My love–W.G. Sebald
I am sending you
view of the river
Again, remember that it is not the weight of the future or the past–Marcus Aurelius
that is pressing upon you, but ever that of the present alone.
Back to the river. I have said these words when places have changed and when I have left places. I have said them when a certain few persons have left me, though seldom when I have left others. And years ago, while driving a mountain road in Colorado with Gene Story, we both noticed several lumps of new log cabins being built. I don’t recall my exact words, but they were along the lines of, “There’re a lot of cabins up here these days, Gene.” I remember precisely Gene’s response. He said, “The old neighbourhood is changing, Damon.” I nodded and looked out of the window again. “The old neighbourhood is changing.”
I suppose most of us have our rivers.
As I write these words, snow is falling. Everywhere I look outside snow covers the ground. In the few hours of light we have, I can watch fishing boats pass. They are fishing for cod. Up here people say, “We eat torsk caught in months that end in r. The flesh is firmer.” I asked a man who had been a fisherman in his younger years if he had spent his days on fishing boats eating hot chowder, as he and other fishermen told stories of big catches and women abandoned in warmer ports. He smiled and said, “It’s not quite like that.”
The boats go on passing. There are cold hands out there.
Lately I have been turning away from my kitchen window and walking between my library and the living room. I don’t stop at the window when I come back to it. I am asking myself what have I forgotten, what have I not experienced this year?
In May, I walked the Wolds Way in northern England and spent Easter Sunday in York Minster. That same week I stayed with the Middleton family on their farm near Selby. In July, I was on the banks of a famous salmon river, watching a man Spey cast into a long riffle. Three days prior to watching the fisherman, I fished a remote river carved by waterfalls and long stretches of icy water, drifting into what I hoped would be a forever.
Mid-August and September came, and I was back in the North. The blueberries had ripened, and chanterelles could be found. Family Middleton came to visit us, and we walked and picked berries and fished and told stories. There were mornings of rare sunshine and a breakfast of wild berry preserves and real butter topped on buttermilk biscuits. October and November arrived. There were conversations with Northern friends about music and dreams.
Now, December is here. Two days ago, I was in a café eating moose and blue mussels with M, while outside large, silent snowflakes fell between windows lit by Christmas lights and lamps. Noon had already dimmed to twilight. My friend touched by candlelight and the North, looked outside and after a pause said, “Everything is better with snow.”
But why can’t we choose to stop in some better place?
“’Now that’s just what I don’t understand,’” says the Rat from The Wind in the Willows, “‘If you’ve got to leave this pleasant place, and your friends who will miss you, and your snug homes that you’ve just settled into, why, when the hour strikes I’ve no doubt you’ll go bravely, and face all the trouble and discomfort and change and newness, and make believe that you’re not very unhappy. But to want to talk about it, or even think about it, till you really need—‘”
I understand what Rat is saying, but what to do about it, particularly for those of us who do heed the call? I suppose all of us are cowards at some point for some reason or another. But the Rat is correct. We’ll go bravely. We must try to go bravely.
As another year nears an end, I discover again that my days on the big river are closer to me. I think about Uncle Lloyd and trips I made with my father and those first glimpses of new country. The end of a year brings what and who we have loved closer to us. Some days we feel their absence almost as sharply as we once felt their love. Some days we only feel their absence. There are people who comprehend a little late that their lives are in a past. There are others who understand the present is constantly becoming past. Seneca reminds us that “fate has decreed that nothing maintains the same condition forever,” which he intends to be both a comfort and a reminder of what we should accept. Yet, occasionally, we might recognize changes and not know what they suggest or entail. I think of Ike McCaslin in William Faulkner’s novella The Bear, who at sixteen “had been a man’s hunter” and “had heard the best of all talking.” Ike sensed but did not fully understand that the big woods and his true companions—Sam Fathers, Lion, and Old Ben—were the last of what had already passed. As we learn:
It was as if the boy had already divined what his senses and intellect had not encompassed yet: that doomed wilderness who edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with ploughs and axes who feared it because it was wilderness, men myriad and nameless even to one another in the land where the old bear had earned a name, and through which ran not even a mortal beast but an anachronism indomitable and invincible out of an old dead time.
An old dead time. A doomed wilderness.
I see spring grass turning green bedside a cold water creek before the rest of the country blooms. I see cloudy days in summers when our deserts cooled. I see us stopping to watch leaves fall on water and roads. Now I see snow falling and something more of the North.
An old dead time, yes. A doomed wilderness, yes.
We require years to practice whatever we wish to practice. Then after so many years, we might continue or let go of that practice with a kind of dignity. I have spent years casting for trout with a fly rod and fly, and that has been my practice. These days I fish less and less, though not with less intensity or attention. I do not believe that I am slowing down, as people tend to say, but unhurried days are becoming harder to claim.
lines over the fields
New water and the search for new water continues to pull me. At some early point, my search for new water became a search for what was lost when Moab and the countries of my childhood had changed. Yes, everything changes, as Seneca explains, but frequently when I hear someone talking about how everything changes, I hear none of Seneca’s stoical acceptance. Rather, I hear “this is how things will be from now on,” and the implied “you can’t do anything about it,” as if gloating. It’s the gloating that gets to me. Why has it become culturally chic to cheer our varieties of loss? “We are such assholes,” as one social media post recently announced. “Us,” presumably, are those not among this individual’s cliques, friends, opinions, or politics, and I frustrate myself to sound so redneck, but move-on. Please. Go live in the land of no assholes. Go bravely.
When I realized the worlds where I grew-up had changed beyond what I knew or had foreseen, I left. I packed my gear and truck and went fishing elsewhere. Perhaps from the start I desired to find substitutes for what I thought was gone. After all, much of this began in the shadow of a break-up, when the nineteen-year-old me, unexpectedly wounded by love and sad, took off for New Zealand, where, I had read, there were bigger trout and the islands were far, faraway. But “substitutes” is not the best word. Neither is replacement. Perhaps reflection would be a better word. Perhaps echo. Reflection and echo at least hold a glimmer of enchantment. In truth, there is no place to replace our loves, just as there are no words to describe who or what we love.
A heart-break and pricey plane ticket are not necessary to find trout, though a broken heart helps. Trout are not Atlantic salmon or tarpon, species for which most of us would require a substantial effort and yes, income to reach. Trout are different. I have watched trout feeding in roadside ditches, complete with aluminum culverts, traffic and all. There is a breed of trout fishermen who do not demand much of their locations. San Juan River anglers don’t demand much, not from what I have seen. Most tailwater fishermen I’ve met talk about large fish and small flies, not where they fish. Year upon year these fishermen will beat their favorite water without an apparent desire for somewhere else. I have watched them. I have listened to fishermen speak of bad days not on a river but on a favorite pool. There is a wistful side to this stay-at-home approach, as well. I am thinking of a group of English fly fishermen from the 19th and early 20th centuries, men such as George Marryat, Frederic Halford, G.E.M. Skues, Frank Sawyer, Oliver Kite, and others. Essentially these men, the “Father” or “innovator” of this or that method or fly, did not often wander far from Britain or homewaters. I have read volumes by and about these fishermen, and a nostalgic part of me wishes to romanticize them. Their bespoke gear, the riverside cups of tea, the toast to the river and pouring of drink into the current, as Kite practiced, leave me in want of worlds I cannot experience.
The idea of an unchanging, better place is easy to conjure, and the fishermen I admire seem to have lived through halcyon days and fished on perfect waters, though odds are they didn’t really…did they? But the creeks and rivers I stumbled through in my youth were not removed from time. The landscapes they shaped could not remain home. Yet, in a way, faraway became my home.
A couple of months ago I took a walk along the road where I live. The road is paved, but we don’t have much traffic out our way. Rain and wind blew across the sea and later retreated to the mountains. The sea here is always cold. The mountains across the sund look like Frost Giants. Our local ravens may carry messages for Odin.
I walk even on the coldest days. For most walks I don’t have a destination. The day I am remembering I intended to reach a naust not far from where I live. The naust is painted the same yellowish orange color of birch leaves turning in autumn. As I walked, I thought about an old man I met on a river in northern Colorado years ago. We met by chance in late September and decided to fish together. The river where we fished ran a little more than knee deep but was spotted with large boulders. The current swirled around the boulders and made deep holes for big fish. Cottonwoods lined the banks and leaves colored the surface of the river. We took turns fishing and caught mostly brown trout but a few rainbows too. We fished till dusk and then walked back to where we had parked.
He told me he was a widower. He said after his wife had passed, he purchased what he called a “reliable car” and rigged it for fishing. He said he fished and camped his way from Canada to New Mexico, following the seasons, beginning with spring in the north and ending with winter in the south. I asked him if he missed anything. “Sure,” he said. I waited, but he didn’t say what he missed. We shook hands and wished each other good luck. He headed for another river, and I found a place to camp.
I thought about the day we had shared and how pretty the river had looked. Standing beside the naust, I watched the sea and winter blowing. It is strange who and what comes back to us.
a return to the big river
Six or seven years ago I went back to the big river. I needed to be in the country again and to see the river and the farmlands above the canyon. Rain fell that day. I drove into the canyon and stopped on a bridge. No one was there. I didn’t expect to see anyone, though I heard there had been more fishermen in recent years. Someone told me there were more guides on the water. But the river was quiet this day. Looking up from the bridge, I watched the river flowing out of another season. The canyon rims held blankets of wet clouds, and I felt nothing had changed.
I don’t know how long I stood on the bridge. I thought about all the other places since the big river: New Zealand, England, Scotland, Slovenia, Norway, Ireland, Tasmania and the many other whereabouts that had opened after other leavings.
I didn’t drive up river. I didn’t go for a walk or search any pools with trout. Instead, I got back into my truck and drove out of the canyon and into the farm country. I pulled off the road where I noticed a fencepost leaning and wondered if I had seen it before. I turned off my truck and watched the rain and put down the windows to let the truck get cold inside and to smell the land wet and cold again. Uncle Lloyd’s old place was up the road. Mom and Dad were down in Texas. I didn’t tell anyone I would be in the country again. I get tired of explanations, and sometimes there aren’t any explanations.
Fly rods and reels and a vest full of fly boxes were stashed behind the seat. The sleeping bags and tent and clothes were rolled inside of river bags and left in the back of the truck. The rain wouldn’t touch them though. Those were good river bags. A superette was up the road where I could buy coffee, a pretty good ham and cheese sandwich and gas for the truck.
But to find them first. To find them again.
And if you could sit with me, you would see them too. You would see places before change. You would see the best sunset in the world, and you wouldn’t tell anyone about it. You would learn about nearby ruins. You would awaken from the bottom of the canyon at night and see stars almost flaring off the canyon walls, and you would hear the big river. You would smell sage after a rain. You would know that your own worlds should be loved, and if necessary, you would let them go. You would understand the necessity of stopping, and you would appreciate that no place needs to be a place with a name. Then maybe, just maybe, you would keep them all.
And for a while, such dreams would be good enough.
Damon Falke is a regular contributor to the Canyon Country Zephyr. He is the author of Now at the
Certain Hour, By Way of Passing, and most recently the short film Laura or Scenes from a Common
World. You can find out more about his work at damonfalke.com, shechempress.org and on
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*Note: The Cartoonist screwed up. In a subconscious attempt to escape the world’s news, he changed one of our Backbone Member’s names from “Michael” to “Richard” Cohen. Sorry, Michael. We know you’re a way better guy than that infamous Michael Cohen and we beg your forgiveness.