Outdoors Publications field guide covers

The Interminable Outdoor Publications of James E. Lawrence

James E. Lawrence would have been about 25 years old when he was assigned to survey the wild deer population outside of Brookhaven National Laboratory, a top-secret government research center full of particle physicists and experimental happenings, where said deer were running amok scaling the 12ft tall fence to eat radioactive plants. Was this the moment he decided he would commit a majority of his life to publishing educational zines and field guides on sustainable and mindful outdoors recreation? We like to think so.

James E. Lawrence’s Snakes of the Catskill Mountains: A Guide to Their Recognition challenges us to seek out, survive, and take note of experiences involving wild snakes.

If you’ve been to a local gift shop, book store, or outdoors-ing-goods shack in rural or mountainous upstate New York over the last 30 years you may be familiar with the saddle-stitched, often brightly- or monochromatically-covered, and lightly-illustrated field guides Lawrence’s Outdoor Publications of Ithaca, NY, is responsible for producing. Most of these were originally published in the 1950s and 60s and appear to have been re-released in batches up until the mid 90s.

“Various signs instruct the fisherman using New York City’s reservoirs. Their purpose is to insure maintenance of a pure water supply.” reads the caption from New York City Reservoirs in the Catskill Mountains: Guide to Fishing Waters a 1967 publication from C. Austin Glenn.

Outdoors Publications has absolutely no internet presence. Literally, try googling it. It’s books are extremely unironic, accessible, leafy, and full of endearing colorfully-written passages and instructional narratives that are entertaining but likely at least slightly outdated.

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In these deep, silent woods run big bucks rarely seen in the valleys. Here live the ridge-runners that herd their harems from beds high in the hemlocks to feeding areas in yew and balsam groves across the sides and backs of the quiet mountains. Deer shot in these sections are deer truly earned.

Deer Hunting the Catskills by Carl Oleberg

The publications have a presence and time-agnostic quality that insists we believe they have always been here and will always remain here, telling the same story about forest conservation and white tail deer habitats to whoever will slow down long enough to listen.

A particularly useful and timeless spread from Deer Hunting the Catskills, by Carl Oleberg, reminds us that getting lost is sometimes how we find ourselves.

Remember that your most valuable asset is a clear head. If you think you are lost, cool it. Sit down and think it over. Talk to yourself, if necessary. Get your bearing and figure out a logical route back to familiar territory.

Deer Hunting the Catskills by Carl Oleberg
“This sign, found along roadside boundaries of state land, points the way to public hunting grounds in the Catskills” original caption and graphic from Deer Hunting the Catskills, 1969

The eccentric outdoors zines as physical artifacts are pleasant to flip through even if you have no interest in following half-century-old advice on which Catskills-region fishing holes are most promising. They are often sprinkled with what we assume are outdated fold-out maps of micro-regions and weird little illustrations of creatures the author is telling you to murder, respect, or fear.

A map of the four designated wilderness areas in the Catskills Park circa 1969
A hidden map unfolds to reveal an index of topographic quadrangles that encompass Catskill State Park

Lawrence himself passed away nearly 20 years ago but these field guides are still being stocked and sold by persons unknown. It is likely there is a mysterious warehouse somewhere outside of Ithaca, guarded no doubt by bees and ancient fly-fisherman, absolutely filled to the rafters with these things, their price stickers indefinitely set at $3.00, their wisdom and folksy woods-secrets growing more detached yet powerful by the decade from a world in constant ecological flux.

An embossed gold foil sticker that reads “FOLD-OUT MAPS” tells the pleasure center in our brain that we are heading in the right direction and reminds us what in life is worth living for. These old books smell like paper that has been sitting in a drawer for 100 years.

To get your hands on one of these avant-garde time capsules we recommend renting an overpriced car and driving directionless towards the Catskill mountains of southeastern New York State with at least three dollars to spare. We procured our own Outdoor Publications rarities at Phonencia, NY’s “old fashioned country store,” The Nest Egg, where you can also find tactical hunting knives, bear and bigfoot souvenirs, primitive camping gear, and homemade fudge.

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To learn more about James E. Lawrence, the naturalist and publisher, read his Cornell University memorial statement.