"Metabolism of Stars" was the line I remember from poet/fisherman Ted Hughes describing the silvery side of a steelhead he had just caught. I think that image reaches deeper and truer than anything I've read or heard about this torpedo-blazing, tail-walking, much sought after cousin of the rainbow trout. I think those words came from being in the presence of a fish momentarily lifted into sunlight. I spent the last eight months fishing from Gold Beach, Oregon, to Kamloops, British Columbia, focusing most of my efforts in the Columbia Gorge; the Forks, Washington rivers; and close to the house I rented on Whidbey Island, trying to catch steelhead or salmon, and trying to find words to carry some of the brilliance of fish, and wildness of human spirits who chase them into my new poems. Now that my sabbatical is over, I'm back in the classroom, finding myself eager to get back in the river, and near the sea, casting to monster kings and massive schools of pink salmon streaming up the western side of Whidbey at this moment, less than 10 minutes from my house there. It is much more important to me to catch fish than to write about catching fish. I once missed a David James Duncan reading in Portland, Oregon, even though he was one of my favorite authors, on account of fresh summer steelhead that wandered into my area.
Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum was widely quoted as saying "In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only
what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught." When I went to sixth grade in Oregon, my class went to outdoor school, which I still recall as one of my favorite childhood memories. Later, the ten years I spent at sea as a charterboat captain or commercial fisherman reinforced my love for nature. My best poems, essays, and short stories are still rooted in this kind of direct experience which makes me want to go beyond admiring nature to become a defender of wild animals and wild places.
Just before my sabbatical, one of my creative nonfiction students at San Diego Mesa College complained of writer's block, and other students agreed. I told her and the others, "Drive north to the redwoods. Throw your arms around a big 2000+ year-old tree, and say 'Tell me what you know,' then listen."
Clearly, I come from a long line of others who feel the same. In 1987 Robert Bly came to visit Tom Ferte's literature class when I was a student at Western Oregon State College (now Western Oregon University) where he was asked what the next major focus in poetry would be. Bly's answer was the environment. He said a poet's job is to defend nature. Later, I read Keats held Wordsworth in higher esteem than Milton for how Wordsworth understood human psychological development. Keats wrote, "Well--I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two
of which I can only describe, doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me--The
first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we
remain as long as we do not think--We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding
the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance,
we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the
awakening the thinking principle--within us-we no sooner get into the second
Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become
intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant
wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among effects
this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one's vision
into the heart and nature of Man--of convincing ones nerves that the World
is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression--whereby This
Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken'd and at the same time
on all sides of it many doors are set open--but all dark--all leading to
dark passages--We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in
a Mist--We are now in that state--We feel the 'burden of the Mystery' To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive, when
he wrote 'Tintern Abbey' and it seems to me that his Genius is
explorative of those dark passages. Now, if we live, and go on thinking
we too shall explore them."
I know this poetic/thinking/feeling process is not the same for everyone. In the Voices & Visions, Walt Whitman, VHS, Allen Ginsberg describes how Whitman and Poe walked the same streets of Manhattan" but "Poe was a dream-generalist, that is a philosophical dreamer, who had phantoms that he described in detail" while Whitman "could notice anything you want, and could bring in all the everyday particulars of kitchen-ware life, dock life, skyscraper life . . ." Therefore, it seems some poets/writers, like Poe, are better dreaming or daydreaming their visions, while others, like Whitman, have to get outside to write.
Socrates, like Poe, was well-known for loving books, but not the outdoors. It is lucky for us Socrates never discovered joys of fishing, or he likely would have spent more time casting, and less time speaking things for Plato to write -- which reminds me of something else Bly said in Ferte's class in 1987: "The trees will carry what we don't say," (perhaps a quote from another author), which is another good excuse to go fishing.