Sometimes I imagine eternity. Not often. Once or twice a month at most. It can happen while I’m lying on my back and Liz is leaning in to search my chin and jawline for the painful in-grown hairs I get from shaving, a moment so full of intimacy and attention it’s almost unbearable. But I usually imagine eternity during the traditional time for existential dread: the middle of the night. One innocent thought fits into another until I find myself trying to imagine what it is not to be and how this youth I feel right now, this sense of endless promise, my life with Liz, asleep beside me (her powerful heart, her miraculous enormous brain, her warm delicate veins, her smooth cool skin) will pass so unbelievably quickly that one day she and I will be lying in bed just like this but old, contemplating the prospect of one of us joining eternity before the other.
“It is awfully easy to be hardboiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing,” Jake Barnes declares at the end of chapter four of The Sun Also Rises. I think about death often in the daytime. Other people’s. My own. And it doesn’t bother me particularly. People die. They slip away. I could too. At any moment. All the more reason to enjoy what I’m doing. But it’s different when I imagine eternity.
I went swimming one night at a beach in Kenya called Watamu. It was my first immersion in a tropical sea, and the warm water had the unmistakable comfort of the womb. The sea was black, and the sky would have been black too if it hadn’t been hemorrhaging stars. Imagining eternity is like floating at night at Watamu, if you take away the white curve of the beach, and the hard sand a few inches below your feet, and the friends floating all around, and the stars. I don’t panic when I imagine eternity, but I don’t feel calm, either.
When my father and stepmother Juanita came to visit Minnesota in June 2011, Liz and I took them north to see her family, stay at Lutsen, and camp for one night in the Boundary Waters. On our way up, we stopped to use the bathrooms at a rest area outside Duluth where there was plaque about the geologic history of Lake Superior. When we were back in the car, my father asked,“What will be here a million years from now?”
“Not humans,” said Liz.
We got into a discussion about whether humans could survive the next million years. This got me imagining eternity, and I floated in the dark sea while we drove north beside the awesome horizon of Lake Superior. My mood didn’t fully lift until we stopped at an imposing stone marker enigmatically memorializing the vanished township of Buchanan, which had been, its plaque acknowledged, even at the height of its importance in 1859, “little less than wilderness.” It was the first week of June, summer in the Twin Cities. But the sky up north was the hard, flat blue of early spring; the air was quite chilly, and the north wind chopped the waters of the lake so badly we struggled to launch the canoes without tipping. We spent the afternoon paddling into the wind up Sawbill Lake, my father and Juanita in one canoe, Liz and I in the other, until we portaged west onto a narrow arm of Alton Lake where the steep banks cut the wind.
After we set up camp on a small peninsula, Dad and I went fishing for walleye out on the lake. My father is an excellent and experienced angler, but there are tricks for fishing walleye that we’d failed to research beyond buying some colored spoons recommended by the clerk at the outfitter’s. We caught nothing.
The next morning, we went out before breakfast to paddle back up into the narrow arm we’d come through the day before. Dad wanted to catch a northern pike. I was happy to do the paddling, though I had to resist his encouragements to pick up a rod. We worked our way west, toward where the banks were steep and narrow and the water was deep. My father threw a few casts into each likely place—eddies formed by fallen logs, slow water behind small islands—then I’d lead him to the next spot. He was quick and thorough, but did not get any hits. “Sometimes they wait for you to light your cigar,” he said, before lighting his first Swisher Sweet of the morning. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, and his gray whiskers, the clench of his jaw around the slim cigar, the bright aureola formed by the smoke and morning sunlight, the mystery of his eyes behind his sunglasses all formed the archetypal image I’ve had of my father since I was a boy.
I suggested we turn about and head east, then brought the canoe toward the sunrise where the lake was wide and full of lily pads and cattails. We worked our way through a channel of open water. My dad hooked a smallmouth bass, a good fighter. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone act so unselfconsciously as my father when he has a fish on the line. He was ecstatic. It was a nice fish, two-and-a-half, maybe three pounds. As he held it up, he offered me the clenched-jaw smile unique to our fishing outings, the only time he smokes cigars.
My father is an Episcopal priest, but I’d be shocked to hear him say that, aside from a few experiences in the early seventies, he’d ever experienced any ecstasy greater or more certain than hooking into a good fighting fish. On another fishing trip, Dad and I had a conversation about his favorite religious book, The Way to Love, by Anthony DeMello, a Jesuit priest whose willingness to pursue Christian philosophy into territory normally staked out by Buddhism ran him afoul of Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly The Inquisition). “DeMello says you need things that make you happy for no reason,” Dad told me as we sat on the bank at a lazy spot on the river, eating his standard fishing lunch: a box of Triscuits, block of cheese, and twenty ounce pack of Oreos. “That’s what I get from fishing.” He tried to describe the feeling of complete focus and selfless engagement he experiences with a rod in his hand. But I didn’t really need him to, not because I’d ever felt it myself on our fishing trips, but because I’d been witnessing him experience it for most of my life: in an aluminum skiff at my grandmother’s house in Maine, at the country club golf course where we fished for largemouth in the water traps, and finally in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where we fished for trout.
To reach the good trout streams at a decent hour, we’d get up in the dark and drive four hours or more into the mountains. Dad would often tell me he’d gotten only a couple hours sleep: he’d spent the night lying awake, imagining the feeling of the fish on his line, too excited to fall asleep. Unlike many anglers, who will happily fish beside their car, my dad will hike for miles to reach a spot less likely to be fished out. On one of these walks, a few years ago in Virginia, we passed four or five fishermen working their way upstream. “They won’t catch up to us,” Dad told me matter-of-factly. “I’m the fastest fisherman on the river. And I catch the most.”
He is not a day-dreamer. If fish aren’t biting in one spot, he moves to the next. In part, it’s a matter of confidence. When I find a perfect riffle, I hoard it, casting again and again, never sure I’ve allowed my fly to drift through it in just the right way. Dad will cast twice, perfectly each time, and move on, certain that if a trout were there it would have struck. This difference between us encapsulates our two attitudes towards fishing. I am content to cast again and again into the same spot because I don’t really care whether I catch a fish. In fact, staying so long in one spot is the closest I can come to what I would ideally be doing, ditching my rod altogether and simply standing in the stream and enjoying the movement of the water, the shadows and wind, the smell of the forest. Dad would put a bag over his head if it meant he’d catch more fish with each cast. He would fish a storm sewer if he heard they were biting. I have vivid memories of fishing among chain link fences, corrugated drainage pipes, and asphalt parking lots where the South River flows through the center of Waynesboro, Virginia.
My father is an active, efficient, and precise fisherman, in part, I think, because these are the qualities of the fish he likes most to catch. He likes to fish for trout on light line (a three-weight is his current favorite) because they are smart, selective, and pound-for-pound the best fighters in the water. He likes to fish the fastest currents because he believes the fish who feed there are in the best shape. And he likes to catch brown trout because they are the strongest of their species.
David Abrams discusses the relationship between human hunters and their prey in The Spell of the Sensuous (which I explored in part two of this essay). To illustrate the intuitive connection with nature that most modern humans have lost, Abrams describes cultures in which people even speak their prey’s language. He quotes one Amazonian hunter describing the emotional lives of Tinamou partridges. “You know why their evening call is so sad?” he says through a translator. “They don’t like to sleep alone, and at sunset each one wanders around aimlessly calling until an answer comes back.” The hunter had heard two Tinamou crying as he walked home from an unsuccessful hunt. He called to them in their language and shot the birds when they converged (though not before finding a place safe from jaguars, since they too respond to the Tinamou’s call). Many native hunters not only speak the animals’ language to them, but to each other. The Koyukan, who live near the Arctic Circle in North America, say, “It is a fine evening,” by speaking the twilight song of the hermit thrush.
For oral people, nature is a language. Every gust of wind, motion of leaf, and animal call carries meaning. Clearly every human’s brain must have the same capacity as the Koyukans’ to suck meaning from our environment, instantaneously identify patterns, and convert a bewildering array of information into a coherent narrative. So what are we doing with this extraordinary capacity? We are reading. As Abrams puts it, “The participatory proclivity of the senses was simply transferred from the depths of the surrounding life-world to the visible letters of the alphabet.”
My own experience of fishing was never separate from the things I’d read about nature and the things I hoped to write one day. My first publication was a poem describing a broken-hearted night I spent alone in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Its three short stanzas described how I sat beside a narrow stream, the valley’s spine, and watched the shadow of the ridge pass across the water hours before the sky went dark. My father sent it to Virginia Sportsman, and they published “Catch & Release” in their September 2001 issue. The final stanzas described the only part of trout fishing that I really loved, holding the tired fish in my hands after I’d brought it in, letting the current carry oxygen into its gills:
At night the stars return, untouchable / as orange leaves, unknown / as the eye-speckled trout, her water-power felt first / in the tautened line then / in the living body. // There are no answers in the angler’s prize, / but hold it gently in its element / until it glides away.
I’ve learned since then that it’s one thing to write that there are no answers, but quite another for an author actually not to have them. I was twenty-one when I wrote that poem, and though I knew what loneliness felt like, I didn’t know what to say about it. Inspired by Hemingway and other writers I’d discovered in high school, I’d always imagined myself a writer of fiction, an aspiration that was so central to my sense of selfhood that I couldn’t bear to acknowledge it publicly until I was in my mid-twenties. But my first efforts at writing fiction had been a disaster. The narratives that flowed so effortlessly and absorbed me so completely as a reader proved to be an extraordinarily complex combination of characters, dialogue, setting, plot. I found myself writing short, thinly-veiled, and pointless descriptions of conversations I’d had with my friends, often while high. Overwhelmed, I switched to writing poetry. What I loved most was language, anyway, and poetry allowed me to maintain the convenient belief that if I could only use words well enough, it wouldn’t matter that I didn’t have anything to say.
Most of my early poems were like “Catch & Release,” detailed but static descriptions of my environment. After reading Abrams, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, unable to create a story, I looked to nature to provide meaning. The central thesis of The Spell of the Sensuous is that modern humans have lost the intuitive connection to nature that we effortlessly possessed for 200,000 years because of one specific and ubiquitous phenomenon of our development: language, specifically written language, specifically alphabetic written language. Actually, as his Amazonian and Koyukan hunters suggest, Abrams doesn’t have a problem with language per se. He points out that stories of all oral cultures are deeply-rooted in actual places and offer detailed descriptions of specific environments. As I wrote in part two, oral stories were a technology for encoding information about the world and passing it into the future. Abrams contends that indigenous, oral cultures do not tell stories that do not occur in specific places. So, as a young writer who had yet to develop the invention muscles in my brain, my instinct was to turn to the specific, to write about the streams, mountains, trees, and sidewalks that gave me a sort of cold comfort in a time of searching.
An oral story physically exists in the landscape, through the storyteller’s breath and through the sounds themselves, which often mimic sounds in nature. Early writing maintained a connection to nature, whether as pictographs mimicking natural shapes, or rebuses, in which pictures are used to express sounds. To borrow Abrams’s example:
The first writing system to represent spoken sounds with arbitrary marks was invented 4,000-3,500 years ago, most likely by Canaanites mining turquoise for Egyptians on the Sinai Peninsula or by Semitic people working in central Egypt. This system, which the Hebrews called the aleph-bet, created unprecedented efficiencies in communication by replacing hundreds of Egyptian pictographs with 30 abstract symbols that could be combined to represent every consonant sound. The system was adopted by the Jews and Phoenicians and eventually became the basis of every known alphabet. Abrams thinks it is no coincidence that the Jews were among the first to adopt a writing system that exiled nature from language and that they are the world’s oldest people of exile. For purely oral cultures, loss of homeland almost certainly means loss of history: as the culture changes, the meaningful places are forgotten, and the storytellers die. Until the Hebrews devised an ingenious method to efficiently encode their history in abstract marks on paper they could carry with them, all peoples of exile had simply ceased to be peoples at all. Abrams suggests the Jews preserved their culture for thousands of years by embracing exile, not from their homeland, but from nature itself. Their texts became their homeland. The written word did not represent the sacred, it was sacred; in the same way the land is sacred to its indigenous inhabitants. Yahweh was most closely associated with wind, and just as the Jews would not voice God’s real name, the aleph-bet did not include vowels—the sounds requiring the exhalation of air—in their alphabet. The written word was as much a site of sacredness as the land itself.
When the Greeks added vowels to the aleph-bet, the invisible sacred became just another part of the scenery. We find the Great Greek philosophers searching for a new source of transcendent meaning to explain what they see in the world. Abrams contends the Platonic Ideal—the concept of a fish, for instance, that somehow contains the essence of all fish in the world—could not exist until the written word for “fish” existed. We can understand the paradox when we ask ourselves what exactly this string of symbols—FISH—represents. As soon as the writer sets it down, it becomes open to the experience of every reader, from watching Finding Nemo on a transatlantic flight to catching an 800-pound swordfish above the Puerto Rico Trench. Yet the word can only function because we all assign it the same meaning. Once a word, like fish or heaven or love can be written down, it can exist independently of any specific story or storyteller. It can sit alone on a page to be examined. An angler has no useful reason to invent an artificial, generic fish that fails to represent any of the actual fish whose habits she must understand. Only the philosopher has a motive to declare that understanding the abstract idea of FISH is more important than understanding specific fish as they are found in the world. Plato successfully argued that the most fundamental reality was not the multiplicitous, constantly changing world we encounter every second, but the invisible, intangible, changeless forms represented by the words for things. Four hundred years later, early Christians wrote in Greek about a savior who was simultaneously god and man, abstract and concrete, spirit and flesh. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Fifteen hundred years later, Newton established a single, invisible set of laws for the universe that, we have been taught ever since, are the fundamental architecture of reality, more real, in fact, than anything we seem to perceive with our fallible senses.
On the lake in the Boundary Waters, my father and I worked our way east until we reached a deep pond formed by a beaver dam. I paddled close to the dam and watched the water flow in a thin, smooth stream over the logs. My father noticed.
“Is it pretty there?” he asked.
“Where you’re looking.”
“Just interesting,” I said.
I’ve already mentioned my affection for the industrious beaver, an animal whose life I can put a narrative to. The dam was interesting because I could think about it in a way I couldn’t think about the play of the light on the water, or the movement of the pine needles in the breeze, or the thoughts of the bass and the pike. Dad had been facing forward, but now he carefully shifted around so he was facing back and could see me easily. Then he resumed casting.
I watched him, and as I did felt a sensuous, sweet rush of sadness. I was enjoying this so much, being with my father out on the water, having a reason to linger beside the beaver dam, having a reason to be out here at all. All my life my father had given me a reason to look up from my books and be in nature, to drive for hours just to get there. What reasons would I offer my own kids for the same experience. What reasons would I have when he wasn’t around anymore?
As a boy, I’d made a conscious decision to believe in god. I had to attend church every week, but nothing could have been more boring, and less meaningful, than repeating the same confusing words over and over. I can’t say I felt any faith whatsoever, but I knew about death, and when I surveyed the obscure region—eternity—I would have to consider in order to answer my questions about it, I decided I wanted no part of it. God was a convenient reason not to press the question any further. Of course that couldn’t last, and when I began imagining eternity (something that must have happened so gradually I have no memory of it) I learned that any remotely honest attempt to accurately conceive of eternity makes heaven, with all our loved ones and pets, very difficult to believe in.
We left the deep water, and on our way back to camp, my father hooked a pike. He wooped with joy as he fought it, grinning furiously around his cigar.
“In the department of acceleration—the drag race of the deep—almost nothing comes near a pike, pickerel, or muskellunge,” writes John McPhee in an essay that made me cry when I read it three years ago in The New Yorker. “A pickerel’s body is almost sixty per cent muscle. Undulations move along the body in propulsive waves that culminate, like oar sculling, in a straight-line forward thrust. A particularly successful tuna will catch about thirty per cent of the fish it goes after. A trout catches half the fish it strikes at. A chain pickerel, on a good day, nails eighty per cent.” My father had found another worthy adversary.
It was getting late in the morning, and though he knew we were heading back, Dad was still dismayed when he recognized the little cove where we’d put in the canoe. “Just take us back into those pads,” he told me. “Where we caught the small mouth.” When we were in the vast field of identical lily pads, he pointed at one spot and said, “That’s where we caught the small mouth.”
It’s possible my father remembers every fish he’s ever caught. Like the oral storytellers who could recite The Iliad in a twenty-hour sitting, my father could spend days describing the places he’s fished, what he caught, how each one fought, and who was there. I think the only thing he remembers better than the fish he’s caught are the fish me and my brother caught when we were with him.
He can not only describe the first trout I ever caught, he can describe exactly where I caught certain trout on certain rivers on certain years, and what kind of trout it was. A nice brown. A pretty little rainbow. Just as the Boundary Waters lakes are the living library of the Anishinabe Indians, the trout streams, ocean coves, golf course water traps, and deepwater lakes of the eastern United States form, for my father, a map of our history together.
In a reflective moment, shortly after he’d released the pike, my dad said, “I needed this.” He meant the lovely morning, the feeling of a fish on the line, the time with me, the water and the forest. He started talking about retirement, and how proximity to mountains and stream is a factor in his conversations with Juanita about what the last chapter of their lives will be like. And as we talked and paddled, all of it—the morning coolness, the light, the wind, the water—seemed familiar. It had been just like this somewhere else, somewhere perfect: a mountaintop in Montana? The savanna outside Kajiado? My grandparents’ house in Maine? One of the dozen or so places I’d dropped acid? A dream? A novel? Where had I felt such contentment, such peace? The kind of peace—as my father says every week in the final, finest words of the Episcopal Liturgy, as he pauses at the back of the nave before following the procession through the doors—that passes all understanding.
The feeling rose to the surface of my consciousness and I enjoyed it for a few seconds before I pushed it away. I’d already known the morning was meaningful. I was already planning to tell its story, and I was carefully storing certain memories until I got back to camp and could write them in my journal. I’d made a list in my head, the exact words I’d use to trigger the memories, the exact words Dad had spoken, and I was mechanically repeating the list in my mind. It was like trying to carry water in cupped hands. The fact is, I was only half present. I was recording this morning with my father for eternity, or at most for the billions of years it will take for the sun to swallow the earth and scorch up every petroglyph, hieroglyph, papyrus, scroll, bound journal, and kilobyte of RAM.
I believe with all my heart that eternity doesn’t need to be imagined. It exists at every moment, any moment, connecting our consciousnesses to the eternal world as surely as the line connects the fish to the hand. But I don’t know how to embrace that form of eternity without abandoning the imprecise, insufficient, arbitrary, temporary, literary form that has been my passion for as long as I can remember.
After our fishing trip that summer, I bought the Nick Adams Stories for my dad and asked him to read “Now I Lay Me,” the story of a man so terrified of the dark he keeps himself awake each night by re-fishing all the streams he’s ever visited.
Sometimes I would fish four or five different streams in the night; starting as near as I could get to their source and fishing down stream. When I had finished too quickly and the time did not go, I would fish the stream over again, starting where it emptied into the lake and fishing back up stream, trying for all the trout I had missed coming down. Some nights too I made up streams, and some of them were very exciting, and it was like being awake and dreaming. Some of those streams I still remember and think that I have fished in them, and they are confused with streams I really know.
I thought Dad would relate to the story, since his own extraordinary recall was the reason I knew Hemingway’s idea was realistic. Dad read the story, and I think he thought it was okay. And now I realize that of course the story isn’t about lying awake in the dark and thinking about fishing, it’s about lying awake in the dark and thinking about death. It’s not my father’s story. It’s mine.
“You’ve been a good guide,” Dad told me as we lifted our paddles from the water and cruised the final few feet to the muddy bank where the portage began. But of course he had it backward.