Saturday, June 16, 2012

Death in the Long Grass by Peter Hathaway Capstick

It is nearly three o’clock in the sweltering morning of September 2, 1974. In four hot, still hours dawn will hemorrhage like a fresh wound in the sky over the eastern Muchingas, the great, towering walls that confine the upper reaches of the Luangwa River in Zambia’s Eastern Province. In the anemic wash of a dying Central African moon, three canvas tents gleam bluely in a sparse grove of sausage trees near the water’s edge.

- opening lines from Death in the Long Grass by Peter Hathaway Capstick

Like Hemingway before him, Peter Hathaway Capstick mastered the art of masculine literature. Unlike Hemingway, Capstick was predominantly a non-fiction writer. Death in the Long Grass was his first book, published in 1977, which he followed with other books of equal quality. Capstick was a sportsman, specifically, a hunter of big African game, and he made no apologies for this. As one would expect, such books are unpopular with environmentalist groups or animal lovers. When Death in the Long Grass was published it was a sensation and remains one of the best hunting books I’ve read. Raw and brutal with prose that his critics found florid but I found refreshing, Death in the Long Grass is a modern classic.

Divided into nine chapters (Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Cape Buffalo, Hippo, Crocodile, Rhino, Snakes and Underrated Killers) Death in the Long Grass offers both a play-by-play description of hunting in addition to historical details and anecdotal histories for each of his subjects. At the onset Capstick demonstrates zero tolerance for “mouth-foaming Disneyism, with ten or more hours of thinly veiled, antihunting, network wildlife shows...” and makes his point quickly that “the sport hunter is more responsible for wildlife conservation, through habitat preservation and species management...than any preservationist group...”

Capstick takes it a step further and provides the best, realistic explanation of a hunter’s mentality: “Lions are hunted for the same reason that people skydive, race cars, or, in extreme cases, play Russian Roulette. They are hunted for the oldest of motives: the challenge of man against a fast, deadly animal on the animal’s terms. When you pick up a rifle and take the first step on a lion hunt, you know that you are taking a fair chance of being maimed or killed. It is the clearest case of not just the ancient confrontation of man against beasts, but also of man deliberately putting himself in harm’s way. It is, in fact, man against himself.”

Capstick’s anecdotal histories are as fast paced as a thriller novel and certainly better written. With an eye for detail and rich with practical knowledge and scientific insight, Death in the Long Grass can be enjoyed by non-hunters willing to suspend their disagreement over hunting and learn the craft of storytelling from an intelligent and realistic outdoorsman.

Peter Hathaway Capstick died in 1996 but his books remain in print. In addition to Death in the Long Grass interested readers are encouraged to seek out Death in the Silent Places and Death in the Dark Continent among others.

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