[This is my last post for a likely good, long time. See the post here for more about that, and why. I wanted to get this one out of “draft status, though.]
It was with an otherwise unmemorable fish, an unmemorable fly with a forgettable hookset, fight and bringing-to-hand. The problem birthed during the process of lifting the small trout from the water, fumbling for my camera, and subsequent release. In the gaze of that fish, I was exposed. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me exactly what I had been exposed as, but I knew it wasn’t anything I’d ever put in a resume or love letter. That fish, and probably hundreds before, had seen something that I’d missed over and over again. The problem, in that moment, was that I saw it see something that I didn’t yet see. I knew I had to work something out, but it was weeks before I traced the outlines of what questions I needed to first ask, then later answer.
The answer rushed at me without the warning of first having a question. I do not have a right to fish. Not the way I do. I do all sorts of things to earn the right, to justify the right, to create the right–but it doesn’t exist for me. That fish, weeks prior, exposed something that I had no way to deal with or move forward from. The realizations became an unstoppable train of cargo, all imported from a land with more honesty and truth than the one in which I lived. With no return address, I had no way to get rid of it; it simply piled higher on the doorstep of my thoughts and my conscience.
All the conservation, poetic high language, and money spent or not-spent does not earn me a place in the water holding a fish. No matter what I do, I always remain a beast among beauty: I am an exotic, predatory invader specializing in exploitation. As a person who employs the tools designed specially for bringing a fish out of the water, I cannot help but tilt my head a little at every memory in which I did just that–put an animal in mortal danger…and then let it go. Tear away the paint that Orvis and Patagonia have brushed over that reality, and what you have is a psychotically torturous and demented game. To be honest, it’s what I do and its psychotic. Isn’t it?
I have a strikingly small number of rights, though the culture around me is shouting that I have an infinite supply: I have a right to everything. I certainly do not have a right to make an animal fight for its life for nothing else but my pleasure. So now here I am, having stripped myself of any thought of deserving, entitlement and having-a-right-to reasons for fishing.
They are not just reasons, though; we all know that. For me they are defenses to questions of trespassing in nature, causing pain or at least some vague presence of suffering, for confusing the primal need to acquire food in order to eat food. Having a “right” allows me to quip the best answer of all: “Because I can.” These, however, are all gone. I know they were never there, but as my imaginary friends in my theater of apologetics for fishing, I had been saving them a seat. Now, I sit alone among a sea of openly empty seats.
I have been tearing away the layers of answers and defenses to my presence in the water. Known to all is my absolute love and indescribable “need” to fish. I have been sledge-hammering the supports of what supports…me. A dangerous pursuit. For weeks I have been diving deeper and accepting less and less as satisfactory in that structure. So when the question now booms from the stage–“What are you doing?”–I remain eerily silent. To justify the unknown level of suffering I was inflicting on every fish caught and released, I had only a very tall stack of now blank paper; the inked manifesto which once filled them began to be and finished being washed away in a single moment.
At a certain moment, I realized that my thoughts and dawnings about the situation had worked me into a tight corner of a mess. The temptation to move on, abandon the notions and ignore my own thoughts and questions, at these types of points, is frighteningly strong. It seemed there was no way out regardless of my choice, and because of another choice, no way around would be allowed to exist. The questions pounded at me almost continually, not so much begging for answers as demanding them. In light of that, I began begging for answers to give them. The dilemma developed and enfolded me into its confusion. Once you see the strings, puppet shows are never the same. I had seen strings that suggested, based on my convictions, I cannot at once be both a fisherman and true conservationist. The game of it all became no game; the other player seemed to be playing against any measure of her will.
With no right and no privilege, I am borrowing pleasure without collateral. It is impossible, therefore, to walk away not in debt. The debt, though, full of weight and strain, justifies. At least, for me somehow, it does; how much or in what way is what still seems a mystery. And so I merely begin to justify with high language, conservation and money carefully spent. It is not a right from which I fish, but a debt seeking payment. One day paying for its former; one debt cycling through being made and being paid. This happens over and over again, without end and without seams. The almost-spiritual happiness, peace, and domestication-of-self at the water is both a draw upon and a credit to the account of my place in this life. There is something familiar about this process, and something which certainly goes far beyond poetry and good behavior. The cinematic in which I often barely recognize I’m an actor stitches me to the fabric of what happens in the environment, that habitat which has romanced me.
Wooed in ecstasy, I am driven to reciprocate and leap into a consuming cycle unaware that it is just that–consuming. The back-and-forth exchanges of joy, once merely one-sided and mistily understood by me, transform from exploitation and infatuation into a love that is as full of mirth as it is sacrifice. Shakespeare would blush in the face of it.
So what am I doing there? What place do I have casting a line to a wild fish with the intent of dislocating it from its own happiness? I draw the debt in full knowledge. It is not rape, it seems now, that I inflict on the habitat for which I have fallen, but an invitation to kiss its most tender and beautiful lines. Taking her hand, drawing her into the insecurity of not knowing what will happen next or how it will turn out, the scene of the kiss is as moving and wrought with soul-drilling emotion as two romantics finally embracing under the street lights of Paris, silently locked as a factory of awe. The kiss, once found to be safe, is only then enjoyed by the singularity of the union it creates. The debt of the kiss is paid by the breath it takes away; one life giving itself for the other, but never passing away itself.
Having looked–really looked–at each fish I hold, the fish which in that moment stirs the otherwise ever-still bays and backwaters of my heart, I have seen them glory and revel as they somehow see the currents and tides they create in them, in me. The glory of the kiss cannot happen from any distance; only in its dangerous and immeasurably infinite intimacy is the exchange of joy alive. This life of symbiosis transmutes debt into credit, and the world, in a way unique to that moment, finds its truest balance. What only a short while ago seemed a tenuous tension on the verge of rupture, when held in the exposure of honesty is revealed to be instead a fragile balance. The question of “ought I stop?” gains not an answer, but an instruction: “you must not stop.” What intended to preserve the tension of the questions goads me not to solve them, but to continue them. The fish and I are, in some way that remains beyond me, connected. If either quits, the balance fails and the cord breaks. I must fish for I can do naught else. So, broken in thirst, desperate for life, it is as if I walk to willows in search of the deep water they drink.
The conclusion for me is that there is no conclusion. In response to the honesty about the circumstances in which I find my “musts” rooted, I can only come to the end of words and know that what I must say cannot be. To these fish, every “thank you” I offer is as much an apology as it is a gratitude. Fishing the way I do will never be more or less than a joyous grief, and a grieving joy. Because it cannot be both at once in my language-limited mind, and camping on either end for too long would cut short the whole truth, I constantly move from one to another.
“Thank you.” “I’m sorry.” “Thank you.” “I’m sorry.” “Thank you.” And never once stopping.