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George Laycock: It takes two to freelance

By Parker Bauer

The year was 1970 and George Laycock was on the “Today” show, the only person I’ve known to appear on the program. George was a close friend of my father, and I have fished with George, watched him shoot photos and pored over his articles and books. Countless times he had sat back with a bourbon in our living room, where now we were glued to “Today.”

The guy on the screen was the same one we knew, no guise. Smiling and gently ironic, with a soft laugh more seen than heard, George was a realist. He made no overestimates of the goodness of man but still saw the lighter side, the farce in every manmade mess.

Messes, the environmental variety, were the reason he was there in Rockefeller Center. Public agencies were itching to pour concrete on every beckoning site that didn’t yet have its highway or dam. Strip miners were lopping off mountaintops and staining wild rivers with sulphur. Dozers were sucking duck marshes dry, and woodlands could hardly be cut and pulped quick enough to print all the stock certificates. These beaver activities were the very subjects, or victims, of George’s new book, “The Diligent Destroyers.”

George was on television first to promote the cause, conservation, and then the book. He lived what he wrote: “A people blessed with a land of wealth and beauty should not pass on ugliness and desolation.” The main focus was putting that message across.

Earth Day got its start that same year. George’s earlier books, probing and prodding, had helped to bring it about. “The Sign of the Flying Goose” (1965) spun the grim story of vanishing species – key deer, bison, trumpeter swans and many others – and the plucky saga of redemption, for some, in the national wildlife refuges. “The Alien Animals” (1966) told an even thornier tale, one that wouldn’t turn better anytime soon or ever. In this case, the trouble was wildlife gone wild where it didn’t belong; nasty oversexed exotics like carp and pigeons, and shaggy North African sheep for hunters to shoot at.

George’s magazine work had also made its mark on the environmental movement. Since 1968 he had been a field editor for Audubon, unsurpassed then for the craft and credibility of its reporting. His stint began when he visited the Audubon offices in New York, doing research for “The Diligent Destroyers,” and was invited by editor Les Line to write something for the magazine. And so for 23 years George would produce features like “Beginning of the End for DDT,” “Feed the Ducks and Pass the Ammunition” and “The Beautiful Sad Face of Amchitka,” joining investigative journalism with the most colorful and accurate nature writing, not at all an easy thing to do.

George grew up on a farm in Ohio, went to a two-room schoolhouse. “A little room and a big room, four years in each,” he says.

George knew he wanted to study wildlife management – which he did, at Ohio State, with a three-year interruption by World War II. While still in college he wrote Sunday outdoor columns for the newspaper back home and began sending pieces to farm magazines, following advice to write what he knew; articles about a farmer who grew Christmas trees and a man who invented a machine to crack walnuts. After graduation, these led to a job as associate editor at Farm Quarterly.

Earlier, not long before his draft notice, he’d met a soft-spoken dream girl named Ellen They were married on his first furlough. Ellen, it turned out, would be George’s own editor and benign abettor. She proofread and picked apart and put back together. When he was weary of the staff job – going to the office, not getting paid enough – she pushed him to take the big step.

“It takes two to freelance,” George says.

That was 1951, when the going was just getting good for big outdoors magazines. Soon George’s byline would appear all over their pages. His first piece for that market, in Outdoor Life, was a salute to a conservation club in Indiana – not the zippier sort of stuff loaded with product promos that runs in the ghost of that magazine today.

In time he and Ellen had a daughter and two sons Stories on family camping, based on their summer adventures in the Rockies and Ohio hills, became one of George’s specialties. Another was the long-running parade of wildlife profiles he wrote for Field & Stream.

“I’ve had so many specialties,” he tells me as if it just now dawned on him, “that I guess I’m a generalist. Freelancing is demanding. You see everything in terms of a story. You think about it all the time – connections you make, things you hear, libraries you inhabit.”

Most remarkable are the 53 books George has written, ranging from “The Deer Hunter’s Bible” and “The Bird Watcher’s Bible” to the environmental epic, “Alaska: the Embattled Frontier.” He chronicled the vivid past of hunting in America – Boone, Crockett, Audubon, Teddy Roosevelt, others less known – in “The Hunters and the Hunted,” a book that ought to be required reading, with a quiz, for everyone applying for a hunting license. “The Mountain Men” tells a story of those loners who braved the western winters to trap beaver. Two books, “King Gator” and “Never Trust a Porcupine,” were written for young adults.

All of this was work accomplished in a basement space in Cincinnati; no view, just the furnace grumbling over George’s shoulder. The counterpart of Proust’s cork-lined room.

“Autumn of the Eagle” (1974), perhaps his best book, was nominated for the National Book Award.

“There comes a season,” it begins, “when the last pair of eagles casting their gliding shadows on the lonely shores of Lake Erie patrol the shallow waters without ever catching a glimpse of any others of their kind.”

The synthetic pesticide DDT was not yet banned and the national symbol was on the verge of vanishing.

“Do eagles sense the growing emptiness of the eagle’s skies?”

Today those skies are no longer so empty, thanks in part to the book.

George is now taking a long break from work. He calls it retirement, but I’m not so sure. In that long-gone, almost biblical day when outdoor writing had its giants, George Laycock was Goliath. And abandoning the basement doesn’t take that away. He still is.

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