Monday, November 30, 2015

Racism, Samaritans, and Saints

As I've read news about recent protests on campuses across the country I've often wondered how I could respond helpfully if I were an administrator at one of those campuses. And I have not found it easy to answer my own question.

The closest I've come is this: when my kids were little, I taught them that despite what others may say, there are no bad words; but there are bad uses of good words. When we use our words to hurt others or to deprive them of what they need to grow and flourish, we are using our words badly.

Plainly there are acts, institutions, rituals and monuments that foster an undeserved poor view of some of our neighbors. Those should be changed or abolished.

But I don't think that's enough, and those might be more like symptoms than the illness itself.

I think we need to work to make sure we use our words in ways that help and heal, nurture and teach. I think we need leaders (at all levels) who will take positions of leadership as opportunities to edify and promote those who have not had such opportunities yet.

To put it in simpler terms, I think we need to work harder at loving our neighbors. Jesus told a story about this once, focusing on established ethnic hatred with deep political roots. I refer to the parable of the "Good Samaritan." This parable is the best answer I've got so far to the question I have posed for myself. If you've got the power to help others, and you see others needing help, then help them without regard for what it costs you. This is not easy, but it's what I want to strive for. 


What do you think? What am I forgetting? Am I too naive and optimistic? I welcome thoughtful replies that show kindness towards a wide range of readers. (If you want to simply cuss me out or insult my ignorance, please save that for a direct message, or let me take you out for a beer or coffee so you've got more of my attention. Thanks.)

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Lesser Feast of C.S. Lewis

On this day in 1963, Clive Staples Lewis died.  Some of us now observe November 22nd as the Lesser Feast of C.S. Lewis.  Here is one of my favorite passages from Lewis: 

“To be frank, I have no pleasure in looking forward to a meeting between humanity and any alien rational species. I observe how the white man has hitherto treated the black, and how, even among civilized men, the stronger have treated the weaker. If we encounter in the depth of space a race, however innocent and amiable, which is technologically weaker than ourselves, I do not doubt that the same revolting story will be repeated. We shall enslave, deceive, exploit or exterminate; at the very least we shall corrupt it with our vices and infect it with our diseases. We are not yet fit to visit other worlds. We have filled our own with massacre, torture, syphilis, famine, dust bowls and all that is hideous to ear or eye. Must we go on to infect new realms? ...It was in part these reflections that first moved me to make my own small contributions to science fiction. In those days writers in the genre almost automatically represented the inhabitants of other worlds as monsters and the terrestrial invaders as good….The same problem, by the way, is beginning to threaten us as regards the dolphins. I don’t think it has yet been proved that they are rational. But if they are, we have no more right to enslave them than to enslave our fellow-men. And some of us will continue to say this, but we shall be mocked.”
--C.S. Lewis, “The Seeing Eye,” in Christian Reflections, Walter Hooper, Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 173-4.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

South Fork, Eagle River

After breakfast we put sack lunches in the cooler and threw our backpacks in the fifteen-passenger van. Half an hour later we were piling out at the state park on the South Fork of the Eagle River.

The houses here are ugly. Taken on their own, any one of them is a beautiful building. Plainly this is spendy real estate in God’s country. But the houses look like they were lifted from the pages of some little-boxes-full-of-ticky-tacky architectural lust propaganda and carpet-bombed on the hillside, then allowed to remain wherever they fell. There is no order, no sense that the houses were built for the place. Every one of them is a garish, angular excrescence on the opposite hillside. No doubt their inmates would disagree with my assessment; they only see the houses up close, and from the inside. They must have no idea how out of place their unnatural rectangles look against the sweeping slope of the Chugach Range. No doubt, when you’re on the other side of those big plates of glass, gazing over here at the state park over your morning K-cup, the view is precious. But when you’re in the state park, looking back, there is nothing on the opposite hillside to love. Over here, there is only regret that these people believed that you could buy both the land and the landscape.

It’s about three miles’ hike in to first bridge in state park. A fairly easy up-and-down walk. It’s raining. Spitting, really, what they call chipichipi in Guatemala, a constant drizzle. The sky is a palette of cottony grays that have lowered themselves onto the mountaintops. There is a clear line below which the mountains are visible. Above it, clouds roll and shift.

I shiver a little in my heavy raincoat and think about putting on my rain pants, but I know I’ll be too hot if I do. Some of my students are wearing shorts.

At the footbridge we sit and eat our lunches. The university has packed us red delicious apples (a mendacious name), bags of honey Dijon potato chips, and turkey sandwiches with lettuce and onions. It’s not good turkey, but no one cares. This is a lovely place. We have other food in this place.

The river is only fifteen feet wide here, and it is the color of chalk, like diluted Milk of Magnesia. Taking off my shoes, I wade in.  Immediately my feet start to ache with cold. Turning over a stone, I look at its underside.  The gray water drips off and a tiny larva wriggles to get out of the light. It's too small to identify it, maybe a miniscule stonefly.  A huge blue dragonfly cruises over the river, darting past me.

There are lots of wildflowers up here. One of my students is on the ground with her laminated guidebook, puzzling over one specimen. I've been carrying these guides everywhere, but they're only helpful for about seventy-five percent of the common stuff. There's just too much life here to get it all in a book.

The flowers grow in so many colors, so many strategies for getting the scarce pollinators' attention in the brief summer. Yellows, purples, and blues predominate. The guidebook warns me about several of the purples: DO NOT EAT THIS! Some of them are poisonous.  So are a few of the yellows. This is a beautiful place, but it's also a harsh place, and life clings to the edge. Poison is one good way not to get eaten, I suppose. Looking up the mountain, the trees give way to shrubs a hundred yards above us.  A hundred yards more and there's only grass.  Above that, I can only see rock.

Some of these plants have another strategy: rather than avoiding getting eaten, they invite it. Berries are the way some plants make use of animals to carry their seeds to new places.  Bear scat, full of seeds, is all along the trails here.  Each mound is a nursery where some new plant may grow in the fertile dung.

There is a kind of berry like a blueberry that grows on something that looks like a mix between evergreens and moss, only a few inches high.  Some people call it "mossberry," appropriately.  Some locals call it a blackberry.  Matt tells us they're crowberries, as he gathers a handful. He eats some and then the students tentatively pick and eat some too.

We spend three hours there at the bridge, observing. There's so much to see.  Some of us write, some draw, some stare at the peaks that surround us.  A few doze off.  I get out my watercolors and try to paint the landscape, but I'm quickly frustrated. There are so many greens and grays and blues, and I'm no good at mixing colors.  I keep painting anyway.  I can at least try to get the shapes right, I think, but I'm wrong about that, too.  The mountains are stacked up in layers, and the lines look clean and clear at first, but when I try to focus on them they blur into one another.  The hanging glacier at the end of the valley looms over us, silent and white and yet so eloquent.  The glaciers are what made all of this, and even though they have retreated, the river runs with their tillage, the plants grow in their finely ground dust, the smooth slopes were ground smooth by millennia of ice.

Upstream, Brenden hooks his first-ever dolly varden. This is his first fish in Alaska. He is positively glowing with delight. He cradles it in his hand and then quickly returns it to the water pausing only to admire this vibrant glacial relic of a char.  It too depends on the glacier.

The temperature is constantly shifting as the sun comes in and out of the clouds. Each part of the valley takes its turn being illuminated: the river shines like silver; the mountainside glows bright green and the rocks and bushes above the tree line cast sharp shadows; high in the valley small glaciers are bright ribbons streaking the blue granite. The clouds push the sunlight in ribbons across the valley. When we are suddenly in the light, we are warm.

After a few hours we walk back to the car. No one wants to go. For a while we drive in luminous silence.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Steinbeck on Overfishing

"In about an hour we came to the Japanese fishing fleet.  There were six ships doing the actual dredging while a large mother ship of at least 10,000 tons stood farther offshore at anchor. THe dredge boats themselves were large, 150- to 175 feet, probably about 600 tons. There were twelve boats in the combined fleet including the mother ship, and they were doing a very systematic job, not only of taking shrimp from the bottom, but every other living thing as well.  They cruised slowly along in echelon with overlapping dredges, literally scraping the bottom clean.  Any animal wich escaped must have been very fast indeed, for not even the sharks got away.  Why the Mexican government should have permitted the complete destruction of a valuable food supply is one of those mysteries which have their ramifications possibly back in pockets it is not well to look into."
John Steinbeck, The Log From The Sea Of Cortez. (Penguin, 1995, p. 205)  Emphasis added. Feel free to substitute the name of any other coastal government for the word "Mexican."

Thursday, May 14, 2015

What Thucydides Can Teach Us About Imperial Overreach

My latest article, co-authored with John Kaag.  Here's a sample:
"As we dwell in our golden, Athenian age of military and economic might, perhaps we should learn another lesson from the ancients as well. Aristotle tells us that a virtuous soul is not a soul without fear, but one that fears only the right things; and it is not moved by fear, because it tempers it with wisdom. In the end, the loss of virtue may be more dire than the loss of geopolitical prominence."
You can read it all here.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Is Thinking Real? Peirce On Neuro-Determinism

"Tell me, upon sufficient authority, that all cerebration depends upon movements of neurites that strictly obey certain physical laws, and that thus all expressions of thought, both external and internal, receive a physical explanation, and I shall be ready to believe you. But if you go on to say that this explodes the theory that my neighbour and myself are governed by reason, and are thinking beings, I must frankly say that it will not give me a high opinion of your intelligence."

Charles Sanders Peirce, "A Neglected Argument For The Reality Of God."

A Commercial Company Becomes A Church...And Then A Nation

“When the king and High Church party under Archbishop Laud became masters of the Church of England, many Puritan leaders wished to emigrate. They had property, social position, and an independent spirit. They did not wish to go out to Massachusetts Bay as mere vassals of a company in London. Moreover, they hoped to set up the kind of Church government they liked. Therefore, the principal Puritans of the company simply bought up all its stock, took the charter, and sailed with it to America. A commercial company was thus converted into a self-governing colony—the colony of Massachusetts Bay.”
Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager, A Short History of the United States. (New York: The Modern Library, 1956) p.11

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

On Church Organs and Church Music

Recently I had the good fortune to hear an organ concert in Westminster Abbey.  Not long afterwards I heard someone asking whether churches should get rid of their old organs.  The question is a reasonable one, since organs are expensive to maintain, nigh impossible to move, and not many people can play them well.  To those charges we should add the charge that organs are old-fashioned, and we are not.

I happen to love organ music, so that's one reason why I think we shouldn't get rid of the organs that remain in our churches. But there is at least one more important reason to think carefully about replacing them.  Sometimes organs don't fit well with the buildings they are in, as though the organ was purchased on its own merits and not for the way it matched the acoustics of the building that holds it.  In those cases, I don't see the loss if they're removed.  

But this is a failing of architecture and economics, not just of music. The problem in that case is far greater than the sin of not being contemporary.  An organ that does not match the church, or a church that is not made to be acoustically beautiful - both of these are failures, the kind of failure that comes from people who think that design and aesthetics are luxuries.  But design is never neutral; it always helps or hurts. Efficiencies and economics can be the enemies of accomplishing the most worthwhile ends.

Here's what Westminster Abbey reminded me of: a well-built organ is not just an instrument; it is a part of the edifice itself. Specifically, it is the part that turns the whole edifice into a musical instrument.  When the organ at Westminster is being played, it is not just a keyboard or pipes that are being played, but the whole building. Every bit of the building resounds.  The music is not an isolated event anymore; the notes played and the place in which they are played have merged, and each reaches out to affirm the other.  A good organ turns a church into a musical instrument.

Too often churches think of aesthetics last, if at all, or refuse to make aesthetics part of their theology.  This is a huge mistake.  The prophets describe the architectural adornments of the Ark and the Tabernacle and the Temple, giving those aesthetical elements a permanent place in Jewish and Christian canonical scripture.  Similarly, the scriptures are full of songs and poems that - one could argue - are unnecessary to salvation. As Scott Parsons and I have argued, art and the sacred belong together. Our faith is not a matter of mere talk; sometimes what must be articulated cannot be said in words, but needs the smell of incense, the ringing of a sanctus bell, the deep bellow of a pipe organ, the beauty of light well-captured in glass or terrazzo.

If you're not sure of what I mean, listen to Árstí∂ir sing the medieval hymn Heyr himna smi∂ur -- in a train station.  Can you imagine that being sung in a church with similar acoustics?  Here's what I love about the video: when they sing that beautiful old song, everyone around them stops to listen.  The beauty of the song is arresting, especially when it is paired with the building.  What keeps us from dreaming of building churches, writing music, and designing instruments that could similarly arrest us?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Made In The Image

Those who think the mind is only a calculating machine, or that thought is alien to willing and feeling - do they not wind up creating themselves in the image of a machine that is, in turn, created in the image of our own thinking?

This is like taking a picture of our reflection in the mirror and then arguing that we are two-dimensional, a fact that is proven both in the photograph and in the reflection in the mirror.  What further proof do we need?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Liberal Education And Freedom

"We seem to have forgotten that the expression "a liberal education" originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only. But taking a hint from the word, I would go a step further and say, that it is not the man of wealth and leisure simply, though devoted to art, or science, or literature, who, in a true sense, is liberally educated, but only the earnest and free man."
H.D. Thoreau, "The Last Days of John Brown"

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Palm Sunday and the Vocation of a Church

Mercy Church, Sioux Falls, South Dakota 
Palm Sunday, 2015

It is often helpful to have a sense, at the beginning of a lecture or a sermon, of where it is going. Since many churches are celebrating Palm Sunday today, I want to talk about Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, which marked the end of one kind of ministry in his life, and the beginning of something new in the church. I take yours to be a congregation that is also in a time of transition, so I’d like to offer you some questions to help you think about the next stage of the life of this congregation. In simple terms, I want to take a simple feature from the Palm Sunday story – the palms themselves – and use them as a way of thinking about our vocation as individuals and as congregations.

If you find it easier to follow a sermon when it’s written out, I’ve put the text of this sermon on my blog, which you can find by going to the address on the screen or by googling “slowperc” and “mercy church.” If ever you wanted an excuse to look at your phone during church, this is it. I might ad lib from that script a little, but I’ll try to stick fairly close to it.


Let’s begin with reading the story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. It is recorded by all four of the Gospels. Here is John’s version:

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord-- the King of Israel!" Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: "Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!" His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. (John 12:12-16)

The story is simple: Jesus came riding into town on a donkey, and people held palm branches as he rode by. Matthew’s Gospel adds that the people laid the palm branches and their own cloaks on the road in front of the donkey.

The Gospels often tell us such stories without telling us what they mean. I imagine that when the Gospels were written, it would have been obvious what this all meant, but since we don’t have city walls, we don’t ride donkeys for transportation, and we don’t have palm trees, the elements of the story are not part of our ordinary experience. That makes it a little harder to grasp what is going on here, which in turn can make it a little harder for us to figure out what the story means for us.

There’s a lot in the story I won’t bother to try to unpack, but I’d like to connect it to how we think about the vocation of a congregation. So for now, let me ask you to hold the Palm Sunday story in the back of your mind, and consider another passage of scripture with me:

 For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2.10)

We know the body is made of different parts. Each person here has a different set of gifts. One body, many parts; one holy, catholic and apostolic church, many congregations; one congregation, many gifts; one calling, many different ways of answering that calling.

Students at my college often come to me asking me what I think they should do with their lives. I am reluctant to tell anyone what they should do with their lives, but I am always willing to offer them some questions that I think will help them to consider their vocation.

Not all of my students are Christians, or even religious, but I don’t think you’ve got to have a particular religion all sorted out before you can get a sense that your life might be charged with purpose. The questions I offer them are, I think, relevant for everyone. I believe they are also relevant for congregations like this one as you try to sort out your calling.

 Of course, there are some common and general directions for all of us who want to follow Christ: We are to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We should always do what we can to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. We are called and commanded to offer mercy, and not just sacrifice. Paul enjoins us to know Christ and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection of the dead. Orphans and widows in their distress are our family and we should give them aid and comfort. Jesus offers two simple directions to his disciples in the Gospels: “follow me” and “love one another.” For Christians, there is no escaping these basics.

But these commandments are also vague and general. It is one thing to commit to loving one another; it is quite another to get to work on the actual task of love, here, now, today. Being Christ’s student means taking the general lesson and making it concrete in our lives, putting the theory into practice.

Let’s turn back to the Palm Sunday story now, to consider some of its symbolism. First, Jesus rode a donkey. According to some sources, this was a sign of a king coming in peace. A king coming in conquest would ride a war horse; a king coming in triumph and peace would ride a donkey.

Second, the palms: these could also be signs of triumph, or of the celebration of a king. In the book of Revelation we read:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7.9)

There it appears that the palm branches were the appropriate way to greet a king on his throne. Perhaps they were also a sign of promise; if you cut down your palm branches, you might be giving up future productivity of your palm trees. You’d only do that if you were confident that you had reason to believe you’d be taken care of even if your trees produced a little less.

Whatever the symbolism of the branches, what we know from the Gospels is that the people who met Jesus coming into Jerusalem honored him with palm fronds. Once again, we live in a different time and place, and we don’t see Jesus literally coming into our city on a donkey, nor do we have palm trees. Nevertheless, Christ dwells among us, and we do have ways of honoring him.

I’ve been traveling a lot in the last few months, teaching in both Central America and Europe. Along the way, I’ve seen a lot of churches, and they’re all a little different. Each one is built using local materials, and decorated in local colors. Each one is designed according to a local style of architecture.

One congregation in Guatemala is full of wooden pews made from the neotropical forest nearby. The doors and windows are often open so the breeze filters through, and the concrete walls make it a cool building in a hot place. I often hear women singing in it as I pass by, and it houses the image of the patron saint of the town, San José, or Saint Joseph the carpenter, an image that seems to inspire a good deal of festivity and local pride.

Another congregation, I like to visit is the tiny Greek Orthodox monastery of Saint Paul in Lavrion, Greece. The ten nuns who live there have built their church with their own hands. The walls are being frescoed with icons, and the colors used in the frescoes come from minerals mined nearby. One nun told me a few years ago that this was a symbol of the way God takes the lowliest things and raises them up for the loftiest purposes. Not many people will ever see this church, hidden on a hillside, but those who do often find it to be a place of holy tranquility and refuge.

 In Barcelona, one congregation has been building a church that is taking so long to build that no member who saw it begun will live to see it completed. The very act of construction stands as a rebuke to haste and a reminder that there are things worth doing that will outlast our own lives.

Each congregation has different gifts, different opportunities, different visions. We all share a calling – to enjoy God – but we all have different ways of following that calling. If you have palm branches, then raise them. But if you don’t have palm branches, raise what you have. In the name of Christ churches have raised hospitals, schools and universities, homeless shelters and soup kitchens. They have raised funds for the poor, they have raised their voices against injustice, they have raised issues before legislatures. They have raised gardens for beauty, and vegetables to give away. They have raised children who will love God and their neighbor. They have raised missionaries who will refuse to neglect their neighbors who are far away, and they have raised students who will pursue their calling in their communities and live lives of goodness and love. For many centuries churches have raised artists who will give works of beauty not just to the wealthy but to anyone who would hear or see them. No congregation that I know of can raise all these things, but each congregation has something, some palm branch to raise to welcome the arrival of Christ. What will you raise?

This brings me to my conclusion. I promised you some questions. I’ll ask them quickly here, but let me urge you to continue to reflect on them in the weeks and months ahead.

1) What is the Sioux Falls equivalent of palm fronds? What do you have at your disposal that you can lay down before Christ to honor him?

2) How do you see Christ the king of peace entering our city? Jesus had been to Jerusalem before Palm Sunday, but on that day he entered the city in a different way. Are there new ways in which Christ is making his presence known to you?

When my students ask me about what to do with their lives, I ask them three questions, which I will now ask you:

3) What are you good at? What do you like? What difference do you want to have made in your life?

Take time to think about these questions as individuals, and take some more time to listen to one another and affirm one another. Remember that sometimes what we are good at is not something we like to do; and that sometimes the things we like to do aren’t things we are good at. And remember that this is okay. Offer your loves, and your desires to God with thanksgiving.

Remember that just as every person has different gifts and callings, so does every church. We are all called to follow Christ, but the way we follow Christ will depend on who we are, where we live, what we love, and what we are capable of doing. Just as we can ask those questions about individuals, we can ask them about congregations. What is this congregation good at? What does this congregation love? What difference does it want to make in this generation? Take time to offer these questions and the answers you give to God in prayer, with thanksgiving.

In the Palm Sunday story, as in our lives, it is God who enters, God who comes as the peace-bringer, God who brings about the new and surprising and beautiful order of things. The people do not make God enter; we respond to God’s entrance, raising up what we have at hand. Our calling is to use what we have to honor the Lover that has first loved us, the Peacemaker who has brought us peace, the Joyful maker who made us.

Hosanna in the highest!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Professors of Trout

In the course of writing Downstream (my book on brook trout) I did a lot of research about trout and fly-fishing.  Thankfully, it turns out I'm not the only academic interested in brook trout and fly rods.  Far from it! 

Really, this shouldn't be too surprising.  Fly-fishing requires us to look attentively, seeing past the surface of the water in order to discern what is happening deeper down.  Far more than simply catching fish, fly-fishing is a practice of reading water as though it were a natural text.

Several authors, professors, and fellow-thinkers have been helping me to deepen my literacy in these streams of thought lately. Among them are Kurt Fausch, Douglas Thompson, and David Suchoff.

Fausch is one of the world's authorities on trout biology and ecology.  I had the privilege of reading a draft of Fausch's forthcoming book, For The Love Of Rivers, (see the book trailer here) and I highly recommend it.  It is a lovely marriage of science and lyrical writing.  You'll learn a lot about the life of rivers, written by a remarkable writer who loves them deeply.

Thompson's book, The Quest For The Golden Trout is next on my to-read list, but I've already snuck some glimpses at it and I am eager to get to it.  I'll post more about it when I'm done.  Meanwhile, check out his webpage

I discovered Suchoff recently when I saw one of his students fly-fishing for bonefish in Belize.  I teach a January-term field ecology course for Augustana College in Guatemala and Belize.  One morning I looked out over the intertidal flat and saw a young woman casting a heavy fly in turtle grass on South Water Caye.  I ran into her later on shore and she told me about a terrific class Suchoff teaches at Colby College in Maine.  He teaches them the literature of fly-fishing, arranges professional instruction, then takes his students fishing in California, and teaches them to write about it.  You can find him on Twitter, too.

One of the joys of research is that it gives me the excuse to write to strangers who share my interests and ask them to teach me what they know.  My acquaintance with two of these professors is quite new, but already I've learned from them.  The third, Fausch, I've known for long enough that he reviewed a draft of my book and kindly pointed out a few errors before I made them permanent in print. 

These are, as I've said, just a few of the university professors who study trout.  Are you another?  I'd love to hear from you if so.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Nature As A Classroom

For the last two weeks my students and I have been in Petén, Guatemala, studying the ecology of the region. For half that time we stayed with local families. Our homestays were arranged by the Asociación Bio-Itzá, an indigenous Maya conservation organization that runs a Spanish school to support their work in preserving a section of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The other half of the time we spent on the reserve and hiking the Ruta Chiclera, a forty-mile trek through the Zotz and Tikal reserves, vast areas of largely unbroken subtropical forest.

These are not always easy conditions. Many hard-working Guatemalans live in poverty that is hard to conceive in our country; it is hot and wet except for when it is cold and wet; biting insects are everywhere; disease and snakes and thorny vines like bayal are constant threats.

But it is also a beautiful place with astonishing biodiversity and remarkable people whose resilience and generosity always make me want to improve my own character. They welcome us into their homes and into their lives, and they are glad to see us come to appreciate the place they live.

I expect that my students will forget much of what I say in my lectures and much of what they read in books. But I doubt very much that they will forget the people they have met here. Guatemala has gone from being an abstraction to a concrete reality. When they meet kind people of good character who have walked across Mexico and made it into the USA only to be caught and deported, "illegal immigrants" now have a face, a home, a family at whose table my students have received a nourishing and welcoming meal.

Likewise, they will not likely forget the sound of howler monkeys at night or the experience of scrambling up Maya temples still covered in a thousand years of trees and soil. They won't forget the long walk in a deep green forest and the smells of tortillas and beans cooked over a wood fire.

It is expensive to bring students so far. One could object that the money could be better spent on viewing the forest online or donating it to rainforest conservation. I disagree. I'm not in the business of dispensing information; I'm in the business of transforming lives, and not much transforms like full-bodied experience. Before we leave for Guatemala my students read papers written by wildlife conservation researchers. In Guatemala they meet those researchers in person and get to hear their stories. They hear in their tone and see in their eyes what brought them to Guatemala and what keeps them here. In such times my students go from taking in data to rethinking their lives.

It is my hope - my exuberant, perhaps not wholly rational hope - that out of such lived experience of nature my students will become people who comfort orphans and widows in their distress, who receive the foreigner into their own homes, who marvel and the world's diversity and who, for the rest of their lives, work to preserve it.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Recommended Reading: Fly-Fishing and Trout

I'm preparing to teach a course on ecology and nature writing this summer in Alaska.  One of the keys to becoming a good writer is to read good writing, so I've been asking for book recommendations that might help me prepare for my course.  

The focus of the course will be the char species of Alaska.  These species, all members of the genus salvelinus, are commonly thought of as trout.  Brook trout and lake trout are both char, as are Dolly Vardens and arctic char.

These are beautiful fish.  I think many anglers love them simply because they are so beautiful to look at. When I pull one from the water I am immediately torn between wanting to hold this precious thing closely and the urge to release it immediately, before my coarse hands pollute its loveliness.  The name "char" might come from Celtic roots, like the Gaelic cear, meaning "blood."  They are more multi-hued than rainbow trout.  The red on their sides and fins catches the eye and holds the gaze.

Over the years I spent researching and writing my own book on brook trout, I did a lot of reading.  Some books call me back again and again, like Henry Bugbee's The Inward Morning and Steinbeck's Log From The Sea of Cortez.  Neither one is chiefly about fly-fishing or about trout, but they're both written in a way that makes me re-think how I view the world.  And they do both talk a good deal about fish, and fishing.

Mayfly on my reel.  Summer 2014, Maine.
Of course there are the classics of fly-fishing, too.  Still, as I've asked for suggestions, I've been surprised by how many books there are that I haven't read or haven't even heard of.  Just how many books about fish and fishing do we need?  Are there really so many stories to tell?

If the point of writing books about fish is to give techniques, or data, then we don't need many at all.  But stories about fish and fishing are rarely about the taking of fish.  More often they are about the states of mind that open up as we prepare to enter the water, or as we stand there in the river.  Fishing is to such states of consciousness what kneeling is to prayer; the posture is perhaps not essential, but it is a bodily gesture that does something to prepare us to be open to a certain kind of experience. I won't belabor this point.  Read my book if you really want me to go on about fishing and philosophy.  For now, let me present some of my recommendations, plus the recommendations I've received:

On Nature
I teach environmental philosophy and ecology, so I begin with some orienting books.
  • Henry Bugbee, The Inward Morning. Don't try to read this book quickly, and if you're not prepared to do the hard work of thinking, move on and read something else.  But if you're willing to read slowly and thoughtfully, this book can change your life.  Bugbee was a philosophy professor and an angler.
  • Henry David Thoreau, A Week On The Concord and Merrimack Rivers; The Maine Woods. Thoreau was an occasional angler, and an observer of anglers.  
  • Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and the title essay in The River Of The Mother Of God, about unknown places.  Leopold only writes a little about fish and fishing, but those occasional sentences about angling tend to be shot through with insight.
  • John Muir, Nature Writings.  
  • John Steinbeck, Log From The Sea of Cortez.  An apology for curiosity, in narrative form.  One of my favorite books.
  • Paul Errington, The Red Gods Call. Not brilliant writing, but a fascinating set of memoirs from a professor of biology who put himself through college as a trapper, and about how the Big Sioux River in South Dakota was his first real schoolroom. He talks a good deal about hunting and fishing and what he learned through encounters with animals.
  • Kathleen Dean Moore, The Pine Island Paradox.  Moore is an environmental philosopher who writes winsomely ans insightfully about what nature has meant to her family.  

Some Favorites
  • Nick Lyons.  Nick very kindly wrote the foreword to my book, and when I first got in touch with him about this I discovered he and I had lived only a few miles from each other in the Catskill Mountains for years.  Sadly, by the time I discovered this I'd already moved away, and he was packing up to move to a new home, too.  We both love the miles of small trout streams of those mountains, though.  Nick has been a prolific writer and he has promoted a lot of great writing through his lifelong work as a publisher as well. Nick has a new book, Fishing Stories, just published in 2014.
  • Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through I
  • Ernest Hemingway, especially "Big Two-Hearted River" and the other Nick Adams stories
  • James Prosek. Several books, including Trout: An Illustrated History; Early Love And Brook Trout; and Joe And Me: An Education In Fishing And Friendship 
  • Ted Leeson, The Habit Of Rivers 
  • Kurt Fausch’s new book, For The Love Of Rivers: A Scientist’s Journey. Brilliant writing by one of the world's leading trout biologists.  
  • Craig Nova, Brook Trout and the Writing Life. I also like his novels, and will recommend The Constant Heart.
  • Christopher Camuto, who writes frequently for Trout Unlimited's journal, Trout.
  • Ian Frazier, The Fish's Eye.
  • Douglas Thompson, The Quest For The Golden Trout

These have been recommended time and again.  I'm not sure many people ever actually read the first two, though they become prized volumes in the libraries of anglers around the world.
  • Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler 
  • Dame Juliana Berners, The Boke Of St Albans, later editions of which contain A Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle, possibly authored by someone else. 
  • Nick Karas, Brook Trout (a nice collection of short works about brook trout, including some of my favorite stories)
  • Lee Wulff 
  • Lefty Kreh 

Most Recommended 
  • John Gierach.  Gierach has written a lot about angling, so it's not surprising that so many people mention him to me.  Many of those mentions are positive, but some anglers mention his name with disgust.  I haven't read much of his work, so I can't yet say why.
  • David James Duncan, The River Why.  This is a fun novel set in the Northwest, but it reminds me of the New Haven River in Vermont: there are some long dry stretches one has to plod through, but repeatedly one comes to depths that make the flatter, shallower parts worthwhile.
  • Thomas McGuane, The Longest Silence.  
  • Bill McMillan 
  • Roderick Haig-Brown  

  • Mike Valla, The Founding Flies 
  • Michael Patrick O’Farrell, A Passion For Trout: The Flies And The Methods 

One reason why there is so much writing about fishing is that fishers tend to be students of particular places.  Yes, some people fish by indiscriminately approaching water and drowning hooked worms therein, but experience tends to cure most young anglers of that method.  Fishing puts us into contact with what we cannot see (or cannot see well) under the water; experienced anglers learn to read the signs above the water and the place itself.  We return to the same place as we return to beloved passages in books or to favorite songs, to know them better through repetition.
  • Peter Reilly, Lakes and Rivers of Ireland 
  • Derek Grzelewski, The Trout Diaries: A Year of Fly-fishing In New Zealand and The Trout Bohemia: Fly-Fishing Travels In New Zealand 
  • Eeva-Kaarina Aronen, Die Lachsfischerin. A novel set in Finland, about fly-fishing and fly-tying in the 18th century. The title translates as “The Salmon Fisherwoman” 
  • Ian Colin James, Fumbling With A Fly Rod (Scotland)
  • Zane Grey, Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado: New Zealand 
  • Leslie Leyland Fields, Surviving the Island of Grace; and Hooked! Fields and her family are commercial fishers in Alaska, and her writing comes recommended to me from a number of sources.

Other Frequent Recommendations
If I talk to a group of anglers about books for long enough, one or more of these will eventually be mentioned.  Stylistically and in terms of content, they're quite different, but they all seem to speak to important moods and thoughts of anglers.
  • Sheridan Anderson, The Curtis Creek Manifesto
  • Harry Middleton, The Earth Is Enough: Growing Up In A World Of Fly-fishing, Trout, And Old Men (Memoir) 
  • Paul Schullery, Royal Coachman: The Lore And Legends of Fly-fishing
  • Gordon MacQuarrie 
  • Patrick McManus  

Other Recommendations
Most of these I don't know at all, so I'm not recommending them, just mentioning them.  Of course, if you have more recommendations (or corrections), please feel free to add them to the comments section, below.
  • Vince Marinaro, The Game of Nods 
  • Rich Tosches, Zipping My Fly 
  • Robert Lee, Guiding Elliott 
  • Peter Heller, The Dog Stars (novel) 
  • Paul Quinnett, Pavlov’s Trout 
  • Dana S. Lamb Where The Pools Are Bright And Deep; Bright Salmon and Brown Trout
  • John Shewey, Mastering The Spring Creeks 
  • Ernest Schweibert, Death of a Riverkeeper; A River For Christmas 
  • Richard Louv, Fly-fishing for Sharks: An Angler’s Journey Across America 
  • John Voelker’s short story “Murder” 
  • Dave Ames, A Good Life Wasted, Or 20 Years As A Fishing Guide 
  • Craig Childs, The Animal Dialogues, especially the chapter “Rainbow Trout” 
  • Randy Nelson, Poachers, Polluters, and Politics: A Fishery Officer’s Career 
  • Anders Halverson, An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America And Overran The World  
  • Thomas McGuane, A Life In Fishing 
  • Bob White 
  • Robert Ruark 
  • Tom Meade 
  • Hank Patterson 

I'll conclude with a few other recommendations.  First, when I've asked for recommendations about texts, a handful of people tell me "Tenkara."  This isn't a text, but a kind of rod, and a method of fly-fishing.  And yet people continue to say that word to me when I ask for texts.  Why is that?  I have a few guesses: there isn't a lot written about tenkara, but people who practice it have come to love its simplicity and grace.  I'm not a tenkara fisher (yet) but I'm eager to learn.  I have a feeling that tenkara, like so many spiritual practices or like some martial arts, is something that makes people feel they way great writing makes us feel: in it we transcend the immediacy of our environment.

Along those lines, one commenter on Facebook said this to me about my students: "Give them [a] fly rod and a stream and let them write [their] own story."   There is wisdom here.  It is one thing to read about waters, and quite another to enter the waters on one's own feet.  Even so, I think it's important and wise to learn from those who've gone before us, too. 


If you're interested in seeing some of my other book recommendations, have a look at this, this, and this.