This Ruinous Obsession

I feel like a junkie who’s been deprived his junk.

During 2015, I fished exactly twice: One in the hills of Louisiana and once in North Carolina. For a guy who escapes to wild places as often as he possibly can, that’s pathetic.

Blame it on the rains last year; all my usual haunts— creeks, to be specific—were blown out and unreachable. In the fall, my lack of luck at trout fishing (we are talking freshwater trout here, not the speckled saltwater variety) maintained its deplorable status.

But I did get to a few wild places. It’s a good thing, too, else I’d likely be even more cranky than I am now.

Back in the day when I wrote this column twice a week, every week, year after year (how I did that I haven’t the faintest idea…it seems impossible just to yank one out the ol’ noggin every few months now) I complained often about absence from wild places. About drying out. That’s the only thing all this rain has alleviated, the drying out.

Oh! I can’t explain it. Perhaps you know, if you love a crisp morning in a duck blind, a winter marsh and bay before you; or a journey through a primordial swamp in search of largemouth or bream; maybe a beer at the camp far away from cars, phones and pedestrian annoyances.

Fires Creek

Fires Creek

For me it’s isolation; wild water, wild landscapes and silence. And I didn’t get near enough of that last year. What I did receive was glorious, if short. Last fall I stepped with wading boots into Fires Creek in lower western North Carolina. Cold, fast, wild water coursed around my calves, my shins, frigid even through my waders. I cast an attractor fly with a bamboo fly rod and caught a trout about as long as my middle finger, and that was all.

But as I cast upstream, my field of vision was filled by a canopy of trees over a boulder-strewn Appalachian stream; there was an old iron and brick bridge a distance away, the late-day sun behind it. Moving water foamed as it leaped over stones and down to plunge pools, twisting and weaving the veins of the earth, arteries not red with blood but crystalline with cold, fast water.

There are many joys in this life of mine, but among the greatest are places like this. Once my loves were stillwater lakes and bayous, swamps and sloughs. I still do love them, but now my heart belongs to rivers, creeks, streams and branches. Water, as Harry Middleton said, that is active rather than passive.

Here I am fact rather than parenthesis, Roth Tewksbury told Harry Middleton, speaking of the Great Smoky Mountains. I understand what Roth meant all too well.

On Fires Creek there were a few people, but after a time they drifted off after their picnic lunches, after rolling up their pants legs and kicking along barefoot in the stream. It was just Suze and me then, and Fires Creek. I caught no more trout. But I acquired much more.

I worry sometimes. Worry that places like these won’t be there for me, for all of us, now and in the future. I worry that greed and avarice will intrude and spoil them, make them extinct. I have fallen in love with so many such waters; so many such green-backed mountains and towering pines and cedars. The fact of the trees, the waters and the rocks reaffirm for me that I, too, am real, not a blurred dash from street to street, meeting to meeting, a hardly visible specter racing from the grocery store to the gas station to the bank and to the office.

It seems that there is a growing detachment from places such as these. When the vast majority of our population resides in cities, I wonder how important the wild places will become in the future? I hope that dwellers of concrete and glass, steel and asphalt, do love those places. As many of us do. I hope none of us, rural or urban, ever declare them worthless, throw them away.

It worries me, as well, that a depressing number of our children have no connection with the natural world. Without that, without that sense of wonder, what sort of adults will they become? Will they value trees and rivers and mountains, swamps and marshes, deserts and plains? It is a question that dwells upon the soul.

Filmmaker Ken Burns called the national parks and forests, “America’s best idea.” When we protect such places from the intrusions of civilization, of industrialization and greed, we have truly grown wise.

It’s been said that a society grows great when old men plants trees they know they will never sit in the shade of. That applies in two ways, both to the notion of trees and their value to the future and its children, and to ourselves as human beings in a chaotic, menacing world.

2 comments to This Ruinous Obsession

  • Very nice! Truly enjoyed this. We are kindred spirits and share the same concerns. This is one of the things Little Red Bear is about in the end, helping to encourage a love of the outdoors and nature in the young for tomorrow. Because as you said, if the children don’t care about it today, who is going to care about it tomorrow?

  • Gordon Bryson

    Welcome back Roger, been missing these. I completely agree with you on the present generation missing out on so much. Sure they have their iPhones, computers, and all the other electronic goodies. But many of them have missed the wanderlust of woods and water, of the freedom to roam far and wide (in the mind of a ten year old), of exploring nature at the side of a faithful, loving mixed breed dog. I’ve tried to instill some of that in my grandsons, but find the competition of modern society a formidable foe. Good article, looking forward to more.

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