Matthew Dickerson: On hubris and nature
Recently I had to leave the bubble of Addison County in order to help a family member. My trip took me across some areas of rural New England. Since I was driving alone, I had plenty of time to appreciate the landscape. For me that often means admiring the various waters I pass by, especially the streams and rivers — and most especially the streams and rivers that looked like they might support a good trout population or offer decent fishing.
Having lived in New England all but four years of my life — mostly in small, rural towns — this was not a new experience. I’ve spent many hours admiring streams and rivers from a passing car, wondering about the fishing. There are a half dozen New Hampshire and Vermont rivers in particular that I’ve driven past dozens to perhaps hundreds of times, admiring what looks like good trout habitat, though never (yet) having had the opportunity to stop and fish. I can even tell you the names of a few that I’ve looked up on maps.
Since I have also had family living in Colorado at various times in my younger life, I’ve done the same along some Rocky Mountain rivers. (It was often easier to imagine rivers in the Rockies as trout habitat than it was with some of the rivers in central Massachusetts where I grew up.)
The four years I lived outside of New England were spent in the Finger Lakes region of New York, where I also spent time driving past various streams and rivers. I was in my early 20s at the time, when trout fishing had really become a passion, and when I also had more free time. One of those small rivers eventually called my name loudly enough that I made a special trip there just to fish. The state had done some work on the stream, putting in some human-made structures to create pools, eddies, and riffles to enhance the habitat for fish and aquatic insects. The work seemed to have been successful; I caught some stocked trout.
Two hundred yards from the home where I grew up, a small stream flowed beneath our road. The stream originated in a wetlands-fed pond in woods behind my house and ran for about three-quarters of a mile before disappearing into another marsh. I’m not sure whether I spent more hours fishing for trout in the little stream, or for largemouth bass in the pond. It would take me about half a Saturday morning to fish the entire fishable length of the stream. And since I kept everything I caught, as did every other kid in the neighborhood, it didn’t take more than a few weeks in April and early May before all the stocked brown trout where caught out of it, except in the deepest reaches of the downstream wetland where I would only on rare occasions venture and find some little native brook trout hiding in the cool shade.
I said the stream was “small,” but “tiny” might be a better descriptor. By the time I was a teenager, I could easily leap across it in places without getting my toes wet. It didn’t take me long to outgrow it, and to start looking for other places to pursue trout. My town had three similar streams, one of which eventually joined mine flowing east just before passing into the next town, and the other of which disappeared into a much larger and more densely populated town to the south. But while one of them had four or five times the length of fishable water, none were any deeper or wider or greater in the volume of water they carried.
And this began many years of imagining I owned my own trout stream where I could engineer the habitat to fit my desires. I imagined the dams I would build to create deeper pools. I imagined the mix of fish I would stock to provide a variety of fishing experiences: brown trout and rainbow trout and brook trout, and maybe some bass in the bigger ponds, plus little forage fish since I knew they were important feed to help my trout get bigger.
This imagining didn’t stop with the streams (or imagined streams) that flowed past the places I lived. On those drives across New England, I’d also look down into the rivers I passed and imagine how, if I owned them, I would engineer them also to fulfill my fishing desires: introducing the fish I wanted to be there, and shaping the stream to fit my tastes.
It wasn’t until many years later in my adult life that I began to recognize the hubris of that imagining: the hubris of my viewing of the natural world as though it existed simply to meet my recreational desires. I suppose some of that recognition came with the understanding of just how much damage we have done to natural ecosystems by trying to engineer them to our tastes, with no regard to the natural ecosystems that have evolved over not just centuries but millennia. The Rocky Mountains that had looked so pristine and appealing to me on my visits in my teens and 20s are still reeling with the devastating impacts of human-introduced, non-native species that have displaced the native fish and dramatically altered entire ecosystems — all because some person or group of people decided they wanted to fish for a different species of fish than the one that lived in the river. Often it was eastern settlers to the Rockies who wanted to catch brook trout and lake trout, and so they dumped them indiscriminately into the rivers there.
But some of the recognition came from just having my eyes opened to appreciate the beauty and diversity of what was already there, and realizing it had a purpose and being that transcended my existence and desires.
So I still admire the landscapes as I drive make my way across New England — or the Rocky Mountains, or Alaska, or northern California, or wherever I happen to be. My eyes are still drawn especially to the rivers. I still wonder what those rivers hold. But I no longer envision myself trying to change or alter the river, adding species or removing them. Instead, I wonder what insects live there. What birds live there. What mammals come to feed on the shore. And how they all interact with each other in complex and beautiful ways.
And even now and then, I also wonder whether I have time to stop and take a few casts.
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