Having Coffee with an Author
Do an informal survey of your friends and associates. Ask them if they would like to leave their families an account of their lives, describing some of the high points, recording a few hilarious stories, and maybe preserving the best photos on their phones. Isn’t that the cliché? Doesn’t everyone have in us at least one good book?
Now comes octogenarian John Wachholz with his wife Nancy to show us how it’s done. Wachholz’s Walks with the Old Ones, infused with a friend’s informality as if we’re sipping lattes together, starts with the author’s Wisconsin rural roots where hunting ducks, deer and even bears formed the ritual pattern of a year.
His moving account of shooting a Canadian bear includes a passage that echoes Aldo Leopold’s memory of killing a wolf in Arizona. “Just before the arrow left my bow, the bear and I made eye contact. I will never forget that moment. The only good thing about that was the arrow hit him right in the heart.”
The bear ended up as rug that Wachholz’s cat peed on, making the fur smell terrible. A friend disposed of the skin, and during the following autumn Wachholz, while hunting deer and remembering the bear, put down his bow, never to hunt again. As he puts it, “Nowadays I ‘hunt’ with a camera.”
And quite a set of hunts it has been. He describes accidentally discovering how rewarding nature photography can be, warning readers that the hobby can become obsessive. Along the way he and Nancy opened a gallery to sell the best of the thousands of images they captured. Nancy, a retired attorney, is also a watercolorist whose portraits of Apache friends are scattered among the 350 photographs of wildlife, ranging from hummingbirds and woodchucks to elk, bear and big horned sheep.
Even though the Wachholzes now live in Silver City, the photographs that began in Wisconsin include Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, the Bosque del Apache of Sierra County, and a North Dakota parking lot. (To give you a sense of what a sophisticate I am, I name my favorite photograph — six baby raccoons hanging out in a Badger State bird feeder.)
Photography has as much to do with technology as art, and Wachholz modestly, and wrongly, claims that all good pictures are just a modern, gee whiz camera doing its job. As he steps through various subjects of his life’s work, he drops professional hints, giving us a warning first. “I have done my very best to be factual—with no guarantees,” he writes in the introduction.
If you want to take photos of deer, for example, pay attention to the phases of the moon. And don’t invite the author to dinner after a day in the field photographing coyotes, because Wachholz likes to step in his prey’s scat, rubbing it into his boots to provide an extra camouflage.
The book, which has the subtitle True Wildlife Tales from Boy to Man, features 22 chapters, most named in English and Apache for the animals that do a photogenic turn for Wachholz. (The Apache names are a superb touch because often Athabaskan words evoke an animal’s character better than Spanish or English. “Goo-chee” for the javelina and “mba” for the coyote come immediately to mind.)
After absorbing the descriptions of getting close enough to a buffalo or moose or pronghorn to record its “true” personality, a reader would be right to conclude that mapping out an escape route is a photographer’s first duty. Going on a photographic hike with Wachholz resembles being in Pamplona during the running of the bulls.
Wachholz writes passionate letters to the Silver City Daily Press, so that he may be familiar to many Independent readers. Though he also summarizes those opinions in this book, here magnificent illustrations and low-low-key narrative make this work just what it was meant to be, an afternoon at a coffeeshop trading memories and wanderings.