by Chuck Dodge
The famous final sentences of A River Runs Through It form for me what is one of the most memorable passages in American literature. And truly, they deserve appreciation beyond the dreams of aspiring and infatuated fly fishermen.
“Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.”
Have better words been chosen? I think Maclean writes in such a way that we are bombarded by truth, wonder, scenery, and depth both literary and tangible in one fell swoop. And this is what makes each phrase so memorable or each thought so valuable that easily distracted people like me find it tough to forget the words as we go about our daily lives.
Over the past summer I was haunted by the words (yes, like Maclean by waters) in the sense that they continued to flow through my head. Especially, that is, when I fished in the Rocky Mountains during the closing weeks of August. At one point I felt moved to hang the words above my bed, but eventually thought better of it to avoid appearing obsessed. Needless to say, I thought about them often and am lucky now with a space to discuss my findings.
To someone who has never stood in a cold Western river, I recommend this passage as the closest possible understanding of the phenomenon that a river is. For the rest of us, or at least for me, it describes the river in a way that makes the inexplicable all but tangible. It is one of those rare occasions when you ask someone how he would describe something like the color orange to a blind man and impossibly they manage to illustrate the concept to a pixel.
Maclean makes the river sacred in the passage, and that is exactly how it feels. The rocks beneath the surface are ancient. Old as time and shaped by the flow of endless water, they are historians through and through. Beneath them, Maclean says there are words, which I interpret to mean the stories of all time. Everything that has occurred in the presence of such stones is in some way transcribed to their memory. “And some of the words are theirs,” Maclean writes, likely as a reference to his brother and father, both passed away. Some of the history, in other words, belongs to the people in our lives. Walking through a river and sensing the various rock shapes press into the soles of your feet feels in some way profound, and having read the novella I finally understand why. Walking on the rocks is to walk through one of the world’s oldest museums, and maybe its greatest. Each step that you take, to extend the idea, is a step that will make its mark on history, imprinting itself on the given rocks forever.
There is the river, then, and there is everything else. Maclean writes, “all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.” He jams these items together with “and’s” which somehow unify them despite their obvious dissimilarity. In hindsight I always felt this way about the river, but subconsciously and not in a way that I claim I could describe. It takes on such a meaning given Maclean’s observations that in its presence, your thoughts, feelings and everything around you are subjugated into one object. It is you and the river. That isn’t to say that your life holds less weight. Not at all. Instead it illustrates the reverence that we have for the river, turning itself into a point of undivided attention. In some moments, our only conscious capacity is to marvel.
Norman Maclean was both a writer and a fisherman. As an interesting side note, I went to thinking about Maclean, and whether I could draw a reasonable correlation between writing and fly fishing: two hobbies that I enjoy as well.
First, I think, a thoughtful understanding of rivers such as Maclean’s makes fly fishing an awe-inspiring activity. The best way to understand anything, of course, is to be able to verbalize it in a way that perfectly strikes the way you truly feel about it. Good writers, then (or those who think they are), are good at understanding. And because understanding generates appreciation, it makes sense that writers can experience a unique connection to fishing.
But there are other connections as well, rhythm among them. The four-count rhythm of a fly cast is a motif that occurs throughout the novella. It even displays variations, as Maclean’s brother is said to create his own tempo. Good rod tempo is essential to successful fly fishing, especially as you tie more flies onto the line. A poor stroke can twist the tippet, the strand attached to the dry fly, into a hopeless mass of knots. Rhythm also lies at the core of writing, manifesting itself in everything from paragraph length and arrangement down to sentence structure and word flow. Every writer can develop their own tempo, so long as their message remains untangled. And the more ambitious a piece of writing is, the more critical it is that the writer executes an easily accessible form, just as the rod tempo becomes paramount when you have more than one fly on the line.
Good writing also hooks the reader by the gill. In fly-fishing, better-disguised or more obnoxious-colored flies tempt the most bites. I’m going to leave the truth of that analogy as a subject for consideration.