The Habit of Rivers

Aug. 21, 2009

They are strange and mysterious creatures. Every time I share a stolen moment with them, I know I will never understand them, even if I study and walk with them for the rest of my days.
†† Now, having met them, I want to do just that. Walk with them for the rest of my days. †† 

The habit of rivers, Ted Leeson called it. A study in fascination and paradox. Especially for me, a blackwater bayou boy, raised in the swamps and lakes. But the rivers that lure and perplex me are the ones flowing and rushing, singing and speaking in voices older than time. I long for them at this very moment. At every moment.
†† On that particular stream in central Louisiana I speak of so often, that jewel of water that has so captivated me, Iíve witnessed its many moods, but I am far, far from understanding it. Over the two or three years Iíve being making the three-and-a-half hour drive to its white sand bluffs and stone terraces, itís shown me many of its faces.
†† The first time was in November, and it was cold and contemplative, just as I tend to be in late autumn, early winter. Then it was spring, and it was low and mumbling, but still active rather than passive. As weíd meet again and again, it would be full and healthy, or emasculated and thin, then raging and roaring, swollen against its banks.
†† The last time I went there, I thought it might have died. Dry as a bone, except in deep holes in the rock or sand where the water lay still, drowsy, stirred only by swimmers who crowd into it like frenzied lemmings. It is an unsettling experience. I park nearby in the paved lot, and walk over to the bluff that overlooks the stream, and I donít know what Iíll see, the few dozen steps as I get there, then I look over the wooden fence the forest service put up, and then I know. One way, or the other.
†† How does it survive? In the same way all of them do, I suppose, if left to their own devices. Rivers, like all wild things, sicken and die under the ceaseless advance of civilization, in the lock of industrialization and commercialization. Rivers resist even subtle pressures, react either violently or fatally.
†† Where did that stream go? I suspect it was still there, moving under the sand and rock. I think, under my feet, it was permeating and filtering around each little white grain. I think, perhaps, it was near-dormant, but aware of my footsteps sinking into the sand above.

†† Rivers fascinate and obsess me. Time moves differently alongside them: Sometimes faster, sometimes slower, matching the current and flow. They flow through my dreams, too, and I long for them in waking hours, from this gray chair in this gray room.
†† ďWe're so used to the fake and the packaged that encountering something real can amount to a borderline religious experience,Ē author and angler John Geirach wrote.
†† We fishermen tend to see rivers through the most introspective of lenses; myself among the more fanatic of the breed. We donít understand nor will we tolerate without a fight an assault on a river. So powerful they wash away huge trees and gouge valleys through mountains, they are nonetheless so fragile a subtle change in their geography can destroy them.
†† Itís no small revelation to stand in a river and look upward to see it falling over terraces and boulders and long, slow pools from hundreds of feet above. It is inspiring and enlightening. Suddenly, as A.A. Milne said, you understand all there is to understand. But it doesnít go with you, somehow. You only know it when youíre there, and when youíre away, all you can do is long for it, desperately, dreaming of the time when you can go back. Regain the erudition.

†† ďWhat it hasn't got is not worth having, and what it doesn't know is not worth knowing,Ē Grahame wrote in The Wind and the Willows. Of the many times Iíve been to that central Louisiana stream, Iíve caught fish in numbers only twice. Sometimes people ask me why I keep going, but I canít explain it to them. They do not have the habit of rivers. Even if I caught loads of fish there regularly, they arenít very big; theyíre scrappy creek bass with a wildness that somehow seems deeper than what Iíve known in my life here. That, too, is hard to put into words. Thereís just something moreÖalive about river fish, as if theyíve been permeated with the energy of moving water, and theyíve become somehow more than the sum of their parts. Lake and bayou fish donít feel that way, and much as I love them, have loved them these long years of my life, they now seem Öthinner. Less vital.
†† So long as I have the faintest chance of a fish there, Iíll keep going back. The fishing, after all, is only the means to and end, and thatís to be in the company of rivers. That stream, and the fish in it, have beaten me many times, sent me home humbled. The more it does so, the more I wish to be near it. There, and on the Roaring Fork in the Smoky Mountains; on Otasta Creek in Montana, any of the places Iíve found rivers singing their ancient songs.
†† Because as Charles Kuralt once said, ďOften I have been exhausted on trout streams, uncomfortable, wet, cold, briar scarred, sunburned, mosquito bitten, but never, with a fly rod in my hand have I been less than in a place that was less than beautiful.Ē