Kirsta's Journal: Contemplation, Ritual, and Fly-fishing

August 28, 2008

We've been producing Speaking of Faith for over five years, and we've covered a far-flung spectrum of topics. But my colleagues — and you — keep reminding me that we still have worlds to cover.

Fly-fishing is not something I have thought about much in my life. But it turned out to be a perfect subject for these waning days of summer. James Prosek, admittedly, is an unusual person, not just an unusual fly-fisher — a young man of many interests and talents. He published his first book, Trout: An Illustrated History, while he was a sophomore at Yale. He's since published seven others, ranging from a novel about his parents' divorce for young adults to The Complete Angler, about two summers he spent in England tracing the legacy of a 17th century classic of fishing, theology, and philosophy.

These days, James Prosek says, his primary calling is to art. Some of his paintings of trout have appeared on a line of Patagonia t-shirts that helps support conservation of fresh water trout habitats globally. He spoke to me on a stormy day from the area of Connecticut where he grew up, and to which he has always returned. Thunder intruded into our conversation, and that seemed somehow fitting. He had just been to Micronesia, researching his book-in-progress on eels. He has become captivated by the eel, he tells me, as a rare creature that has kept a large part of its mystery from human beings.

I sense that James Prosek's original passion for trout anchored the contemplative mindset that has endured through all his accomplishments. Part of his secret, it seems to me, is a passion for ritual that suffuses the act of fly-fishing (as, of course, religion) and that quietly supports his steady creative output.

So I've now been introduced to contemplating life by way of fishing. I've learned, as well, that this pastime is abundant in history and literature. I leave you with a few examples below. You'll hear me read some of these in the show; the others I offer here for your private meditations:

James Prosek
From Trout, An Illustrated History

The instructive nature of the trout stream is not forced upon its visitors, but held candidly by the water and the trees. The angler must make an effort to hear the stream's messages and see her beauty. I had learned superficially how to catch a trout — first with a worm and then by tying and casting flies… But my education really began once I'd spent enough time near my local stream that I could begin to understand her language. Only after I'd become comfortable with her modes of speech — winter silence, springtime growling roar, lazy summer trickling, and autumn calm — did I begin to understand that the stream was not only a place where I fished but also a living breathing celebration of hardship and joy.

Henry David Thoreau
From Walden

Sometimes, after staying in a village parlor till the family had all retired, I have returned to the woods, and, partly with a view to the next day's dinner, spent the hours of midnight fishing from a boat by moonlight … communicating by a long flaxen line with mysterious nocturnal fishes which had their dwelling forty feet below… It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward into this element, which was scarcely more dense. Thus I caught two fishes as it were with one hook.

Herman Hesse
From Narcissus and Goldmund

For a while Goldmund sat on the embankment. Dark, shadow-like fish still glided by down there in the crystal greenness, or were motionless, their noses turned against the current. A feeble gold shimmer still blinked here and there from the twilight of the depths that promised so much and encouraged dreaming.

Alfred Tennyson
From "The Brook"

I steal by lawns and grassy plots,
I slide by hazel covers;
I move the sweet forget-me-nots
That grow for happy lovers.

I slip, I slide, I gloom, I glance,
Among my skimming swallows;
I make the netted sunbeam dance
Against my sandy shallows.

I murmur under moon and stars
In brambly wildernesses;
I linger by my shingly bars;
I loiter round my cresses;

And out again I curve and flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on forever.

Recommended Reading

Image of Trout: An Illustrated History
Author: James Prosek
Publisher: Knopf (1996)
Binding: Hardcover, 168 pages

James Prosek's Trout: An Illustrated History is visually and narratively lovely. He also has a fascinating book on fly fishing for children called A Good Day's Fishing, with drawings of everything you need for a tacklebox. I also very much enjoyed his The Complete Angler, which merges reflections on fishing, the meaning of life, the pure core of Christianity, and the eccentricities of British culture past and present.

Voices on the Radio

is an artist and author who has written several books on fly-fishing, including Fly-Fishing on the 41st Parallel.