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Real Silence

I woke up early this morning. Early is 3:30 am, this after an 11:30 bedtime. I sometimes hear people talk about how they can’t sleep. I wonder if they mean what I mean when I say that I can’t sleep. Insomnia is not productive, and the pattern of sleeplessness can go on for months. After two or three months of sleeplessness, there is a kind of collapse that happens in which the body and mind struggle for coordination. This morning, as a psychological ploy to prevent my body from approaching collapse, I am telling myself, “Four hours sleep…It could be worse! True, six hours would have been better, but hey, four hours isn’t too bad.” Only it’s not good either.

From 3:30 to 4:30 I lay in bed, remembering times I’ve gone fishing. There was the time I fished all day and all night on a river in Scotland, hoping to catch a salmon or sea trout. I was a fishing with a gillie, and I barely understood a word he said. I have significant hearing loss—a consequence of antibiotics taken as a child—and I depend on reading lips. I figure 80% of what the gillie, Graham, said went past me. That was in daylight. After nightfall, my comprehension was reduced to a few, slim words.

Yet, there I was, in the middle of the night fishing on a river in Scotland with a 14 foot Spey rod in my hands. The river felt strong against my legs. Spey casting was a mystery. The line looped and twisted unpredictably with every cast. Cast, cast, cast into a darkness like the beginning of the world. Then something screamed, and I mean a piercing, bloody death scream.

“What the hell was that?”

“Dit war a fookin mic,” said Graham.

“A what?”

“A mic!”

“That was a mic?”

“Ay. Dit war a mic kullun a fookin duk.”

“Ah.”

To translate Graham’s explanation, “Yes. It was a mink killing a fucking duck.”

A bloody death scream, indeed.

“The sky is swabbed with blankets of grey…“
I didn’t catch a salmon or sea trout that night. I did catch a ride back to the village at 4 am. The river keeper dropped me off near the village centrum, and I slept under a park bench. I had a hostel room, but I disliked the people who operated the place so much that I preferred to sleep under the bench. Sleep I did, too. I slept in my waders for warmth and held a fly rod in my arms for a snuggle.

I search for another time and recall fishing a river in eastern Europe. It was evening, and after a day watching kayaker—after kayaker—after kayaker, I was suddenly alone on the river. A mist rolled down from the mountains, and I saw the river again. I saw the bluish milk swirl of glacier melt. I saw sunlight hanging on the crest of riffles. And there was silence.

I caught a heavy brown trout from a riffle close to shore. I made a down-and-across cast with a wet fly. I gave the fly a twitch with the rod tip, and a fish took. The fish bent the rod into a deep arc. He was a good fish, too, and big enough that I needed to grab the base of his tail to land him. He was a thick, hook-jawed brown trout. I released him, and he swam back towards the riffle. Afterwards, I continued up stream. I fished until sunlight left the river, and the Alps had turned blue. I went back to my room and ate dinner. Dinner consisted of cheese curds from a local farmer, a regional sauvignon, and I think horse. Yep. Horse meat. At least that’s what I think it was. My Slovenian, like every other language I try to speak, is poor.

Back on earth, I glance at the clock. 4.15. Might as well start the day.

real silence
“closer to trout and silence…”
I wonder how long I have listened for silence. Silence, we understand, is not an absence of sound. Silence arrives in our sacred places. Silence comes in the notes of Bach, Mompou, Bill Evans, Ben Webster, Orland Gibbons and a dozen other musicians and composers I could name. Listen to Ben Webster and Oscar Peterson play “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” and we might hear an uncommon silence. Listen to Bill Evans play “Peace Piece” or anyone playing Mompou’s composition “Pajaro Triste,” and we may see the face of someone we love or someplace we cannot forget. This is part of the gift of silence. Yet soon after we hear, soon after we listen silence will vanish. We replace it with ourselves, and we no longer know ourselves as we did in that space a moment before.

What is this silence? Is this silence an echo of another reality or another real close to our being? Are we creating this silence or receiving it? These are risky questions. Start talking about “another reality” or “another real” and we risk setting off someone’s crazy person alarm. Someone might snicker about Simon and Garfunkel. Never mind that “The Sound of Silence” is a song about the emptiness of modern life written by a 21 year old, and silence, in the song, is what must be resisted. But take these questions seriously a moment and consider what we are hearing or sensing.

Here is a possible answer—something.

That’s what a man named Keegan Ropp told me in a recent conversation. Keegan is not an academic. He is not a writer. He is an electrician. He is also a serious jiujitsu practitioner.

Keegan and I were talking about the relationship between objects, place, and silence, questioning if some of our objects, like some of our places, emanate with what we can slightly perceive but not comprehend.

“Do you know what I mean?” I asked Keegan.

“Sure,” Keegan said.

“I mean, there is arguably a source between ourselves and what we sense about objects that are meaningful to us. There is a source, right? There is a silence and a source to that silence.”

“It’s a something for sure,” he said.

“A something?”

“Yeah. It’s something. We may not know what it is, but it is something.”

“Well, yeah. A something.”

That was our conversation, or a part of it, and “something,” for now, seems useful.

Or think about this. The belief in a clock-like universe is an idea and physic of the past. While there are laws to this universe, laws demonstrating its properties and regularities, we have come to appreciate these laws as a kind of base, as a starting point. After the start, or beyond the start, are realities we can little imagine. Billions of galaxies. Dark matter. Strange planets. There is far more that we do not know than what we know. This may change over time. There is new knowledge, and new questions arise. That’s more or less how we have progressed over time. However, I question whether most of us can fully rid ourselves of that “something.” Shakespeare understood this. He reminds us, as Hamlet reminds Horatio, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio\Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

“Streams course like silver veins through these places…”
a way out
What does any of this have to do with fishing—silence, music, objects, places, the clock-like universe, Shakespeare? To engage with any of these, there is a process of searching, and fishing involves searching. There is a run of trout water in front of us, but no fish rising. We tie on a fly and make a cast. Maybe a fish will rise. Maybe nothing will move. Either way, the fisherman is searching.

My experience of travelling and living abroad has brought me closer to trout and to silence, as well. I cannot say I expected this when I first started traveling. I was a young man and heartbroke the first time I ever boarded a plane for another country. I wanted to catch big fish as a way out of heartbreak, and I knew where to catch them. So, I purchased a plane ticket and went fishing. For the record, that was not the original plan. The original plan was to take the girl with me. To take her away from what I believed to be her profoundly isolated, if not demoralising circumstances. I loved her. I wanted to take her away. I asked, and she said no. I went anyway and cried on a hundred rivers. That was a long time ago.

I kept going, too. I kept seeking other places. A lot had changed in the West, and a lot had changed in a short period of time. Between 1989 and 1995 the West in general, and the places I loved in particular, had become rather different from my beginnings with them. Durango, Colorado, in 1984 was one place and Durango, Colorado, in 1995 was quite another. The same can be said of Moab, of Flagstaff, of Telluride, of Taos, and dozens of other towns and places in the West. What may have been the limited perspective of a young man is a reality these days. People get frustrated with hearing this, but the places I’ve loved were very different twenty years ago. To say this is the case for every place or for everyone’s experience is dismissive of genuine problems. As a consequence, solutions for these problems—or solutions at all—are abandoned before they are properly considered. It’s a dubious trick of politicians and the very wealthy to tell us what the future will be or what we must accept as inevitable. I am leery of such prophets and their prophesies.

“I knew where to catch them…”
With traveling and living abroad, I began to take in what for me were new fields, rivers, mountains, and villages, as though any of them might enchant me. I had been enchanted by a mountain stream when Uncle Lloyd took me fishing as a boy. I had been enchanted by red rock canyons and desert overlooks. I had been enchanted by feelings of loneliness fed by clouds and a thousand rains moving over open country and roads hardly anyone drove. These were the realities of my experience as a boy and young man. They went away. Then in other countries, I found some of them again and a renewed willingness towards enchantment.

In other countries there was and is no ownership for me. I am a guest. As a guest, I have located myself on rivers where few people fish. I have stared over landscapes and oceans and rivers, wondering who has lived or passed through these places in other ages. What of those Romans in Yorkshire? They would not have seen the fields I see today. They would have seen vast forests. There would have been rumours and stories of forbidden places and peoples. Or what about the Viking men and women who came after the Romans? Those Norsemen who took over Eboracum and built Jorvik, what did they see? I find their winding streets still holding claim in York. The Romans built their straight lines. The Scandinavians built their curves.

Of course, not every view gratifies what we imagine. Pubs in England, for instance, like Italian restaurants in Rome, are mostly a disappointment, though not all of them. Prior to living in England, I had pictured pubs similar to the one in The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain or the more formal settings found in Brideshead Revisited and A Dance to the Music of Time. I did not find these woody pubs of hushed, sometimes thoughtful talk and foamy pints. I discovered, at least early in my travels to England, bars set up in what used to be pubs. They were filled with loud music and surprisingly loud, outrageously dressed people. Miniskirts and thin halter tops on cold November nights in York? Really? It was like searching for the streets and characters of Edward Hopper’s Manhattan and finding instead Tony Manero and Saturday Night Fever. Eventually, I did come across pubs more to my tastes. While most of these pubs were not the pub of the Inklings, they were close enough. As a matter of fact, the actual pub of the Inklings, The Eagle and Child, is still located at 49 St. Giles in Oxford. It remains an agreeable establishment for a pint and Sunday Roast. We may overhear a thoughtful conversation or two, or become annoyed, as a friend reminded me, of people taking selfies.

“Who has lived or passed through these places in other ages…”
Perhaps it is wiser to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by what is rather than by what we hope for. Go to Amsterdam to see the house where Anne Frank hid and witness a long line of an unfortunate number of glib tourists waiting to get inside. We might be stung in such a moment. Switzerland has chalets and goats spotting the hills, but there is also the Rue du Rhone in Geneva where we will pay a shocking amount for a cup of coffee. Ireland has dream-like hills and endearing people, but the music coming from the pubs in and around Temple Bar will leave us anxious about our hearing. In any case, we can, within limits, choose to see what and who is with us. See the woman taking the hand of her daughter as they walk up the steps of Anne Frank’s house. Listen to the busker singing his heart out on Fishamble Street.

I have spent more hours trying to fish certain places than actually fishing the places I have wanted to fish. I do not have the resources for the Argentinean trip in which I am met at the airport and driven to an estancia where there are three rivers full of larger than average brown and rainbow trout. I cannot helicopter into any place. I have mis-read bus schedules and lost days. I did not notice while planning my first trip to Scotland that I could not fish on Sundays. I once bicycled for two days to reach a river, and when I arrived late in the evening after the second day of biking, there were trout, big trout, rising from bank to bank. As I stood beside the river, watching big fish feed, rain started to fall. Then quickly, very quickly the river rose to twice its normal level. I never made a cast.

I stop to remember these places, these towns, these many rivers and trips. These recollections. And I want to quiet them. In all of these things, there is the presence of an incomprehensible silence. More and more, I catch myself returning to these memories and to some of these places in order to seek a silence that has stayed with me. I imagine this silence as being something analogous to doors or windows. Return to the bus station along the Scottish border. In between worrying about a bus that will not come and watching all the pretty people catch cabs, I realise there is a way between them. This way, this window, is the silence I speak of, and it gives nothing more of itself than itself.

a prophesy
Last week I went fishing with a half dozen flies, two spools of tippet, and a tenkara rod—no vest, no leaders, no fly boxes, no chest-pack, no lanyards. Tenkara is a Japanese style of fly fishing. The line is a section of braided nylon that attaches to the tip of the rod. Usually the length of the leader approximates the length of the rod, plus a little more with the tippet. The rod itself, at the least the one I carry, is an 11 foot, telescoping rod. Most tenkara rods are longer than the average fly rod we would see on a trout stream. They are also remarkably light. Some rods weigh less than 3 ounces. The lightness and length of the rod are part of tenkara fishing, which goes something like this:

“A half-dozen flies, two spools of tippet and a tenkara rod…”
The fisherman finds a spot where he wants to fish. The distance between the fisherman and where he wants to fish will be less than 20-25 feet, depending on the length of his rod. The fisherman gets in close. He flicks the line and fly to wherever he believes there is a fish. It really is just a flick of the wrist to send the line into the water. There is no double-hauling in tenkara fishing, no hauling of any kind. After he makes his cast, the fisherman extends and lifts the rod, keeping most of the line off the water. As he does this, he watches the fly or feels for a bite. If nothing takes, then he flicks the line again, or he moves on to another spot. He can fish very quickly this way, moving from pool to pool, run to run, covering a lot of ground, a lot of water, flicking out 12 feet of line or less and picking up a couple of fish along the way. If he does catch a fish, he will swivel the rod over and behind his head and pull in the leader with his hand—there’s no reel, after all. Then its off to the next pool or nearest meadow for a round of meditation.

It’s a trendy way to fish in some parts of the country. This year I have seen tenkara rods from Colorado to Montana. Five years ago this would not have been the case. I’m new to the method, and I like it. I like it especially for exploring creeks that I’ve never fished. With tenkara, I can fish quickly and basically get a sense of what a creek is or isn’t. Does the creek meander constantly or are there mostly meadow sections? What sort of fish dominate the water? On a creek I fished last week, for instance, I caught rainbows, browns, and brook trout in roughly equal numbers. No cutthroats, however. I wish there had been cutthroats.

I do not feel pressure to stay on the water when I’m tenkara fishing. I wonder if this in part is because I don’t carry much gear. There are times when I’m fly fishing with my usual rods, reels, and gear bags, and it’s not working. I tell myself, “Well, you drug all this shit out here, might as well fish.” With tenkara, there’s not a lot of shit to drag out. As mentioned, there is the rod, a handful of flies, and a couple of spools of tippet. When I’ve had enough fishing, I compress the rod into itself and return it to its 22.5” tube. Afterwards, I may go somewhere else to fish or maybe nowhere else. Being the insomniac that I am, finding sleep in a patch of sunlight beside a creek is more than pleasant. It’s restorative. Cleans the soul somehow.

But there is something else, something more I keep turning over in my mind. For the past several months I have imagined myself fishing with a tenkara rod in the North. The North is home for me these days, and I fish whenever I can. The streams and rivers where I fish in the North are sparse compared to the creeks I fish in Colorado. They are not rich with riparian diversity. They are not full of trout or the several species of trout we find in most Colorado waters. There is also a marked difference between the landscapes in Colorado and where I live in the North. The landscape in the North is its own. There are taiga forests and myrer and outcroppings of grey stone. Rivers and streams course like silver veins through these places. They are vital in a world scraped almost bare by ice and wind. And yes, there is silence. The sound of water and the sound of silence—this is not a paradox. Water and silence in the North inhabit one another.

In the image, I am in this Northern landscape, fly fishing with a tenkara rod. The sky is swabbed with blankets of grey. I can smell rain or maybe snow. From a distance, no one would recognise me. I would hope no one could see me at all, even with an 11 foot rod in my hand. And I don’t know if it matters that I am using a tenkara rod, though I prefer to believe the simplicity and limitations of tenkara fishing reflect something of the landscape and water in the North. They are all, from one perspective, simple.

“The North…”
As I use the word simple, I can hear friends from my Moab past explaining to me how a desert may appear barren, but “if we get in close, we’ll see how full of life the desert really is.” I suppose this is true. Life implies complexity. I suppose, too, if we come close enough to anything we will recognise layers of its being. Although I could describe further what I see in the North, the words are already too much. They are too much for what I know of this place. Words, for all of their power, are a distraction from the image. They are a distraction from the elemental beauty of these Northern places. They cannot express well enough what I carry in my heart. They are a kind of corruption. As Beckett expresses, “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”

Around twenty years ago, I knew practically nothing about the North. If someone would have asked me to label the Scandinavian countries on a map, I would have misplaced them. I can hear myself now, “Which one is Sweden and which one is Norway?” Then a strange and curious thing happened to me more than twenty years ago.

I was working in a fly shop in a small Colorado town. Next to the fly shop was a store that sold decorative rattles, log furniture, bags of feathers and hide, and also dolls made from the same feathers and skins sold in the shop. They were not Kachina dolls, but they were, as their maker described them, spirit dolls. They were archetypical in their shapes and depictions. There was a grandmother doll, a dancer doll, a wise man doll, a maiden doll, a wanderer doll and so forth. They were basic in their shapes. Curvy if suggesting a female and more triangular if representing a male. They stood, at the largest, a foot tall. Their heads looked like the tops of rattles. They did not have exact features. Rather, they had sprouts of fur and feathers for hair and whatever clothing they wore. Most and maybe all of these dolls carried something in their hands—a staff, flowers, a spear, a rattle.

The woman who made these dolls, and nearly everything else in the shop, was named Megan. Megan was not an enchantress. She was from New Jersey. She was probably pushing sixty years old. She smoked. She talked fast and often and had the raspy voice of a lifelong smoker. I knew when she was having a bad day because her New Jersey accent would became more pronounced, though she was rarely angry. Because our shops were immediately joined, we had plenty of chances to visit. We talked about books, writing, art, mysterious landscapes and, well, the spirit world. Yes, I know. What is the spirit world? To accommodate Megan and our conversations, I will say, for us, the spirit world was that which we know is beyond our knowing. Megan travelled down roads I could not, but I listened to Megan. I listened to her talk about portals in rare parts of the world, including one between Cortez, Colorado, and Moab. She talked about spirits within some of her dolls. She talked about holy people. She wore beads.

Then one day Megan looked at me over the top of the cigarette she smoked. She didn’t say anything. She looked at me and smoked and nodded.

Then she said (and hear the New Jersey accent), “You know something, Damon?”

“What’s that?”

“I can see you somewhere else.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” She took another drag on the cigarette and nodded.

I stared at her without saying anything. I had no idea what she would say.

“I can see you in Scandinavia somewhere. A bachelor-farmer type, you know. Maybe Sweden. Maybe Norway.”

“Really?”

Another drag and nod. “Yeah. I see you in Norway.

Originally Published in the Canyon Country Zephyr.