Sunday, August 25, 2013

Object Mississippi River

the river at 6

In my literature & environment courses this semester, I'm having my students choose a single thing to write about for the entire semester, once a week or so. The writings will range from observational to research-oriented, and from lyrical to prosaic. The point is not to achieve exhaustive mastery or a complete history of an object, but rather simply to stick with something for a period of time, returning to it at different times and in different lights. To write about some thing, to get to know it, in a cumulative and perspectival fashion, and to experiment with different rhetorical strategies by way of seeing how environmental literature works. Throughout the semester I'm going to do this, too—and my object is going to be the Mississippi River. This is my first entry.

I leave the house at 5:45AM and walk 20 minutes to the river. By first light I am standing in the current up to my knees on a sandy shelf of submerged willow saplings, their leaves (and other things, from tissuey Rite-Aid shopping bags to torn sweatshirt sleeves and other slimy things) swirling around my legs and feet. I'm here to fly-fish.

first light

Fish are exploding all over the surface of the water, some of them rocketing six-feet high, repeatedly shooting out and slapping back in (they don't change angles enough to actually "dive" back in). Some of the fish look more like monsters, enormous scaly backs breaching the surface. The lights from the warehouses and docks across the river cast eerie reflections on the smooth water. I catch a few small lady fish and a white bass. A couple days later, I hear someone at the fly shop describe lady fish as "poor man's tarpon." I also learn that their family name elopidae comes from the Greek ellops, for a kind of serpent. And they do have a silvery serpentine quality, especially when they are schooling, as they seemed to be that morning. These fish may well require further inquiry.

flopping blurry lady fish

But catching fish is really only a small part of this adventure, an excuse or structure to stand in this place and notice other things—like seeing the clouds stack up across the river, and exploring the weird riparian ecosystem under dense willow canopies. Someone has left a shrine of some sort in a willow stump, a carefully arranged (now burned down) candle, with attendant unidentifiable trinkets.

cloud stack

One of the things that strikes me as I fish is a strangely beautiful tinkling music fading in and out; upon investigation, I realize that it is the sound of broken glass from thousands of hurled beer bottles intermingling with myriad shells and stones washed up from the river, both of which gently collide with the wire retaining mesh holding up the riprap. The sound is barely audible, but arresting once you hear it. It's a postmodern version of an Aeolian harp, I guess.

glass shells stones

Another sensation arrives with the silent approach of a giant crude oil tanker bearing the name Eagle Torrance, which glides by me heading upriver. After the ship passes, an enormous wake comes rolling in, really impressively huge waves that disturb the fish and send them scattering and jumping like crazy. The swells take me by surprise and I get wet up to my waist, but the disturbance is somehow delightful, changing the feel of the river suddenly and dramatically. I think of my student Stewart, who is working on a thesis project on surfing, and I wonder if anyone surfs the waves created by ship wakes on the river—the swells are really that big and strong, when they surge. 

the Eagle Torrance before its wake hits me

I owe this experience to a mystery person named Brian, whom I've seen fly-fishing down here for several years, now. One day I finally worked up the nerve to climb down the riprap (cradling my little boy) and chat with him; Brian turned out to be the nicest guy, and he intrigued me with his articulate knowledge of the river and his low key approach to fly-fishing. I've always been like this myself, fishing as more of something that just comes naturally to me rather than treated as a high tech, tricked-out form of sport or leisure. I have a couple fishing shirts, but they are hardly recognizable as such. Anyway, Brian encouraged me to join him, and so, after spending the summer picking up my fly cast again in the lakes and beaver swamps of northern Michigan, I was ready to try it—and I'm so glad I did. I'm going to make it a regular thing, recording the river as I go. Thanks to Brian.

Brian, upriver