Matt Dickerson: Of fishing, walking, reading and writing
Every once in a while, several stray strands of thought wind together in my mind — like fur, feathers, thread and a sharp metal hook that turn into a fly.
A couple weeks ago I took part in a symposium at Middlebury College. The theme was mindfulness. Talks and discussions explored the importance of being fully present, and being attentive. Walking is one way to practice attentiveness — especially the type of walking that is not merely for the purpose of arriving at a destination, but rather walking in order to walk: walking to be present where you are, rather than where you are trying to go.
Since the symposium I’ve done more walking than usual — partly because it’s autumn in Vermont and foliage is peaking and I had a week of guests who wanted to enjoy our local colors, but also because of the symposium. And I’ve been more aware while walking of being present and attentive. In fact, I’ve been noticing autumn leaves on the ground, and the variety of shapes, and hues and sizes, and patterns of veins and freckles, that can be found even under one tree. I’ve been picking up my favorite leaves and spreading them around my desk and dining table. Once a colleague walked by and saw me examining a bright orange leaf. At first I was self-conscious and maybe even a little embarrassed, feeling a little like a five-year-old child. But then I thought, more of us ought to have something of that five-year-old delight in us.
I’ve written several books about authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. One of Lewis’s favorite adult pastimes was taking walking tours around the Irish and English countrysides — often two-night tours staying at local inns. Lewis’s good friend J.R.R. Tolkien did not share that passion, at least in his middle-age years. But as a younger man, J.R.R. and his younger brother Hilary took a walking tour of Switzerland. So it isn’t surprising that walking takes a prominent role in the books of both of these authors. Lewis’s “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” as well as “Prince Caspian” and “The Silver Chair” are mostly just long attentive walks across Narnia and the lands to the north. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” is a long walking tour of the northern lands of Middle-earth. Many scholars have accurately pointed out that Tolkien and Lewis invest far more time on attentive detail to the landscapes and trees and flowers encountered by their walkers — and to the meals they eat when they stop to rest — than they do on battles.
Speaking of books, I’ve been in dialogue with one of my publishers. They are interested in making a short interview video. And they challenged me to write the script — the answers as well as the questions that would help potential readers get to know something about me and my books. The problem is, my past five books have included one historical novel; one fantasy novel; two books about trout, ecology and fly-fishing; and one book that touches upon philosophy, literature, art and religion. And the videos are supposed to be only 60 seconds long so as not to exceed the attention span of a typical person watching YouTube over lunch break. What can I say in 60 seconds that could tie together even just my love of reading, my commitment to writing, and my passion for fly-fishing?
The answer that came to me was “attentiveness.” Engaged reading — as opposed to just looking up facts on the Internet — is a practice of attentiveness. Whether I am reading a book for my own delight, or reading a book because I am going to write about it, the practice of reading both requires and builds the skill of attentiveness. I don’t just extract names or facts from a novel. I enter into it. The same is true of writing, perhaps even more so. I cannot write a novel without paying close attention to my characters, and learning who they are, and how they speak and act. I almost must become the characters. I also need to pay attention to what is going on around them.
Fishing requires similar attentiveness. When I am standing in a stream with a fly rod, I am aware of the activity both just above and just below the surface. I feel the current around my ankles, and I notice the temperature of the water, the movement of clouds, the sough of the breeze in the trees. I watch what the birds are doing along the shoreline. I look for caddis flies in the bushes or bouncing off the water near the shore.
Of course while this may be especially true of fishing, it is really a part of all my favorite outdoor activities. Certainly hunting. But also canoeing, biking, cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing — activities I do for their own sake, and not simply as means of getting me somewhere.
I’m pretty slow at tying flies. And it takes a lot of attention. But sometimes, the threads all get wrapped up in some sort of pattern, and a beautiful delicate dry fly appears in my steel vice. Or, sometimes, just some big, ugly nymph. But even those can catch fish.