The Catskill Fly Fishing
Center and Museum

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Reflections on the River:

Trout Light, Trout Shadow

An essay by Dickson Despommier
© 2003 Apple Trees Productions, LLC

Water God (by Bradley Despommier)

The river is a kaleidoscope of ever changing liquid mosaics, twisting and carving its way through the landscape, dividing it into an infinite series of unique places. It brings to all creatures living within its proximity their life’s blood; cool, clean water. Within each of these transparent, glistening ribbons, complexities of currents jostle for position at the first light of a new day, and on and on into the deepening shadows of the sunset. No river wins the favor of the Water Gods. They are all equal and precious under their watchful eyes. This is because no two are alike, and therefore cannot be judged. Heraclitus, that rogue philosopher, expressed it thusly: The river where you set your foot just now is gone – those waters giving way to this, then this (See: "Fragments: The Collective Widsom of Heraclitus." by Heraclitus (Translator), James Hillman, Brooks Haxton. Viking Press) Each moment of every day, year in and year out brings with it change - it is the river’s defining strength.

What do we know about these miniature universes? Rivers are as palpable as the air that surrounds us. This means that their souls cannot be penetrated. To do so would mean that we, too, live there. Moving waters seduce all those who approach their banks with the promise of revealing a universal truth that might allow us to know ourselves in a different way. We are light; the river a black hole. True, rivers are irresistible and deliciously mysterious. But do not misjudge them because of some romantic ideal conceived late at night around a finger or two of single malt near the warmth of a nurturing fire. These are primitive, wild, tumultuous, often treacherous beings.



Yet oblivious to all this, we blithely stumble on in to them, insulated against their sensuality by neoprene and gortex. We have opted for comfort, not an earthy experience. Stepping onto fish house porches, we inadvertently enter their front rooms and kitchens without even knocking. Wading precariously upstream along a moving bed of sand, gravel, and rock, is it any wonder that it’s hard to find anyone home? Terrestrials - Blue Heron, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Grizzly Bear, mink, otter, and human, alike – must remain above their crazy quilt roofs, squinting and scanning glassy, motion-filled currents, noisy, wide expanses of light-splashed rapids, dark, cavernous recesses of undercut ledges, and shaded, quiet back eddies for hints of trout life. We pound each other on the back in a congratulatory bravado when small truths are realized during times when we correctly identify a trout’s dinner, and the way it gets delivered to its dinning room table. Exotic cuisine to say the least - Green Drake, Isonychia, Cahill, Hendrickson, Quill Gordon, tricos. On those rare occasions, we catch our fill, and fancy ourselves masters of their universe. But the next time, these entres are served up somehow differently; nuance that completely by-passes us, adding additional layers of confusion and frustration to an already profound lack of appreciation for the complexities of their world. We often leave the stream bewildered, empty-handed; sometimes even angry. But with who?

Brown Trout

One only need recall the parable of The Blind Man and the Elephant to understand what fly fishing has remained, and that despite all of the modern contrivance brought to bear on the subject. Disciples of Walton nowadays probe the beast with willowy wands of near-weightless graphite, high tech lines and spider-web thin leaders, imitations of invertebrates crafted to exquisite detail. However, to our profound regret, the pure light of insight is about as bright as that which radiates from even the most successful of the Wall Street stock analysts or almost all of the world’s politicians. These are the black holes of our own universe. The grim reaper of fishing ignorance must forever cast its long shadow over all members of our fragile fraternity, regardless of how many new toys we own. The only real difference I see between then and now is that today we have learned how to express our exasperations in the formal Latin—Paraleptophlebia ad nausium. Walt Dette, are you listening?

Meanwhile, back in the river, fish life pushes to the limit our passion for observation. Even though we can never know the fullness of their lives, I suspect, as with our own, theirs play out episodes of tragedy, light comedy, frustration and anger, and even the occasional outburst of mirth, punctuated by brief encounters of abject fear and unrest, yet forever tempered by the comforting natural rhythms and complex chemistries of moving waters which mold and shape their day-to-day world.

Picking my way slowly along the bank of a full-canopied river, through its sun-dappled woods and discovering its shadowy flower gardens instills a true sense of connectedness; I am now another life form insinuated into that setting. My favorite time is sunrise. In that mist-shrouded moment, musty, wet smells of night retreat against shafts of amber light that gently penetrate to the forest floor, lighting up dew-studded spider webs alive with the catch of the night before. Trees and their river partners assume as impressionist quality, showing off a bit of this or that, but never all of anything. Fauvism triumphant!

This reassuring patchwork landscape, bisected with its myriad streams and rivers, has evolved into a series of interlocked, mutually dependent associations, but those linkages and singularity of purpose are not readily perceived. I am often struck dumb by the silence of the deep woods. Each day unfolds so gradually that we are hardly aware of the process. It’s like watching the opening up of a flower without the aid of a time-lapse camera. I proceed with caution so as not to miss any of the action. Walton cautioned all anglers to:

Study to be quiet.”


Full-canopied River

The current along the bed of the river is gentle in comparison to the water column above it, allowing for unimaginable variations of invertebrate life, the pantry for old Salmo. Despite their huge numbers, these specialized arthropods manage to carry out the business of growing up mostly in private. Only when they achieve adulthood do we occasionally take notice. How do they spin out their complex existences unseen, even by the resident fish life? More unsolved mysteries.

Rivers have always been represented as prime examples of natural idealism by artists the world over, and none express this concept more eloquently than writer/anglers. My favorites are Roderick-Haige Brown, Norman Mclean, and Nick Lyons. Forget about the 18th and 19th century romantic painters who, for the most part, portrayed moving water as though it were a subject for a still life. I find little spirituality in the majority of these lifeless renderings. They remain to me simple, often pretty genre portraits of gentle, manicured country landscape, with a fisher or two thrown in for the sake of perspective. In contrast, these three gifted authors resist the urge to include unnecessary detail, choosing instead to economically convey the immediacy of excitement and appreciation for the grandeur of the fishing moment. In a very real sense, they have painted elegant abstracts, spreading vivid splashes of color over blank pages, using the black and white letters of language as their pigment, creating works of enduring art. Our imaginations are guided by their inspiration, shaping their images into unique, personalized, life-like dioramas, to be repeatedly re-created and enjoyed long after the actual words fade into the back eddies of our own streams of sub-consciousness.

Finally, the process of wading a stream allows me to periodically wander off into my private version of the unknowable future. The earth itself seems to echo the flow of the currents I’m standing in, even long after I head for the warmth of home. A recurring thought surfaces at times like those. The two of us, the river and I, seem to be advancing in one direction; the river to its inevitable embrace with the sea, and I towards a vast, unknowable ocean of time and space, knotted loops of infinity that sing to each of us as loudly as any siren that sang to Ulysses, beckoning all matter to melt and fuse into an infinitesimal singularity. I believe that at that instant, life will once again arise out of the elemental ashes that spawned every thing we perceive and everything we cannot, bringing with it a new surge of trout light and trout shadow.

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