Growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, Jim Casada developed a passion for the outdoors as a boy. Whether he was shouldering his squirrel gun in the fall or picking his way along small trout streams in the spring, Casada could always be found outside.
“We didn’t own a television, which was a blessing. Basically, I spent all my spare time outdoors no matter what the season, I grew up very closely connected with nature,” he says.
A man with a deep respect for the earth and the creatures that roam it, Casada began writing about his experiences early on in an effort to share them with others and preserve them in his own memory.
His professional writing career, however, developed in earnest only after a career as a college history professor. Casada earned a B.A. in history from Tennessee’s Bristol College, an M.A. in British history from Virginia Tech, followed by a Ph.D. in British history from Vanderbilt. He taught history at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, for more than twenty years. In 1983, he received the Distinguished Professor award, the highest honor awarded by the institution.
At Winthrop, Casada channeled his love for the outdoors into sports; he founded the men’s soccer team and served as head coach for 12 years. In February 2014, Casada will be inducted into the Winthrop Athletics Hall of Fame.
Since leaving Winthrop in the mid-1990s, Casada has written more than 3,000 newspaper and magazine articles, authored numerous books, served as editor for several outdoor magazines and as president of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. With this work, he has become a leading scholar on the history of “sport” and earned the admiration of peers in the industry. His name has become synonymous with quality outdoor journalism and literature in the South.
Casada says he broke into the field at the “tail-end of a golden era for outdoors journalism,” and the changes since then — including the proliferation of reality TV shows dedicated to the outdoors and the demise of many hallowed sporting magazines — haven’t necessarily been for the better. The experiential type of journalism that has defined the field’s history — think Robert Ruark, Archibald Rutledge, Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway — is becoming a distant memory.
Today’s outdoors journalists “set themselves up as self-ordained experts in the field where they know nothing,” Casada says. “The sad truth of the matter is that relatively few outdoor writers are actually experienced, capable woodsmen, and hunters and fisherman.“
Casada still hunts and fishes as much as his schedule allows, and he writes about his experiences for magazines and three local newspapers. He says that as long as he’s physically able, he will continue the work.
Interview Date: October 30, 2013
Interview Duration: 52:03
Interviewer: Alexander Teller (AT)
Interviewee: Jim Casada (JC)
00:00 AT: I am interviewing Jim Casada in his home in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Today’s date is October 30, 2013. Thank you for having me Mr. Casada.
JC: Sure, it’s my pleasure. I am always glad to talk about the outdoors, and my experiences and something along the line of how I have evolved as a sporting scribe.
00:29 AT: To begin, I would just like to know, where did you grow up?
JC: Well, oddly enough, when the doorbell rang when you arrived, I was writing about boyhood experiences. I grew up in the little town of Bryson City, North Carolina, and although I had no idea at the time, and in fact I was well into adulthood before I was aware of it, I had an absolutely magical boyhood. I grew up within walking distance of trout streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. My father was an avid fly fisherman and hunter. He was primarily a squirrel and rabbit hunter, but his brother, my uncle, was a bird hunter and had big rangy pointers. And small game was all there was. So I grew up exposed to the outdoors and had a wonderful grandfather, who was really just a boy trapped in an old man’s body, that I spent an awful lot of time with. And he was a wizard when it came to practical knowledge of nature and the outdoors and how plants could be used medicinally, or as foodstuffs, or for practical purposes. He’s a man that always lived off of and close to the land, and I was blessed he spent a lot of time with me.
And so, as I said, my boyhood was just a magical one where I could rush home from school this time of year, grab an apple or two in our little orchard, change my school clothes into Duxbak clothing and head for the woods with a squirrel gun in the crook of my arm. We didn’t own a television, which was a blessing. We had a telephone but it was on a four-family party line so I never used it. Basically I spent all my spare time outdoors, no matter what the season. In the fall I was hunting, and in the spring and summer I was fishing. And if there wasn’t a season open I was just plundering around in the woods. I grew up very closely connected with nature, and not only my parents, but my grandparents, on both sides. I mentioned Grandpa Joe because I was closest to him. But my maternal grandmother…well, her husband described her as a squirrel-hunting fool. And I actually have a photo of her in an old long calico dress that goes all the way to the ground. And she has a .22 rifle in one hand and a trio of squirrels in the other. She had to have been well into her seventies at the time she shot those squirrels.
So my family lived close to nature; we raised our own hogs, did our own butchering. Momma’s goal every year was to have 600 quarts of various things put away. Two hundred quarts of beans was the primary objective, but she also canned soup mix and tomatoes and apples and corn. We didn’t have a freezer so she even canned the hogs that we slaughtered. And we ate a lot of wild game. Nothing went to waste. I grew up in a “make do with what you’ve got” situation, and I didn’t realize at the time we were poor. Everybody else was, so I had no idea we were poor. I had to reach adulthood before the realization dawned that we didn’t have much…a dollar bill was a treasure and five dollars was unheard of. My first work involved picking blackberries for 25 cents a gallon and harvesting poke for poke salad. Which I put in a “poke,” a mountain word for a paper bag, and a number eight paper bag chock-full of poke would also bring a quarter. And so my earliest money came from harvesting nature’s bounty.
05:00 AT: How did you begin writing about your outdoor experiences?
JC: Well, I think my writing became a byproduct of being a reader. I had the good fortune to…our next door neighbor was a woman, a wonderful woman by the name of Marianna Black. She founded the local library in Bryson City, and to this day it’s called the Marianna Black Public Library. It is a public library, but it bears her name and she started the library with a suitcase of books. Just a single suitcase, but I was always encouraged to read.
My parents were readers, so I spent a lot of time in the library. And obviously liking hunting and fishing, the first things that I read were anything the library had, which wasn’t a great deal, on the outdoors. And as sort of a side note, I am in the process today of giving to that same library that I spent so many wonderful hours in as a boy, a collection on the outdoors which will be, or is known as, the Jim Casada Outdoor Collection; eventually it will run to about two thousand volumes. And the whole idea, well it’s a three-part idea: I never want another kid to have a dearth of reading on the outdoors. And that won’t be the case once this collection will be completed. Secondly it’s a tribute to that wonderful woman Marianna Black. And thirdly, my mother was the local librarian for a decade. That was after the kids were all grown and off on their own, but she did serve as a librarian there.
And, so reading got me started and some of the great outdoor writers of that era, well for that matter of any era in America, just happened to be at their peak when I was teenager. The greatest of all of them and a Chapel Hill graduate incidentally, Robert Ruark’s “The Old Man and the Boy” stories ran in Field & Stream every month and I read those with just the keenest avidity and couldn’t wait for the next issue to come out. Now we didn’t subscribe to it, but the local barbershop did and I always made it a point to go to the barber shop when it was tremendously busy so I’d have seven or eight people in front of me. And reading that kind of material…I enjoyed. It wasn’t just him, I read two South Carolina writers; Archibald Rutledge and Havilah Babcock. Both were regular contributors to the major national outdoor magazines and at some point, and I couldn’t pin down exactly when, I began to get the idea “well, this is something I would like to do.” I do know when the first real breakthrough came. I had a ninth grade English teacher who was a pedagogical genius in a lot of ways. First day of class he gave you a list of over a thousand words. And these weren’t ordinary use in your everyday vocabulary words; they were what he called “ten-dollar words.” In other words, big words and multi-syllable words, most of ‘em you’ve never heard of. But, the requirement was you had to know the meaning of the words, you had to use the word in a sentence, but most importantly, you had to find the word used in print — which forced you to read.
And, you also in his class wrote on a regular basis and sometimes you had an assigned theme according to the reading, but often he would let students write on whatever they wanted to. And at some point fairly early on, I wrote a story on barking squirrels, which was a way that pioneers shooting muzzle loading rifles killed them. They wouldn’t actually shoot the squirrel, they would shoot the bark immediately beneath the squirrel, and that had two results. They could retrieve their lead ball and recast it, recycle it long before the word recycle was known. And the other thing was it was the shock of the bark chips flying that killed the squirrel and didn’t harm the meat. So anyway, I wrote a story on pioneers and barking squirrels. I don’t remember the grade. I’m not even sure I got an A. I might have gotten an A- or maybe a B+, but I do remember precisely what Thad Dehart, which was the teacher’s name, wrote. He said, “This is the kind of material in much more sophisticated form that the outdoor magazines buy.” That planted the seed, though it took about 30 years before it actually germinated. But I never forgot that and one of the great regrets of my life is that I never directly expressed appreciation to him for that influence because he was still alive when I started writing on a fairly regular basis on the outdoors. I have tried my best to make it up with his wife and his two daughters because I have told them countless times, and his wife is still alive. She’s a vibrant woman in her nineties and we are in occasional contact with one another. But, that’s how I got started.
And then there were two other, three other, high school teachers who had some influence as well. One of them was my senior English teacher and he simply was always encouraging, saying, “You could be a writer someday.” And then a sophomore biology teacher never mentioned writing, but he had a project, a class project that really influenced me in a very positive way. It was the major spring project. In the fall you cut up a frog, dissected a frog, that was the major project. But the spring project was to go out into the greening-up woods in the mountains and find every plant of any size, flowers, shrubs, trees, identify it by its common name and its scientific name. You got extra credit for giving a use or uses of that particular plant which was helpful for humans. So if you could say that a dogwood tree had once been used as a wedge to split wood — because dogwood was so hard that rather than using a metal wedge, they would cut wooden wedges — that was fine. Or if you could say sassafras was used to make tea or persimmons were used to make pudding, or whatever. Or particularly medicinal herbs, that kind of thing. And as a result I developed a keen commoner’s interest in natural history and it’s one that has never gone away. Fortunately both my paternal grandfather and my father had a lot of, not so much plants, although they knew a lot about plants, but both of them really knew trees well. Exceptionally well. And they could tell you, could identify any tree in the woods immediately. But beyond that, tell you the quality of wood, what the wood was good for, and that sort of thing.
And then the third teacher that was a great influence was a lady who, Lillian Thomason, who wrote an educational history of Swain County, the county where I grew up. And she, I’m not sure why, because I was a pestiferous kid in some ways. But she took an interest in me and was always encouraging. And then there was a woman in college. Well, she was an old maid at the time and she was fairly elderly, although she married late in life, by the name of Inez Morton. And she taught English and several times in the portrait, particularly of Emily Dickinson, there would be some allusion or some simile or metaphor, that Emily Dickinson used that wasn’t readily obvious to even her and certainly to the class, and it was usually connected to natural history. And any time I could explain that or give my thinking on it she was just delighted and so she encouraged me as well. But, those were the various influences.
But reading more than anything else. I was a voracious reader, have always been all my life. And you’re sitting in a house that probably contains somewhere between eight- and ten-thousand books. So that I’ve also become a bibliophile. And in addition to those books there are two storage sheds a couple of miles away. Each crammed to the gills with books as well, and it’s the bane of my wife’s existence.
14:18 AT: So, you have three degrees in British History, including a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt. How does that interest in history fit in with your interest in the outdoors and with writing?
JC: Well I don’t know that that the undergraduate degree did in any way. I, like so many college students — and perhaps you don’t fall in that category — but certainly I was aimless. I actually went to college thinking I was going to major in physics. Rather indifferent grades soon cured me of the error in my way of thinking on that. But certainly on the graduate level it gave me the training, the research skills to…my specialty as an outdoor writer, to a considerable degree, has been on the history of sport. The very first article I that ever published in a magazine was a derivative of my specialization on the doctoral level and I, much of my work, I’ve written a number of original books. I don’t know, 12 or 15, maybe 20. But in addition to that I am the editor and complier of at least a dozen anthologies of work of writers from yesteryear who were literary giants in the outdoor field.
I’ve done a book “The Lost Classics of Robert Ruark.” I’ve done a book, vanished…what is it…“Forgotten Tales and Vanished Trails” or vice versa, I don’t know. The rhythm was good, but I can never get which was forgotten and which was vanished. But anyway, trails and tales and that is a collection of Theodore Roosevelt’s forgotten outdoor writings. And I have done five anthologies on the work of Archibald Rutledge who was a poet laureate of South Carolina. A book on Horatio Bigelow, a Yankee who came south to enjoy sport; a couple on Fred Selous, and I’m leaving one or two out. So I’ve…I guess I’ve almost carved a niche for myself as someone who has tried to resurrect the writings of yesteryear. And in addition to those books that I’ve edited or compiled, I’ve done a world of magazine writing on those folks. So in that sense my academic background lent itself to what I have done in a very positive way. And also I would like to think that I both know the wherewithal of researching and, which is to say the tools and the, my way around archives and libraries in the way that the average outdoor writer doesn’t. And I frankly am more interested in and more willing to do the necessary kind of digging for certain types of stories that just isn’t common or everyday with outdoor writers. And I’ve acquired at least a modest reputation as a go-to person on the history of sport.
17:51 AT: On that note, who do you think has had the greatest impact on outdoor journalism and outdoor writing? And is there one in particular that has influenced you?
JC: There are several who have influenced me. I… boy, that’s a tough question. It’s one frankly I’ve never given a great deal of thought. I… I’ve given a lot of thought to who has been the greatest writer. And in my opinion Robert Ruark is the greatest outdoor writer this country has produced. I don’t think there has ever been a book to match his collection of tales of growing up on the Carolina coast, “The Old Man and the Boy.” And “The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older,” the sequel to it, although not quite as good, is certainly a wonderful book. So in the sense of literature that has made an impact, I guess I would put Ruark first. Although he was a miserable son-of-a-bitch as a human being. He was just a scoundrel, a chauvinist of the worst order. Probably not a pleasant person to be around. And I say that with considerable authority because I have spent a lot of time in his papers which are housed at Chapel Hill. And also edited and did considerable rewriting on a biography of him, “Ruark Remembered,” which was written by his secretary shortly after Ruark’s death and then just languished in forgotten obscurity for the better part of four decades in Spain where Ruark lived in his final years. So I think he is our greatest writer, whether he is the most influential I am less certain. And he lived in the golden age of American literature.
And I have already mentioned two or three other names, certainly, Archibald Rutledge and Havilah Babcock; a Tennessean, Nash Buckingham. And my personal inclinations lean toward Southern writers. Everybody mentions William Faulkner, but the truth of it is William Faulkner did one book of a few short stories, “Big Woods,” and that’s basically all he ever wrote on the outdoors, although it’s a wonderful book. Much of the rest of what he wrote I find incomprehensible and a guaranteed antidote for insomnia. I know he won the Nobel Prize in literature, but I am not a huge Faulkner fan other than “Big Woods.” And there were several Northern writers, Gordon McQuarrie in the Midwest was the first full-time outdoor newspaper writer and did some wonderful stories. Not all, but mostly on duck hunting set in the upper Midwest. And among modern or contemporary writers my personal favorite is probably Nick Lyons who’s written exclusively in the outdoor field on fly-fishing. Fly-fishing for trout, but he is a masterful craftsman and probably I feel something of kindred to him because like me he is a recovering university professor. He was an English professor for many years early in his career before he left to write full time to found a press that is now run or managed by one of his sons.
And there are others. I mean, I’ve made a study of writers and if I sat down I think I could list one hundred influential ones. Jack O’Connor is another one and is another one I have done two books on “Classic O’Connor” and the “Lost Classics of Jack O’Connor.” And he was a Western writer and I have tended to be less interested in those because when I read them as a boy I couldn’t identify with those. Whereas Southern writers that wrote about primarily small game or wrote in settings which I knew and could understand I felt more of a sense of kinship with them. And one other one that I certainly should mention was a Georgian, Charlie Elliot. And I read a lot of his stuff in Outdoor Life. But beyond that, he wrote about things, types of hunting and fishing, and places that I could identify with ‘cause a good bit of his work is set in north Georgia and it was 50 or 60 miles from where I grew up.
22:44 AT: How has the outdoor journalism industry changed since you have been active in it?
JC: Oh, it’s changed dramatically. I actually came in at the very tail end of what was not the golden era of writers, but a golden era in which to be an outdoor writer. And by that I mean there were endless junkets where some gun company or ammunition company perhaps flew you to Africa on a hunt or took you out West. And those junkets have pretty well at an end. And journalism has switched in large measure from the written word in magazines to the spoken word on television. And most of what I have to say about outdoor journalism as practiced on the screen is unprintable. There is some of it is extremely well done, there is a great deal of it that is an abomination. Characters butcher the language, they have no originality, it is just almost gut wrenching.
And of course in the last decade there has been a, magazines for the most part are dying on the vine now. One magazine I’m associated with, Sporting Classics, is a noteworthy exception. It’s not only surviving, it’s thriving. But it sounds a special nostalgic note and it’s also geared toward the very affluent sportsman and the older sportsman who still likes his reading from a printed page rather than from a computer screen.
But that’s been a big transition and the problem for a freelancer like me is that internet journalism pays a pittance. There may be a way to make money doing it, but it’s quantity rather than quality and I am at a point in my life I am not particularly interesting in pouring out vast reams of meaningless drivel. And so, I still write for a few magazines, but increasingly my personal efforts are geared toward books. And it’s not that I am a dinosaur or a Luddite. Although, I don’t own a cell phone which probably says quite a bit about me in some ways. I certainly know my way around a computer and I have got a, what I guess you could call a blog. I write a newsletter monthly that is just musing and reminiscing. And 25 or 30 years ago when I first started this, such things would have been beyond my imagination; now I do it and I do it frankly for personal enjoyment. It is a medium that helps me sell books. And I guess I make a little money off it, but that is not the primary reason I do it.
And that’s true for one of the two newspaper columns I write as well. I do it as a way of giving back. I write it for the little weekly newspaper the Smoky Mountain Times in Bryson City where I grew up. And for that weekly column they pay me the whopping sum of $18.75 a column. So that is not a fast road to riches. (laughs) On the other hand, I have an assignment I am working on now that pays a dollar a word and that is a pretty good return on one’s efforts. But the changes have been immense and I don’t think magazines are destined to be swept away in the dustbin of history. Some will survive, but a lot are struggling, a lot have gone by the wayside, including the magazine Turkey and Turkey Hunting, of which I had written for from the issue no. 1. There had never been an issue which my byline didn’t appear and as of this past spring, it’s history. And it was making money! I don’t understand that decision, but then I never understand bean counters. But the long and the short of it is that there has been a great deal of change.
The outdoor communication industry for the entire twentieth century didn’t change all that much. From the people like Horace Kephart writing around the turn of the century right down into the 1990s there wasn’t tremendous change. Magazines and books were the primary means of communication. And then with the advent of widespread use of electronic devices, and with a plethora of outdoor shows on television, the last decade-and-a-half has seen really dramatic change. Where it’s going, I have no idea. It’s probably going to pass me by. But books still seem to do fairly well, and that’s where the major thrust of my personal efforts go.
Where I used to write 120 to 150 magazine articles a year, I’m probably writing 50 or 60 now. Where I used to write 3 newspaper columns a week for the local daily newspaper I write one every other week. And of course newspapers are just as much on the rocks or maybe more so than magazines. There was a time when I was writing for four different newspapers and I’m still writing for two and I think the weekly newspaper, the little hometown newspaper, I think they are still doing all right, I think it is. But the local newspaper I wouldn’t be surprised to say any day, to say, “Well, we just can’t afford to pay you anymore,” not that they pay me a lot but I, you know, I fully except just anytime for a 30-year relationship to end, and it will have nothing to do with my abilities or the material I’ve produced. It will simply be a financial decision.
29:28 AT: And which newspaper is that?
JC: That’s the Herald, which is the daily newspaper here in Rock Hill and it’s gone from, for many years I wrote three columns a week on the outdoors. And incidentally it’s where I got my start as an outdoor writer. To go back to, I guess, the very first thing we talked about, I was a soccer coach at Winthrop where I taught and played in college and was a national level Division One soccer official. Had an extensive background in the sport and therefore knew the sports editor pretty well and he somehow found out that I was interested in the outdoors and had just had a magazine article published in Sporting Classics. And he said, “Why don’t you start writing an outdoor column?” and I was dubious, I was busy teaching a full-time class schedule. Teaching four courses a semester and also coaching, it was just a plate full. I said, “Well, I don’t know,” and he really pushed and I said, “Let’s give it a month and if you don’t like me that will be fine, and if I don’t like it or can’t manage it, well I hope that you’ll consider that fine.” That was a full 30 years ago and obviously I have been going ever since. And there came a point when I gave up the soccer. I had always been coaching as a labor of love. Incidentally, as strictly a side note, one of the high points of my coaching career was when a team I coached at Winthrop beat the University of North Carolina. Anson Dorrance was the coach of both the men’s and the women’s team then — he now just coaches the women — but it crushed Anson for a small NAIA school, as Winthrop was at that time, to beat a big name Division One program that was ranked in the top 10 in the country. So that’s strictly and aside… (laughs).
31:26 AT: What year was that? Do you remember?
JC: It was in the early to mid- eighties. I don’t remember exactly, but I coached from ’74, ‘75 to ’86. And it would have been a few years. It was probably about ’83 or ’84.
31:43 AT: You seem to enjoy experiential journalism. How important is it for writers to experience what they are writing about?
JC: I think it’s tremendously important and I…one of the things about outdoor journalism which is most disappointing to me is how frequently writers write about things they don’t know anything about. And that’s fine if they will interview people who are experts. But too often, way too often, they set themselves up as self-ordained experts in the field where they know nothing and the sad truth of the matter is that relatively few outdoor writers are actually experienced, capable woodsmen and hunters and fisherman. And I would like to think there are two or three areas where I am very knowledgeable. I feel pretty comfortable in my skin as a turkey hunter. If I am not an accomplished fly-fisherman I’ve had a misspent life because I have done it all my life and have taught formal classes to hundreds if not thousands of people. I feel comfortable in those regards and I have done a lot of it.
I think it’s very important, but it is sort of one of the deep, dirty secrets of the outdoor writing community that a lot of writers are not outdoorsmen. And I have done some editing as well. And when I edited Turkey and Turkey Hunting one of my cardinal rules was that I really wasn’t interested in contributions from people whom I felt were incapable of hunting and killing a turkey on their own. It’s one thing to just in effect be a trigger man when somebody else calls a turkey in. It’s quite another thing to be able to do it on your own. So I think it’s tremendously important, and I hope that I have got enough sense to know when I do something, and I’ve done a lot of things that I know very little about. I wouldn’t pretend to be an expert hunting antelope or going after a chamois in the Austrian Alps. That’s just two things that come to mind immediately that I’ve done, but I know enough to know that I know next to nothing and so I’ve had the experience, but the knowledge that goes with being adroit, and adept and feels like that I would never pretend to do so. But my career as an outdoor writer has been predicated on personal experience for the most part.
34:39 AT: What’s your favorite topic to write about?
JC: That’s a difficult question. I guess in many ways it would be my favorite outdoor activities. And those would be fly-fishing for trout in mountain streams and turkey hunting. Certainly those are two areas where I have a reputation and the third one would be what we have already talked about – writing about the history of sport. The most important book I’ve done from my perspective, and I think it will be one of the most lasting of the books I’ve done, is a book on fly-fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That’s the title of the book. The subtitle is “An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion,” and the phrase “pursuit of passion” pretty much says it all. That book has a great deal of meaning to me because it’s a reflection of a writer on a lifetime of experience in streams that I know personally and have fished all my life. And then the other book that combines both a great love of the sport with my penchant for digging into the past of sport is my most recent book, “Remembering the Greats: Profiles of Turkey Hunting’s Own Masters,” and it’s just fairly detailed biographical vignettes of 27 of the great names in turkey hunting history. Again, I’ve poured my heart into it, if nothing else.
36:25 AT: Tell me about your involvement with the Outdoor Journalists Education Foundation of America?
JC: Well, my involvement has been an intimate one and I feel passing it on is important. I was a… I can’t remember exact…I was in an advisory capacity to the organization from its beginning and have continued in one way or another to be associated with “OJEFA” the acronym. And it was founded by a woman, or the concept originated with a woman by the name of Gail Wright who has been a longtime very dear friend. And she turned to me and some others because of our academic background, realizing the academic link was important. Eventually she turned that beginnings over to the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association and by sure serendipity the linkage continued because I am a past president of SEOPA and now, like a fool given my age, in the officer ranks again. I’m first vice president and SEOPA’s Board of Directors which is its officers and elected board members oversee OJEFA and it’s doing some really interesting things now. We have an annual competition for an aspiring writer to attend conference on OJEFA’s dollar, to attend SEOPA’s annual conference. And just this past year in connection with that, a wonderful man by the name of Stu Tinney gave $25,0000 in the memory of his wife to give that sort of a funding prop, and so it’s got something of an assured future, at least short-term.
And I am delighted every year to have an aspiring outdoor journalist come, be able to rub elbows with people who could be mentors, people who have certainly been successes. The Southeastern Outdoor Press Association is a regional organization, but it is generally agreed in the outdoor communications community that right now it is the most viable, most active and most vibrant of not only regional outdoor writers groups but even the national ones. So, partly by happy happenstance and partly because of my activity with SEOPA, I have been very closely connected with OJEFA and expect I will be for the foreseeable future.
39:28 AT: What advice would you give a young writer trying to break into the industry?
JC: Get a real Job! (laughs) That is not meant to be discouraging in any way, but look in directions that have not been the traditional directions. The traditional directions have been to try it as a freelancer, and that’s a hard row to hoe in today’s world. Probably, the surest, safest way for an aspiring young writer is to try to get a job that is connected to either with some of the numerous internet presences that cover the outdoors. Or, even better, to try to link-up with one of the non-profits that have as a part of their overall outreach or thrust, a communications side. The National Wild Turkey Federation for example has been a training ground for all kind of journalists. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Ducks Unlimited and there are others, there are many others. The Quality Deer Management Association and those are good starters and do two things. They actually allow you to put food on the table and a roof overhead with a guaranteed paycheck. They also give a young aspiring writer a real feel for whether this is what they want to do or not. Because quite often there are dreams – you go on all these exotic trips and I’ve been on scores of them. I‘ve hunted and fished all over the world. But the reality is for every hour spent doing that, there are scores of hours spent in front of a computer or taking photographs or just ruminating on “How am I going to shape this story?” or doing the drudge work, sending queries to magazines trying to place a story. And so, it’s not all milk and roses, there’s a lot of grunt work involved in realization of that. A really solid work ethic is what makes a career. You’ve got to be willing to work away at it and accept rejection because it’s going to come. There are going to be rejections early on, particularly if you’re trying to sell articles — and rejection letters can be painful but they’re reality. Now they don’t happen to me anymore because I won’t write on speculation anymore, but that took a quarter of a century to reach a point where I could have that luxury, and I still don’t get some assignments from magazines I’m sure because I’m not willing to write an article on speculation. But I feel that my credentials are solid enough now that I can take that stance, but goodness knows that wasn’t always the case.
42:50 AT: You’ve been writing about the outdoors for 20 or 30 years. How do you stay passionate about your work?
JC: I think because I remain a passionate outdoorsman and my wife often asks that question phrased in a quite different way: “When are you going to quit?” My answer is always the same: I don’t see me ever quitting, probably when I’m brain dead, or dead because I’ve got far more book projects in mind than I have years left to write, and the passion remains. I simply wouldn’t know how to act if I didn’t spend some time on a daily basis, almost literally a daily a basis, in front of a computer. About the only time I’m not spending that kind of time is when I’m on a trip. And I don’t travel nearly as much as I used to, partly because the industry has changed and I don’t get as many invitations, but also because I just don’t like the headaches associated with flying and most of these exotic trips involve that. And having said that, I am going to Maine to hunt sea ducks in two weeks, so it’s not totally the case.
But, you know, the passion’s there. I think it’s an internal thing and most of the writers I know who have been at it a long time feel similarly. The one thing that I see in myself and in others, is that I do more writing now in what might be called “me” writing. I am doing it because it is something I particularly enjoy as opposed to cranking out another story on the ten best bass crank baits or something like that, or the top ten Tar Heel deer destinations. If I never write another one of those stories it won’t be any disappointment at all to me.
44:46 AT: If you could do it all again, would you still be an outdoor journalist?
JC: I would. The only difference might be that I possibly would have gotten started earlier. I love teaching, I loved the classroom, and detested everything else about the academic world and that may have been in part because I just tired of endless committee meetings, and, frankly, did not get along with the individual who was president of Winthrop for the last 10 or 12 years I was there. I was in a situation where it was partly a philosophical difference of opinion and partly a personal difference. As chairman of the graduate faculty over much of that time, I was just doomed to clash with the president and so that helped me decide, after I had 25 years, and guaranteed insurance coverage and that kind of thing, to leave.
But if I had it to do all over again, the only thing that I might change is that I might have dipped my toes into the waters a lot earlier. But it took me until the end of my academic career to decide. And what I did was, late in my career I had a sabbatical coming, and I had a legitimate academic project — a book, which I finished and which I published. It was the last academic book I did. But the option was a semester at full pay or a year at half pay. And I opted for the year at half pay mainly to see if I could actually earn a livelihood writing full time on the outdoors. I did my academic project, the reason for the sabbatical, a bio-bibliography of a great African explorer by the name of Sir Richard Burton, well world explorer, not just Africa. But I also did a great deal of other writing and realized that at the end of that sabbatical year that I could be my own boss and probably economically do appreciably better than had been the case just on a professor’s salary. And so as soon as I had the 25 years in, I cut the umbilical cord and that was… almost 20, 18 years ago, and so, I actually retired when I was in my early fifties. I had 25 years in the academic world and couldn’t draw any retirement income or anything, but I was able to keep state insurance coverage by paying in for a couple of years before it kicked in. And I have just been working my way along ever since.
47:49 AT: Why should people hunt and fish? What do they gain from those types of experiences?
JC: Well, most meaningfully I guess, you understand the cycle of life. You have close connection to the good earth. And I could never put it as well as Archibald Rutledge put in in a story entitled, “Why I Taught My Boys to be Hunters.” His view is “to become a hunter is a mighty long step towards becoming a man.” And he had some choice phrases. He said, “Lollipop-pantywaists think it is cruel to kill. And it is actually much more cruel to kill an ox in a slaughterhouse than it is to stalk a worthy quarry and understand at the moment of truth that you have been truly blessed.” And I personally, every time I kill a turkey, I don’t say a prayer or anything like that, but what I do is I retrieve my spent shot shell. When I get home I write a little story up. I insert that piece of paper in that shot shell along with the turkey’s beard. I’ve killed 290 turkeys, I can go back and relive every hunt, successful hunt, for a turkey ever.
And I have read and read deeply in the ethos of hunting and fishing. I think it links us to a world that more and more we are losing. And I find that imminently sad that we are losing that connectedness to the land, to… as I said earlier, to the cycle of life. And I have read likes of Ortega Gasset and the Russian novelist Turgenev and Aldo Leopold, and Thoreau and all of those who, and certainly Theodore Roosevelt, who feel the link with nature and a oneness with the good earth is important. And I think hunting and fishing give you that. And without doing it…It is something that is extremely difficult to explain to people who have never done it. That is one of the real challenges I have faced as a writer and sometimes I think it is better understood in the experiencing than in the explaining.
50:47 AT: Well, that’s all I have for you Mr. Casada.
JC: Well, I’ve rattled on and rambled around and hopefully there’s some tiny tidbit of wisdom that someone, somewhere down the road will remember. But I… as, if I can sort of wrap it up, there’s an old historian’s adage that suggests you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. And, much of what I have done as an outdoor writer is try to share where we’ve been as a country of sportsman. And we are unique in the American right to hunt and fish. And it is my fervent hope that some of my writing will not only tell where we’ve been but will somewhere, somehow in the future will help direct folks to enjoy at least some small vestige of what I have been privileged to know as a sportsman.
51:51 AT: Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and experiences with me.
JC: OK (laughs)…I don’t have much trouble in talking, and hope I have given you some of what you were looking for.
52:03 END OF TAPE