Saturday, June 3, 2017
The Soul of the River
The first real “fishing hole” I remember was “None-such creek” back home in New Castle, Delaware. Before that, I’d fished a few times with my grandfather in a little finger of the many creeks that ran throughout the marshy areas that adjoined the Philadelphia Airport, down the street from his house. I lived there for the first five years of my life and that was the first fishing I remember.
When we moved to New Castle, my new friends in the neighborhood had their spot at Nonesuch and they let me come along. Nonesuch was nothing to grow sentimental about. Not the landscape anyway. It was just a tributary of the Christiana River, which, itself, dumped into the Delaware. In the 70’s, when I fished there, pollution was an afterthought and the river smelled like diesel and dirt. You knew better than to eat the fish you caught because they tasted like the water they swam in.
None of that mattered, however, because we weren’t there to fish for food –although we tried that once- we were there to fish. For us, at eight years old, fishing was about being out on our own, away from our homes and families, growing up together. We talked about what eight-year-old boys talked about back then. We brought our bologna sandwiches in brown paper bags in our knapsack and we rode our spider bikes two or three miles to our secret fishing spot.
As dirty as that river was, the meadow that surrounded it was clean and sweet and beautiful. In the summer, it smelled of honeysuckle and hay. Butterflies fluttered about and birds flew overhead. It was a wonderful escape from the sameness of suburban housing. I never remember looking around and thinking about the history I was walking on. I was just a little boy, there with his friends, trying to catch a fish.
Now, though, things are different. Where I fish now is steeped in history and I am of an age that I pay attention to those things. I fish the upper James River mostly. Up above Snowden Dam, almost to Balcony Falls.
I found a parking spot last year and I walk the train tracks from there to Balcony and fish my way back, learning about this river as I go. (The plan is to buy a kayak this summer as soon as finances allow) Walking train tracks has always been an allegorical prop in literature. The wandering. The restlessness. The feeling of always moving along. It’s not that for me, necessarily, as much as it is a thread through history. I walk these tracks and wonder about the trains that have come and gone over the years.
I came upon a unique marble historical marker on my last trip. It reminded me that this river…as all rivers, has been flowing for a long time. And in that flow, is history. This marker dates back over 150 years. The thing it talks about, this man losing his life to save others…it happened right where I was standing.
When I first moved here three years ago, I started thinking about the historicity of the area. I would, occasionally, look around as I cast my lure, and think about all those who have fished these waters before me. Native Americans who fished for food and drew their drinking water from the Powhattan, as they called it. Explorers, winding their way west through this gorge. Soldiers in the civil war –mere boys, really- fishing here for something to eat, after a fierce battle…or on their way to one. Locals. Little boys like I was when I fished None-such creek. Kids on their bikes, throwing cork bobbers into the water and being thrilled with whatever they caught.
Nowadays, when I fish...I look around. I never used to do that. Yes, I’ve always loved the scenery, but now I view it through the prism of history. These giant boulders that have been worn smooth by thousands of years and millions of gallons of water pouring over them. This gorge that was probably cut into these mountains by the Flood. These railroad tracks.
My best friend and I are talking about a late-fall trip here when he is done on his commercial crab boat for the season. Mark and I haven’t fished together in about 30 years. Life happens. To wade these waters and talk like we used to when we were boys will be life-giving for me. So much time has passed, and so many miles.
I have a mid-summer trip planned for Harpers Ferry and the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. Right next to the Antietam battlefield fishing, no doubt, the same waters where civil war soldiers fished and swam and worried about whether they’d make it through the next day. Nothing like that will be on my mind...I'll just be there to fish. But I will be thinking about them, maybe feeling their memories in the river.
The river rolls on...but as I get older, I find that, as it does, it deposits some of its’ memories in my soul.