(I was recently talking with someone who had never heard of “A River Runs Through It,” the classic fly-fishing, Montana, newspapery, wilderness story by Norman Maclean. He hadn’t even seen the movie which, although it wasn’t as good as the book (natch), still gave homage to the wonder of the mountain west and the many ways people there live and die. It’s not new literature, but it’s great literature.)
In The Songlines, his account of Australian aborigines and their mystical relationship to their dry and inhospitable homeland, Bruce Chatwin outlines the way that the native peoples use their songs to find their way in the outback. Song-stories, rich in detail about how the land was formed and how each segment along a route fits with the others, are handed down from one generation to the next as a way of maintaining a sense of place and a sense of the extent to which the individual and the tribe belongs to the land.
This intense immersion in the ways of nature is a characteristic of many indigenous peoples and is often intertwined with various religious traditions, elevating the land and one’s understanding of it to a sacred status. For many of us who come from different traditions and for whom intercontinental air travel and the Interstate Highway System serve to insulate us from natural rhythms, this sense of the land as a spiritual force is often difficult to cultivate. Still, Chatwin believed that, “Songlines were not necessarily an Australian phenomenon, but universal; that they were the means by which man marked out his territory and so organised his social life” (Chatwin, 786). There are, of course, other ways of singing.
Norman Maclean, in his classic work, A River Runs Through It, tells the story of men who sing their world into existence with a rod and reel. The land that he and his brother call home, the big sky country of western Montana, is a land of superlatives, a fact that Maclean alludes to in his description: The Big Blackfoot river was the most powerful they’d ever fished; the temperature at the nearby mine was the lowest ever recorded in the U.S.; the flood that resulted from the breaking of the prehistoric Montana/Idaho ice dam was the “biggest flood in the world for which there is geological evidence… so vast a geological event that the mind of man could only conceive of it but could not prove it until photographs could be taken from earth satellites” (Maclean, 458). It is a land so vast and so wild that the people who live there need to develop some method of incremental understanding of it in order to have it make sense to them. For Maclean, his brother and his father, a fly rod and reel is their way of interacting with the land, listening to what it has to say and cementing their place within it.
“One great thing about fly fishing is that after a while nothing exists of the world but thoughts about fly fishing” (Maclean, 462). It is this ability to become wholly immersed in the activity that allows for a closer identification with the land itself. This is not religion, at least not in the way that the land and the waters are revered as the home of gods, but there is still a strong sense of the sacred captured in Maclean’s sentiment. “We regarded it as a family river, as a part of us” (Maclean, 458), he says of the Big Blackfoot, and it is through the act of fishing that the river had become thus.
In his description of the river, Maclean speaks as one who is familiar with its every twist and turn. He knows the deep pools, the snags and the rocky beaches by heart, and he navigates by an innate sense gained through familiarity. The rivers of his youth, and this one in particular, defined him in a spiritual sense.
It is interesting to see his deference to his brother when it came to fishing. Although Norman was certainly more reliable, sober and responsible than his younger sibling, he recognized his brother’s expertise with the rod and the way that for him, fishing was beyond art, and had become a sort of communication with the divine. The way he describes his brother’s casting from the top of a big river rock has an air of the miraculous, the water droplets falling from his line and forming a halo around him, then “disappearing into the rising vapors of the river, which continually circled to the tops of the cliffs where, after becoming a wreath in the wind, that became rays of the sun” (Maclean, 464). In his brother, Maclean saw a flawed individual who nevertheless, because of his fishing ability and the way he was able to meld with his surroundings, had achieved a sort of sainthood.
Another observation that Maclean makes about his brother and his fishing speaks to the impact that the sport had on his brother’s physique. “Long ago, he had gone far beyond my father’s wrist casting, although his right wrist had become so important that it had become larger than his left. His right arm… too, was larger than his left arm” (Maclean, 465). In this description, Maclean describes the outward indications of an inward devotion. It is through the repeated sacrament of fly fishing that the body and the mind have developed and their connection with the land made complete.
This connection that Maclean describes is of a kind with that of Chatwin’s aborigines and with a host of other societies who live close to the land and define themselves in relation to their surroundings. Fishing is not a religion, but it answers the same questions for Norman and his brother as those asked by Australian natives in their own world: How did I get here? Where am I going? And, what is my purpose?