Outdoor columnist Matthew Dickerson reflects on writing
ADDISON COUNTY — Do you count yourself an avid Addy Indy reader? Then no doubt you recognize Matthew Dickerson’s name — after all, he’s been writing an outdoor column for the paper for 21 years. You might even know this angler recently published “The Voices of Rivers,” a book about his experiences on rivers in Acadia and Glacier national parks and watercourses scattered around Alaska.
But odds are, a few things might still surprise you about Dickerson. First of all, he’s a professor of computer science at Middlebury College and a scholar of the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings. Yup, environmental-fantasy scholar, pretty neat. Dickerson, father of three, is also a musician and has played bass and guitar with local blues bands for the past few decades; now he’s getting more into roots Americana (aren’t we all). And, oh, this Middlebury resident also keeps bees and has a sugarbush on his 62.5-acre property in Bristol.
MATTHEW DICKERSON GIVES fly-fishing lessons to Orwell resident Monica Connor, who lands a grayling in the Tanalian River in Lake Clark National Park. Monica had a summer job at the Farm Lodge in Port Alsworth in 2018, where she returned in 2019 long with her younger brother Joseph. Photo by Branden Hummel
Yes, this is a wide-ranging, seemingly random collection of skills and hobbies, but believe it or not, Dickerson says all of it informs his writing.
“There’s the outdoor and fly-fishing strand, then also an environmental and scientific strand, a personal strand and a nature, place-based strand,” he said, reflecting on his most recent book and writing style over a Haymaker Bun earlier this month. “I weave them all together and emerge into my voice.”
In practice, it’s not as complicated as it sounds.
When Dickerson was working on “The Voices of Rivers” he drew on writings and experiences he had as an Artist in Residence at Glacier National Park in Montana (2017), and Acadia National Park in Maine (2018). He described his typical days during the month-long stays.
MATTHEW DICKERSON PADDLES his Wenonah ultralight Kevlar canoe looking for “salters” (anadromous brook trout) in a little estuary below a beaver dam up Bass Harbor Marsh in Acadia National Park. Photo by Deborah Dickerson
“I’d make coffee and take a small hike,” he remembered. “I’d plop down by the water — listening, looking and observing. I’d hear the insects, the songs of the birds, the way the air moved through the trees… I was quiet for about an hour or two, just sitting there. Then I’d begin to write.
“My initial writing is personal; a conscious first-person narrative,” continued Dickerson, who earned his undergrad degree in English from Dartmouth and his Ph.D. in computer science with mathematics (and a secondary area of study in English), from Cornell. “I’m not yet formulating a story arc; I’m just writing my observations. I’d write my first drafts while sitting there, and then wait for a day that was too rainy or cold to be outside and I’d pull out what I’d written and ask: ‘What have I learned? What did that tree tell me? What did that bird-song teach me?’”
Upon reflection, Dickerson’s essays began to take shape. He intentionally wrote in the first person to keep the sense of immediacy.
Add to these two National Parks stays a couple fishing trips to Alaska, and Dickerson had more than enough material to furnish the pages of his latest book. He estimated that only about 50-60 percent of all of his work went into this volume.
“‘The Voices of Rivers’ is all placed-based nature writing,” he said. “I use science, history, my own personal narrative and careful observation to reach my goal of being present. I’m trying to tell the stories — not just of what I’m learning but what I’m seeing.”
Dickerson is aware, however, that nature writing — especially those essays that are published in academic journals — may not always be compelling reads.
This is where his skills as a fly fisherman come in handy.
“I have a love of rivers and spending time in rivers,” he said. “They are the highways that tie together so many ways of life… To capture it briefly: We all live downstream. I’m more aware of this when I’m by rivers… The activity of fly-fishing helps sharpen my awareness, but is also a vehicle for people who aren’t going to read an essay. I think writing creatively helps people see these things and bring them to life. I want my writing to be enjoyable and fly fishing is a natural way for me to share that delight.”
John Ceballos, a ranger at Glacier National Park who grew up in Middlebury, fishes on on Bowman Lake with Matthew Dickerson. Photo by Deborah Dickerson
Dickerson is a writer who only writes things that delight him. And he has that luxury because of his full-time gig as a professor.
“I write because I love to write,” he said. “Because I’m not writing to put food on the table, it gives me the flexibility to write what I think is important and worthwhile.”
Dickerson begins to worry about who’s going to publish his work after it’s pretty much done.
“I don’t want to do it the other way around,” he said. “That feels like selling out and chasing dollars.”
Word. “The Voices of Rivers” definitely is no “sell-out.” Once again we can count on Dickerson to take us wading into the wilderness, pause for a moment and then return to reality.
Editor’s Note: “The Voices of Rivers” is available at The Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury.
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