Welcome to the first installment in my “Flashback Friday” series, where I’m going to share some of my favorite from my writing archives. This essay first appeared September 10, 2013, in EcoTheo Review.
Waters collected from the rains and snows of millennia gather and rush down primordial paths folded and worn into these mountains, the oldest in the world. From droplets and trickles tumbling off ridgetops they meet, flirting along bouldered slopes, consummating into something new and powerful and beautiful. Always downward, carving deeper and wider into soil and rock, ever finding new partners to join in their endless dance, all the while gaining might and urgency.
And as the waters cavort through ditches and ravines and hollows and valleys, they find a new consort. Painted trout, perfectly formed. Breathing in life through scarlet gills, capering with fins and tails, securing sanctuary in the chilly depths. From centuries of old they became one with the waters, and the waters became one with the mountains, and they all became one with each other.
It is in this place where I first found my soul.
Some have called it the Mountain State. John Denver called it Almost Heaven. But for those of us who make our lives here, who proudly proclaim “montani semper liberi,” it will always and ever be West-By-God-Virginia.
Sometimes I take people–friends–into these mountains, along these cascading streams and rivers, and they see them, and they are utterly gobsmacked by the visual splendor of it all. And they say things like, “How can you look at this view and say there’s no God?”
I guess I understand what they’re saying. But for me it has never been about just seeing it. Yes, it is a feast for the eyes. Stunning broad vistas from the peaks. The play of color and light in the valleys. It is always ancient, always new, both real and surreal.
No, for me it is the water. Always the water. The closer to its source I go, the closer I find myself to my own. The more intimate I become with it, the more I discover its story, the more connected I become with the One Great Story. It awakes the soul it led me to discover as a boy, and stirs it to life in ways that always thrill and surprise me.
It is the water. And with the water came trout. And in the water, the trout and I became friends.
With my finely-tapered magic wand of split bamboo, and with wisps of fur and feather lashed on tiny hooks attached to gossamer monofilament, I step tentatively into the flow, glancing about for a flash beneath the surface or a nose poking up into that mysterious place where water meets sky. I remember that the early Hebrews referred to “heaven” as “sky,” thinking of it not as someplace within the great blue expanse above the horizon or as the twinkling black sea of night, but as that omnipresent ether that is always and ever all around us. It is in the very air we breathe. Near, not distant. Something we are part of, not apart from. And I wonder how we managed to forget.
I scan my viewscape for the telltale glint of a mayfly’s wing, knowing it would mean the buffet is open for the salmonids lurking below. I look into branches and inspect spider webs to see what tasty treats the arachnids and trout might share here today. Are there caddis? Stoneflies? Or will this be a day for terrestrials, when ants, beetles and grasshoppers will be the preferred fare? Or might it be best to imitate the nymphal stages and work beneath the meniscus where bugs have not yet hatched but where hungry trout aren’t patient enough to wait?
As I gain my footing on the cobbled streambed, I feel myself beginning to find the rhythm of the water and the air and the wind and the clouds and the trees and the grass. The current pulses against my shins as I wade upstream, taking a few careful steps at first, and then moving more confidently as my feet and legs remember. The sun warms my face as the breeze sweeps down the ridge and gently kisses my cheeks. Sweet honeysuckle and lilac blend with the subtle muskiness of hemlock and infuse each breath I take. The river’s song rises in harmony with the wind in the pines as the mountain’s orchestra reaches a stunning crescendo.
I start to notice the way the stream is put together…where rocks break the flow here, where the current gathers speed there, where a fallen tree branch creates a calm pool and the flow swirls back into itself, where the rocky underwater floor dips deep and then rises sharply. These are the places where the river feeds and protects its residents, delivering tiny six-legged morsels to every doorstep, or providing refuge from larger predators both within and without.
As observation gives way to instinct, I enter the dance. Conjuring ancient spells with my mystic cane, I start casting flies first to this pool, up against that rock, along the subtle line of bubbles that define a seam in the current. I know where the trout live. They have invited me into their homes time and time again, and they have showed me the signs on their doorposts.
One cast becomes a dozen, then a hundred. Some of the trout are at home, and a few deign to play my little game, pretending to be fooled by my feathered concoctions so we can gambol together to the rising strain of forest music. Some, I’m sure, are perfectly willing to sacrifice themselves if I were to keep one for a meal in camp. But most know instinctively that they will be safely returned. Because if it is the mark of friendship that one would give his own life for the other, it is the true sign of brotherhood that the other values his friend’s life too much to take it.
A hundred casts become two hundred, and I am now part of the river. I forget where stream and sky end and I begin. I absorb it all, and it envelops me. We move together as one, me and the river and the mountain and the trout. There is nothing else but this moment.
And I find it again. My soul. I know it has never left, that it never stays behind just to await my return, but it is in this here and now that it rises up and reminds me who I am.
It is not the mere sight of this place and its beauty that proves its creator. That implies a standing apart from it, a detachment, a looking at it as something that is other, that is outside oneself and separate and different.
No, it is this moment. When all the world and all of creation is inexorably focused in this breath, in this heartbeat. When earth and sky and wind and water and sounds and smells coalesce in one astonishing, impossible instant, and everything is revealed all at once.
And I cast again, and a trout rises, and takes the fly, and God smiles, and his laugh carries on the breeze down the mountain and through my soul, and my essence comes alive anew.
And I know. I know who I am. And I know what it means to be perfect.