In fishing, as in life, it matters less where
you are than what you are doing there.

[by Steven Gore]


My mind had drifted with the current that took my steelhead fly in a long downstream sweep, so I hadn’t heard what it was that made no sense to my twin brother, why he doubted what people say. This time. It was only Walker’s final words that snagged my thoughts, not with a tug or a yank like an attacking fish but like a submerged log: a tightening of the line, a slow bowing of the rod toward the depths. An annoyance. The kind that requires you to row back upstream, find the source, and work to free yourself.

We were approaching a bend, 30 yards of rapids, some standing, the river rustling in the chill predawn air. It separated around a boulder, creating two channels, a wide one along a pebbled sandbar and a narrow one along a hard-edged and pine-lined bank. I lowered the oars and guided us into the wider drift.

As the boat straightened, a distant eagle shrieked and I caught the silent motion of a doe leaping the low ferns near the shore, her brown coat merging into gray as she dissolved into the shadowed woods. Both were reminders that while fishermen may claim, even celebrate, having a river to themselves, they don’t.

Walker looked back at me from the bow. I felt the pressure of his gaze and of his complaint. The snag.

“What makes no sense?”

“Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes. People don’t start out as dust or as ashes, even though some of them end up that way.”

He snorted a laugh that rattled in the high rock canyon and sounded hard, even cruel, against the rush of the river. It was one he’d perfected to ridicule those who read the Bible or, in this case, The Book of Common Prayer, especially those of us who read them as attempts at self-understanding, as attempts to find significance in a natural world that doesn’t care, that can’t care, if we exist at all.

WALKER IS A BIOMEDICAL ENGINEER, a designer of artificial heart valves, and has been engaged in a lifelong assault on what he sees as the failed ways humans attempt to create meaning in the world. He sees them as symptoms of our refusal to accept brute reality. And by brute he doesn’t mean what is nasty, poor, and short— though he understands it is sometimes that—but what is simply there.

For the last 25 years, our annual fishing trips have had a topic, usually in the form of a question relating to a new way he’s found to work out the implications of what he’s been calling since college his Initial Position. He packs the week’s question into his car and drives it along with his fly fishing gear from his home in San Diego to mine in San Francisco, and from there we all ride north. It feels like a third passenger, like a fidgeting child possessing what he thinks is a secret.

Last year, fishing on the Smith River in the far northwestern part of the state, his annoyance was with creative nonfiction, whose internal contradiction he asserted was revealed by its name alone. It was one of our shorter explorations. The year before, fishing in the tidal area of the South Fork of the Gualala along the San Andreas fault, it was on poets and poetry. The pivotal moment in his argument was his claim that while the poets’ single contribution (imagine his air quotes) to humanity during the Great London Plague of 1665 was “Ring Around the Rosie,” Newton’s was the discovery of gravity. (Now that I think about it, it might have been “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down,” that led him to this year’s topic.)

Usually, he unloads it after dinner as we sip bourbon around the fire. This time it wasn’t until the next morning, in the quiet expectancy of the first fish of the day. I wasn’t sure why he’d waited, especially now that I’ve heard what it is. I would’ve thought the dust of our campsite and the ashes of the fire and the slow devolution of light into darkness would’ve prompted him. But it didn’t, or perhaps it did, but he hadn’t found the words to begin.