Don't fight the elements.
Fishing in Yellowstone wind, I've discovered how to remove a hook from my ear. I put a loop of line through the bend in the hook and jerk it out backward. While I was at a doctor's learning this the hard way, a guy in the waiting room was going in for a vasectomy, so as the doctor mopped up the blood from my ear, I asked if he might give me one. "Fine," he said, "how about next month?" It was awful. He missed with the local and made the second incision in a raw spot. "Hold on there, Buckaroo. Don't hyperventilate," he said, giving me another shot in the raw spot. When he was through cutting and tying me off, he wouldn't sew me up until he'd found both macaronied chunks of vas deferens--he'd lost one by the sink and put them in alcohol.
At least I've since learned how to fish in wind without hooking myself. I've also learned that I can't write stories about rivers unless I let the river write its own story through me—like, how could I have imagined that the Yellowstone would send me in for a painful vasectomy?
Whether avoiding hooks or writing stories, it's basically a matter of resigning yourself to the river. Don't fight rapids, wind, stone, bird, bushes, all that stuff that seems to get between you and the water's intent. If I fall in a winter river, I make like one of those old Russian farts in a polar bear ritual. If I shatter a lens in my glasses with a leaded nymph, I cast on the leeward side. If a kayaker floats where I'm trying to match the hatch, I tell him I was getting bored with the scenery anyway, and his purple and orange wet suit is a pleasant diversion.
But sometimes vestigial testosterone kicks in and I chide myself for becoming a river wuss. Converting the instincts of water into dilemmas of the human conscience, I force my own story on the river's as in the saga of the eagle and the whitefish:
The wind had died that late winter day, and big fish were rising, so I truly had to work to get beyond the sheer joy of the river moment. I settled for torturing myself with images of the lunker cutthroat I was catching basted in butter and tarragon (since Yellowstone cutthroat are strictly catch-and-release), but then I brutally hooked a whitefish in the gullet. At last, a dilemma of conscience.
What to do? Ease him into the current and pretend that he would heal up just fine; or, face the fact of his demise, clobber him on the rocks, and toss him into the brush?
An eagle made up my mind for me. I hadn't noticed her circling, but when she saw the fish, she landed in a nearby tree and stood staring morosely. Karma was obviously in full swing. Instead of a cavalier killer, I was now a karmic cog in the food chain. After I waded to shore, placed the offering on an alter of dry rocks and wandered a safe distance up the gravel bar, she fell like a thunderbolt. But she halted just above the fish and hovered, then started a slow circling, cocking her eye toward me.
"Go on, go on, go get the yummy fishy," I squeaked as if cajoling a puppy; she landed but still wouldn't take the offering. She just clomped around awkwardly, eyeing me instead of the fish. I'd never seen an eagle clomp before, wobbling from side to side like an airline passenger moving up the aisle to deplane after a long trip. Somehow this bird looked sullen and almost well almost GUILTY. I backed behind a clump of alder and clammed up, hoping against hope that this bird wasn't becoming some kind of New Age emblem of the Prozac-snarfing culture of recovery. I imagined her wearing a button I'd seen on a local therapist at a Michelle Shocked concert: Give Us Pills or Kill Us.
Ugh, this story was wobbling between karma and some Judeo-Christian blather about proper choices. Soon, over a hummock, I could barely see her when suddenly she pounced on the fish and bore it skyward in her talons. Yes! I leapt from my cover, elated, and gave my fist and elbow a little Marv Albert pump. She must have sensed my elation because before she got to her tree, she circled back and dropped the fish in the water not ten feet in front of me. Well, maybe not ten feet, maybe more like ten yards. Okay, okay...so I made that last part up for thematic significance.
Actually, she made a beeline for her tree where she started hacking at the whitefish like Norman Bates. I thank the cosmic forces that rivers have their own logic and don't pay much attention to Eastern or Western civilization fuzzy-minded writers projecting a whole brainload of squalid pop-culture metaphors on them though some of the zaniest minds in America have done their damnedest to make rivers into human stories extensions of human desire.
Take for example the late writer James Dickey. He didn't just distort the actions of a river's fauna to make some vague point about ambivalence. Nooooo! He had to spin a far-fetched yarn about four white-collar southerners who decide to pit their yupped-out testosterone against the last (soon-to-be-dammed) free-flowing river in Georgia. Without even shooting for subtlety in themes like guilt and salvation, he had the audacity to put the actual river on the back burner and call his big fabrication Deliverance.
So these guys, fresh from a world of lawyers and advertising, decide they can shoot deer and white water with arrow and canoe as if they'd grown up by the river with Native Americans. And instead of contenting his characters with droll observations about drooling banjo players and scary water, Dickey has to put them through a sheer living, breathing hell of heavy-handed symbolism. One guy is a bit chubby, not to mention green at paddling, so as his comeuppance (so to speak) he has to squeal like a pig while getting briskly buggered by an extremely primitive hillbilly.
Another guy who seems a little arrogant about his macho skills at rapids and archery has to skewer the hillbilly with an arrow then crash and burn in the gnarliest water east of the Mississippi so that he winds up with a big pink piece of femur poking through his wet suit.
The most civilized of these yuppies (the lawyer) gets upset about all this death and buggery and decides it needs to be resolved in an Atlanta courtroom, so, quite thematically, another hillbilly plugs him from a bluff to show that law don't mean nothin' out here on the river.
And, climactically, the hero of the yarn has to climb a cliff with an arrow in his teeth to shoot this hillbilly, tie him to a big rock, and sink him in the river. In the end, his guilt gives him nightmares where he sees a dead bumpkin bobbing to the surface of the newly formed reservoir.
I'll bet Dickey couldn't even look at a river without trotting out a long line of myths and philosophies, not to mention Freudian psychology where dream water can only mean sex, death, and the unconscious.
Somewhere, the river's own story gets lost in the author's cluttered intentions.
But Deliverance is chicken feed compared to a plethora of demented cinematic sagas where rivers are just an obstacle course for some hero to overcome so he can blow up something at one end or the other. In The Bridge Over the River Kwai, William Holden hacks his way up a river, finds Alec Guinness' fancy bridge and KUH-BLOOIE! In The African Queen, Kate and Bogy float the white waters of the Bora and Ulanga, braving leeches and bullets to find a German warship and KUH-BLAM! In Apocalypse Now, Martin sheen chugs up the Mekong River to Cambodia and Marlin's evil domain and KUH-POW! In The Mosquito Coast, Harrison Ford ferries his fictitious family in a boat powered by a salvaged outboard motor greased with seagull fat up a Honduran river to a Christian mission and KUH-BOOM!
What about the birds, fish, and monkeys on these rivers? What about the trees, flowers, canyons, and rapids? Strictly props against which authors have their characters pontificate on the meaning of life.
And what does all this have to do with a hooked ear, a vasectomy, and a windy Yellowstone story about a reticent eagle and a gut-hooked whitefish? I'll reiterate: in fact, rivers have their own logic, their own story, and they don't pay much attention to the stories we impose on them. Sure, for ironic significance, I might have had the eagle drop the whitefish in front of me. I might have seen it as a sign of my mission in the scheme of things, straddled a cottonwood log, floated into Livingston, and blown up Dan Bailey's fly shop. Hell, I might even have had a horny hillbilly with removable front teeth hop out of a clump of alder.
All of these might have been better options for a shooting script, but rivers star in their own movies. If we try to hog the screen with our macho casting prowess, they put a hook in our ear and send us off for a vasectomy. If we think they love us or hate us, accept or reject us with their fish and birds, they just follow gravity while the life in and around them eats, breeds, and poops. If we think they're emblems of some religion or other, they send a DayGlo kayaker into our favorite fishing hole.
This isn't bad. It's good for us. It keeps us guessing and refuses to signify anything but the river's own designs which are always flowing somewhere beyond the imagination.