Solace, If Not Solitude

June 3, 2009

Sunday morning I sat on the patio, early, just after dawn. A cup of coffee steamed to one side of me, a cigar near it, and Bogie lay at my feet.
   I, too, was contented. In fact, I surprised myself by utter calm I don’t experience much anymore. All, it seemed, was right with my world and the things that were wrong….well, they seemed far, far away and virtually meaningless. Each year that passes by, the changes in my soul deepen, the divides between who I was and what I am and what I shall be grow wider. Yet I know why I felt so at peace…
   “Caught four of them right at daybreak,” my best friend said as I got off of the truck, stretched, and gave him a handshake and a hug. You know, one of those macho, manly hugs that we are so well-practiced at behind our machismo bravado.
   I had been on the road three and a half hours, but I rigged up a rod quickly. “How’s the water?” I asked. It was no idle question, and it wasn’t even a fishing question as much as an inquiry on the solace awaiting just over the bluff. I could hear the stream  singing down there, even from the parking lot, and a tremor shook me. It was anxiousness, it was need.
   “Low,” he said. “Lower than last time. But we’ve seen it lower.”
   We hiked up the trail a good ways to where he had caught, but two other fishermen had taken his spot. So we hiked farther up. The forest was in its late spring glory: Pines fresh and sharp as if augmented in focus; their smell thick, permeating, a sort of heavy, syrupy scent of resin. Below the ridge the creek chortled and welcomed us back, but it made few promises: Cool water, water that is active rather than passive, and to scrub away the concrete and steel of the past weeks. Bright white sand, to get into our shoes and sandals and scour away the miles.
   At the end of the trail, though, the stream turned deep and brooding. The water slowed, melancholy, contemplating itself for a distance measured not in feet or yards or miles but in eons. It was unfishable from the thicket of dogwoods and scrub along the bank, so we doubled back and found another way into the stream.
   We fished there awhile. The catching was dismal, the fishing was excellent. I stepped off into the stream, sand shifting around my feet, and the creek  soothed muscles wound too tight from too much news of the world, whether in some faraway land or right down the street. Cool, copper-tinged water massaged my calves and ankles, rubbing away the paper bills and the chronic acid reflux, the aching knees and the heavy heart.
   There was a bend in the stream where the sand gave way to a terrace of sandstone, hard and porous, where the creek  was playful rather than meditative. It jaunted over these very minor terraces – insignificant in mountainous streams and rivers but magical in Louisiana – with childlike glee, but I reminded myself this stream was grandfatherly, older than the presence of human beings on this continent, perhaps even older than the formation of the lands here formed by the Mississippi River. I admired its vigor: Perhaps wild, running water doesn’t age. Perhaps, I thought, by immersing myself in it as often as I could I might extend my own tenure on this rare and wonderful old planet.
   Sometimes I try to sit by rivers and just enjoy them. I’ve made the attempt in Montana, in Tennessee and here, at the creek. It frustrates me because a good perch on a fine-looking sittin’ rock or barkless deadfall only last for a few minutes. My back is shot from too many office chairs, my shoulders begin to ache from extending my arms toward keyboards and mice. Before long I have to stand, dismayed at the toll the commonest things concerning civilization have taken on me.
   I missed a good fish near an outcropping of sandstone; it struck at my popper with unbridled savagery, left behind a maelstrom of swirling water when I tried to set the hook too late. All of creation was there in that whirlpool. These are spotted bass, and much as I try not to romanticize them, they endear themselves easily, wiggle into the heart and the psyche. They are little survivors, these creek bass, preferring a riverine environment to the slow, tepid waters of lakes and ponds. Though they can be found in the more sluggish reaches where Kistachie levels out momentarily and its blood slows to a crawl, I get the impression they prefer stone and fast, wild water. They, like me, want their world replenishing and invigorating.
   We trotted back down the trail to the recreation area, and the crowds had arrived en masse. Nevertheless, we fished the rapids there and upstream, where I landed a feisty spot that, when I held it to remove the hook, seeped earthblood and wildness into my hand; these little creek bass have come to embody all things wild and fragile to me. My pursuit of them is not so much fishing as it is a quest for the unicorn, a search for the lost and fear for the soon-to-be-gone. The various members of the spotted bass’ larger family have been on this planet for 15 million years; we’ve been around as human beings per se only a little over a hundred thousand. What’s not to admire about such a creature?
  Down south end of the forest by vehicle, we fished the creek’s lower reaches. We tried to reach, along treacherous dirt roads, a place where the stream splits, it  flows southwest and Little Bayou Pierre southeast, but nearly there we were halted by some of the parcels of private, posted land scattered throughout the national forest. We made our way back to the forest service bridge lower down.
  We also made a quest for a blue line I found on the map, and located it. Leaving the rods in the truck because the day was waning, we walked downstream to a little cascade where water stair-stepped down in a lilting dance. I stopped to get a photo, and heard an odd sound. I thought it was my camera malfunctioning, but as I held it to my ear I could tell the sound was coming from my right, and a sudden flash of intuition saved me: Rattlesnake. I leaped to my left, across a flow of the creek to the next sandstone outcropping, grateful the serpent, that I never even saw, at least was decent enough to give me a warning.

   The last spotted bass I caught, I was standing in knee-deep water and he took my popper from beneath an overhanging oak branch. Somehow, I knew he’d be the last, deep down inside. Holding him into the flow so that the water rushing through his gills would sustain him, he cast an eye at his captor.
   And in the cool, coppery aura and black pupil, before I let him escape into the flow, I saw all the things that made me feel so at peace the next morning sitting on my patio. I had not bested that fish, I had merely tricked him, a shameless chicanery, for in his eye the ages of the universe unfolded; creation, unedited, all things bright and beautiful unabridged. These clear, cool, fast waters invigorate and revive me, but they are life to him, without it he dies. He humbled and amazed me all at once, a microcosm of all Creation in his copper-rimmed eye.
   How I love these little creek bass. They don’t grow into bruisers like the largemouth in the basin, but have no tolerance for fools and insist on decency, courage, sand and stone and cool water; I admire their tenacity, their simplicity, and their steadfast bravery.
   I looked down at my bare feet, flat on the concrete patio; I hadn’t gotten home until late at night Saturday, tired, sore and hungry. I slept a dreamless sleep like the dead, because I had no dreams, I had already satiated them. My skin was pink from the knees down, my feet tender and soft. Scoured and scrubbed free of deadlines, ringing phones, alarm clocks, greed, violence, lying, charming, exhaustion and all the other spines, barbs and snags of a life. No spa can do this for me; no prescription, nothing in a bottle or can. Only wild water, water that remains unfettered despite the crowds wading at the rapids, tubing off the white sand beaches, fishing along its margins. As long as it flows, it will be alive, and so long as it lives, I’ll go back there for the reverence found within it. The little spots, the rush of cool, sweet water, the scents and the sounds and the timelessness within.
   Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
   I am haunted by waters.
– Norman Maclean