Thursday, March 26, 2015


One warm summer night a long time ago, I slipped into the midnight water of an Oklahoma farm pond near the city where I grew up. I remember, for many reasons, that particular night among the countless similar nights spent chasing fish. I remember it for the peculiar, ghostly quality of the crescent moonlight shimmering on the gin-clear water, and for the solitude, always the solitude. I remember it for the inky velvet sky that seemed so close above me, for the way the water transformed into brilliant sprays of molten silver every time a hooked bass broke the surface. I remember the slap of the beaver's tail, the tympanic chorus of the bullfrogs, the wonder I felt at the countless unseen life-and-death struggles taking place in the space around and below me as I floated on the water's surface.  But most of all, I remember that night for the exquisite rightness of it all, the synchronicity of place and moment, the sense that this was exactly where I was supposed to be and what I supposed to be doing in this place at this time. Nowhere else but here. Nothing else but this. Nothing. Such moments are not sustainable, of course, but their memory is what sustains us.

I caught a number of bass that night, but I specifically remember only one. It was not particularly large, maybe three pounds, but so vividly and deeply marked that after I brought it to the float tube and unhooked it, I held it there on its side in the water before me, marveling at its color, its pulsing, primordial aliveness. It remains, to this day, one of the most beautiful fish I have ever caught. And as I floated there in the warm water, half in my world, half in its, I slowly released that bass from my hands. It hovered there for a second or two, suspended in the celestial waters, its pectoral fins sweeping back and forth, before disappearing into the luminous depths somewhere between the moon and the stars. I have never forgotten the memory of that bass and that moment and that place.

I fished the pond many times after that night. I hunted it, too, watched my first chessie, now long dead, retrieve ducks from its waters. But that moment stayed with me. Eventually, however, I moved away and those experiences turned to memories, which in turn were overlaid with other, newer memories tethered to other, newer places.

But not long ago, and twenty years since the above picture was taken on that pond, I found myself strolling, as they say, down memory lane. Only memory lane was no longer a bucolic and familiar path, but a teeming, bewildering concrete artery four lanes wide and buzzing with people, so many people seething with purpose and impatience and irritation toward the dawdler poking along trying to find old memories buried under the asphalt and intersections and Bermuda grass and sidewalks. Eventually I came to the place I was looking for.

My pond was gone, of course; it had been drained, filled in, leveled, compacted, surveyed, flagged, gridded and erased; both it and the mixed-grass prairie surrounding it scraped clean, smoothed, and then covered with a skin of fresh, glistening progress. Rows of vinyl and brick-clad houses so close together you could literally jump from roof to roof lined streets so new the gleaming asphalt still exuded an oily stench. Beyond the cookie-cutter houses I could see the dozers and graders and other earth-moving equipment scraping away what remained of the half-section that once contained my pond. It was all going under the blade, and when it was finished there would be nothing - absolutely nothing; not a native tree or plum thicket or blade of grass -  to indicate that it had ever been anything other than poorly-planned, cheaply constructed, high-density suburban sprawl. Planned blight. 

Never have I seen the physical place of memory so completely obliterated and transformed into something so different from its original form. A befuddled middle-aged man was now driving, roughly, over the same spot where the kid that man used to be had once floated on water so alive, had once caught a bass that haunted him still. The same spot where that kid had shot mallards and gadwall and wigeon and watched a young dog leap like a brown missile into the water after them and drop their bodies into his outstretched hand. Wonder and amazement and magic are the gods of place, but they are old and feeble gods these days, and powerless against the gods of profit and progress.

Memory is a helluva thing. We carry it within us, but still have the urge to seek out the physical markers and locations of where that memory was created, where it was once not memory, but experience. We seek out these places, with our now so distant from our then, to remind ourselves that yes, that did indeed once happen, and it happened here. But what if that here is now gone? What becomes of that memory? Are all memories ghosts, or just the ones that no longer have anything physical upon which to tether?

I tried to reconcile what I remembered with what I was seeing, but reality had already begun untethering memory from place, corrupting the close association of the two I'd had in my mind all these years. I suspect in another twenty years I'll have as much luck trying to remember the first day of my life as I will trying to remember the details of that night. Nothing is permanent, not even memory. I turned and got the hell out of there as quickly as I could.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Trivial Pursuits

...At noon I would usually stop in some forlorn, passed-by spot to eat a lunch that I had packed in a small cooler; forgotten, neglected little parks in forgotten, neglected little towns, or windswept prairie cemeteries full of ghosts and tattered, sun-bleached plastic flowers. Sometimes, if I was in a particularly unpeopled area, I would simply pull over on some little-traveled county road and eat lunch there. But I liked the abandoned public spaces and cemeteries the best, perhaps because the ghosts of dreams and folly were so much closer to the surface, more tangible.

In the cemeteries I would eat in the uncomplaining company of long-dead souls eager to tell their stories, stories written in the dates of their birth, their death, and in the terse inscriptions on their headstones. Death banal and death tragic. Death too soon  and death come at last. Death for the rich and death for the poor. Death for the loved and venerated and death for the alone and long-forgotten. 

Cemeteries are good places for pondering the arc of existence and collective experience. I would walk among the weathered headstones, cracking pistachios and wondering about the lives of the people under my feet while marveling at the screw-turns of history all that old, accumulated time represented.
Some of the parks had little creeks running through them, or dying lakes or ponds, so when I found water I would break out the little three-weight I always carried with me in the car. It didn’t matter that I rarely caught anything. The improbability of the act itself, in those places, under that sky, in the presence of so much immense loneliness, was reward enough for me. I would cast in silence in the shimmering heat, high on the opiate of space and solitude and a rod in the hand.

It was on one such day that I sat beside a dead river that once emptied into a dead lake, eating my burrito and pondering the folly of man. There were no fish here to catch, no answers to be found, no balm for the demons. Forces inexorable and mysterious, but obvious and undeniable, had rendered this once- living thing into a dry, thin wisp of memory.

And it occurred to me, sitting there with my rod cased and wondering about the fish that surely once swam in this dry riverbed, that in the face of such systemic change and uncertainty, pleasant trivialities like fishing may be one of the few things we have left. And if that is truly the case, then one must encourage and pursue trivialities when one can, before they’re gone.

 Because in such trivialities - or more specifically, their loss - can be found the bellwethers of larger history; of tragedy and despair and telling of story on a grander, more terrifying scale. Every headstone in a cemetery, every dry riverbed on a prairie, every ruined patch of earth or failed dream tells a single, inconsequential story, a triviality. But taken together, they tell a history, and perhaps even more. Seers, quacks, hucksters and algorithms can’t predict the future. Future, as the old philosopher (sort of) once said, is the province of the dead and the gone and the whisper of wind across the dry bones of water and memory.

So my takeaway from this arid, dusty lunch shared with rattlesnakes and harvester ants was this: Go fishing, whenever you can, wherever you can. Revel in such trivial pursuits, and try to forget, momentarily, the future those trivialities may someday portend.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Greed and Rainbows

Each and every Christmas, my wife, as one of those recurring holiday jokes, buys me the exact same gift: a calendar of the trout of North America. And although meant as a gag, it's actually a pretty neat gift that I enjoy much more than say, a tie. The calendar gives me 12 excellent paintings and a brief history of various trout species, subspecies, or strains, all of which I enjoy reading about, even if I will never be given an opportunity to fish for many of them

So today I finally got around to turning the page over to the current month (yes, I'm a little late), and for my March salmonid edification, I was greeted by a very nice rendition of a new-to-me piscatorial dandy called the Pennask Lake rainbow trout, which as you might deduce, is a strain of rainbow unique to Pennask Lake, which, according to the calendar, is in British Columbia (see, the things you learn...)

At any rate, this Pennask Lake rainbow, while not a particularly large strain of trout, possesses some admirable fighting qualities that once, a long time ago, greatly impressed a visiting sport...

(from the text...)

In 1927, James Drummond Dole, the "Pineapple King" traveled to a remote lake in British Columbia with the promise of hard-fighting rainbow trout for his fly rod. Dole was not disappointed and claimed the lake was "nearest to being the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, of any lake seen or heard of."

Dole, so enamored of these rare, hard-fighting Pennask Lake rainbow trout, did what any self-respecting tycoon would do when faced with something precious and beautiful and unique: he used his wealth and power to take it for himself and keep anyone else from enjoying it. Unless, of course, they had the proper cash and social standing to afford the experience.

The American industrialist and sportsman quickly set about to purchase the majority of the land surrounding the lake and established an exclusive sporting club, the Pennask Lake Fishing and Gaming Company.

Now why does that sound familiar? Why does it seem so, hell, I don't know, prescient, contemporary, even? Like there's something eerily similar playing out across the public lands of the United States right now, with wealthy and powerful interests casting a covetous eye at our public resources, our public lands, our public treasures, our public birthrights, and exclaiming - like the old Pineapple King himself when he first laid eyes on Pennask Lake - that such treasures are "nearest to being the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow." Surely not, right?

Greed and shitassery are the feedback loop that drives the great bulk of human history, its only constant, the shining north star that has guided and goaded eons worth of sorry jackasses across history's ever-shifting dunes. Empires and nations rise and crumble. Movements flare brightly, then fade to black, then flare into something else. Prevailing attitudes wax, wane, evolve, devolve, and shift in the howling winds of vagary, but the one great truth of human existence is there's always going to be some greedy shitass trying to take your rainbow and your pot of gold for himself, even if that rainbow and gold rightfully belong to all of us.

Who knew you could learn so much from a Christmas gag-gift calendar about obscure fish?

Sunday, March 1, 2015


I was cleaning out a season's worth of dried vegetation from the pockets of my vest today, the accumulated detritus that always finds its way into the various openings of my vest as I walk the hills. Most of it was sand sage, since that is predominately what I hunt. After a day spent walking through the sandhills, both the dogs and I are sticky with the aroma of sage crushed underfoot.

So I took this dessicated handful that had built up in my vest, crumbled it between my fingers to release what faint aroma still remained, and ran it though Ozzy's fur. Sage and setter. A damn fine scent, so perfectly evocative of place, of time, of memory. And if there are people out there who find it odd or objectionable that a seemingly normal middle-aged man would purposely rub dried weeds over his dog and then sniff him, well, to hell with 'em.