Thursday, December 1, 2011

20 Questions: Hal Herring

Hal Herring
If you met Hal Herring on the street, you probably wouldn't suspect that he's one of the most influential–and, I would argue, gifted–outdoor writers in the country. You might think he works a blue-collar gig somewhere, and that the smile on his face is always there, even as he's yanking the guts out of a tractor, hammering nails on a roof or mucking out a barn (and I would suspect that, at one time or another, he's done all three of those things).

That Alabama accent of his kind of woos you into a comfort zone, a place where candid conversations are the norm, not the exception. Discussions with Hal, sometimes over a can a beer or a glass of good whiskey, become infectious and animated–you don't want them to end, because they're so productive, so ... inspiring. He's got a bartender's ear. He looks you in the eye when he talks to you. And he's more contemplative than just about anyone I know.

And maybe it's that "Ah, shucks," thing... that down-home personality that put you at ease, but after a time, you'll come to the realization that you're in the company of a wise, sensible man who can quickly sift through all the litter that surrounds a complex issue and settle on the solution. He's a thinker. He's a doer.

And what I respect most about Hal is his uncanny ability–without reserve or hesitation–to speak truth to power. As an independent outdoor writer catching assignments as they come with some of the best-read publications in the industry, you might think that, in order to preserve the next job, the next paycheck, that he'd be cautious and maybe a bit reserved.

But like a good baseball umpire, Hal Herring "calls 'em like he sees 'em," and his delivery of factual information has more potency than 800 mg of ibuprofen.

I have had the good fortune to spend some time with Hal "in the field"–one of the benefits of my day job. He's been assigned to cover a couple of "Best Wild Places" tours through Field and Stream magazine over the last couple of years. The project–a partnership between the magazine and Trout Unlimited–is an attempt to shine some light on some of our country's best public lands sporting destinations and then describe the threats to the persistence of these places in their present state. Over the last two summers, Hal has visited Colorado's Roan Plateau, where natural gas drilling threatens a relict population of native Colorado River cutthroat trout, and the Clearwater country of north-central Idaho, home to the largest swath of unprotected backcountry left in the Lower 48.

Inspired by wild country, and a shameless advocate for wise conservation, Hal's work has very likely played an influential role in the effort to protect these and other "best wild places" around the country. If you have the chance to read some of his work, you'll quickly catch on to the fact that Hal has a knack for identifying solutions, not just lamenting the problem.

I hope you enjoy this chance to get to know Hal a little bit better, and that his work will inspire you, like it does me, to protect our country's wild heart so that one day, your kids or you grandkids will have the chance to experience the best of America.

On with the questions...

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
As Mac Sledge (played by Robert Duvall) said in the movie Tender Mercies, “I don’t trust happiness. I never did. I never will.” If there is such a thing as perfect happiness for me, it would come at a time when I was too deeply engaged to ever notice that I was in it. Satori, or kensho, those kinds of brief awakenings with permanent significance, I’m more comfortable with those than “happiness.”

What is your greatest fear? 
I would never give that fear power by verbalizing or writing down what it is. I’m as superstitious as an old Balkan peasant.

Which historical figure do you most identify with? 
John Wesley Hardin. And that is NOT because I find Hardin an admirable character.

Which living person do you most admire? 
E.O. Wilson.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? 

What is the trait you most deplore in others? 
Fundamentalism, which is really a catch-all term for “oversimplifying,” denying complexity and eschewing nuance.

What is your favorite journey? 
The drive on Highway 72 between our farm (where I grew up) west of Gurley, Ala., and the tractor supply place outside Scottsboro. All those small farms and old houses, all those hardwood forests, the bottomlands of the Paint Rock River, the Flint River, then the backwaters of the big Tennessee, with the strange little spirit-haunted mountains above it all. You can pull over to see what the people are catching–crappie, catfish, shellcrackers, bass–and get into the most amazing conversations, too.

Hal on the Roan
On what occasion do you lie? 
I think lying is the Devil’s business. Work as a writer and a journalist for long enough, and you find that your real work is trying to say one true thing, one irrefutable thing, and then another, and another. You get out of the habit of thinking that any lie is okay, or can be positive. So that’s my answer: I try not to lie.

Which living person do you most despise? 
It is my sincere belief that despising another living creature is extraordinarily corrosive to your life, your energy, and your understanding of the world. The word “despise” is a powerful one indeed, more powerful than “hate.” I’ll dodge that question in order to answer it, by using the Biblical command to hate the sin and (try to) love the sinner. I despise the actions and effects of Rupert Murdoch and Karl Rove, and lesser, flabbier devils like David Frum and Michael Gerson, speechwriters for George Bush during his time as our President.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? 
In writing, I use “whatsoever” way too much. In talking, I’ve been using the word “bandwidth” an awful lot. As in, when my wife asks me if we should try and fix our ancient and dilapidated barn before it gets blown over by the wind, I’ll say, “I just don’t have the bandwidth to write this new story and think about that, too.”

What or who is the greatest love of your life? 
My wife and children, above all else. Coming down the list, and encountering the “what’s,” I really do love my work, most of the time, and I love to hunt elk and fish for just about anything in fresh or salt water.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be? 
From what I’ve seen of living and dying so far, I think what you get is incorporation into the wild fabric of the universe (matter is constant, right?) and the only separation between us and everything is the “rational” mind which is going to stop its work after death. So if I am part of it all, no separation, I’m already back, in the best possible way, all people and all things. If I have to be a thing, though, I’d like to be a wahoo. They are my favorite saltwater fish.

What is your most treasured possession? 
My Remington 700 LTR, .308. First new rifle I have ever owned, and the first rifle that I truly chose for myself.

Where would you like to live? 
I am happy where I am, in Augusta, with the Rocky Mountain Front just to the west and the Missouri River to the east. When my kids are grown, I’d like to live for a while in Baja, on the Sea of Cortez side. Hopefully by then, the good Mexicans will have rebelled and taken back their country, and things will be better there.

Who are your favorite writers? 
Guy De Maupassant, Tom McGuane, Cormac McCarthy, Dostoyevsky, John McPhee, Charles Bukowski, Kerouac, T. C. Boyle, William Gay, Larry Brown, Vonnegut, and on and on and on. I read Karl Marlantes’ book “Matterhorn” last winter. He is right up there with the best of ‘em.

Bull Pasture River, watercolor by Shay Clanton
Who are your heroes? 
My heroes tend to be writers and artists, because I think it is harder to be those things, and they can have a more positive long term effect on the world–independent men and women in the grip of dreams and ambitions, fighting self-doubt and poverty of resources, time, and energy, achieving, never resting on laurels they don’t really believe in. As Tolstoy wrote: "The aim of an artist is not to resolve a question irrefutably, but to compel one to love life in all its manifestations, and these are inexhaustible." Now that is a goal! So to name a few of my heroes: Vincent Van Gogh, Lou Reed, Warren Zevon, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus. Walter Anderson. My sister, Shay Clanton, a painter whose work truly captures the mystery and power of nature.

How would you like to die? 
In battle for something I believe in.

What’s on your iPod? 
I don’t have one. I read about the guy running on the beach and getting killed by the small plane that was doing an emergency landing–the pilot could not imagine why the guy did not get out of the way as the plane roared down upon him, but of course he was grooving to his iPod. Oblivious. I’m already real oblivious. I don’t need any earbuds to make it worse.

If there’s a Heaven, and you’re lucky enough to make the cut, what would you like to hear God say to you upon arrival?
“And while you’re here, you’ll be driving a perfectly restored 1976 Ford F-150, three on a tree, with an AM/FM radio!”

What was the most significant moment in your life? 
Walking around the living room at our old house in the Bitterroot, trying to get my baby son or daughter to go back to sleep late at night, music on, they reach out and grab your finger with their hand, you look ‘em in the eyes, and think, "By God, it’s me an you, and we’re in it for the long haul."

1973 Opel Manta
BONUS QUESTION: What’s your favorite car of all the cars you’ve owned? 
1973 Opel Manta, a hand me down family car that I got when I was in Tuscaloosa, Ala., going to college, and going nuts in town with striper, crappie and bass fishing just out of reach, the paradise of the Gulf coast five hours away, Apalachicola River, six hours… that old Opel and a full tank of gas was freedom and freedom is heaven.


  1. I'm a big fan of Hal's work. If it wasn't for him, I probably wouldn't read Field & Stream. Yeah, I despise Rupert Murdoch too. Add the Koch Brothers to that list as well.

  2. Hal is one of my heroes. It was an honor to get to interview him.

  3. I'm gonna profess that before this interview, I didn't know who Hal was. Thankfully I can no longer say that. What a great interview with a very interesting, passionate and intelligent guy.

  4. I had the pleasure of spending about a week covering the Gulf oil spill with Hal for Field and Stream Magazine. It was a true pleasure. My brain was thoroughly exhausted at the end of our conversations, but I learned a lot from him in 7 days. One of the more thoughtful intelligent human beings I've ever been around.

  5. File me under "previously oblivious" to Hal's work. But after a google search I realize that ignorance was in name only. I really enjoyed "Hunting Amidst Grizzlies" recently published on Field and Stream's Conservation blog. Hal seems like the kind of guy I would love to share a "can of beer or good glass of whiskey" with. Thanks for bringing the name to my attention, Chris.

  6. Hal is one of those guys who sees the world as it should be... And then works to make it that way. I am glad you now know who he is. He's a man worth knowing.

  7. I can't agree much more with what has been said. Hal ain't just interesting to have a conversation with, it's way more than that. He has an innate ability to make you feel like you're somebody, that you matter and you have interesting things to say. To me, that might be of greater importance than the fact that I believe he is the best living writer of conservation issues.

    Men of conviction are harder to find nowadays than a section of sage without a gas well. Hal's ain't ever going to be in question. If I didn't like the man I would say we should vote him into office.

  8. Luke... you're so right. Thanks for adding your thoughts. Very much appreciated.