It is as presumptuous to adore nature as it is to kick a redwood.”


But John did not only love nature; he understood it. The evidence is in his book-long tributes to two towering ecosystems of Mid-America—”Up On the River” about the Mississippi, and “Where the Sky Began”, about the once vast tallgrass prairie.


Apparently I bought out the backlist of “Stories” finally after the book went out of print. It has been reprinted and is available from Amazon. Anyone who has not read Madson should immediately order a copy—not to see the early undeveloped Madson, because there is no such thing.


John’s son, Chris, updated me on the status of John’s books, including a rare series of booklets he did for Winchester on natural history and conservation. Chris says, “These days, the University of Iowa Press is publishing “Stories From Under the Sky”,” Up On the River”, “Out Home”, and “Where the Sky Began”.   While they’re not making much money, it is a tribute to their unique quality that they are still in print after all these years.”   You can find an extensive list of Madson books at booklets@bookfinder.com (and several copies of the squirrel booklet indeed list for more than $300–but also there are far less expensive ones for sale).


John Madson’s prose was luminous from the beginning and remained so until his death in 1995.  John Madson was my friend, my mentor, my role model, and the best writer I’ve ever known. Once we shared a panel on writing at an Outdoor Writers Association of America conference where John told the audience, “there is no such thing as an outdoor writer; there are only writers who write about the outdoors.” And John did it better than anyone ever.


About his books, John once told me, with a deprecating grin, “I’m in the business of writing instant collector’s items.” To which I can only say anyone who has not collected John Madson’s books and cherishes them, is missing one of life’s great reading pleasures.


After a stint working as a feature writer for the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper, John became assistant conservation director for Winchester Western and settled in Godfrey, Illinois, with the Mississippi River flowing practically at his doorstep. The Big River would contribute material for another of his wonderful books “Up On the River.”


It’s impossible to pick one of John’s books and as “the best” but there’s a good argument that “Where the Sky Began” is a strong contender. John was an Iowa boy born and raised in a state that historically hosted a wide sweep of windswept tallgrass prairie, now almost totally replaced by waving green corn stalks. You can’t read John’s book without gaining an appreciation for the tallgrass prairie even if you’ve never seen it, and chances are you haven’t because today what once was an enormous chunk of the country has been confined to relatively small remnants. Although it is named for a congressman, the Neil Smith National Wildlife Refuge, 8600 acres in southern Iowa just south of the appropriately named Prairie City, might just as well be named for John Madson, the most accomplished chronicler of what once was the dominant ecosystem of much of Mid-America.


It’s an irony of modern times that the refuge, now an attempt to recapture a fragment of what once was Iowa’s signature ecosystem, originally was intended to be the site of a nuclear power plant. Some years back, when the refuge was in its development stage, one of the intended exhibits in the visitor center was a tribute to John Madson. I was honored to be asked to comment on John for a film to be shown in the center. I don’t know if it’s still running or not, but to have been asked to pay tribute to my hero was a high point in my life.


You might say John’s life was circumscribed by his two greatest ecosystem loves. The Mississippi River forms the East boundary of his childhood home state, Iowa, and also the western boundary of his home in later life, Illinois. But not only was the Mississippi prominent in his childhood, more so was the tallgrass prairie that once blanketed virtually the whole of Iowa, a prairie wind billowing the tall stalks of big bluestem and Indian grass like the waves in an ocean.


In his prairie book, John wrote about an experience he had when he was a kid, just out of school on summer vacation. “I am 12 years old, rejoicing in the heady miracle of shedding both shoes and school—hurrying toward the Skunk River and into a summer that had six Saturdays in every week. There on the fence dressed to the nines in gold and black and shouting his howdies to every newly freed schoolboy in Iowa, perched a meadowlark. Inspired, I whistled back. My first try was almost perfect, and I’ve never forgotten how. The western meadowlark and I sang the same song that morning and we still do.”


Once John came to quail hunt with Spence Turner and me. We met in the coffee shop of a local motel and John confessed “I couldn’t sleep last night. I’m like a little kid when I’m going quail hunting. Later, in the field, my dog went on staunch point and we moved in behind him three abreast and a rabbit jumped and ran and I scolded the dog and we took another step and a huge covey flushed. Startled, no one took a shot. The dog’s expression was disgust; mine was embarrassed shame.


John would have appreciated that my two bird dogs when I let them out to stretch their legs before filming for the refuge exhibit spot were overwhelmed by a wall of pheasant scent and lost their minds, flushing birds and running wild to the dismay of refuge personnel and me.


John Madson can’t be summed up in any single word only by the phrase “one-of-a-kind.” He was my friend, my mentor, my role model. I still can hear him telling about the Illinois circus train whose elephant became defunct en route from one town to another, whereby the circus owner simply dumped it beside the tracks and moved on, leaving the nearby downwind town to deal with a rapidly decomposing and unwelcome problem. Or the story about the conservation agent in Iowa, when John worked there, who had a pet monkey and a pet cat. The scandalous story involved the monkey’s habit of trying to sexually assault the cat. Even writing about it is impossible. You had to hear John tell it.


 John had a talent for finding roughhewn characters and bringing them to life on the printed page. Just as he wrote with affection in one of his essays about the charm for him of a shrew, so would he write with affection about a river rat or some other scruffy member of society who had something to say that John was the ideal interpreter for.


If anecdotes were lacking John had a rare gift for creating his own. Once, at an Outdoor Writers conference John and I were sharing a beer when John spied Grits Gresham, a regular on the popular television program Wide World of Sports, sitting nearby. In a voice just loud enough for Grits to hear, John said “you ever watch that stupid program on TV with Grits Gresham? What a phony.” I was in a position to see Grits’ neck begin to turn red. John continued “I wouldn’t watch that show if you paid me. That Gresham makes up half the stuff he talks about.” Grits spun around ready for battle, realized who the speaker was and shamefacedly grumbled, “Madson, you old son of a bitch!”


He did it to me at another outdoor writers conference when he was launching clay birds for us on a trap range. I stepped timidly forward gun at the ready, well aware of my enormous shortcomings as as a shotgunner. John said “don’t let the fact that your peers are watching influence you. Remember, just concentrate and don’t think about what they’re probably saying about your shooting.”


By then I couldn’t have hit a bull elephant standing 15 feet from me, much less a clay bird launched out of a trap thrower. I don’t know how many in a row that I missed, but it was however many John pulled.


I met John about 1969 when I started working for the Missouri Conservation Department and John was doing a series of articles, gratis, for the Missouri Conservationist magazine, an essay about each month of the year. I know he didn’t get paid because at that time the Conservationist didn’t pay for freelance articles. He did it probably out of the goodness of his heart and because he was friends with my coworkers on the Conservationist staff. At the time, John was working for the Olin Corporation (Winchester Western) and was writing the series of booklets for them on conservation and natural history. Chances are, you’d never find any of those today, but I’m lucky enough to have what I think is a complete collection.


Chris adds information about the Winchester booklets, “In this era of internet services specializing in finding out-of-print books, it is possible to lay one’s hands on copies of the game booklet series.  I remember when Winchester finally quit sending them out free of charge because the demand was just too great. So they decided to charge a buck a copy. These days, the price runs from $4 for a beat-up copy of the pheasant book to $300 (!) for the book on gray and fox squirrels. For most of them, used copies in good condition run from $15 to $20. Wherever he is, Dad must smile when he considers that.”


One final John Madson story. National Geographic magazine commissioned John to write a piece about the Nebraska Sandhills. An assignment from national Geo is an acknowledgment that a writer has reached the pinnacle. If writers about the natural world dream of a heaven exclusive to them, it is that they be assigned there by Nat Geo when they die.


You tend to think of National Geo writers traveling to far corners of the known and unknown world where the natives are likely to be carrying spears, and the encountered wildlife is armed with fang and claw. But the Sandhills of north-central and Northeast Nebraska are a far cry from the jungles of Zimbabwe or the Masai Mara. This vast expanse of rolling dunes covering more than 19,000 square miles is a relic of the last Ice Age when retreating glaciers deposited sand which manages to grow sparse native grass covering strong enough to hold the sand in place. It’s an easy place to get lost— there are no eminences or other points of reference.


You can drive through part of the Sandhills on state Highway 20, sometimes called “the loneliest Highway in the United States.” Just south of the highway in Cherry County, the largest county in the state, is the Nebraska National Forest, established in 1908 as an experiment to see if a forest could be created in the treeless Great Plains. At one time, it was the largest such anomaly in the world, covering nearly 142,000 acres. It continues to exist as a man planted ponderosa pine forest, but the central question, given that the Cherry County sandhills are nature’s experiment in creating a completely treeless plains, the question about the Nebraska National Forest is why?


Anyway, John headed for the Sandhills equipped with notebook and a lavish National Geographic expense account. In his motel room he looked at the furnished Nat Geo book for listing his expenses. In typical over-the-top Geographic style, it was leather bound and contained pages for writing down every possible expense that an assigned writer could run into. In addition to the typical meals, housing, travel and other expected expenses, John ran across one page that brought him up short.


“Gifts to natives…..” What the hell? He wasn’t in deepest Africa, the jungles of South America, or any other place where trinkets or other tribute to the indigenous population would seem to apply. But the magazine did not reckon with the impish imagination of John Madson.


“I was riding around in a rusty old pickup one day, back in the sandhills,” John said. “I was wearing an old bush style jacket. I was with a local rancher and we were shooting the breeze about the country and living in it, when he said,’ that’s a mighty fine jacket you got there, John’ and the light bulb went on.”


That night, in his motel room, John opened the glitzy National Geographic, leather bound expense book and gleefully made a notation on the gifts to natives page: “one bush jacket.”


So there we were in the Arkansas woods, grouped around the campfire listening to stories of abandoned dead elephants and rapacious monkeys. The night sky glittered with an infinity of stars. I looked around at this scruffy group, enraptured by riveting stories told by an incomparable storyteller and I thought “John Madson, gift to natives.”


He was and always will be a gift to us all.






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