“Fishing for My Father: Everything Old is New Again”

Part I

“When a man’s stories are remembered, then he is immortal.”—Daniel Wallace, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions


Reach a certain age—in my case 70—and it is natural to want to sum up and make a reckoning of accounts. In tracing the background of the sporting part of my life—the part with fly rods and double barrel shotguns—I am always mindful of Herman Melville’s comment that “no man is his own sire,” a truism that gives the lie to our current ridiculous fascination with “selfies.” There are always one or more kindly souls involved in the drama of our making.

In the book and movie versions of Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish (1998; 2003), Will Bloom is skeptical about the incredible, shape-shifting stories he has heard all his life from his father, Ed, whose experiences and circle of one-of-a-kind friends strains his son’s credulity so much that he considers his father a liar and failure as a parent. In both the novel and cinematic versions, the line between fact and fantasy, reality and dream, empiricism and magic, is constantly blurred but nevertheless inscribes the arc of a kind of introspective journey in which a son comes to understand his father in ways he might not have done otherwise. Perhaps equally important, he comes to understand the ways they are similar, especially when Will tells his own story of his father’s end and imagines him as a huge uncatchable fish released back into the water to swim forever. We are limited in what we know of any other human’s existence but that does not keep us from trying to imagine its dimensions and qualities.

The Big Fish tale strikes me as an existential fishing story, a tale of being caught and released. I did not have a fractious, disputational relationship with my father and I never thought he was a liar or a poor family man—quite the contrary, as he was always a beneficent influence on me—but his death several years ago left a vacancy that has only recently begun to fill again. By all accounts, his life, like mine, was unextraordinary but it was the only life he had, and the one I knew, even partially, so in fishing for meaning in his loss, I discovered points of connection between us that I have come to appreciate deeply, rather than deny, as I might once have done as a youthful hot head.

Besides my profound indebtedness to the Ventrella boys, my mother’s plain-speaking brothers Pete, Bob, and especially Tony—all hunters, fishers, dog men, and story tellers long gone under earth—who included me on their frequent outdoor adventures in New England and gave their advice and their time freely to a neophyte, but were quick to reprimand when I screwed up, I owe an outstanding and never-to-be totally discharged debt to my father, Jim, that good, wise man, an inveterate gardener and avid sports fan, who, though he did not hunt and only dabbled in spin fishing for trout, knew full well why it was important to be outdoors on a more or less regular basis.

I know, because I owe this same tendency in myself to my father as well as to my uncles. Perhaps it is genetic.  But even if it is a matter of nurture, the effect has been the same. Stay too long in your chamber and you acquire “rust,” Thoreau claimed. It’s impossible for me not to become edgy or even cranky if I haven’t spent part of each day in the out-of-doors—in what we kids used to call “the woods”—walking, loitering, watching, listening, observing, touching earth, even if not actually hunting or fishing. In my case, to leaven 50-plus years of regimented, lock-step college life—first as a student, then as a teacher—I required a correspondingly steady but less predictable  non-academic and non-ivory tower diet of trout streams, duck marshes, and upland coverts to keep a sane perspective. Change-up is good. As Jim Harrison says, “I’ve found that I survive only by seeking an opposite field….”

There is a school of thought that would label such a sentiment escapism, a reflex action against the “gentle tyranny of home and woman,”  to use literary critic Leslie Fiedler’s damning phrase in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), or an example of “beset manhood,” to use cultural critic Nina Baym’s famous term, first published in  1981 in an essay in American Quarterly. Both critics were analyzing 19th and 20th century American white, male-authored adventure texts, from Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and on through last century to William Faulkner’s “The Bear” and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest,” Huck Finn famously concludes his narrative, before his Aunt Sally can “sivilize” him. His words have become a palimpsest, a hieroglyphic, of escape.

According to these critiques, heading outdoors alone or with the boys becomes an act of romantic bravado and selfish, even childish, irresponsibility, an expression of deeply seated anti-social, anti-domestic, even anti-adult tendencies.  I don’t want to protest too much on that score because, like all critical valuations, Fiedler’s and Baym’s formulations have a degree of contextual mythic truth in them. I admit that on most days, given a choice between shopping at the mall and casting flies to rising trout or following my bird dogs in the upland woods, the decision is a no-brainer. Let’s face it, shopping at the mall (or on line) can always be done afterwards. But that’s a trivial example, and as with most men and women I’ve counted as outdoor companions, no one knowingly shirks the domestic life in favor of untrammeled self indulgence or willful avoidance without paying the consequences. Mythic contexts sometimes blur fine distinctions and gradations.

Either way, it’s possible to view lighting out for far fields, not as a negation of work-a-day daily life, domestic, familial duties, and emotional obligations and expressions (about which I believe I have been resolutely responsible, if now and then misunderstood), but as soulful enrichment via immersion in other, equally large, realities: brooks, creeks, streams, rivers, marshes, swamps, fields, woods, and uplands are not a denial or erasure of home, hearth, business, and school, but as their necessary counterbalance. High-tailing it to unspoiled wilderness territory is less feasible for most of us than it was in Twain’s time, so thankfully we still have the tonic of local wildness to temper our otherwise well-ordered and routine civic life, and to act not just as a safety net, but as refuge and source of restoration for periods of personal dissolution, ennui, and wit’s-end mania. The fact that woods and waters are the destinations less traveled than ever before by most Americans in our increasingly urbanized, tech-savvy, wired society adds a slightly delicious outland status to these endeavors.

People hunt and fish for a thousand different reasons, but I suspect for many of us with feet planted in both indoor and outdoor realms, it should not be a case of either/or, but both/and. Reasonable appetite should not have bounds: loving the wild trout of West Virginia’s Slaty Fork of the  Elk River and Montana’s Madison River does not diminish or cancel my reverence for Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d Avignon at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art or the original typescript of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath  at the Library of Congress. Some might argue that one Picasso is worth a thousand trout, and I can understand the heft of that position. On the other side, I also get the renowned angling writer A. J. McClane’s claim that “the music of angling is more compelling … than anything contrived in the greatest symphony hall.” Perhaps even true, as far as it goes. Yet let’s face it: both comments are extreme subjective statements on material reality.

But take the mediated view and both the trout and the paintings/music, both woods time with the boys and face time with spouse and family, become equally valuable, equally enjoyable, equally satisfying and instructive. Why must we be forced to choose between home body reality and wild inheritance? The longed-for goal is to inhabit the elusive arena where nature and culture, wildness and art, society and self intersect. It is the Holy Grail of quotidian life. Ultimately, the far field toward which we journey is as much memory, language, and consciousness as any other manner of physical place. In erranding into the wild we are always seeking our home, everywhere and at once, whether it is outside the door with a fly rod in hand or inside our words with a pen in hand. I can’t think of better places to be.

Read Part II