The other day the Elk Hunter was having a rough go of it. We were watching television and she left the room, then returned, laboring back into her chair with the trepidation of someone easing her way out over a cliff she was about to rappel down.
I asked her how she was doing. I already knew the answer, but sometimes the asking is the point.
“Just peachy,” she said.
“Your response lacks verisimilitude,” I replied, not sure where that came from.
“What?” she asked. “Spell that.”
I started spelling, typing the word into my phone at the same time. Remarkably, I spelled it correctly. Spelling has never been one of my strong suits.
She asked what it meant, and I said something like, “Verisimilitude is believability, truthiness.”
When she said she was “peachy,” I knew before she spoke her reply wouldn’t be straight and would lack verisimilitude. I knew she wasn’t feeling well, but she’s not the sort to whine.
Then she asked me where I learned that word, and remarkably, I knew exactly when and where.
It was about 30 years ago, in the office of the Outdoor Writer, my first mentor in the journalism biz. When I told him I wanted to write fiction, he said most of the garbage crowding the shelves, especially “outdoor” fiction, lacked verisimilitude.
When I asked what verisimilitude meant, it was the pre-internet era, so he pointed to a thick Merriam-Webster on his desk.
I thumbed through the onion-skin pages until I found it.
We had been discussing fiction, the creation of imaginary worlds with words, but verisimilitude is just as important in non-fiction. Some writers are experts. They can write about a topic with the authority of someone who knows it in most every detail, good and bad. These experts long ago screwed up as novices, and now write about it so you don’t have to repeat their mistakes.
If I tried to write that way, my words would lack verisimilitude. I’m still mostly making those novice mistakes.
I was in my early 20s the day the Outdoor Writer sent me thumbing through the dictionary, in college and still with a lot to learn. I had just started fly fishing, and it would be more than a decade before I would kill my first big game animal, a young whitetail buck up Sawtooth in the Bitterroot.
The first time a young hunter kills an elk or deer is one of those significant life milestones, but I was in my mid-thirties. Hardly young.
If you grow up in a hunting family, chances are you gutted out your first deer on a school day, maybe getting there late and missing sophomore English. Mine wasn’t a hunting family. Dad said he went hunting, for rabbits, a couple of times with his Dad. Those didn’t sound like serious outings, however, and the lack of detail suggests they didn’t kill many, if any, rabbits. My grandfather died in a car accident before I was born, so I never got to hear his version of events.
I’m a self-taught hunter and fly fisher, and to pass myself off as anything else wouldn’t be believable. That’s also not that unusual. These days the Rocky Mountain region is filled with diaspora from the coast. Expat Californians such as myself are common, and a lot of us didn’t grow up hunting and fishing — it’s just that we realized something was missing, a connection to place and the natural world.
That connection is hard to attain in a place like Southern California. In Montana you’re saturated in it.
The Elk Hunter, who killed her first deer about the same time I was thumbing through that dictionary, and had maybe 10 elk down before I killed my first, is feeling better today. I know. I asked.
This time I believed her.
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