Lessons from a River

I was looking over some old writing of mine the other day, and came across this piece. I thought I’d share it here. I sometimes wince when I see old writing of mine — I see now how I was trying a bit too hard, how I would edit some things, how I would do it differently. But I’m also happy with much of it; an old writing teacher of mine used to encourage us to bless our old work, as it got us to our current work.  This piece was eventually include in a collection of stories by the Catskill Fly Fishing Museum. I was honored that it was. Anyway — hope you enjoy.


See more of my photography at www.bencarmichaelphotography.com

See more of my photography at www.bencarmichaelphotography.com


This is a story of stories.

It is about one night on a river. It is a story about listening, about healing and about nature. This story is the reason I am here, now, talking to you.

A few weeks ago, I drove with my father up to the Catskill Mountains in northwest New York. We were to stay at The Brooklyn Club, an old fly fishing club tucked into the bank of the little branch of TheBeaverkill River.

We had come with the expectation of chasing trout. And that we did. But it wasn’t the fish that mattered; it was what happened in the quiet spaces in between.

To pull into the club is to settle back in time. There is no parking lot, no sign. The flag pole is still hewn from the same tree, the face of the cabin still worn past the recognition of red, and the spring still giving forth water cold enough to make your teeth brittle.

In writing about this club, Sparse Grey Hackle, a famous angling author, called his story “The Lotus Eaters” for the way nothing ever changed. He’s largely right. The kerosene lamps still flicker over stories by the fire and the beds are still built logs. Into these, the initials of old members and guests are carved — a tapestry of people made familiar through a simple gesture.  Standing on the porch, I ran my hand over my own initials, and those of my father’s. When he got sick, they were still there. When he is gone, I will likely stand there again, and reach out and remember his place.

It is a place he has taught me — the comfort of standing knee deep in a river.

That evening, I made the familiar trek down the arching gravel pathway to the river’s edge. The river water was clear, the evening warm, and the bugs — food for trout, good news for fishermen — hatching.

Turning upstream, I left the path and stepped in the river, favoring the push of cold water against my legs. I left it only to hop over a rock, or take cover under the low branches of a tree.

I stopped in the middle of Flood Run — a long stretch of river interrupted by a healthy scattering of boulders, laid as though a hand tossed coins into a pool on a whim. On one side is a grassy bank, on the other gravel. Upstream the pool disappears around a corner marked by fast water, so all you can do is listen to confirmation of constancy. Below is a knoll of high grass onto which deer often emerge, stand and stare back at you in recognition.

Up in the air, silhouetted against a clear sky, I could see the feint outline of such bug species as Blue Winged Olives, Sulfurs and Caddis. Each was dancing out their own riddle, spinning and diving, waiting to mate, to molt, and then to die. The drama of life in one dramatic evening, captivating only to a few who either through choice or magnetism can’t help but stare and care at what goes unnoticed by so many.

Down on the water, the surface was speckled with the silent rise of trout. Sometimes a tail was visible, sometimes a shiny back, but often no indication of what lay beneath. Just a circular disruption, soon erased from the blackboard.

Here, then — in between the visible sky and unsolved motion beneath — is the fishermen’s place. It is our place to watch, listen and learn. The better fishermen are the ones who know the narrative written onto a river each night. They know the evening opens as the temperature cools. That the characters are predictable only by the season, not the day. That the themes of this story are always birth, temptation and death in arresting succession. Only those fishermen who can read the air and the water correctly participate in performing that particular evening’s story.

The rewards are a captured in an instant. When the surface turns and the line tightens with the force of a fish there is a moment — silent and solitary — in which there is nothing. And then, suddenly, there is everything again.

It is in these moments that a pair of promises are made. One is constancy. The other is conservation. Only one of these promises is mine to make, but I have committed myself to both.

For this is how I came to understand nature. As a riddle, a promise, a force and a shared vision that something beyond ourselves is not only possible, but enduring.  This is a belief born of a landscape. I have waded the waters of many rivers around the world, and found them to tell similar stories, and to make similar promises.

You could say that I came to fly fishing through books. My dad has written about fishing, as have many of our friends. Our house is filled with books about rivers the world over. While its certainly true that I’ve learned about fishing through them, I feel like it’s properly the other way around. Fishing taught me about stories. Before I could read I could fish. I joke that my father took my last diaper off of me and placed a fly rod in my hand. Thing is, it’s not far from the truth.

If ever there can be an explanation for why we fill our days with tasks, this is mine. I write about the environment to reenact the lessons learned on the river — of observation, of self education and of translation. Of quiet connection.

There is a another, more personal reason: it’s the best way I know to help protect the rivers, mountains and coastlines I care about. I’m talking about the quiet places constantly under threat. In sharing their story, I hope you might come to care enough about them too.

Walking back from the river that night under cover of dusk, I retraced a path I would mark many times again. I took off my boots by the flickering light of the kerosene lamp, wiped the sweat from my brow under the spring and, as I walked towards the warm glow of the dining cabin, ran my hand along the rough edges of the names marked on the wall.

I settled down to the dinner table to listen to my father and his friend who had been fishing down stream. I heard their stories of bugs, fish and water. They had been nearly a mile down river, wading through water that passed between my legs only minutes before. But they had been in a completely different river blessed with more bugs and more fish. It was another chapter, written by older, more experienced hands.

By night’s end, who had caught what didn’t matter. We sat in front a fire and shared our stories. From the wall, worn faces of the club’s founders looked down. For a moment that stretched for an hour, there were together, leaning out, listening.


‘Source: Originally published in On Earth on July 6, 2009.

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