Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Idyll of the Carp

The Idyll of the Carp
by Henry Austin Dobson

(The scene is in a garden - where you please,
so that it lie in France, and have withal
Its gray-stoned pond beneath the arching trees,
And Triton huge, with moss for coronal.
A Princess,- feeding fish. To her Denise.)

The Princess~~
These, Denise, are my Suitors!


The Princess~~
These fish.
I feed them daily here at morn and night
With crumbs of favour, - scraps of graciousness,
Not meant, indeed, to mean the thing they wish,
But serving just to edge an appetite.
( Throwing bread. )
Make haste, Messieurs! Make haste, then! Hurry.
See, -
See how they swim! Would you not say, confess,
Some crowd of Courtiers in the audience hall,
When the King comes?

You're jesting!

The Princess~
Not at all.
Watch but the great one yonder! There's the Duke; -
Those gill-marks mean his Order of St. Luke;
Those old skin-stains his boasted quarterings.
Look what a swirl and roll of tide he brings;
Have you not marked him thus, with crest in air,
Breathing disdain, descend the palace-stair?
You surely have, Denise.

I think I have.
But there's another, older and more grave, -
The one that wears the round patch on the throat,
And swims with such slow fins. Is he of note?

The Princess~
Why, that's my good chambellan - with his seal.
A kind old man! - he carves me orange-peel
In quaint devices at refection-hours,
Equips my sweet-pouch, brings me morning flowers,
Or chirrups madrigals with old, sweet words,
Such as men loved when people wooed like birds
And spoke the true note first. No suitor he,
Yet loves me too, - though in a graybeard's key.

Look, Madam, look! - a fish without a stain!
O speckless, fleckless fish! Who is it, pray,
That bears him so discreetly?

The Princess~
You know him not? My prince of shining locks!
My pearl! - my Phoenix! - my pomander-box!
He loves not Me, alas! The man's too vain!
He loves his doublet better than my suit, -
His graces than my favours. Still his sash
Sits not amiss, and he can touch the lute
Not wholly out of tune -

Ai! what a splash!
Who is it comes with such a sudden dash
Plump i' the midst, and leaps the others clear?

The Princess~
Ho! for a trumpet! Let the bells be rung!
Baron of Sans-terre , Lord of Pres-en-Cieux ,
Vidame of Vol-au-Vent - " et aultres lieux! "
Bah! How I hate his Gasconading tongue!
Why, that's my bragging Bravo-Musketeer -
My carpet cut-throat, valiant by a scar
Got in a brawl that stands for Spanish war: -
His very life's a splash!

I'd rather wear
E'en such a patched and melancholy air,
As his, - that motley one, - who keeps the wall,
And hugs his own lean thoughts for carnival.

The Princess~
My frankest wooer! Thus his love he tells
To mournful moving of his cap and bells.
He loves me (so he saith) as Slaves the Free, -
As Cowards War, - as young Maids Constancy.
Item , he loves me as the Hawk the Dove;
He loves me as the Inquisition Thought; -

" He loves? - he loves?" Why all this loving's naught!

The Princess~
And " Naught (quoth Jacquot) makes the sum of Love!"

The cynic knave! How call you this one here? -
This small shy-looking fish, that hovers near,
And circles, like a cat around a cage,
To snatch the surplus.

The Princess~
Cherubin, the page.
'Tis but a child, yet with that roguish smile,
And those sly looks, the child will make hearts ache
Not five years hence, I prophesy. Meanwhile,
He lives to plague the swans upon the lake,
To steal my comfits, and the monkey's cake.

And these - that swim aside - who may these be?

The Princess~

Those - are two gentlemen of Picardy,
Equal in blood, - of equal bravery: -
Moreuil and Montcornet. They hunt in pair;
I mete them morsels with an equal care,
Lest they should eat each other, - or eat Me.

And that - and that - and that?

The Princess~
I name them not.
Those are the crowd who merely think their lot
The lighter by my land.

And is there none
More prized than most? There surely must be one, -
A Carp of carps!

The Princess~
Ah me! - he will not come!
He swims at large, - looks shyly on, - is dumb.
Sometimes, indeed, I think he fain would nibble,
But while he stays with doubts and fears to quibble,
Some gilded fop, or mincing courtier-fribble,
Slips smartly in, - and gets the proffered crumb.
He should have all my crumbs - if he'd but ask;
Nay, an he would, it were no hopeless task
To gain a something more. But though he's brave,
He's far too proud to be a dangling slave;
And then - he's modest! So ... he will not come!

By the end we are certainly not hearing about fish anymore. I wonder about the accuracy of the sentiments, given this is a man writing in a woman's voice.  The carp of carps aside, I know nothing of suitors, having neither been among nor entertained them: still having squandered many hours in contemplation upon river and pond banks, all of these other characters among carp are perfectly familiar. The poem is an excellent piece of piscatorial observation.

Mr Dobson was surely a fisherman. Here's a fragment from An Autumn Idyll.
Hist! That's a pike. Look - nose against the river,
Gaunt as a wolf - the sly old privateer !
Enter a gudgeon. Snap, - a gulp, a shiver;
Exit the gudgeon. Let us anchor here.

The carp of carps among fish does indeed look shyly on in modesty, never coming forward to be caught. Last year I landed this immense fish.

While bringing it in, I thought I had finally hooked the carp of carps. Once upon the beach, unhooked and released, it became obvious that no caught fish is ever the carp of carps - by definition he is only ever the dim glimpse of a broad golden side, the colours of a tail at the surface seen for a moment and remembered forever, burning in memory. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

1984 trout from the kloofs

I was reminded of this set of photos by a post on Feathers and Fluoro - happy to see the stream is as yet unspoiled. Go there to see their pictures from 2014. Here are mine from 1984. If memory serves my brother and I were in Cape Town on vacation, which necessarily involved a couple of fishing trips. 

The first was to a reservoir high above Ceres. The water was low calm and clear, which gives one to think, as shown in the picture. Those scrubby bushes sticking out the water are proteas, providing shelter and refuge to the trout.

In those days we used to kill and eat the fish. It's a lot simpler ethically than catch-and-release, but of course unsustainable. I'm nearly sure I caught at least one of these fish that Charles is holding, which would have been a good trip for me.

We packed up some rudimentary supplies in grotty old haversacks and took to the hills. Short shorts were de rigeur in South Africa for manly men like us - good for breathability but not so much for sunburns. At this point we had not yet reached the swims, but I had fallen in at least once.

The first swim, a long dark pool below cliffs. The bag goes into a pack liner, thereby becoming a floatation device. There are fourteen or fifteen swims, though we only went up four or so. On another trip Charles dropped in to the canyon by going over a neighbouring peak, and came down the stream through all the swims. He neglected to obtain the required permit. About half-way down a mountaineering club trip overtook the fishermen: he was upbraided for their permitlessness by a pretty redhaired girl wearing nothing but a backpack.

It's surprisingly hard to swim while embracing a large green plastic bag.

Once above the swim, fishing improves noticeably, pretty plump brown trout to 14" in the clearest of waters. This one was released.

Other smaller fish became lunch by the stream, in that brilliant Cape light.

By the evening I'd fallen in multiple times. Here is a still life with fly boxes and other wet gear, and some toes. That rod is an 8' 5wt Fenwick HMG graphite, the best fly rod I have ever cast. Now it languishes in Perth surrounded by saltwater fishing that requires much heavier rods: like Borges' dagger in a drawer, dreaming of its bloody past.


The firepit for the evening takes less than a minute to construct. There are baboons in these kloofs, and their predator leopards. Sometimes in the dark there are green eyes at the edge of the light, embedded in shadows. The memory of golden Cape cobras swimming downstream past our wading legs, gives us unquiet dreams, sleeping as we are on the rocks. Snakes like warmth and we have the warmest bodies in this ravine. The water flows cold and companionable in the dark, its rills chuckling and purling around us.

Coming out of the mountains onto the Cape Flats there was a rare colourful sunset over the freeway. I did not know it then but that was the last time I would ever get above the first swim.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

gonna be a long walk home

So the torture report is out, just about as bad as it could be. As any competent intelligence analyst could and did say, we know three things for sure about torture:
1. “Torture is a difficult and deceptive thing for the strong will resist and the weak will say anything to end the pain."
Ulpian, AD 200.
2. as a consequence of 1, most information extracted from the tortured is false. Since all this information will have to be verified again using standard intelligence procedures, the information is worse than useless.
3. as a consequence of 2, we conclude:
"the object of torture is torture."
Orwell, 1984.
Talk about your un-American activities..
The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must. 
"We translated our ignorance, our anxiety, our guilt, into their pain."
"In our own cities, the suspect is no longer a citizen but a rightless subject."

our flag flying
over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone.
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't.
It's gonna be a long walk home
Hey pretty darling, don't wait up for me
Gonna be a long walk home.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

first pheasant of the year

The bird jumped up behind me with a clatter of wings. Even with one good eye my shooting was poor at best. Now the left lens of my shooting glasses is deliberately blurred, to force the right eye to take a dominant role. With a vitreous detachment in the right eye, this leaves me with no good eye when hunting: better than shooting right-handed and left-eyed, still something less than optimal. I winged him with the second shot so he plumped down a couple hundred yards out in the water. Fortunately I have a good dog who is much better at hunting than me. Artie promptly took off for a long swim, whimpering slightly in the cold water, and perhaps also with the excitement of actually having a bird to fetch.

There was a brief fracas midwater as Artie negotiated a good grip on the bird. The pictures (thanks Ken) are cellphone, which can take beautiful portraits of still trout at close range in good light. The image quality of these doesn't do much to showcase your retina display, but it does have a quality almost like an oil painting when zoomed in, see below, which I find appealing. That's also closer to what comes in through my no good eyes than any pixel-perfect representation.

It is curious to look at those paintings of the gentry at their recreation, and feel a nostalgie for a culture and society to which I would not have been admitted. It is this I think
"perhaps the greatest escapism of all is to take refuge in the domesticity of the past, the home that history and literature become, avoiding the one moment of time in which we are not at home, yet have to live: the present. "

Sensible dog found a tooth-hold safely in the rear, away from beak and spurs. The bird looks outraged, "I demand to see the management !" but unluckily they are not taking complaints today. 

Artie glares at the bird, though his ire is misplaced. Next time he should just bite me on the leg instead.  

Friday, October 17, 2014

chimeras: or, carp on the fly

Last week I took the canoe out in the evening to try for walleye under the autumn moon. The walleye has the tapetum lucidum that lets them hunt nocturnally, and not coincidentally echoes the moonlight in the white glow of its eye. I like to see that shine from their handsome green bodies; also they are excellent eating, ahem. With an 18" minimum size limit, most of the fish in the lake are 17", one of which I caught, admired and released.

While waiting for dusk and night, poked around the flooded waterlands of the inlet, where carp fed happily under a low and setting sun. The one I hooked sewed me up, weaving the flyline through several different trees and bushes before shedding the hook.

This week I went back at lunchtime, hoping for better visibility. The visibility was excellent but the water temperature was 50 degrees and the shallows empty, a sort of watery desert. Several redhead ducks and a merganser pottered around, further out grebes and coots watched nervously as the stiff wind pushed the canoe along.

This reservoir is on the Central Flyway,  consequently fills up in spring and fall with travellers. Pelicans show up too. These are quite capable of eating large carp but that's all right, we none of us can live without killing.

I had used old topo maps to set GPS locations for the flooded roadbeds where walleye like to hang out in the day. The canoe was unmanageable in the stiff winds, then several bass boats roared up to the spot from different directions and I gave up. This is a phenomenon observed whenever fishing from a canoe in the vicinity of bass boats: as if they are thinking, anyone too poor to afford a boat must surely spend a lot of time fishing, hence knows all the sweet spots: would that it were true. Struggled back toward the beach battling wind and wave, a good core workout with jolts of adrenaline as the wind caught and lifted the boat at the top of the swells; but somewhat frustrated.

There were heavy swirls in the waves over weedbeds in the bay. Hopefully pitched the anchor nine feet deep, three feet of water and six feet of a weed water and mud slurry, believing with the fishes that
somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;

That water was a comfortable 57 degrees. There were carp noses sticking out the water and groups slowly cruising. The fast-sinking leech pattern tied on earlier for the flats was entirely inappropriate for the open deep water, but you fish for cruisers with the fly you have on, not the fly you wish you had. Tying on a different fly always takes just enough time for the cruisers to move out of casting range. These fish were moving downwind rather than up, oddly, their shapes illusive brown hints in the deep green water. I'm nearly sure several followed the fly down and took it invisibly. Working on that assumption, tried a very slow hand-twist retrieve on the next presentation, hoping the slight tension would be enough for a hookset.

Ha ! The fish ran out vigorously and swiftly some forty yards, then all went solid and dead, embedded in weed. It took some work but eventually freed the line. 

Back at the canoe he sounded and buried in the weed below. The rod could not budge that mess, so handlined him up. Here is that handsome burly fish.

Returned with thanks, as always. This is likely the last carp of the year - fare thee well under the winter ice.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

three rivers

River Profile
September 22, 1966
W.H. Auden

Our body is a moulded river

Out of a bellicose fore-time, thundering
head-on collisions of cloud and rock in an
up-thrust, crevasse-and-avalanche, troll country,
     deadly to breathers,

it whelms into our picture below the melt-line,
where tarns lie frore under frowning cirques, goat-bell,
wind-breaker, fishing-rod, miner’s-lamp country,
     already at ease with

the mien and gestures that become its kindness,
in streams, still anonymous, still jumpable,
flows as it should through any declining country
     in probing spirals.

Soon of a size to be named and the cause of
dirty in-fighting among rival agencies,
down a steep stair, penstock-and-turbine country,
     it plunges ram-stam,

to foam through a wriggling gorge incised in softer
strata, hemmed between crags that nauntle heaven,
robber-castle, tow-rope portage-way country,
     nightmare of merchants.

Disembogueing from foot-hills, now in hushed meanders,
now in riffling braids, it vaunts across a senile
plain, well-entered, chateau-and-ciderpress country,
     its regal progress

gallanted for a while by quibbling poplars,
then by chimneys: led off to cool and launder
retort, steam-hammer, gasometer country,
     it changes color.

Polluted, bridged by girders, banked with concrete,
now it bisects a polyglot metropolis,
ticker-tape, taxi, brothel, footlights country,
     à-la-mode always.

Broadening or burrowing to the moon’s phases,
turbid with pulverized wastemantle, on through
flatter, duller, hotter, cotton-gin country,
     it scours, approaching

the tidal mark where it puts off majesty,
disintegrates, and through swamps of a delta,
punting-pole, fowling-piece, oyster-tongs country,
     wearies to its final

act of surrender, effacement, atonement
in a huge amorphous aggregate no cuddled
attractive child ever dreams of, non-country,
     image of death as

a spherical dew-drop of life. Unlovely
monsters, our tales believe, can be translated
too, even as water, the selfless mother
     of all especials.

Then again,
T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages 

I do not know much about gods; but I think the river
Is a strong brown god -- sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in the cities -- ever, however, implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and

Thirdly, more words to less effect, on a specific river and my own obsessions.

Kalama 1991

On the way down I-5 from Canada towards Portland, you pass the chimneys of a paper and pulp factory, then an exit for the Kalama river. It seems implausible that you can reach a real living river from an interstate, but then, there's probably a freeway on the way to anywhere if you go back far enough. I slept last night in Vancouver, so I haven't travelled far at all. On the other hand, it was five thousand miles' drive to Vancouver; before that, seventeen years and several continents since I first wanted to see these rivers.

Happy in the contemplation of a whole day to spend on a new stream, I roll down the window, memory and anticipation persuading me to expect the startling new clarity of morning near water. The paper mill's fume sensibly reminds me that the morning may be new made but the world is not.

The first stop is a pool beneath the hatchery outlet. The chinook salmon returning home tend to accumulate here, sensing the concrete rearing ponds of their youth in the narrow trickle spilling over the gravel. By this time the main run is over, the latecomers that are still alive are old and black, their first ocean strength spent in the weeks of waiting for rain. Their expectations are confounded by a stream which never rises high enough to run up. They line up in the shallows below the outlet, surging away under a strong roll of water when some fisherman comes too close. Some half dozen fishermen are here this midweek day, presenting a variety of salmon flies to the fish that cruise over the sunlit weeds and algae, their massive shapes clear in silhouette. Salmon will take a fly out of aggression, or perhaps some dim memory of river feeding: but these fish, in the bright clear water, are indifferent to all blandishments. I don't expect or want to catch one, but I like to see them, a mystery for once visible and present.

Further up under the uncomplicated sun, more salmon are at their necessary business. These have withstood the delusions of the hatchery pool, instead making a difficult way up through the shallow runs, thrashing over stones in dazzling splashes. The smaller, brighter female fish hangs over the hollow she has dug in the gravel, surrounded by the dark looming males. Her pale spotted back blends into the brown of the stream bed, dappled with light gray shadows of ripples chasing over the surface. As she twists to beat against the hollow, scraping it deeper still, the silver of her flank flashes and winks out again, a kind of semaphore in an unreadable code. The males lie a little below and behind, queuing in an order determined by aggression and muscle. The smaller fish attempt to dart ahead, but are knocked aside by rushes from the bigger males. I watch this old battle appearing and vanishing again beneath the patches of rough water swept over the scene by gusts of wind: then stand up, moving faster than I meant to, but the fish flinch only slightly, the female not at all. I'm going further upstream, don't mean to pester these salmon with the glittering tinsel and flummery of flies.

Near the headwaters, a narrow concrete bridge marks the end of the legally fishable water. Fishermen call these last or first few miles the 'holy water': it is proper that sanctuary should lie above them. Beyond this is timber company land covered by saplings of recently planted firs, meagre in the vanished shadows of their elders. The river is thin here, its bones showing: the rocks of the bed poke out of narrow green coils of water, lie under impassive sheets of reflected sky. Somewhere invisibly below, the fish up from the sea are awake and patient in their element, waiting for what the water will tell them, to know the next thing. After several years of drought, they wait for the same thing as last year - rain to swell the flow and spike the currents with dissolved oxygen. These are steelhead, anadromous rainbow trout, called 'steel' for the blue and grey of their heads, and for their entirely surprising strength when caught. What does a steelhead know of foundries ? Beaten and burnished by the multitudinous perils of stream, river, ocean and back again, it is now as simple as a knife blade, driven by a single quick purpose. Finding them requires reading the river, like a script in an unknown language, or even more simply mysterious: like any writing to the illiterate: deciphering the meanings of leaves that pause in the current, a curl of water on the surface from a boulder five feet down: things for which an instinct would need no elucidation, though dry observation needs a slow long chain of reasons.

A fifty yard run of white water, thigh deep, turns at a spit of small round stones, then runs into a narrow channel divided by a single sharp edged rock, before settling into the pool below. Auden wrote, when touring Iceland, "Too many stones, and all of them the wrong size". These stones, on the other side, are all quite right: slightly smaller than an apple, with a cool mossy presence and a comfortable heft in the hand. In the pool, the currents are thick smooth ropes of water, braided into the misty depths. If the river were running strong, there would be fish at the tail, resting in quiet water after fighting the current of the outflow. As it is, the probabilities are for the channel or near the powerful current at the head. There is shelter both behind a rock and in front, but steelhead often prefer to rest in the cushion of water piled up ahead of the stone. Trying to remember all this, I wade into the brisk turbulence to begin.

After twenty minutes, every imagined lie in the channel has been shown the fly. Carefully, attentively, I have watched the tip of the line as it drifts, imagining the lure's progress as it lifts and swirls over the bottom. From diving in rivers, I know the cool gloom down there, under a bright and dancing sky: holding in a break of the current, seeing the drift of small particles of detritus blowing by, like travelling fast in one place. In all this, the fly is startling and egregious, tinsel ribs glowing over the black body under a white wing, red tail barely red, closer to purple in the deeply filtered light. Losing faith in this channel, so also I lose concentration, considering the broken surfaces of the water instead of its deeps. Further down, the river bends off a rock wall some twenty feet wide, extending fifteen feet above. To reach down that wall will take a cast thrown well upstream, allowing the fly to sink throughout a long drift. Planning these casts, but reflexively fishing the fly around the rock that splits the current, the awaited event is unexpected. As I write now, clattering on a keyboard in a cube of plasterboard in a cube of concrete, I still see her head break into the sun, watch as she allows the current to wash her from her lie downstream.

Tightening on the fish brings a fierce reaction. A swift run to the tail of the pool ends in the shallows with a jump that's nearly a headstand, the whole length of the fish arcing around to splash heavily down. After ten minutes, the fish hangs deep, braced under the main flow: far off, the rose and silver of her side gleams up through obscure complex patterns of water. The fish is too heavy and the current too strong to bring her up to the head where I stand. Attempting to cross here would mean a swim, but the rock wall blocks any other passage. A few cracks and ledges in it allow me to convince myself that climbing over is possible. Before starting, I watch the fish for several minutes, memorizing the details - a slight hiss where the line cuts the stream, weaving under the pressure, a thin film of water sliding up then collapsing in a smooth curve; a weight electric and dense held now in hand; glimpses of dusty rose in the misty green, through shafts of light let into the river. This is undeniable. Halfway over the climb, I lose a foothold, then the crack in which my fingers are cramped.

The fall breaks the reel from the rod, dropping me on a ledge some four feet deep. Rod in one hand, reel in the other, leaning hard into the rock and gripping with my elbows as the water pulls at my clothes, I traverse the ledge hoping that it won't end. An undeserved happiness - when I take up the slack the fish is still fast. From here it's easy, complicated only by having to manage the line without a reel. In the end the fish comes back to me, the powerful beats of her tail establishing a slow and waning time. I grasp her wrist between the tail and the body, keeping a taut line to hold the head up, and walk ashore.

Afterwards I contemplate the torn jagged metal of rod and reel. There is duration, since the wind is in the leaves and sunshine dazzles off the water, which speaks in its sweetly running voice. In the late afternoon I try to fish further, rolling curves of line out across the stream, but can't make it other than mechanical. Below the surface is a pure wildness. On this side, the quotidian - a wisp of foul odor from the paper mill, cars passing on the road above, a headache from dehydration, the edge of a worry about my wife in the city. From the timber farms through the valley of second homes, down under the interstate, this compromised river. In it lives the ideal, but how would the ideal know that? It is the 'ding an sich', the thing in itself. The ideal lives in my head, from where it is a long way back to the real.

Living at all times with illusions and regrets from the past, assailed by fears and dangerous optimisms for the future; trying to be merely in the stream, feeling the wash of its currents over my back. Why so simple a thing as catching a fish and experiencing its terror should place me so solidly, centrally, in being alive, I don't know. I am saddened that I need so much violence to live.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Brahms Rhapsody #2. ish.