Basho and Brown Trout

I've only recently decided to take up fly fishing. I ordered a fly rod and some other equipment and I have been reading a lot about the sport. I've even talked a co-worker into giving me a few casting lessons. I've actually been thinking about fly fishing for some time. Last summer I went to a conference and another guy and I took a canoe down a little trout stream. I steered the canoe and he fished for trout. He caught a few nice-sized brook trout and I thought to myself, "I'd like to do that. It looks relaxing."

While we drifted downstream, I told the guy--he was a dean of students at a college in North Carolina--about Hemingway's great short story, "Big Two-Hearted River." It's about a man who comes home emotionally damaged by his experiences in World War One. The war is barely mentioned in the story, but you can tell how grateful the narrator is to be alone again in nature with only the problems of fishing to occupy his mind.

Lately, too, I have begun to notice how much I really appreciate certain small pleasures: the taste of a plum, a cold beer, playing a game of whiffle ball in the driveway with my son. The horrors of this world are undeniable: flu pandemics, terrorism, financial malfeasance. They exist and demand our serious attention, but odd, quietly beautiful moments also exist. They too require attention. The Northern Irish poet Derek Mahon writes about such odd juxtapositions. In The Snow Party he describes the Japanese poet Basho's attendance at a gathering of monks to sip tea and watch snow falling in the mountains.

He contrasts this silent, civilized moment with events elsewhere in the 17th century. At the very time Basho was writing haikus about falling snow, Europeans were "boiling witches in the public squares" and thousands were dying in the names of barbarous kings. History and politics are nightmares; no doubt about it, but even so the circumstances of existence are still pretty miraculous. If the students I introduce to Basho become bastards (and some of them will) it's no fault of Basho. He and I can only put opportunities before them. We can't change the world. All we can do is say, "Hey, look, snow is falling. Pay attention to this."

I am going to say a prayer of gratitude to this world when I catch my first trout; then I'll lower the fish into the stream and watch it swim away. And here's the most amazing and beautiful part: like watching falling snow, it won't mean or change a thing.


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