Rivers course through my dreams, rivers cold and fast, rivers well-known and rivers nameless, rivers that seem like ribbons of blue water twisting through wide valleys, narrow rivers folded in layers of darkening shadow, rivers that have eroded down deep in a mountainís belly, sculpted the land, peeled back the planetís history exposing the texture of time itself.(Harry Middleton, Rivers of Memory)
Daily I watch the weather forecast, grimacing with chagrin over the dichotomy of my existence: I utilize broadband internet, satellite weather radar and digitized information systems to coordinate, plan and execute my escape from everything I just mentioned. Thereís a silliness to it, really; the absurdity is not lost on me. Neither is the mourning.
I think a lot about Harry Middleton when Iím doing that: Planning an escape utilizing the very tools Iím trying to leave far, far behind. Iíve quoted Harry many, many times in this column, and while I know some of you donít comprehend it, many do. Let me tell you a little about Harry.
He was born abroad to a military family. His father was career, and it was at a tender age of about twelve that Harry and his best friend were exploring around the barracks on the island of Guam where they were based.
"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," Harry wrote. "The long trip home. It continues still."
Probably that incident planted the seed of what would be a lifelong struggle with severe depression, but immediately following Norwellís death his parents shipped Harry off to live with his maternal grandfather and great-uncle, Albert and Emerson, and their neighbor the crazy old Sioux, Elias Wonder, in the Ozarks of Arkansas. He stayed there until his parents came back to the U.S. and he left to attend school. Those were the happiest days of his life. The old men lived on a hardscrabble farm and cared not a whit for modern agricultural practices or productivity guidelines. They farmed, in short, to provide scant few dollars to subsist, and to fish, and passed that peace on to Harry:
"That first trout, the trout that rose from the depths of Karenís Pool, came up from a chaos of half-submerged, slick, moss-covered, gray-green stones near the head of the pool, left me trembling and smiling and laughing and inexorably hooked, addicted before I had even felt its full weight or seen its dark eyes or the blush of colors on its back. That trout left me breathless, then left me yelling, the shouts coming from deep in my belly. That trout filled my senses, my mind and imagination. When I finally saw it, it seemed like some strange blend of faded sunset and rising shadow, night winds, cloudy moonglow and vague starlight."
After leaving the farm and the old men, Harryís life took turns bad and worse more than good. He graduated from Northwestern State University in Natchitoches while his parents were stationed at Barksdale, and earned his masterís at LSU. He worked for a time at Louisiana Life and later as an editor for Southern Living. But he battled depression all his life, and though he married and had children and was by all accounts a devoted father and husband, that crease in his psyche never left him, and could only be cured by one thing and one thing alone: Wildness. Clear, cool water and multi-hued trout.
"Many a time have I merely closed my eyes at the end of yet another troublesome day and soaked my bruised psyche in wild water, rivers remembered and rivers imagined," he wrote.
While I ponder maps and trace curvaceous blue lines with my forefinger, I think of Harry often. I understand him, far better than I guess I should. No, I donít suffer his lifelong battle with depression, but I understand why his only relief from it could be found in wild water and wild places.
So when Iím watching radar and studying maps while drinking coffee before heading to workÖwhile Iím checking rainfall amounts between work hours and the meeting Iíve got to cover that eveningÖwhen Iím cleaning reels and fly lines and inspecting leaders for abrasionÖI understand Harry, for I am about to jump out of my skin, clean into orbit. My psyche is bruised and battered.
Harry wrote four books in his career. The Earth Is Enough chronicles his time with the old men, though they are abundant in all his works. My other favorite is The Bright Country, a hauntingly beautiful book, at once uplifting and heartbreaking, that chronicles how Harry was canned from Southern Living and found his way back to wild water and wild trout.
It hurts like hell to know that Harry was riding the back of a garbage truck in Atlanta to put food on the table for his family, and he died of a heart attack after swimming in a friendís pool. He was 43. The same age I am now.
If the multi-colored pixels on my screen Ė so much like a rainbow troutís back Ė donít accumulate too heavily in bothersome springtime squalls, and the digital barometers donít foul up my senses, Iíll be heading to wild water this weekend. Time was, you just hauled up and went fishing. No more. Thereís deadlines, thereís on-call duty, thereís gas prices and thereís responsibilities.
At the end of this life, I wonít look back and say, "I should have worked more," or "I should have taken more chances." At the end of the road Ė the river Ė Iíll be grateful I had the bright country of my own mind to appease me.
Soon, I hope to step into cold, clear water, a bamboo fly rod in my hand, my hat shading my face and my cell phone, worthless, back in the truck. As I wade upstream, I hope to immerse myself into the spine of time, a river of my own of sorts, and though human beings are only a few miles away, closer than I would like, at least Iíll be in wild places with wild water.
Thanks, Harry. Wherever you are, I take a little bit of you with me every time I reach so desperately for the bright country of my own bruised psyche.