Jim Harrison: “Force of Nature”

Conversations with Jim Harrison BookI am sitting at the Hitching Post in Melrose drinking vodka with Jim who steals, between sips, a scant glance at his beloved barmaid Nicole’s rear, puffs from his American Spirit, and says: “Do you want to know how you can believe in God?”

Smoke purls thickly from his cigarette, and in the window-parried shaft of evening light his face looks quite conjured with its blind eye wandering opposite his working eye, one of them—I’m not sure which—glancing often at some bird darting just beyond my mortal means of perception.

“Absolutely,” I say. “I totally want to know.”

Around us at the bar, ranchers and fishing guides lean in to order beers or fries or shots from Nicole, whose brown hair fairly gleams against a white tank top as she leans down to reach for bottles, revealing ample cleavage, that space on a woman’s body, essentially nothing, that so entrances the male heterosexual.

“It’s a vacancy,” Jim says, limpidly braiding our theological conversation with the sexual, “the absence of something that makes men incorrigible. A nada.”

With his singular own, Jim catches Nicole’s dark eyes, and asks to buy a drink (Knee-cole, he pronounces her name) for his friend Craig, who just arrived at the door in his wheelchair. Crippled from the waist down last winter in a car accident, Craig is Nicole’s ex-boyfriend and would likely receive a free drink anyway, but Nicole obliges, laces ice, vodka, a splash of soda into a short glass, and then, as if by instinct, fills our glasses as well.

Jim lifts his glass to mine: “Peacock”—this is Jim’s friend, the author and grizzly bear expert, Doug Peacock—“tells me that new indisputable”—he puffs vigorously on his cigarette again—“evidence points to the fact bears have been feeding on migrating cutworm moths in precisely the same drainage in the Front Range near Glacier National Park for over thousands of years, and recently Peacock determined the bears now arrive before the moths, and wait out the moths’ arrival, whereupon they gorge themselves into a food coma. I’ll order us two steaks—Knee-Cole, two steak sandwiches rare, please, and another vodka for Craig. For a bear, there are more nutrients per part in a cutworm moth than in a cutthroat trout.” By now I have finished my vodka and I am staring straight at Jim, his tanned face gullied with wrinkles and crow’s feet. “That’s how you can believe in God.”

How I got to know Jim Harrison—outdoorsman, roving gourmand, and man of letters, “untrammeled renegade genius” and beloved author of more than thirty books including Dalva and Legends of the Fall—is another story, the short version of which goes: I was born in his hometown and grew up on Harrison Road and he takes kindly to river guide/poets with a penchant for good cheese and cold vodka.

For now, though, we’re going fishing on the Big Hole where Jim spends fifty or sixty days each summer, and, Carhartted from head to toe but for the Muck boots, he’s knocking at the screen door to my cabin: “Are you ready for some sausage patty, son?”

“I don’t know if I can handle sausage,” I say. “I’m still a tad jangled from last night. How about you?”

“A little bit hung-over but that’s to be expected of a Marine of fly fishing. I’m famished from forging the smithy of my soul. I wrote a poem this morning! Come, we must find sustenance,” he says, in what I think of as his “imperial voice,” aiming his substantial frame toward the Hitching Post’s café that sits a mere fifty yards from the cabin door.

Inside the café we find our friend and fishing partner, novelist David James Duncan, chatting up the guides who are picking up their sack lunches from Sherri, Nicole’s aunt, queen of the morning shift. We sit down to hot drinks and David tells us what he’s learned from the locals: that the river rose with an overnight rain, and while it has crested, won’t likely fish well till the afternoon. It’s still springtime in Montana, and the Big Hole’s trout feed mostly when the water warms away their lethargy.

“How about the bugs?” Jim asks, referring to the fabled pteronarcys californica, the salmon fly hatch coveted by the angling masses.

“Mostly in the canyon or up above, around Silver Bridge,” David says.

“Good. We should go downstream then and cover a big chunk of water with streamers. Stay away from the loons.”

The loons will arrive momentarily from Bozeman and Butte and Spokane and Salt Lake to chase the three-inch-long stonefly’s upstream mating flights and the toilet-flush-rises these aquatic rib-steaks induce from the trout. Only immensely well-cultured anglers such as ourselves would prefer to fish downstream of the hatch; we prefer the solitude and good company, we tell each other, but we also know the downstream brown trout have already gluttoned up on the stoneflies, and, if we can put a streamer deep enough under the right cutbank, we stand to catch the fish of the season, a two-foot, six-pound brown.

“How about Glen to the Notch, then?” I suggest. “I know a perfect lunch spot, and I have some morels and chicken to heat up on the stove.”

“I rolled a whopper down there last week,” Jim says, “but I missed it ’cause I was watching two garish tanagers fight over a mayfly. The birds insisted their beauty was more important than my lifetime brown trout, and who am I to disagree with such creatures?”

Jim’s response recalls something I read in a recent interview he gave to a publication in France, where he is a veritable folk-hero: “Do you believe in the supernatural?” the interviewer asked Jim.

“Of course I do,” Jim said, “because I receive special instructions from the gods. In America, I have a book [of poems] called In Search of Small Gods. Do you really expect one God to create nineteen billion galaxies? And did you know that one teaspoon of cosmic black hole weighs three billion tons? Think how strong this teaspoon has to be. So, if there are nineteen billion galaxies, why can’t I have a soul, even if it is extremely small? As small as a photon, or better yet, as one of my neurons. It never occurred to me not to believe in the Resurrection.”

“Where’s your flask?” Jim asks me. The drift boat is anchored a few miles downstream from Glen Bridge and we’re snacking on a wedge of Manchego while David plies a side-channel on foot. The grass along the bank of the rivulet grows thick and high, the seed-heads already heavy, and from our vantage David’s hat and moving fly-rod are the only human intrusions visible on the landscape, the graphite glinting with each cast or when it bows under the weight of a fish or bucks with a fish’s run; when David kneels to unhook and release a fish, he disappears altogether.

“You mean my vodka flask?”

“Last year I was flying to Paris with Dustin Hoffman and we were lamenting the spate of interviews we had lined up upon arrivals. ‘Dustin,’ I said, ‘how do you put up with it all?’ And he said, ‘Jim, it’s easy. I just fill up a water bottle with vodka and sip off it all through the day.’ And I told him, ‘Ha! I know a poet and a fishing guide in Montana who does the exact same thing!’”

“It did protect against inane clients, but I quit bringing it during high water. Too easy to make a mistake sober, let alone buzzed.”

I don’t need to expound for Jim. Two years ago, he, legendary Livingston outdoorsman Dan Lahren, and I floated Rock Creek at flood stage the day before a very competent oarsman flipped his boat and lost a passenger to the cold swift water and ultimately a sweeper. From his home in Livingston, Jim read the news and called me. He sensed I felt some guilt for taking him down such a treacherous stretch of river. “Dommer,” he said, “don’t feel bad. The world is a cruel place. This much we know.”

“Let me see that rod of yours,” I say. Jim’s had a few tugs on his streamer—one violent slash from a big fish that sent him into a near-orgasmic state of excitement—but the last hour of fishing has been exceedingly uneventful. “I just saw David hook another fish. I’m going to trail something off of your Yuk Bug.”

“Not a worm!” Jim says, referring to the dreaded San Juan worm, an imitation of an aquatic worm whose fly-ness is often disputed in angling circles. “But I know what you’re thinking. Trust me, I worked in Hollywood for two decades. Nymphing is like bare skin to the film industry. Whenever things get slow . . .”

“Show ’em some tit?”

“Precisely, son! Now, no nymphs for me. I’ll take my lumps. Let’s try a Lahren’s Little Olive,” he says, referring to a number 10 woolly bugger tied ragged and wrapped with significant lead.

And take the lumps he does. With David back in the boat talking Ikkyu with Jim (“Clouds very high look,” Ikkyu wrote eight centuries ago, “not one word helped them get up there”) we drift downstream. Jim covers the water as thoroughly as a flight of swallows covers the air above the river at dusk—there isn’t an inch of holding water that he fails to twitch the fly seductively through, but no grabs from the big browns who have shied away from the high sun. I’m rowing hard against the snow-fed currents, trying my two-armed best to hold the boat adjacent to the prime lies, so I see only Jim’s tan fly line at the edge of my periphery, zinging back and out against the banks. Every now and then he stops casting to marvel at a warbler or a tanager, to feel, as he says in one of his poems, “the grace of their intentions,” and then he returns his attention to the water and his casts.

He’s practicing what I’ve long thought of as “Jim Yoga,” focusing his attention alternately skyward (mountains, birds, clouds) and at ground level (dogs, trout, plants). It’s a ritualistic way of moving through the world that’s revivified him, a way of seeing through eyes other than his own—and those of us who’ve read his books have been revivified as well. “If you spend a fair amount of time studying the world of ravens,” he’s said, “it is logical indeed to accept the fact that reality is an aggregate of the perceptions of all creatures, not just ourselves.”

Save the squeaking oarlocks and the water lapping at the hull, the boat is wonderfully quiet. Flicker calls, warbler note-cascades, wind, around us the scent of budding cottonwoods. Then Jim says: “Come on trout! You don’t want to see little Jimmy throw a tantrum, do you? You know, Davey, I once caught a three-pound brown on this left bank coming up. Right—” Jim pauses and waits for his Little Olive to slap against the bank—“here!”

And before he can strip the line, a chunky brown trout cartwheels out of its element for the fly, latches onto the hook, and Jim let’s out a whoop. We are all three more than a little bit dumbfounded. David and I exchange glances of substantial bafflement as I slip the net under the fish.

We lunch on my favorite island in the world: a cottonwood-laden dry wash that divvies a slow side channel from the hard-rushing main river, which passes the land, then slams hard into a tall sandstone cliff, pivots sharply to the east, and hurtles downstream. The two currents meet and form a lazy back eddy, above which swallows are usually on the hunt, and above the water, adjacent the cliff, sloping steadily to the north, a deep swale hosts tall grasses and sage.

I say “we lunch,” but I have forgotten the propane for my portable grill (I could build a fire and cook over coals, but we expect the fishing to turn on within the hour). In the cooler, I have chicken thighs marinating in olive oil, Tabasco, salt, pepper and thyme, some fresh asparagus and, as an aperitif, some morels I gathered a few days ago from a burn near Missoula—but no gas! And thus, no fire for the roving gourmand who doubtless sees the disappointment in my eyes and offers: “I have some Washington coho that I grilled last night.”

“And a bottle of wine,” David says.

“I don’t drink before four in the afternoon,” Jim says, “but of course wine at lunch on the river is not drinking. Here, son, cut yourself some salami—did I show you this wine key and knife a woman gave to me in France? We’ll have a tidy snack and then how about a nap in the warm sand?”

We eat the cold smoky wild salmon and wash it down with gouts of Côtes du Rhône, chew on thick slices of salami, and soon, we’re lounging in the shade of some young cottonwoods with our hands behind our heads like old cowhands. We’ve all three had long years—health issues, legal issues, money issues—but like good migratory creatures we’re back along a familiar shore, contemplating the currents. Dangerous as the river is, Jim wrote recently in a poem, that “only the water is safe.”

I’m not so much startled awake, because I wasn’t really sleeping, but Jim’s nasally voice surprises me: “You found yourself a nice island here, Dommer.”

With a smile on his face, David is still sleeping, so I tell Jim in a whisper about how several years ago I camped here with my wife Mary and our infant son, and how, after nursing all night, our son still wouldn’t sleep, so I held him in the camp chair before dawn so Mary could nod off.

The river rushed around the island, slammed hard into the sandstone cliff wall, then caromed through an audible riffle that charged through a short box canyon. The stars wheeled, the earth turned, but momentarily I felt that we, my son and I, sat outside of time. It grinds the mind down, the sound of shallow water, and as the old goateed poet next to me once wrote: “The mind ground is being as it is.”

“That’s a wonderful story,” Jim says. “We must honor it with a four-pound brown this afternoon. Davey, wake up, the fish await with open mouths!”

What I love most about Jim is that, since he’s constantly altering your perception of him, he allows you to alter your perception of yourself, to be malleable like the current. Without a soft mind, someone said, you cannot be very strong. Jim is ox-big these days and I wouldn’t ask him to outrun a mule, but his mind moves like a jackrabbit. At seventy-something years old, he seems to be certain of only a few things: good wine, garlic, and the necessity of time on the water. When we’ve catalogued only 15 percent of the world’s species, he seems to say, why be certain of anything?

A few moments later though, fishing, he is quite certain that a red-bellied Yuk Bug—a white-legged, grizzly-hackled, squirrel-tailed, three-inch-long beast— is precisely the fly he needs.

“I had a fish strike this so hard last year,” he says, “it yanked the rod out of my hands!”

We find no such denizens downstream, but the bite is on. Solid fish swirl on our streamers on the dump (as they land), on the swing (as they hook downstream with the current), and on the strip (as they dance at the hands of the anglers turned puppeteers). David has a personal retrieve.

He strips line vigorously and darts the rod tip back and forth at the surface of the water, which makes his streamer, an articulated creation that we call The Fly-Fisherman’s Rapala, look precisely like a flagging minnow, but makes him look like he’s playing air guitar. Tugged upstream beside a riprap bank, the fly zigzags across the surface and is engulfed by a violent buttery swirl. Big brown. David’s rod bucks with animal energy, then straightens as the fish comes unhooked. Jim hollers—he’s latched onto a twenty-inch rainbow that Riverdances across the riffle on its tail. I net Jim’s broad-shouldered fish and we pledge to toast its surface-skimming leap tonight, its lengthy exit from its watery world.

Driving home on the Burma Road, we pass an old dilapidated house—doorless, windowless, roof caved in by a windfall cottonwood. It’s home, if you ask the locals, to one of the largest, most seething dens of rattlesnakes in the valley.

“Son, do you see that old house?” Jim says.

“Sure I do.”

“Good. Do you know what it says?”“No, what does it say?”

“It says: Don’t let your life become the sloppy leftovers of your work.”

It’s evening and the light across the green-for-a-few-more-weeks hills makes the sage look like suede. I want what Jim said to sink in, to eddy in my brain and take root, but the moment vanishes like a cloud shadow on the snowfields of the distant Pioneers because we pass a roadside pond, a ditch, really, and David says: “Chris, slow down! Back up! Phalaropes in the pond!”

I back the truck and boat trailer carefully up the road, and see them: four small birds spin around and around, dervish-like, on the dusk-lit water, dislodging food from the weeds below them that they dip down occasionally to eat. They turn and turn like oblong tops. They are doing something we humans couldn’t do. We are silent for a long moment. Then Jim says:

“My God. Four phalaropes. We are blessed!”


Reprinted with permission from Conversations with Jim Harrison (University Press of Mississippi, 2019).