My son is taking me trout fishing on the Cache La Poudre River near Fort Collins. Which reminds me of the last time I fished in Colorado. I was admiring the gear at a Denver fly fishing outfitter talking to a salesman and I mentioned that I had been fishing with Salvador Dali and I used a dotted fishing line. Caught every other fish. (credit to Stephen Wright) Which left him standing there looking like a trout that swallowed a bad leech. I fish about like I tell jokes. And, like fishing with an abstract line, if I get a laugh on every other joke, that’s good enough for me.
While on that trip, we shopped at a LuLuLemon store. The young woman helping us was friendly and we struck up a conversation. We tell her about our fly fishing trip and she says, “I love to fly fish!” She tells about her Dad taking her fly fishing just down the road. Before wading into the river, they would stand on a bridge above the water watching the motions of the trout. She loved how they drifted with the current. Matthew Neill Null describes this in Allegheny Front, “They turn again, tumbling like leaves, then straighten with mouths pointing upstream, to better sip a mayfly, to root up nymphs, to watch for the flash of a heron’s bill. The current always trues them, like compass needles. When she watches them, she feels wise.”
There is something about fishing in a shining stream that makes me feel serene, at one with sun and water and nature. I feel the force of the current against my legs and I begin to think less with my mind and more with my hips, sensing the movement of waterborne hope, mystery, perhaps a connection to those who have gone into the waters before me. Life forms us like a cold forge of water pressuring trout. With grace the trout tumble like falling leaves, until they eventually straighten and point upstream.
My best fishing years are behind me. They happened in my youth, when the water was muddier and the stories fishier, down the pasture at my grandpa’s farm pond, accessed by a meandering bovine trail which I would follow without straying, cane pole over my shoulder, in my hand a Folgers coffee can filled with dirt and worms. Grandpa and I would bring back a mess of crappie, clean them, and take them to the kitchen, where Grandma coated them with egg and cornmeal, salt and pepper. We hunkered down around the table, said grace, and ate with conviction the fruit of our harvest, fried fish, corn on the cob, and sliced tomatoes from the garden.
As I got older, there was little time left for the patience and discipline required to fish well. So I didn’t. When you are a kid, fishing is like falling off a log or riding a bike. Later on, it seems to be more of a craft, an art form. Something left for those who seek a deeper mystery under the water.
About the time I was fishing with a cane pole, I was also forming my opinions about God and the nature of myself. Just like anything that requires hours of practice, like fishing or golf, or chasing after God, there is always room for redemption.
I find myself at times swinging the golf club too hard, taking back the fly rod well past 10 & 2 o’clock to a place and rhythm of my choosing. It’s natural to overswing an ax or golf club or fly rod and in the passion of effort, to get the fly caught back behind you on a bush. The line whips and whistles back and forth, but the power is misplaced, diverted, and the line, leader, and fly collects in a tangle far short of the target. But in proper sequence and energy, all parts heavy and light, move in proper rhythm and order as they pass overhead in 4/4 time.
Scaling back my exertion to a place of breathless calm is something athletes call living in the zone. A place of wonder where you are no longer trying, you are simply competing and doing what you already know how to do. There is also a place of spiritual wonder that leads me to step out of my work shoes and slip on something more comfortable. A place where I lose all control and simply admire the view.
Which leads me to the stunning pictures brought back from the new James Webb Space Telescope. If you hold your thumb out at arm’s length and look into the night sky, the area that your thumb obscures, if viewed through the JWST telescope, would contain a thousand galaxies, perhaps more. I heard an astrophysicist speaking about this immensity and he said, “It’s remarkable what we don’t know.”
The Psalmist attributes the ownership of all the cattle on a thousand hills to God. Sometimes, all I see on a thousand hills is livestock and inventory and steak. I am blind. JWST reveals even those things I cannot see with the naked eye, magnified with a telescope to a level of incomprehension that makes me feel insignificant. Maybe inside my thumb, there are a thousand galaxies colliding and mingling.
For all those things I cannot understand, I remain resolute in the one thing I cannot prove but can feel. I do comprehend and dare I say, feel in my bones, the goodness of living on this orb when I am doing what I love and loving what I do. All good things, cattle on a hill, trout drifting in a stream, and a sky full of stars, come to me by grace. Grace is not only something I need when I fail. It is also the fuel that gives me energy to live freely and with abandon in ways that make fishing and star-gazing rewarding and joyful. And I begin to see things clearly, like trout moving through a shimmering stream thinking with their hips, falling gracefully like leaves in autumn, but always returning, like a compass needle to true north.