The Nostalgia, the Lure of New England and its Storytellers Lives On
I recall overlooking the vast spread of colorful leaves of the northern New Hampshire autumn on Rice Mountain. There for the first time I understood the appeal of the upland life, of escaping a regular job, and of coming to a better understanding of the siren-like call of loving something for your own reasons. It was a watershed point in my life where I rediscovered grouse and woodcock hunting. And it was liberating, especially in a year where I had to learn to let go of the deer hunting culture that had tested my sanity, made me lose my way and along with that my reasons for hunting.. Being a Massachusetts native, the words of Henry David Thoreau lay heavy on my mind: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Walden’s Pond lay only about a 30 minute drive from where I grew up in the state.
New England has an extensive and storied past as far as upland hunting is concerned. In a way those storied days are gone. Outside of Maine, few think of New England as an upland hunting destination and there are reasons why. Nevertheless, some of the greats in upland hunting like Burton Spiller, William Harden Foster, and even Corey Ford who moved to New Hampshire from New York were each drawn to the calling of the New England wilds and upland opportunities.
Today, because of the decline of ruffed grouse in the region, much of the landscape has been forgotten. There are still some strongholds like the vast reaches of northern Maine and areas of New Hampshire and Vermont that offer some great bird numbers. Western Massachusetts is known to hold some manageable grouse populations, but for the most part the region is in decline.
The great writers of the region, those who produced some of the foundation books in our culture like Grouse Feathers and New England Grouse Shooting, lived in very different times. Ironically, I grew up in the town of North Andover, part of the area the Foster family called home. I saw grouse there over the years, but I can count them on one hand. The pinnacle of grouse hunting in the Merrimack Valley is long gone.
Eventually I moved up to central New Hampshire. The cost of living was inviting for those of us who work from home. The turkey hunting is world class, the woodcock hunting a godsend, and the ruffed grouse numbers depressing. Not two towns over is where Burton Spiller and some of the adventures in his book Grouse Feathers took place. Sure, I have have bagged a few grouse around here but it feels like hunting the Southern Appalachians on flush counts (and with much less incline). Almost doesn’t feel right targeting them.
Back in Massachusetts, not 30 minutes in the other direction from Walden’s Pond lay Wakefield. The town is home to the famous upland painter Aiden Ripley. True to the culture that still exists here, rumor is that some of his paintings can be (and actually have been) found in yard sales now and again still to this day.
Perhaps the most “viral” of all was the story written by Corey Ford, The Road to Tinkhamtown, which first appeared in Field & Stream in October 1969. It was a story that reached across to other hunting cultures outside the upland space and is still considered one of the greatest pieces of fictional outdoor literature ever written. To this day, writers and upland hunters debate whether the location of Tinkhamtown was real or not. And some have narrowed down details and mentions to the very spot, including an article in the Summer 2019 Issue of Project Upland Magazine in The Search for Tinkhamtown by Andrew M. Wayment (not a New Englander). I assure you it is real, but the cover has grown old and therefore grouse hunting today remains a reach.
Perhaps the biggest hidden gem among the greats is Edmund Davis, a Rhode Islander. Davis authored Woodcock Shooting, a self published book written in 1908 that accounts for some of the earliest ideas of woodcock hunting stretching from areas of Canada and New England. As one who has found a profound love for the woodcock, his book to this day provides some of the best wingshooting opportunities possible to the upland hunter in New England. Although I have never hunted them in his native state just one door over in Connecticut, but you would be surprised how flights of birds can create some of the most enjoyable of hunting days. Davis died before he was able to add more to this classic. A suspicious death ruled a “hunting accident” has been the subject of much debate over the years.
And now we sit in the 21st century where all of these greats (and some not mentioned) are behind us. That is not to say that there are not people in New England who still write and wax on the days gone by. But for the most part, the celebration of today has been lost to the relics of the past. Take Upland Days, a book written by legend H.G. “Tap” Tapply’s son, William G. Tapply, who was one hell of a writer in his own right. It’s an entertaining account of about 50 years of the heydays of New England upland hunting.
Up in Maine, author and writer Art Wheaton of the storied “old pats society” is still producing content like his latest book, Grouse County. Head on over to Vermont and you’ll find Reid Bryant of Orvis who has published a number of books in recent years. His way with words and ability to paint a picture with words well chosen has made him a regular contributor to the likes of Gray’s Sporting Journal and Shooting Sportsmen.
One of my personal favorites is Gregg Elliot of Dogs and Doubles, who over the years has made a name for himself writing on double guns. His works have appeared in just about all the magazines that spend time drooling on vintage side-by-sides and fine shotguns. There is nothing like being a fan of someone who writes for a magazine when you are working on it.
I feel the stronger side of nostalgia when I hunt New England. Like when stepping over a rock wall of some forgotten farm, wondering if Burton Spiller may have hunted the same cover. Like ghosts, all around us, whispering the lure of upland and influencing it to this day. Maybe that is a bit of how Project Upland came to be–after all, it was birthed in the very covers of New England.
My mind often wanders to the uncertainty of “what’s next?” I wonder about the writers of today and find myself curious if it takes death to become a “great.” I for one have read the words of the living and find them to be powerful and inspiring. But the sense nostalgia gives, relies on the past, the past always provides the grist for a cleaner and more refined story. That game of telephone over the ages alters good stories in even better ways. We fill the gaps with reverence, admiration, and wanting.
We may be tempted to say that the golden age of upland has come and gone. And that would be misleading. As the Creative Director of Project Upland, I like to think it’s just beginning. We are always just one email away from the next great author, writer, painter or photographer. I do not think any of us are allowed to see the end of that race. It’s up to the future to decide. And maybe when we spend so much time dreaming of the past we forget the importance of our future.
New England, I am sure, will still be here.
A.J. DeRosa is an American filmmaker and the Founder and Creative Director of Northwoods Collective. While he is most widely known for the award-winning Project Upland series, he made his first mark in the hunting industry as the critically-acclaimed author of the cult classic The Urban Deer Complex and, more recently, The Urban Deer Complex 2.0. A.J. expanded his work toward the larger mission of recruiting and welcoming millennial hunters by conducting and applying cutting-edge market research across the Northwoods Collective brands. Now a passionate bird hunter, you can find A.J. following Grim, a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon, through the uplands with his wife, Sabrina, and oldest son, Marty McFly.