Sept. 16, 2009
think I may have found him.
It’ll be hard to understand, I know. Is it fandom? Am I some sort of literary groupie? I’ve never been any such thing before, no matter how much I liked a musician, band, author, celebrity. It’s just not in my nature.
Maybe I’m just nuts. Chasing a ghost across hundreds and hundreds of miles so I can…what, exactly? I don’t expect to see his specter, though I might secretly wish to. I don’t know what I can possibly hope to gain by a sojourn into some mountain range where I know nothing awaits me but a mystery, a “maybe” and a dead creek.
You see, his words touched me in a way no writer ever had. Much as he’s infiltrated my own meanderings here, it’s obvious the incredible impact Harry Middleton has had on me.
Born into a military family and constantly moving, Harry’s life was forever changed one morning on an island in the Pacific.
“When my friend Norwell, who was just thirteen, found a grenade in a clear, cool stream deep in an Okinawan jungle valley, and pulled the pin, my journey began. The long trip home. It continues still,” Harry wrote.
His parents sent Harry to live with his grandfather and old uncle, Emerson and Albert, in the Ozarks on a hardscrabble farm named Trail’s End where they barely eked out a living. It didn’t matter: They grew enough to sustain themselves and make a little money so that they could pursue their first love: Trout. Harry was about twelve. The old men soothed much of the pain in the boy, forged within him love for a simple life of farming, trout fishing, hunting and the profound wisdom they had acquired over their lives.
Harry was very private. He changed names, fiddled with geography, muddled events to secure that privacy. The years he spent on Starlight Creek with Emerson and Albert were brief, and actually, there really is no Starlight Creek, no Emerson, no Albert. At least not by those names. His family is mute, his publishers and friends silent, respecting his wishes.
He wrote the “Outdoors South” column for Southern Living for many years; he also worked for Louisiana Life and got degrees from Northwestern in Natchitoches and LSU while his father was stationed in Shreveport. But Harry carried with him a black stone, a huge tendril of depression that gnawed at him most of his life: Norwell vaporizing into thin air, little pieces of him splattered all over Harry, who was screaming; the old men and the short time he spent with them and the old Sioux named Elias Wonder. His only peace came from the various powerful medicines he was prescribed…and “moving water, water still marked by wildness, water that is active rather than passive. Wild water scrubs away layers of dead skin, stirs my dreams and the legacy of blood and bone, the legacy of earth and sky, sunlight and wind, water and fire, the rush of the universe, the drift of time.”
When he fished with the old men, on what he would call Starlight Creek, they’d load their pockets with boiled eggs for lunch and stash IBC root beer in the frigid water to keep it cold. Eventually his parents returned to the states and retrieved him, and his life became a downhill spiral as he battled the gremlins in his head. Harry wrote five books, of which I have three: The Earth is Enough, On the Spine of Time, The Bright Country and I still have to get Rivers of Memory and The Starlight Creek Angling Society, the latter being rare, expensive and extremely hard to find.
How could I not cherish an author who could speak from my own heart: “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.”
Harry died in 1993 of a heart attack. He was 43. At the time, he was working on the back of a garbage truck to pay the bills. The Birmingham newspaper’s obituary said he was an author whose work “brought him more fame and friends than fortune.”
Upon taking a break from college, Harry drove to the graveyard where the old men were buried. He finished his first book this way: “All three men were there. They were of the earth, totally, completely. I stood in the rain for a long time, just looking and trying not to think at all, for I had no wish to make judgments, nor to seek answers, nor harvest messages. It was only important that I had come one last time to this place, a boy’s sanctuary. His solace. His home.
“How dull the stones looked in the rain against the black-browed hills, the dark sky. Only here in these mountains, here with these old men, amid the creek, the trout, the natural world, had I ever ceased to feel alone. I recalled those winter nights on the roof of the farmhouse when we waited for the geese to come overhead and I’d felt like a giant nautilus adrift in a boundless sea. Yet how contented had I felt, even in that reverie, for all I was, all I would be, was inexorably with me there in my chambered shell. Albert, Emerson, Norwell, Elias Wonder, the wildness of the mountains, all of it was with me, and the weight of it all, my time here, set my course, marked my way. So it was still; so it would always be.”
That’s Harry, a wordsmith unchallenged. I was breathless with laughter when Harry described how Elias Wonder, who was a human lightning rod, was struck yet again while they fished together on Starlight Creek. The lightning knocked Elias all the way to the bank, where he lay there smoldering and burnt, a broken fly rod in his hands.
“And this what Elias Wonder had to say to me: ‘Son of a —! I had a fish on! Son of a —!’”
It’s not all fishing stories, to be sure. By the same literary power, Harry reduced me to wracking sobs when he described how he took care of his mother in the last months of her life as she slowly succumbed to a brain tumor, losing her identity a day at a time. Near the end, as Harry was putting her to bed, she suddenly hugged him and said, “Thank you for caring. Whoever you are.”
Near the end of his life, in his last book, Rivers of Memory, Harry penned what I think would have been prophecy:
“Each night as I haul myself onto the back of county garbage truck no. 2, there is a familiar wind, some thread of moonglow or starlight, a splatter of dark rain on my skin, something that stirs my memory, and again, if even for a brief moment, I am on some mountain river, some stretch of bright water, full of possibilities, including the possibility of trout, perhaps one that, when hooked, will haul me in and out of time, in and out of life’s mysterious and frightening, wondrous and incomprehensible continuum, even to the edges of the universe.”
I think I can find him. I don’t know why I am drawn so powerfully. I don’t want to visit his grave, the location of which is also kept secret. I don’t want to disturb his family, to be sure.
But some of us think we know where the basis for Starlight Creek began. Though Starlight Creek may really be a compilation of the actual stream that ran through Trail’s End, it many also be parts of other waters Harry visited in his life as well. Still, Harry left behind a few clues, intentionally or without realizing, and I think I know roughly where Trail’s End and Starlight Creek were.
So I’ll go there. I’ll boil a few eggs and bring some IBC root beer. Sadly, I’m told the creek is virtually dead now, and there are no longer trout in it, in fact, probably no fish at all. It was killed by upstream development, the ultimate irony and sadness: Destroyed by the very thing the old men fought to escape.
But I’ll go, at twilight, the hour when all things merge into one…wet a line, peel a hard-boiled egg and wash it down with root beer.
Yeah, I ask myself why, much as you may ask. I don’t know. Tribute, maybe. A quest for something I can’t quite put my finger on but is important to me in a very real way. I really don’t know. Perhaps it’s just the draw to a kindred spirit.
But if there is one wave of resonance, one particle of air, one droplet of water that are in some miniscule way survivors from when a boy and three old men climbed those peaks and watched trout rise with unending reverence and joy, then perhaps in some small way I will have met Harry Middleton after all.
Just a toast to trout men, one and all. There are so few left, so few who believe the earth is enough. – Harry, from The Earth is Enough.