Sports column by Matt Dickerson: A fly rod in the hand

I have often thought of tools and technologies as neutral. They are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. What matters is how we use them. So I thought, and so I argued.
My fishing philosopher friend Dave O’Hara, however, questions that view. He likes to point out that tools actually change a person. Yes, one person (a carpenter, for example) might put a hammer to good use (building a house), while another (a delinquent or criminal) might put it to evil use (vandalizing or breaking into a house). It is up to a person holding that hammer, and not the hammer itself, how it will be used. And in that sense we may think of the tool as being neutral.
But Dave’s point is that a person who picks up a hammer actually becomes a different person. And I have come to agree with him. When I am holding a hammer in my hand, I think about myself in a different way. I see the world around me in a different way. Different problems become apparent. And different solutions also. When I have a hammer in my hand, I see more nails.
Or, to use another example, if I am holding a gun, I will see the world around me in a different way. We use tools and technologies. But the tools and technologies we use change us.
Dave is also fond of bringing a magnifying glass (or several) along with us when we backpack and camp together. Simply having that tool in his hand, or handy in his pack, helps make him a more attentive person. Yes, he carries it because he is attentive. But carrying it also makes him more attentive. His attentiveness has been magnified through his habit. He becomes observant in a different way. Sees different things. Looks in a different way.
Dave has converted me. Both to the idea of carrying a magnifying glass with me on my outdoor excursions, and to the philosophy that our tools change us.
For example, I have realized that I am a different person when carrying a camera — for better or for worse. The worse part? I can be less present when I have a camera in my hand, more of an observer wondering how to view a scene rather than an actor wondering what my role is. Or I think of how I can capture the scene rather than simply enjoying it in the moment.
But there is a better part, too. As I look (or imagine looking) through the lens of a camera, I also might be more aware of colors and textures, of how the angle at which I’m looking at something changes how it appears, or of the stories that are unfolding in the world around me. Even if the camera makes me more of an observer and less of an actor, even this change might in some cases be better. But whether better or worse, it is different.
This is also why I like to carry a fly rod with me. Paddling a canoe around Silver Lake, or standing next to the New Haven River, if I have a fly rod in my hand I am a different person. Like Dave with his magnifying glass, when I have a fly rod I am immediately more attentive just because of the tool I am holding.
With a fly rod in my hand, the river and shoreline suddenly cease to be simply part of the landscape. I become more aware of many things: insects flying above the surface of the water and whether they are rising or falling or mating, the way birds are feeding near the shoreline down low or high up, how the current moves around rocks and eddies and where it slows down or speeds up, and where the shadows are or are not falling. I don’t just see the surface of the river. When I have a fly rod, I see into the river. I see stories unfolding. I notice the breeze in a different way.
Eventually the tools we use change us more fundamentally and deeply. The effect of holding a fly rod is not a temporal thing. I have stood in the water with a fly rod for enough hours, enough days and weeks and months and years, that I am different person for it. The habits and practices begin to stay with me. Now if I stand next to the water without my fly rod, I might not be quite the same as if I had one. But I am also a different person than if I had never had one. From years of practice holding that rod, I will still be more attentive, more alert to what is going on around me because of how I have been shaped by that tool. It becomes second nature. I start to see the river as though I had that rod with me.
Mostly, though, if I’m standing next to a river without a fly rod, the main thing I’ll notice is that I don’t have a fly rod. And I’ll start wishing I had one. Which happens quite a bit in January.

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