Nelson Bryant, outdoorsman and writer, dies

The West Tisbury writer had a lifetime love for the fields and ponds of Martha’s Vineyard.

In this file photo from 2017, Nelson Bryant holds a bayonet he wielded in World War II. – Stacey Rupolo

Nelson Bryant, a former dock builder from West Tisbury who would go on to write the New York Times “Outdoors” column for more than three decades, died on Saturday at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. He was 96. 

Bryant grew up on Martha’s Vineyard, “prowling the woods of West Tisbury,” and delighting in the bounty of up-Island ponds. 

Bryant was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division that jumped into Normandy on D-day in 1944, an experience he would describe as “the supreme and overwhelming experience in my life” to Jack Shea, in a story Shea wrote for The Times in 2017. 

“Nelson Bryant has a full life in West Tisbury with his [partner] Ruth [Kirchmeier],” Shea wrote. “Mr. Bryant, 94, took a break from chopping firewood and hanging homegrown vegetables to dry in the cellar in order to talk with The Times about his military life in World War II.”

“I was in my first semester at Dartmouth, a summer session, and I was thinking, ‘What am I doing here when guys are fighting and dying?’” he recalled to Shea.
“Our picture was very clear. Pearl Harbor got nailed, and Germany supported it. I felt we should be at war. The threat was clear, obvious, and direct. Now my son volunteered for duty in Vietnam, which I didn’t like. I thought [the war] was a mistake, I didn’t like the idea of [the Vietnam War] at all,” he said.
Bryant enlisted in the Army in 1942, Shea wrote, and became a paratrooper with engagements in the Normandy invasion, Holland, and the Battle of the Bulge, encountering Islander Ted Morgan several times in France.
“The night before we jumped into Normandy, Ted came to my tent to wish me luck. He knew it was going to be my first jump,” Bryant told Shea. Bryant was wounded in Normandy, and again in Holland.
Jack Shea said he remembers shaking his head that fall Saturday when he interviewed Bryant two years ago, talking with Ruth Kirchmeier while waiting for Bryant. “He was out in the back 40, chopping firewood,” Shea said. “He was 94 at the time. He came in a few minutes later, curled his hands around a coffee cup, and talked about his life as he was fully living it.
“The man was his character: thoughtful, honest, direct, a legacy of a lifetime in journalism together with the morality and hard work ethic that made Tom Brokaw describe Bryant’s peers as the ‘Greatest Generation,’ in Brokaw’s bestseller.”
After World War II, Bryant would return home, graduate from Dartmouth College, and go on to embark on a journalism career, becoming the managing editor of the Daily Eagle in Claremont, N.H. After that, he returned to Martha’s Vineyard and became a dock builder.
Island artist and writer Kib Bramhall was hired by Bryant. “I worked for Nelson in his dock building business when I was a teenager,” Bramhall wrote in an email to The Times, “and we became lifelong friends thereafter. He was one of my heroes because of his WWII service, and he was an inspiration as a writer who described fishing with a rare and informed sensitivity from the viewpoint of everyman.”
Bryant would turn his love of the outdoors into his life’s work, becoming the “Outdoors” columnist for the New York Times for more than 30 years, joining an illustrious group of Island writers who fished and fishermen who wrote — John Hersey, Ward Just, Kib Bramhall, Janet Messineo. He was known for his conversational tone, weaving his scientific knowledge into a good yarn, and his willingness to write about, even as a writer well into his 90s, larger issues such as climate change.
Several years ago, he wrote a series of columns for The MV Times, and in this one, ponders the wonder, and the fate, of the white perch, and the great pond in which he finds them: “In early November, Peter Huntington dropped by with a much-appreciated gift of white perch he had caught in Tisbury Great Pond.
“I first encountered that salt pond’s perch more than 80 years ago, so I was not surprised to see them in Peter’s bucket. I was startled by their size, however. Many were pushing two pounds, and a few were a bit larger. Over the decades since I first fished for them — with a cane pole, worms, and a bobber — in front of Dan’l Manter’s boathouse on the east shore of the pond’s Town Cove, they had averaged about half a pound.
“I was immediately captivated by the species, and for several boyhood years I never failed to visit Town Cove, which was one of the places where they congregated in spring to spawn. As the years went by, however, I became more interested in striped bass and bluefish, both species that are frequent visitors to the pond.
“I anointed a brace of Peter’s perch — he had cleaned and scaled them for me — with a mild mixture of melted butter, salt, pepper, garlic, and powdered basil, and baked them for 20 minutes at 350°. Both my partner, Ruth Kirchmeier, and I found their flavor and texture superb. Indeed, no less an expert on fishing and fish cookery than the late A.J. McLane observes in his classic New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia that ‘there is no finer fish to eat than the white perch.’
“Assailed by a yearning for more white perch, Ruth and I went to Town Cove a few days later. After paddling about for a half-hour, we located a school of them, and within 15 minutes I had six perch flopping in the bottom of the canoe, all save one in the two-pound class …
“As previously noted, I had come to think of white perch as spring spawners. The sacs of roe and milt they contained were, in my opinion, nearly ready to be released. I have been trying to come up with an explanation for this, and thus far can only surmise that global warming may have a role. Last winter the pond was essentially ice-free, and it looks as if the same thing is going to take place in the 2012–2013 winter. Until recently, the pond has always had at least a thin coating of ice over much of its surface in winter, and I remember winters in my boyhood when the young bloods of my hometown of West Tisbury raced automobiles on the ice.”
In another column from 2013, Bryant wrote of deer on Martha’s Vineyard: “White-tailed deer are heroic wanderers. Year after year, small numbers of them attempt to swim to the Vineyard from the mainland or the neighboring Elizabeth Islands. They don’t all make it. Some five to six miles of water and powerful currents are involved, and drowned deer carcasses are occasionally found along the Vineyard’s North Shore.
“In the late 1930s, fallow deer were introduced to the Vineyard in an effort to provide Islanders with deer hunting. By 1944, there were an estimated 150 of them on the Island. They didn’t thrive, and were gone by the late 1980s. My brother Danny, now deceased, and Vineyarder David Tilton were among those who successfully hunted the Island’s fallow deer. I never got around to pursuing them before World War II.
“My first deer hunting took place in Germany in 1945,” Bryant wrote. “The Germans had surrendered, and my unit, the 508 Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, was on occupation duty, licking its wounds after the Normandy and Holland jumps and the Battle of the Bulge.
“At some point in my off-duty wanderings about the German countryside, I ventured onto the grounds of what appeared to be a large estate that embraced extensive meadows and forests, and was laced with streams. I saw many deer, and big brown trout flourished in the streams. The deer could have been any one of the several Eurasian species, including fallows.
“Noting that our daily food rations were less than interesting, I proposed to my company commander that I take a buddy with me and harvest deer and trout with which we could enliven our meals.
“He agreed, and we made two such forays.
“I will always remember the first trip. We were dragging a big buck out of the woods and had stopped while I tossed a grenade into a deep pool in a stream. I was wading about gathering up several large brown trout that had been stunned by the explosion when a tall, middle-aged man in jacket and tie appeared on the stream bank a few feet from me.
“I instantly felt that he was the owner of the estate. His face was laced with controlled anger and frustration, but he said nothing. I acknowledged his presence with a nod, strung the last of the trout on a large forked stick I had cut for that purpose, and left his violated domain with my friend and our pelf.
“My deer hunting is almost over, and is confined to a small area of West Tisbury,” he wrote. “The years have slowed me down — I’ll be 90 next April — and all I do is shuffle to a spot where I can sit and overlook a swamp from which deer are wont to emerge late in the day.”
Just over two years ago, Bryant’s war experience would come back to him, arriving one weekend on his West Tisbury doorstep.
His friend and neighbor Hermine Hull wrote in her MV Times West Tisbury column that a Dutch couple — Andre and Riet Duijghuisen — had contacted Bryant, saying they had a bayonet they had found in an attic, one that Bryant had lost more than 70 years earlier.
“I saw the sheath with the name ‘Bryant’ scratched into it, and held the heavy steel bayonet,” Hull wrote in her column.
“Nelson, a soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division, 508 Regiment, D Company, had parachuted into a field behind Andre’s parents’ home, very close to the German border. The bayonet was lost, and found later when Andre’s father and his neighbors scoured the surrounding fields for weapons, grenades, whatever they could find.
“Andre had to hunt through a cemetery of white crosses, then military records and the Internet, until he found Nelson, ‘the right Bryant.’ Andre called him up on the telephone to tell of his discovery and his intention to deliver it in person. He made quite a production of handing it over to Nelson in the sack that Riet had made for it, fabric patterned with blue and white Delft tiles. She had made an apron for Ruth from the same fabric. They also brought some pieces of parachute fabric, maybe from the very one Nelson had worn.
“It was a lovely weekend, and both couples enjoyed each other’s company. Ruth took Andre and Riet on ‘the Island tour.’ They left Monday morning. Nelson is pleased that the bayonet now lives outside, hooked on his garden fence with a shiny piece of copper wire, a tool for digging in the garden, a use more productive and peaceful than its intended one.”
Island fisherman, taxidermist, and writer Janet Messineo told the Times that she treasures a memory of Bryant from almost 40 years ago. “I was fishing Wasque Rip. It was probably in the early ’80s, when not many women were around other than sitting around waiting for their husbands or spouses to stop fishing so they could go home.
“It was in the days when the bluefish were ravenous, and there were plenty of them around the Vineyard. I had tendinitis in my right arm from catching fish. The rods those days were not what we have these days, and could really tax my body. I was catching lots of huge bluefish, and in the current, they could pull your arm off. My arm was trashed, so with the suggestion of Dr. Campbell, I wore a support so as to not stress the muscle any more than it already was strained.
“I was adjusting my arm band, and all of a sudden I looked up and Nelson was at my side. I knew he was just a few buggies away from me that day. He said, ‘Here, let me help you with that,’ as he adjusted the tension on my arm band until it was perfect. He was so sweet and so kind. I treasure that moment with him, and wish I got to know him better.”
In an email to The Times after Bryant’s death, Hull wrote of his impact on her. “Nelson has always been a larger-than-life character in my Vineyard life and in our family life, a mixture of the stories. As a writer, I admired his gifts for storytelling in carefully constructed prose. As a painter, I admired his gifts for making that prose describe fully-rendered pictures in my mind’s eye.”
“Bryant took bullets for his country in two countries during World War II,” Jack Shea wrote, “and his war horrors stayed with him on a daily basis for the rest of his life, he said that day I interviewed him. But the inner emotional carnage did not limit him, was part of him but did not cripple him.
I grieve the loss of the man, but also the loss, particularly in these days, of another member of a generation whose like I fear we shall never see again.”
Nelson Bryant was born on Long Island on April 22, 1923, and moved to Martha’s Vineyard when he was 10, attending grammar school in West Tisbury and Tisbury. He leaves his longtime partner, artist Ruth Kirchmeier; and three children — sons Stephen and Jeffrey, and his daughter Mary Bryant Bailey; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His daughter Alison predeceased him.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete at this time.