An Angler’s Lament

March 5, 2024 By: Bob Romano

I admit it. For me, it’s been about the fish, in particular, brook trout, the native char of western Maine’s Rangeley Lakes Region. Although that’s not how it started.

I remember summer evenings on the bank of the Saddle River, a polluted stream located in suburban New Jersey. I’d be seated beside my father, a hard-working man of few words, who attended night school on the G.I. Bill. During the summer, after a tiresome commute into Manhattan, he’d return home on a Friday evening. We’d eat a quick dinner, then drive to the river accompanied by my uncle George, who lived next door.

George was a genial man who drank too much. He didn’t serve during the war because of a hearing loss suffered as a child, a rejection with which he struggled as much as he did with the loss of hearing. I can see them in their fold-out lawn chairs, legs stretched out, cigarettes dangling from the corner of their mouths. A ballgame, either the Yankees or Mets, would be playing on a transistor radio.

Their spinning rods were set on forked sticks. Although they yearned to catch one of the few largemouth bass able to withstand the rot that plagued the river, it was the stream’s carp, gentle creatures with Fu Manchu moustaches, some twenty inches long and weighing five or more pounds that sucked down their nibblets of corn, and later, a recipe involving cornmeal enhanced with secret ingredients rolled into tight balls.

Me? I was eight, maybe nine, wearing a white tee-shirt, baggy jeans, the cuffs rolled up around a pair of black high-top sneakers, and on my head, a light-blue baseball cap with the Mets orange logo stitched across the brim. I sat among patches of crabgrass and plantain, always watchful for the mischief of rats living under a bridge a few hundred yards upstream. My fiberglass rod was also set across the fork of a stick, but unlike the open-faced Mitchell reels attached to the men’s rods, I was regulated to a closed-faced Zebco model.

It was years later, after reading Richard Brautigan’s poetic novel, Trout Fishing in America, that I picked up my first fly rod. Like so many of my brothers and sisters of the angle, I began by casting a fiberglass model mass produced by the Cortland Company. Back then, the only fish in those streams savaged by development were put-and-take trout stocked by the state, none of which paid attention to the gaudy flies I’d found in a bin of our town’s hardware store. Invariably, I’d switch to the spinning gear stored in the trunk of a Dodge Dart purchased off a used-car lot, the Zebco reel replaced by my father’s hand-me-down Mitchell.

My father had scoffed at my fly-fishing outfit, viewing it as he did my long hair, style of clothing, and recently acquired manner of challenging every norm he cherished. Nevertheless, upon my returning home from four years of college, détente was in the air, and we agreed to spend a few days at the fabled Antrim Lodge located in the Catskill Mountains, a two-hour drive from our home.

It was the second week of May. I recall my father wearing a dark blue baseball cap, with a red-and-white Dardevle spoon hooked to the brim he’d lowered across his brow while swinging a worm across a promising run of the Beaverkill River. A number of yards upstream, I’d been casting one of the store-bought flies with my usually ineptitude until I spotted a fish rise and then another and another. That’s when I noticed a number of dun-colored mayflies floating upon the surface. Searching through my plastic box of flies, I choose the closest in color and size. When a Catskill brown rose through the pool it was me as much as the fish that was hooked. I would never again cast a spinning rod.

Although Catch-and-Release had taken hold by then, it was not over concern for a fellow resident of this perilous sphere we call home, but a more selfish rationale–returning a diminishing fishery to be caught again. I didn’t think much about this at the time, simply happy to be catching trout on artificial flies. That is, until my wife and I decided to spend a week in western Maine. We’d booked time at Bosebuck Mountain Camps, a traditional sporting lodge built in 1917 and located deep within a vast balsam-and-spruce forest on the western shoreline of Aziscohos Lake where the middle stretch of the Magalloway River joins the outlet of the Little Magalloway River.

It was only later we learned the region was known for its native brook trout, fish that once flourished in sizes and numbers hard to believe today. Word of trout exceeding five pounds spread soon after Lee walked into the Appomattox courthouse, ending the South’s War of Succession. Soon thereafter, the Rangeley Lakes became a destination location for sportsmen and women.

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The brook trout’s success was dependent upon various factors, not the least of which was the Artic char known as the blueback trout, a smaller fish, on which the brook trout gorged. By the nineteen-thirties, overfishing, deforestation, and the relentless harvesting of the little blueback trout brought an end to the size and numbers previously enjoyed. Rather than allow the lakes and rivers to heal, steps were taken to “manage” the problem. Smelt were introduced to replace the blueback and landlocked salmon to supplement the waning brook trout population. These efforts only hastened the near extinction of the little blueback, a fish that had survived the ice-age while the native brook trout remained severely impacted by many of the practices begun by the first colonists, and continued through that time.

Eventually, enlightened management of the lakes and rivers enforced by a dedicated warden service allowed the region’s brook trout to rebound. Combined with environmental legislation curbing the lumber and milling industries, the native fish may be less in number, and smaller in size, but western Maine’s native trout abide in the raucous rapids of the bigger rivers and the tannin-stained bend pools of smaller rills. They can still be found in backwoods ponds seen from dirt-and-gravel logging roads, and those secret waters found only by following a trail traced upon a napkin.

Two years after our first visit to the region, Trish and I purchased a cabin across the lake from the lodge, a camp I often write about. It is here where I gained an appreciation of the interrelationship among my neighbors, the four-legged animals ambling along the banks of the vast lakes and free-flowing rivers, the wood duck, merganser, and loon floating on their surface, the many birds singing from the trees; lupines in the fields, lady’s slippers and trilliums along the shaded trails, the river spiders on the back side of boulders and under wooden docks, the frogs and slugs, all residing with the brook trout, all under the protection of Maine’s ten-million-acre North Woods.

But it wasn’t until I read Annie Proulx’s, Barkskins, a sprawling 713-page tale the San Francisco Chronicle acclaimed as the greatest environmental novel ever written, that I came to understand the underpinnings of our ancestors’ relationship with the bountiful “New World” they “discovered” and the indigenous peoples they found here, and how western economic theory and religious beliefs provided the justification for environmentally devastating practices, such as those employed throughout Maine, New England and across the country.

The book begins in 1693 as two French indentured servants arrive on the shores of “New France” and continues through numerous generations of their families. In telling this elaborate story, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author traces the steady degradation of our forests as well as the attempts to exterminate indigenous societies found on the continent, who in the eyes of western Europeans were an impediment to progress.

The plot is moving, the writing, as would be expected from this distinguished author, superior, as each successive generation finds themselves compelled to carry on the grievous errors of those gone before, sometimes through greed, other times out of ignorance, still others as a result of understandable desperation. Although a novel worth your time, be prepared, for my anger turned to sadness and eventually depression as I set the book on my bedstand for the last time.

So, it was with great relief I opened Katie Holten’s book of essays, The Language of Trees, a Christmas gift from friends.  By the third essay, I was giddy with delight! In these dark times of anti-environmental awareness, anti-intellectualism, antisemitism, anti-immigrant, and anti-democratic principles, this book is a shining reminder of the growing number of those fighting back against these atavistic impulses, working in words, art, and deeds for the very survival of this tiny orb each of us calls home.

One of the essays in Holten’s book, Speaking of Nature, by Robin Wall Kimmerer led me to the latter’s insightful and thoughtful National Best Seller, Braiding Sweetgrass. As a writer, I was intrigued to learn of the significance of the English language in fostering the abuse rendered upon the natural world and on a culture based upon co-existence with nature rather than its subjugation. In Braiding Sweetgrass , the decorated professor/botanist/poet explains why her Potawatomi grandfather, among so many others, were taken to schools like the Carlisle Indian School, a practice also outlined in Barkskins. I’d been aware of the cruelty of these efforts to extinguish the culture of native peoples, which included the prohibition of speaking their language, but never really understood the insidious reasons behind it.

A fundamental tenant of Western philosophy is that humans are superior to all on this earth and as such, the rest of the planet, living and inanimate, were put here for our use. Many are aware of the passage in Genesis 1:28

“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

The very Almighty had granted we humans rights over all else. A reason why not only Native Peoples, but those of different color were spoken of in words casting them as inferior and therefore under western philosophy, to be subjugated, and in the case of the black race, enslaved, and lest we forget, in later years, the attempted extinction of Jews in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany.   

And as Annie Proux describes in Barkskins, Katie Holten in The Language of Trees, and Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass, that by God, is what we did, many times over, again and again, in HIS name, from one shining sea to the other, and then across the globe.

In doing so, western Europeans could not abide a belief that might dictate otherwise, and since indigenous peoples base their beliefs not on the superiority of humans, but on our equality with all others calling the planet home, the language spoken by native peoples was as Robin Wall Kimmerer points out in her aforementioned essay, “an affront to the ears of the colonist in every way.”

In Braiding Sweetgrass, she explains,In English, we never refer to a member of our family…as it. That would be a profound act of disrespect.” Indigenous languages extend this right of respect to the world around them. Birds, bugs, and berries are spoken with the same respectful grammar as humans are.” The impersonal “IT” does not appear. “Because,” as Kimmerer points out, “they are our family.”

The botanist explains why anthropomorphism is detested whereas in the language of Native Peoples it is replete. If we are to subjugate the world, we must maintain our superiority in language, the underpinning for our deeds.

She describes one Native American origin story where Skywoman falls toward the earth only to find water. She is saved by geese who cushion her fall. A turtle offers his back as a refuge and a muskrat sacrifices his life to dive toward the bottom of the lake, returning with a fistful of mud to create a place for her to live. In return, Skywoman plants seeds and nuts for the benefit of all.

Kimmerer contrasts this tale with another woman who lived in a garden with a tree. She recounts how that mother of men is made to wander the wilderness while ordered to subdue the earth and its creatures to earn her bread. The botanist ends the contrast between the creation tales with the observation of the scars inflicted upon the earth and its inhabitants when “the children of Eve encounter those of Skywoman.”

In Barkskins, Proulx describes how the colonists of North America burned down trees to make space for their potatoes and corn while referring to the indigenous peoples as “savages,” describing them as “lazy” because they preferred to conserve the forest. Land to the westerner was to be owned while for the Native American it was communal, to be used for sure, but never abused.

Language provided the permission structure for the subjugation of the land. Nature became objectified. An unwanted wildflower is a weed. We harvest game rather than kill it. As Kimmerer points out, when the forest is spoken about in terms of timber or board feet it becomes a lifeless object, an eagle no different than a jet, a bear the same as a bulldozer, all encompassed by the impersonal pronoun–IT.

If you met a neighbor in distress, would you not stop to ask the problem? If you could, would you not help? Everywhere we look, the natural world is crying out for our assistance!

First it was New England’s cherished chestnut trees and then the elm. More recently it has been the eastern hemlocks, spruce, and now the majestic, and some say magical, ash ravaged by invasive species. With the changes in temperatures, New England’s maple trees may no longer give over their syrup.

What will the deer hunter say when the last mast has fallen? For the canoeist, it might be the loss of a patch of powder-blue iris in a hidden cove. For the hiker, delicate lady’s slippers and secretive May apples beside the trail. Birders may regret the loss of the eagle, gliding on a thermal current, the osprey diving for its meal or a harrier hawk gliding low over the edge of a marsh. Some might long for the sweet song of the bluebird or the cheerful chirps of a chickadee, and there are those who worry about the honey bees and the monarch butterfly. Death to the planet by a thousand cuts.

For Katie Holten it is the forests. For Robin Wall Kimmerer it is “this good, green earth.” For one of our generation’s foremost songwriters, the late John Prine, it was a “backwards old town” in Kentucky.

“Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County?
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking.
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”


But like I said, for me it’s always been about the fish. For I cannot live in a world without brook trout, and brook trout cannot live without aquatic insects, such as the delicate mayfly with its fairy-like wings and caddis flies, intriguing fellows these, who carry their homes of pebbles and sticks on their backs. Both fish and bugs require clean, cool, running streams and rivers, which in turn depend upon stable temperatures and the forest for shade and erosion control.

Like the brook trout, I’m a loner, the reason I gravitate toward those places less travelled. Why I spend hours behind closed doors, struggling to follow a trail of words as they appear from some unknown source, on occasion to fill a page.

I’m not a joiner. I pay dues to my local Trout Unlimited Chapter and a few other organizations, but rarely attend meetings.  My inclination is to spend my time seated on a mossy bank of some tannin-stained stream. While there, I might welcome the company of a chocolate toad no larger than a button on my shirt, happy to greet a black bear lumbering past in search of a favorite raspberry patch, the moose looking bemused at finding me loafing about or the sleepy-eyed prickly paw waddling across the path after a night’s adventure. I’d be pleased to hear the splash of a beaver’s tail, sneak a peek at a mink slinking around a set of nearby boulders or a family of otters slipping down a ramp of mud like children on a play-ground slide, and maybe, just maybe, watching one of western Maine’s native brook trout rise through the stillness of a forest pool.

But, if as Katie Holten warns in The Language of Trees, we are sleeping-walking into the apocalypse, do we not owe it to those good neighbors—the brook trout, the bear and moose, the porcupine and mink, the beaver and otter, the chocolate toad, the plants and trees, the air we breathe and the water we drink, to wipe the sleep from our eyes?

We may have overslept, but the alarm clock is ringing. Will you rise or simply slam it shut?