Sunday, April 10, 2005

Sunday Sermon

These are the days of the year that make the rest worth tolerating. Yesterday, I paddled a kayak around in my yard with my oldest son, which is to say, we had the entire six mile run of Whites Creek to ourselves and some skunks, whose presence was made known to us via their olfactory signature. Something got blasted and the whiff of said signature followed us for a mile or more, but didn't matter. Cold water, warm day, and the spring rain waterfalls cascading into the creek on both sides, overcame everything else.

I have several addictions that I nourish as old friends. Morning coffee is one. Paddling is another, but I should say that I am not so much addicted to paddling as I am to fooling around in and on water. I first learned to run whitewater as a tool to get to new places rather than for the adrenaline rush, which turns out to be a really nice extra once you master the skills. Intellectually, I accept the point of view illustrated by the "Park and Play" kayakers who go to the Ocoee River and spend their entire day finding new and more creative ways of turning over in Hell Hole rapid...but I don't understand it in my heart. I am amused by and appreciative of the talent and craft involved in extreme sports but it's not for me...Not my addiction. Well, a little maybe...


I remember reading a line in an old science fiction novel that intrigued me and puzzled me at the time, say 35 years ago. It comes back to me now:

"What a poor person it is that can look at a bird flying overhead and not hear the noises in its stomach!"

So I now wonder at the impoverishment of people who can walk around on a concrete sidewalk and not think of the old majestic forest that once stood there and has now been replaced by a man made rock. I wonder at people who paddle on rivers and don't see the silky azaleas yet to bloom growing among the rocks at water's edge... Or the snubnosed darter living under the stones in the shoals...or the helgrammite that will kill and eat it if it can...or the red eyed bass, which is really a perch, which will eat the helgrammite. Most of these people don't even realize that they themselves will eat the red eyed bass, given that chance, and so on.

I had a pair of binoculars that I bought from a Nikon photographer one time when I was in Japan. A 10 by 25 pair of very lightweight glasses that had the additional advantage of close focussing at 60 inches or so. They disappeared at some point and I have looked for another pair like this but no luck so far. The reason I loved this pair is that I could sit on a rock beside the creek and look into the water and watch the darters walking around. The males are stunning this time of year in their courting finery. I remember watching a Tennessee snubnosed darter one afternoon as he walked across a large boulder in a pool. Darters have no swim bladder so they sink if they don't keep swimming. Most of them just "dart" from spot to spot on the bottom and rest on their leg like fins. This one had moved gradually across the boulder until he was right at my feet, so close that I could see his colorful markings scale by scale through the binoculars. And right before my very eyes, he died! Swallowed by a young smallmouth bass. It was as if the darter had been transformed into the bass before my very eyes, so quickly did this happen, and my reaction was of anger that this predator had eaten my darter...but then I, personally, have eaten this bass's friends and family, so how could I justify my anger? And frankly, I might even eat him, too, if I get the chance. Though we release nearly all of the fish we catch, we do cook up a few of the unlucky ones.

So last evening I sat on the deck with a glass of wine and looked at what I believe was a Blue-Gray gnatcatcher through my binoculars. (My new ones don't focus closely enough to study fish but they work well beyond fifteen feet for birds.) As I watched the gnatcatcher, I accidentally noticed the blooms of the oaks and hickories it moved through in its erratic search for things one rung lower on the food chain. I let the bird go and studied the lush green growth errupting from the tree limbs.

As I studied the blooms, I thought about that science fiction writer's line. I thought about the poverty of people who have never looked closely at the blossom of a hickory tree, an amazing construction, created and discarded once its purpose has been fulfilled. Now is your chance to go outside and remove yourself from these ranks. You may find yourself rewarded by richness in ways unexpected.




  1. yer turnin into one of my favert riters, steve. i spent lots of time up on the obed river n daddys creek n clear creek, witch i reckun taint too differnt up thar than whar ye be. readin whut ye jes rote had me thar, better n thar, thar with narrashun that made it cum alive. fantastick bit of ritin. makes me verr homesick!

    i kindly wish i could live lack ye do, but i gut new york bills n caint git out of em fer a while. but yer livin my dream (frum whut i read on yer blog).

    keep it cummin. tiz nice to have such sharp eyes reportin frum the real worl.

  2. I'm a fresh water addict now and have a "wet weather creek" bisecting my land. The dogs and I spend a lot of time in the water and staring into the water. Lots of frogs in the evenings. Minnows and sun perch all the time. Not too far away is a limestone river bed with dinosaur footprints.

    Staring into water was something I did a good deal of when I was a little kid alone a rowboat in a harbor in Maine. Or letting someone else row and trailing your hand in the water.

    My father had a Folbot. He'd paddle it into Penobscot Bay, find an island with lots of mussel shells, fill the Folbot till it was almost sinking, pray for a calm return, and paddle it back maybe five or six miles. The mussel shells were his choice for our driveway. They ruined our bare feet and we hated them!

  3. Honored to serve, PW. Say what you will, the best pizza I ever had was in NY. There's nearly always a rose amongst the thorns. Just might not look like what you expect.

    PW, Danged good link to Texas Dinosaurs. I've mountain biked a trail in Moab that wandered by dinosaur footprints. Damned impressive for beasts that we call birds, nowadays.

    Xenisima corrects me on the Red Eye bass not beng a bass. he correctly notes that it is actually a sunfish. I've asked him to post a more techie response since, after all where fish are concerned...He da man! Or one of them anyway.

  4. Remember what I said yesterday about your writing?

    This is what I'm talking about.

  5. Yes, the writing is somethin' else. I think the New Yorker needs to aim a click in your direction.

  6. Yep - I just spent a calm and smiling hour reading your website. I have it marked now to escape on little mini-vacations with you.