There is much I will never write. This is a promise I have made to myself and to others. It is easy to imagine myself in one place or another, with a fly rod in my hand and another river filling another valley before me, and yet, there are places, even as I have watched them change, that must remain secret. I wonder if this is true of our lives. Must we keep some things secret about ourselves if we wish to remain ourselves?
I do not know if I decided upon a time to leave the West or if I simply found myself away from the West with nothing strong enough to pull me back. There were fewer and fewer days on the water, fewer and fewer days spent fishing. Where once the rivers in the West had formed a roadmap for my life and travels, they became instead places to reach and not places to live. I hold regrets about this.
There was a day when I missed a rafting manoeuvre on a river in Idaho that sent a couple of people tumbling into cold rapids, one of whom went for a long swim. The move should have been an easy one. It required one solid tug on the oars, which would have caused the bow of the raft to slide away from the hole. With another pull, I would have swung the bow downstream and been set up for the next series of rapids. None of this happened, however. The bow got sucked into the hole despite my best efforts to pull away. As soon as the raft plunged into the hole, all of us onboard quickly high-sided. Soon everyone, except me, flushed out of the raft. I scrambled and high-sided until the hydraulics pushed the raft out of the hole and back into the main current. Eventually, I got control of the boat and landed where the other boaters had waited for me. Shortly after landing, I received a humiliating and public ass-chewing from an old friend. I had spent years boating. Why couldn’t I make that move on the rapid, one I had made dozens and dozens of times? The answer is I wasn’t strong enough. I wasn’t strong enough, I learned short months later, because I was in renal failure.
Time and again I have met people who say of life that “it’s about the journey and not the destination.” I’m not so convinced, or I’m not as convinced as I might have been as a younger man. Naturally the journey matters. It is of consequence. It can prepare us for appreciation and attention. Yet, sometimes, we need only to be someplace. A farm in England. A house in Norway. A field in Colorado. Each of us could pick our own places.
In my late twenties I got sick again, and I needed to find myself in beautiful places. I gave the journey little thought. The roads had been broken. I began to question if all of us were playing a lose-lose game. The very healthy and the very unhealthy are basically subjected to the same diseases and decline. It’s true the sixty-five year old on oxygen isn’t likely enjoying the same quality of life as the sixty-five year old out walking trails. I understand. I would rather be walking trails, too. But we have all met or heard of individuals who took care of their diets, exercised regularly, made their doctor appointments, and then at an age much too young, an unexpected illness or real mortality strikes. We might be surprised. We might be angry. We might worry over our own health. Yet we may also discover there are layers of reality. Wellness, sickness, what we accomplished or did not accomplish, how we gave or did not give to others, these are layers of our experience, and there are others and others more profound.
Nothing is new in these observations. Generationally we express shared perplexity at our chance decline and passing. It remains a mystery to us. We go on writing words, making music, peeling back the onion of neurological and physical reality. We do this. We do this with passion. Here is an excerpt I read recently by the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, from his book Total Fears:
And so one person gets a tall candle, another a middle-sized one, and a third only a tiny little candle…and the one with the tall candle can drink and smoke and live to be eighty, unless he’s carried off by unnatural causes…and the one that gets the tiny little candle, maybe doesn’t smoke and doesn’t drink and watches his diet and so on, still goes under the sod at the age of thirty…
Under the sod—this is a phrase to remember. Even so, I must ask myself how, if at all, might these layers be woven together to form a better understanding of our experience. Or, if not an understanding, then a more precise narrative. Or maybe just a thread? One we could weave or unravel.
Renal failure did not come as a surprise. It had been expected since my birth. Consequently, no old man ever had to say to me, “You better appreciate what you have, son. It’ll all gonna be gone soon.” I knew that early in life, but when kidney failure became inescapable, I found myself needing to look and to look again. So I did. I looked again at red wing black birds living along the gulf coast. How they flushed from the salt grass. I looked again at sunsets over the Gulf and saw a white line of empty space form between the ocean and sky. I looked again in the Far North, where the sea and sky one evening were suddenly lit by the breath of God. I looked again at snow falling outside a café window. But what about family or friends? Were they in some of these places? Yes, sometimes. Are they less important than the places I have seen? No, they are not less. They are unknowable.
a way of seeing
There are two paintings in the National Railway Museum in York, England, that I admire. Both paintings, Going North and Coming South were painted by the late 19th century artist George Earl. They depict what I wish to call a Victorian romanticism. That is to say, the era represented is not the Romantic, rather the Victorian era painted in such a way that it is romanticized. I am confident critics would say, resentfully, the paintings glorify the upper classes of British society and sport itself. After all, the paintings celebrate hunting, fishing, travel and the individuals who were able to afford such pursuits. Though why the resentment? There is plenty, both in art and literature, that speaks to the negligence of the Victorians. Read Dickens. Read Marx. Look at the paintings of Thomas Benjamin Kennington.
As far as the paintings themselves, light passes through the station windows in the background and graces, gently, the entire canvas. The light is soft, warm. We see the glossy coats of the dogs and piles of immaculate gear—leather rod and gun cases, wooden trout nets, wicker baskets. There are handsomely dressed ladies and gentlemen, attendants and gullies, talking with each other, admiring their dogs. We see on some of their faces looks of anticipation, delight, anxiousness, pride, satisfaction. All of these things invite me to look and to look again. And like the individuals in the painting, I too dream of a north where I can go and from whence I can return with stories of sport and the countryside, talks of mornings and evenings, and the hope, to invoke The Wind in the Willows, of a goodly store of memories that will one day keep me company. I do not wish to believe these scenes are purely fictional, if there is such a thing. Such journeys took place. Such individuals heeded the call.
At the time when I first encountered Going North and Coming South, I had begun to root myself more deeply into the history of fly fishing and sport generally. I question now if I had begun to study older approaches to sport as a way of relocating myself in another country so to speak. I seldom went anymore to the canyons and mountains I had explored as a young man. I seldom fished the rivers and streams of my childhood and youth. I still loved them, but I could no longer locate permanence in them.
Perhaps, too, I was attempting to find a narrative for my own experience, to create a frame and context around which my own moments of coming and going could be understood. This, in turn, would extend my experience into a sort of historical significance. Isn’t this what many of us want? To see our desires and efforts linked with what we believe is necessary, is historical and maybe even eternal. Ah, here we might question our motives. Do we do this for ourselves or for what is outside of ourselves? I recognize not every choice is an either\or scenario, but how much distance can exist between our pursuits and ourselves before one or the other becomes a put-on? Only when the practice of our beliefs begin to challenge us, begin to reorient us in unexpected directions, including away from certain opinions and ideas, will we discover what, in a sense, we truly believe.
In wooden nets and bamboo rods, in leather cases and tweeds, in salmon flies and fishing bags, are refinements from centuries of sport. There is also a gentleness to these things. After childhood illnesses and a lifetime of necessary surgeries and “procedures,” my inclination was not towards gentleness. I needed—at times desperately needed—a practice of gentleness. These days, I sometimes find gentleness in the tapers of Yorkshire Spider Flies. I sometimes find gentleness in the slow action of wooden rods and in the grains of wooden nets. I find gentleness while fishing alone on rivers where people have fished for hundreds of years. Although the substantive word for some will be gentleness, for me it is sometimes. Sometimes is the reminder of what I have not done. The reminder of my not seeing, of my not giving attention.
a way of practice
A day comes when you stop casting and look up at an 800 year old Abbey not far from the river where you fish. Parts of the Abbey have collapsed. Although there are people about, some of them sightseers, some of them out for a picnic, some of them out for a walk, many of whom are walking their dogs, they too will leave, and the Abbey will return to silence. Crows will swoop around its ruins. You have seen this.
You reel in your line and hook the fly to the hook keeper. You haven’t used a hook keeper in a decade. You usually hold the fly by the bend of the hook in your left hand and take your way to the next pool. But today you use the keeper. It forces you to go more slowly. It also works. Your leader doesn’t get tangled as often in the trees and shrubs growing near the water. Before going up river, you check to see how the fly sets in the keeper. You notice how snug it fits. You notice how pretty the feathers appear against the light colored bamboo. Then you go on.
Far above the river, the country has been cultivated. Lines and colors of planted fields remind you of fields not far from the Big River and where you fished for years. There are woods on the outskirts of some of the fields. There are pheasants in the woods. You have heard there are grouse on the other side of the valley where the heather grows. The gamekeeper told you this. He told you about the time he had nearly blown off his leg in a shooting accident. He was crossing a fence when the gun fired. I should have known better, he said. His feet got tripped up while crossing, and when he tripped, he accidentally triggered the twelve gauge, shooting himself in the leg. The shot blew away most of his calf muscle. He lifted his trousers to show you. The lower half of his leg looked like a bone folded into excess skin, not like a calf muscle. You continue walking upstream towards the Woods where the gamekeeper suggested you fish.
As you walk, you think about the Woods and the water ahead and what fish might be there. You think about the gamekeeper and his leg. You think about John Hanning Speke, the Victorian explorer who, along with Sir Richard Francis Burton, searched for the source of the Nile. Their journey was the stuff of hard exploration. Ultimately, Speke had convinced himself that he had discovered the Nile’s source. Burton, who had been disabled by illness and in need of rest at this late stage in their expedition, could not travel with Speke, though both believed the source of the Nile was close. After weeks of travel and separation, Speke returned to Burton, claiming that he had found the source of the Nile—a discovery of discoveries in the Victorian Age. Burton, however, was skeptical. After their subsequent return to England, Speke, who reached England weeks ahead of Burton, claimed for himself the discovery of the Nile’s source. Burton, however, remained adamant that Speke’s claim was not only unproven but doubtful. The argument between Speke and Burton soon became public, and Burton challenged Speke to a debate at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Burton wished to argue scientifically and in front of an audience that Speke had not, in fact, discovered the Nile’s source.
Burton was conceivably less notorious than his reputation suggested, though his reputation as an intimidating presence remained. He was fierce looking. He had unquestionable courage. He had vast knowledge of cultures and languages. He had formidable exhibitions to his credit, including his becoming the first European to enter Mecca, indeed to participate in the Hajj, disguised as a near eastern Muslim. Speke, on the other hand, was not a public debater and perhaps lacked the requisite confidence to face a man like Burton, who had been the leader of their exhibition and the one who had invited Speke on the trip. On the day before the debate, Speke, ever the sportsman, went bird hunting on a nearby estate. He was found dead that same afternoon. He died, it is believed, while crossing a fence and pulling up his shotgun after him. An investigation was made into his death, and it was ruled an accident. Burton learned of Speke’s death the morning of their debate. Nothing more could be said.
These pieces that cross your mind. A gamekeeper with a serious leg wound from a hunting accident and a Victorian explorer dead from a hunting accident. John Hanning Speke. Sir Richard Francis Burton. Sub-Saharan Africa. The Nile. Sources. One Age and another. Worlds entering worlds. What are you to make of them?
Soon you come to the place where the Woods meets the river. The river meanders slightly out of the trees. There is a sizeable pool below the boundary where the Woods begin. You were told the pool held grayling. The river is peaty, tea colored. You feel a breeze coming from the trees. For now, the pool is in front you. The pool and the sound of the river and the Woods up ahead. You’ve been told the river courses through the Woods in a series of plunge pools. People like to walk beside the plunge pools and take photographs. A trail follows the river, but most of the trail, at least this section of the trail, is far enough from the river that no one will see you fishing.
You look up from the river and see clouds shaping themselves into islands and animals. Sunlight and shadows shift along the hills. You came to fish the Woods because few people fish here. The fishing is said to be difficult. Casting in the Woods is difficult because of the trees. Maybe the person who told you these things wanted to frighten fishermen away from where he also liked to fish. He could have said there were no fish in this section of the river, but he didn’t say that. He said it was difficult to make casts surrounded or nearly surrounded by so many trees.
You try a #14 Partridge and Yellow. A trout rises on the left side of the pool. The fish feeds in a line of brownish foam. You remember that fish feed in foam lines because insects get trapped there. You watch the fish a while longer before casting upstream of its rise. You follow the fly. Then the fish takes. You are happy when you realize you have caught a brown trout. A brown trout from a peaty stream in a country where the fish is native. You land the fish quickly and stare at it a moment. You remember the desert creek. You remember the brown trout you caught while fishing on your own for the first time. But here, in your hand, is a native species in its native river. Its body is dark, like the color of the river. Its spots are smaller than you expected. A native brown trout. You slide the fish back into the water and debate whether you should make another cast.
Instead, you look again over the water and at the countryside that forms the valley and the hills. You look towards the Woods, and you listen. The sound of the river and the steady breeze that parts a few branches on its way downstream. You breathe. This is a place in which to vanish. The edges of a moment have taken shape, and you can see them. You believe in worlds, and you hope memories of this place, of this river and trout, will hold. Sometimes, they do.
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