Fishing for Papa

This essay was first published in The Crazy Wisdom Community Journal: Issue #60, May through August 2015. The online version in the Journal can be found here.

There are three ponds on my in-laws’ property in northern Georgia. Each was stocked decades ago with largemouth bass and bluegill, and since then, the fish populations have flourished. I’ve seen them from the water’s edge, sleek shapes among the weeds, under overhanging branches, and near the pilings of the old dock. On a recent visit, my kids asked if we could go fishing, so we went to the nearest of the ponds with the two decrepit fishing rods from the wrap-around porch, rigged with the only two lures available. One rod sometimes loses its upper half with a hard cast. The other has a broken reel mount, so the reel is always on the brink of falling off.

I demonstrated how to cast and reel in the line, and the kids practiced casting toward the center of the pond. At first, they were too quick and jerky in their movements, naturally thinking that casting far requires a lot of force, and the lures flew astray or splashed hard into the water just a few feet away. “Try slowing down and moving more smoothly,” I told them, “and let the rod do the rest.” After some more fits and starts, they sent their lures soaring gracefully farther and farther toward the middle of the pond as their fishing rods became extensions of their arms. Their smiles flashed as they hit their marks more often than not. I showed them how to work the lures back to shore, varying speeds and angles and bringing them close past likely fish hideouts.

As I watched the children, memories of my grandfather rushed into my mind. Papa was an angler, not by profession, but by passion. A Chicago native, he fished the lakes of the Midwest for years, returning to his favorites, like Lake of the Woods in Minnesota, time and again. Later, when he and Nana moved to my hometown of Los Angeles, he didn’t get to fish as often. Yet he talked about fishing with a wistfulness that I didn’t hear from him on any other subject, though baseball sometimes came close for the former second baseman. When he talked fishing, his clear blue eyes shone and a grin lit his round face. His tackle box was among my favorite things, a massive green case that opened by splitting apart the top to reveal six stacked trays, three on a side, which lifted into perfect tiers to reveal a meticulously organized array of lures.

When I was about ten years old, Papa bought me my first fishing gear, a grey, six-foot, light-action Browning rod and matching Mitchell reel. That same evening, I took the rubber band off the spool of the reel – exactly what he had told me not to do. I did it so I could see the line, thin and bluish-white, almost luminous in the light of my bedroom. The line instantly sprang from the spool with a will and quickly grew into a bird’s nest, even as I tried to hold it in place.

I shuffled down the hall and into the dining room, where Papa was sitting at the table, and handed him the mess. He took a slow, appraising look and said, “Took off the rubber band, huh?” Then he set to work on it. His hands were knobby and his fingers blunt, perhaps from the physical labor he did as a grocery warehouseman, yet he deftly handled the ultra-fine line. He could have cut it, of course. Or he could have made me deal with it to teach me a lesson. But he knew that the lesson had been learned already. Nothing more needed to be said.

Fishing with my children, I remembered standing as a boy with Papa in my front yard, casting a rubber weight over and over again as he gently gave me nuggets of advice. I remembered my practice casts hitting the near edge of the neighbor’s lawn, then the middle, and eventually the driveway, beyond the lawn, and Papa giving me encouragement: “Oooh! That was a good one! Try putting the next one over there.”

Before long, Papa took me to Lake Casitas for my first real fishing trip. There, he showed my cousin and me how to place our casts precisely under overhangs, where bass might be lurking, though only my uncle caught anything on that broiling day. Later, my cousin and I attended a day camp that ended the summer with a week-long fishing adventure in the Sierras. Before that trip, Papa showed us how to rig for rainbow and brown trout. Fishing the San Joaquin and Owens Rivers, Twin Lakes, Horseshoe Lake, and Lake Mary, I did as he taught, keeping quiet by the bank, standing so that my shadow did not darken the water, and placing my bait or lures right where I wanted them. He was a great teacher; I caught plenty of fish.

Despite my childhood love of fishing, and the fact that Papa frequently extolled the angling wonders of Michigan when I moved here 20 years ago, as an adult I’ve fished very little. Yet in Georgia, as I taught my children, Papa’s lessons came back to me as if riding into my mind on my memories of him. When my kids felt comfortable casting and working the lures back to shore, we talked about where the fish might be, and I taught them as Papa had taught me. There were some good looking overhangs and weedy areas, and while we risked losing our lures to snags, the kids felt confident that they could place them right where they wanted them, just as my cousin and I had at Lake Casitas and in the Sierras so many years before. That’s what they did, and it worked. Each of them caught and released a lot of fish.

They caught the fishing bug, too, as I had once. During our few days in Georgia, the children and I grabbed whatever time we could to go down to the pond and see if the fish were biting. The children’s eyes shone, and their faces wore joyous grins, as Papa’s had when he fished or just talked about it. I watched quietly as the children angled, admiring their patience and concentration. Their casts were beautiful – their arms cocked back and then brought their fishing rods forward swiftly and smoothly, and their lures flew into the pond trailed by an arc of line that settled gently onto the water. I watched their intent looks as they worked the lures back to shore, bringing them right past where they thought the fish might be waiting. And I thought about how much Papa would have loved that moment. The surge of closeness to him that I felt watching his great-grandchildren fish that pond in northern Georgia brought to the surface not only how much I miss him but also the tremendous gifts he gave me over the years: his love, encouragement, and knowledge. They are gifts I try to pass along to my children, and like most parents, I don’t always succeed. But when I do, my mind fills with warm thoughts of those who bestowed those gifts upon me, and Papa was one of my primary sources.

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On Black Rock Mountain

Trillium

Stretches of the Tennessee Rock Trail are steep as it climbs up and over Black Rock Mountain in Northern Georgia. The ribbon of deep brown soil is cross-hatched by exposed tree roots rubbed glossy by the soles of hikers’ shoes. It is spring, but brittle fallen leaves, silvered and curled with age, still litter the ground. The trail has the directness of other eastern trails I’ve hiked. There are few switchbacks. When it is time to go up, it just goes up.

The damp air, scented with moist earth and wet stone, hangs about the mountain’s flanks and drapes itself across our shoulders like a friendly arm. Clouds stretch northward in varied shades of gray, diffusing the light into an indistinct wash. Looking out at the vast, layered jumble of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I am reminded of how ancient the Appalachians are. They are weathered, lumpy rather than jagged, rounded by time. In the distance lay the Smokies, nestled in the mists, beckoning.

The trail crosses the Eastern Continental Divide, which is marked by a large sign. The children and I straddle the line, grinning, as if each of our feet is now pulled in a different direction like the rivers of the region. On one side, streams run to the Mississippi and then to the Gulf of Mexico. On the other, water flows to the Savannah River and the Atlantic. The elevation here is about 3,600 feet, high for Georgia.

As we hike, we catch a quick glimpse of the road just beyond a section of wooden fence on which hangs a large sign that commands us to “Stay on Trial.” The road itself is a reasonably unobtrusive strip of asphalt that shows some age, fine cracks running through it like lines on a weathered face. The trail takes us right up to the fence, then turns abruptly away to head back across the mountain, back into the woods. The road recedes in space and in our minds. I notice no noise from it. Whether that is due to the lack of traffic or the sound being blocked by the humped ridges of the mountain, I cannot say.

Throughout the hike, I am amazed at how much trillium there is. They are unlike any I have known. The flowers are a rich, deep red, like port wine, surrounded by three small leaves of green blushed with red, which are in turn set upon a base of large, variegated leaves marked by patches of dark and light green. The trillium are often joined by bloodroot, their funny, hand-like leaves waving in the breeze, some of the bobbing stalks topped with open, white flowers, others with swollen buds.

A multigenerational family hike moves along at varied paces. The children race ahead, then return, like spiders leaving the web on threads and pulling themselves back again. On some of their forays, they perch on large, rough boulders, taking pride in scrambling up the rocks and leaping down again. We hang back from them, letting them have their space, their chance to explore without the feel of watchful eyes. My wife and her folks and I walk most of the time in an extended line, my wife and I mindful of the children ahead and their grandparents behind. We all join together and chat happily at some times and are separate and silent at others, enjoying the sounds of the wind and our shoes crunching on the path and the fresh, spring leaves rustling and twisting.

On this cool, damp day on the trail, it is just our little party and the birds, which twitter on the mountainside and dance on tree branches. After the first short stretch of the hike, we do not see another soul.

Closing 2012 in the Georgia mountains

My in-laws’ roof is pounded tin, painted rust-colored, rippled and folded where the panels connect. The rain of the north Georgia mountains swooshes and swats on it, tapping a rhythm that backs the wind’s high drone around the peaks and eaves of the roof. A storm sounds like popping corn – first pops tentative and irregular, then the squall of pops so rapid that it gets hard to distinguish among them, then slowing again, rap… rap rap… rap… rap… into silence.

Over the triple-peaked mountain visible across their property – stand on the wrap-around porch and look down the slope of the lawn, past the split rail fence and gravel drive, across the pond, then beyond the neighbor’s orchards and the expanse of land after the town road to the mountain, whose very base is just about visible in the winter – the changing clouds tell the story of the verdure of this slice of the country as they bring wetness in all its forms. Giant black thunder-heads in the summer, the high, light gray of a steady spring rain, the dark enveloping gray of a winter storm, the humps of the peaks disappearing one by one in the lowering mist, the world obscured.

Cocks crow nearby. Cattle bellow over at another farm. A coyote once peeked in slyly through the low windows of the former back porch converted into an art studio where my mother-in-law paints. The dog can’t be let out alone at night. Life is everywhere.

Image

Just after Christmas, an old friend of my wife came up from Atlanta to see us, and we took a walk on a path that my father-in-law cut. He has created shrines along that path, little places of memory and reflection placed every so often to remind him of people and moments past and present. His children and grandchildren are in those places. Friends abound. Rocks and plants are placed just so, and there are several bird houses. My in-laws are great lovers of bird houses. Everywhere there is life. Small birds flit from branch to branch, twittering. A hawk or falcon – the glare of the sun and my eyesight conspire to rob me of any chance of identification – banks over the orchard. Farther away, several turkey vultures circle, keen observers of impending death. I turn away from them, back to the explosion of life nearer at hand. Soft, furry moss spreads over hummocks of reddish earth. Some sort of clubmoss with little trident-shaped sprouts bobs and nods in Seussian style, with contrasting dark vinca nestled underneath and all around. Grasses sprout in tufts. Trees are everywhere, and rhododendrons provide pockets of shade.

Where there is so much life, there must be water, and indeed a creek winds through, flowing and trickling down the hillside and underneath wooden bridges greened slick by moss. Scaly, grey-green nets of lichen give texture to tree trunks and stones. The air smells wet and like old plants leaving life behind and new ones gaining strength. Wet stone throws off mineral scents and I wonder if that’s what wine lovers are referring to when they use the term “mineral” in their tasting notes. If you looked at the creek water under a microscope, you would see a whole living, respiring world that is no less busy and alive and simultaneously symbiotic and competitive than the visible one all along the path. Everywhere are birth and death and the in-between thing that we hang on to as long as we can.

I walk the path along the creek, the water burbling softly. Here and there, the water disappears for a few meters below ground, then springs back into the open to sing and shimmer again. It has carved a small canyon for itself, and the path follows the ridge above. Past the wooden bridge that connects the path on this side with the portion on the other, and past one more shrine – this one has the look of a small labyrinth in stones, and the way some are sinking into the soft earth makes it look ancient and mysterious – the path terminates at an ordinary wire fence. The property line, abrupt and angular. The creek bed winds beyond, but the wild woods quickly peter out. There is a house with a regular lawn, then a few buildings and the old highway leading into town. I stand at the fence and follow the small gash of the creek bed with my eyes. I can’t see where it runs past the buildings. The land rises on the other side of the highway, and I guess that somewhere up there is the origin of the creek. I want to see it, the spot where water perhaps flows right out of the earth itself and starts something that goes on to nourish so much life down below.

ImageI go back to the bridge and cross it to the path on the other side. More moss and trees, more memorials, more birdhouses. Some copper and tin figurines, variously tarnished bright green and rust red. I come out of the woods, and the vultures are gone from the sky. I think that if I were to walk into the orchard or a bit beyond, I would find them at their meal.