Fact Rather than Parenthesis

It’s so silly isn’t it? How we grown men take up trout fishing not simply to pursue trout but to find some place, some special place, where we feel at ease. a place to belong. God loves a man that smells of trout water and mountain meadows, cheap whiskey and branch water. Which way’s heaven? Follow the trail and keep close to the stream. – Arby Mulligan, Hymn No. 1 (the only hymn) of the Owl Creek Gap Church of Universal Harmony, in On The Spine of Time by Harry Middleton.

As surely as I am addicted to wild places and wild water, I have come to realize I am also infected with an altogether different malady that I cannot completely shake.

That is time. Time is my disease. It is like a predator, someone once said, that stalks us all our lives.

Though the places I go to feel at ease and have no convenient spots to hang a clock, I can’t help but carry the clocks with me. Even though I stopped wearing a watch when my father died a decade ago, I can’t completely leave them behind. Like a cancer eating away not at my body but my sense of peace, even when there are no time pieces in my possession, time consumes me with slavering jowls.

I get up in the morning early, get on the road and am racing the clock to get to my hills. Once there, I throw on my fishing pack and grab my gear, lurch into the water and at last the majority of the concrete and steel, deadlines and ringing phones, fall away from me to be washed downstream of the river. But the clocks are still there, because my time is short. I can’t stay. I can’t belong. I worry about the hour, how late I’ll be on the road, what time I’ll get home, and so I wade and fish and breathe deeply the pines and magnolias until I am so exhausted I have to rest beside the stream, the closest I can get to being free.

Even in the mountains with nine days of freedom, I couldn’t shake the clocks. As I walked this trail or that, from one stunning vista or roaring river to the next, I could never just dally. Never just sit on a rock and let time flow away with the stream. What might be around the next bend that I’ll miss? What view over the next hill that, if I sit and immerse myself too long, I’ll never see? So I hurry on, still on deadline, still watching the clock.

I am amused, albeit morosely, by the notion of people viewing the national parks or forests from their car windows. Enveloped in a little air-conditioned pocket of their home, office, living room and neighborhood, they tool along in Yellowstone and marvel at the bison and bears from behind three-sixteenths of an inch of tinted glass. The concept leaves my mouth dry, parched.

Harry knew. Knew it as surely as disease when he wrote: “For years I tried collecting time as though it were precious stones, certain that if I gave myself completely to earning a living fifty weeks a year, I could wrench a year’s worth of solace, solitude, relaxation, joy, and fulfillment out of two weeks’ vacation. It never worked. I never felt better, only empty and exhausted. These days I try not to divide time but only use it, use it all, as it comes, living through it all like fire moving through dry grass leaving only ashes. Because things come and go. Come and go.”

Time is like consumption. I count the hours until I can leave, then I’ll count the hours until I have to come back. I don’t know why I can’t just let it go. Give myself up to it completely.

In those slump-shouldered, low-slung hills of north Louisiana time moves faster. I suppose it’s because I relish it so, and all good things must pass. I complain about not having enough money for all the places I want to go to and see, but the truth is I don’t have enough time.

My infection is critical. I am running a fever, the hot friction of wasting.

Ebb and flow, Harry wrote. The rhythm of things that come and go. Come and go.

When the time drags on, I over think the choices in this life. I wonder if I really need all the things I think I do, or if I really only require woods, water and time, all the time in the world to know them. I read recently that people who sit for hours on end are more likely to suffer health problems because of it, whereas a brisk walk can extend a healthy lifespan by a decade or more. I’d sit less in a forest, walk more beside a creek.

Last time I was in those hills, my pal and I discovered what was likely the most beautiful spot in Louisiana. On a stream we were exploring, which I won’t name, we abandoned the trail and followed the edge of the creek. I spied a few rocks below, large ones, but the trees hampered our view so we found a spot where we could descend to the riverbed.

The unfolding before us was breathtaking.

The stream flowed over a long, flat stone slab, rippling and giggling and singing as it came from around a bend. It narrowed just past the sandstone terrace, and the outside of the bend was strewn with rocks and boulders, some waist-high. Beyond the edge of the streambed was solid rock, and over its long life the river had scoured a gorge so immense the bluff towered high, high over our heads. Two small springs seeped crystal clear water that trickled down its stone face, found crevices in the flat stone and made its way to join the stream.

I stood there, my fly rod dangling from my hand, forgotten. We lingered at that spot for nearly an hour, reluctant to leave, smitten with it, enamored of it. In a state reputed to be smitten with swamps and bayous, this was the most beautiful aberration of all.

The scene that unfolded before us.

The scene that unfolded before us.

Right then I thought of how Harry Middleton met Roth Comers Tewksbury, a financier, who said of the Smokies, “Here I am fact rather than parenthesis.”

At that moment, in that deep gorge with the stream dancing playfully near my feet, I understood. My life, like Tewksbury’s outside the wild places, is a series of parenthesis. Brackets. Each contains responsibility, duty, obligation, wishes, dreams, escapes, passions, pity and regret. Brackets of time. Out there, I am fact. 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 spectre racing from the grocery store to the gas station to the bank and to the office.

Last week, I went from complete fury over matters in this community that are out of my control, to utter jubilance over other things that are within my control, and down into the deepest, darkest pits of depression. God loves a man that smells of trout water and mountain meadows, cheap whiskey and branch water, Harry quoted Arby Mulligan. Though we have no trout here, I’ll toast to that anyway. The Creator made us in a Garden, after all, not in a concrete building.

Downstream of the same spot.

Downstream of the same spot.

It takes me about seven hours of road time to get there and back, depending on where we’re exploring. Probably a c-note in gas, trail food and water each trip. I ache for days, a flatlander’s calves, feet and back protesting my silly insistence they climb rock-strewn hills and wade water determined to push my legs out from beneath me.

My failing as a human being, as a contributing member of society, is the infection that exudes from my pores when I have been trapped indoors for too long. Lacking in sunlight, clean, clear fast water and air sweetened by pines and dogwoods just beginning to bloom.

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