The Edge of the Wood

by John Messeder, Nemophilist & Ecological Storyteller

A rifle, a leather belt, and a pen

I always imagine standing with Elmer Fudd and that six-pointer.I met Tom – Dr. Eastler, when I was a new student in the first day of Environmental Geoscience class at the University of Maine at Farmington. I had recently completed 20 years of service to my nation and it’s Navy, generally knocking around the globe visiting with folks while intermittently pretending I was ready and willing to shoot at and/or be shot at by some of those same folks.

Which is to say that in the time between graduating from high school and leaving home for the first time – a short stay with an uncle in New York while I visited the 1960-something World Fair notwithstanding – I had not gained much in the way of environmental education.

From my start in Fourth Grade, I had been raised on the shore of a 500-acre pond that was annually home to the pair of Common loons, authors of an eery call often used by makers of murder mystery movies, if there be a dark lake somewhere in their scenery, to render an air of ill boding. I skinny-dipped (though my brother, when he tattled my activity to Mom, just called it “swimming naked”) with those loons at the end of a summer day’s work, paddled a row-boat among them, fished the pickerel weeds, and otherwise enjoyed what I had no idea was called “country life.”

So I am uncertain what encouraged me to sign up for Dr. Eastler’s class, except that maybe I expected it to be pretty easy. Which it was, sort of.

That first day of class, he took the roll, learning, I discovered later, the names and partial pedigrees of every student. He explained some rules of study – we would be expected to do some – and then excused himself to invite a guest speaker to meet with us.

After a few minutes, in walked our professor, this time as Elmer Fudd, clad in a deerstalker hat and plaid jacket, and carrying a .30-30 rifle. Several students gasped in unison. At first, one could be certain most of the sudden air intake was because a gun in a classroom was not something most of us expected, the gaspers least of all.

But it’s almost hunting season, and that’s what we do around here.

Again with the gasps, but from only four students. One-by-one, he queried their opinions. Anti-hunters all, including the three with Burger King bags they’d grabbed across the street during lunch.

“You know,” he said, “when you order a burger, you’re taking out a contract on a cow.”

One student remained standing, looking just a little smug. No Burger King for her; she was vegan.

“Would you lift your shirt just a little,” the professor asked.

She hesitated, clearly wondering his motive. Then it dawned, and she lifted the bottom of her shirt to expose her leather belt.

It was a great lesson.

I had been raised a few miles from the college, and had hunted as well in three other states during my military travels. I had skinny-dipped in freshwater lakes and streams and hunted, hiked and camped among tall, old trees. In truth, I had never been around folks who were not carnivores.

That was the start of my new career as an environment columnist. We humans are part of where we live, made of the same space dust that forms the walls of our houses, swimmers in water populated by tiny critters that, if the water was bad for us humans, could not live there, either.

That afternoon, Thomas “Elmer F.” Eastler walked into the classroom with his rifle, and I walked out with a pen.

Thanks for coming along. I hope you enjoyed the ride. Comments are welcome, and please feel free to share.


  1. A wonderful column, my friend. I stopped hunting many years ago. Frankly, I did not get any joy out of the killing. That said. I still eat meat and wear leather shoes…but I always understand that someone died for my appetites

    • Thanks. I used to say I hunted to be in the woods, and I killed for the dinner table. That line about taking a contract on a cow has stuck with me.

  2. Couldn’t help but laugh. The story is pure ‘Tom’. I knew him for decades. We served in the same reserve unit for twelve years and maintained a friendship, abet a casual one, for years and years after, until I moved to Florida. He came to my classroom at Wells High as a guest speaker more than once. One of the world’s great guys, taken from us far too early.

    • He was my favorite of my favorite profs. but then, I write mostly about outdoor and conservation stuff. Tom’s gift was a ton of stuff I’m often reminded to look up and think about.

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