I’ve been getting some great reading referrals of late, and even if I have had to partake of most of them through the screen of my laptop instead of on the paper I would prefer, some of what has come across that electronic medium has been absolutely incredible. Today called for a moment of reading that by all rights of practical time management I should never have had, but which in the end left me gasping for air as I came back up out of it, and with nothing but thanks for the reminder it provided of what is truly important in this life. The title story of George Saunders‘ collection Tenth of December, available to be read, along with others of his works, on The New Yorker’s website and through Open Culture, is a serious literary accomplishment and one that I would highly recommend to all of my readers at home. I’ve always held that the short story format is a great deal more challenging to work in than the novel. There’s just no room for fluff in short work, and for the most part no real reward, even when you pull it off – hence the general focus on longer works. Every once in a while though (Old Man and the Sea style) a piece of short fiction breaks through, and captures the audience it deserves. I can only hope that will be the case with Saunders and Tenth of December because, to put it bluntly, this man is a genius. I’m not even going to go into trying to describe the content, or the plot, or what it all “means” – just click on the link and read it for yourselves, then send me an email if you think I’ve wasted your time…
Hey Folks! I hope this post finds you all doing well, wherever you are in the world. Where I am it is autumn, and the light has bent from green and blue to yellow, and is making its way on to orange even as I type. Fall light is something I have thought a lot about over the years, and while I do love this country better than almost any other place I have seen in the world, I must still admit that the light down here in March and April is not quite the same as it is in the Northern Hemisphere in September and October where I am from. The Alders in Colorado and the Oaks and Maples and Poplars in Georgia just have our Nires and Lengas (Andean beech trees) beat, and to be honest the whole angle of the sun isn’t quite right either. But it’s what I’ve got to work with; and I’m milking it for all its worth. This particular change of seasons is so dear to me though I’ve been known to start adding nutmeg and cinnamon to my coffee even in the spring, just on general principal and out of respect for the word October. Oh well; I’m hoping to enjoy two autumns this calendar year, so those of you in my neighborhood up North keep your ears peeled for a knock on your doors come fall, and keep the fly rods handy too.In other news, I’m just in from Rio Pico and had a wonderful time with this last group. It was a family brought down by my good friend Trey Scharp, one of the owners of Grand Teton Fly Fishing up out of good ol’ Jackson Hole, Wyoming (one of the places sporting beautiful yellow alders in September). Highlights from last week included a 27” buck-brown caught on a dry fly with 4x tippet from some very skinny water, lots of good rowing through beautiful country, and an array of jokes and stories told that will keep me thinking about these folks for many months to come. This season has been a great one so far, and I’ll be sorry to see it go. But it’s not over yet. As I write this post I am taking a short break from some serious trip-prep process, for I am leaving in a couple of weeks to do a month long float trip through one of the longest free-flowing glacial drainages left on Earth – the Rio Santa Cruz. Born from a large ice field deep within the heart of the Andes, the Santa Cruz flows unhindered and practically un-touched by human influence from its high-altitude origins all the way to the Atlantic, crossing one of the least populated and still pristine regions in all of Patagonia. And on top of that, this unique river has become the home-environment of one of the most genetically pure strains of Pacific steelhead in existence. First stocked with McCloud River California steelhead sometime before 1930, the Rio Santa Cruz has proved to be an ideal environment for this anadromous fish, a species suffering from loss of habitat, genetic tampering, and over-harvest almost everywhere else they exist on Earth today. And Zach (Tweed) Otte, Loren Elliott, Hernan Salvay, and I intend to get to know it – intimately. We’ll be on the river for somewhere between three weeks and a month, floating it in its entirety from the mouth of Lago Argentino to the Atlantic likely without much possibility of running into a single other soul along the way; but the fishing, well, it should be spectacular. Stay tuned for an update on that when we get back.
Well, here we go again; perhaps this will become a habit. But this week’s book deserves it too. One of my clients from back in January graciously left a copy of Jim Harrison‘s The Woman Lit By Fireflies with me when he flew back to the states, and expressed surprise that I hadn’t already read it. He and I talked quite a lot about books and writing while he was down, and I guess he must have gotten a pretty good sense of what my tastes are in these things, because my first thought upon finishing this book was “Why have I not heard of this man before?” Turns out there’s really no excuse. Harrison has been on the scene for a very long time, is published in no less than nine languages, and was awarded both the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship. Not to mention he is a close personal friend of one of my long time favorite authors, Thomas McGuane. This book is made up of of three separate stories, each really a novella in its own right, and they span a wide breadth of characteristics even though I think they go together quite well as a collection. The first story I loved but didn’t take that seriously, since I don’t think it was intended to be taken that seriously. I just sat back and enjoyed the hell out of the ride. Harrison’s voice in this piece, Brown Dog, is vaguely reminiscent of some of Larry Brown‘s writing in Big Bad Love. The second story, Sunset Limited, was fascinating from a character development point of view, but somehow fell short of its mark for me in the end. Overall it was very well done and held my interest, but somehow didn’t quite manage to maintain my willing suspension of disbelief. Still, well worth the time it took to read the thing. The third story, the title piece, is absolutely amazing. What Harrison has done here with the seemingly (at first glance) barest threads of a narrative arc – an exceptionally average woman’s running off from a highway rest stop and into a cornfield to escape her abusive husband and take back the steering wheel of a life left on auto-pilot far too many decades – is frigging brilliant. There are far too few authors who are able to turn reality into literature, but this story shows that he is one of them. For most of writing’s history the tendency of those with the pens and typewriters was to leave the complex mess of bad decision making and twisted up unclear motives out entirely, portraying only a character’s noblest, or least noble traits in order to allow the storyline a clean and concise narrative arc. Then, when writers got more honest, there was an entirely overdone movement in the opposite direction, with the focus put on contradiction and confusion, and leaving it at that, for which the stories also suffered. I think the truth of human experience though is a little like a cross between our clearest moments of calm, rational thought, and the sort of free-flow formlessness we experience in our dreams. There are connections, and the thing itself is a whole, but it can be looked at either way, or from either angle, at any time. The sum total of any character’s true identity is sort of like an electron, which, as described in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principal, we can only ever observe or describe in terms of either the thing’s position or its velocity at any given time – never both at once. What Harrison managed to do with his protagonist in the last story here was both, at once, or perhaps by switching back and forth so rapidly, repeatedly, and invisibly throughout the narrative that the reader never realizes it is happening. And I am certain this took a lot more work and gumption than the average reader ever even realizes; although admittedly, this is beside the point. Overall though it is another book I would highly recommend, and I myself am looking forward to hopefully receiving a large shipment of Harrison’s other works as soon as they can make their way to my tiny post office here in Argentina.
Hi Folks; back again for another installment. I’m in off the water for just a skosh here between groups, and re-grouping, as they say, in the office, yet again. It’s been a pretty spectacular last couple of weeks down here. I started out down on Lago Strobel where I actually managed to sneak away for a bit of fishing on my own before the sports came in, and also spent a day out on Estancia Laguna Verde searching for Tehuelche artifacts and “paintings”. Paintings probably isn’t the right word for what we have on that particular property, since in fact they are etchings, the actual images carved into the rock with other rocks, but many of the styles and forms are quite similar to the paintings found just a little ways to the North on Estancia Cueva de Las Manos and in other sites across Santa Cruz province. These things always make quite an impression on me, and so I’ve decided to devote a little time here to describing them, as well as to sharing the rest of the small collection of Tehuelche bolas, stone tool and arrow point chips, and other generally interesting (to me, anyway) rocks and fossils I have seen or collected down here over the past five or so years as I walked around mostly looking for fish. The first of these was a bola that was given to me by a fellow outside Rio Pico, which I was amazed to later find out from an archeologist who recorded it for her database was actually over nine thousand years old. Bolas, more or less perfectly spherical stones crafted using other stones by Tehuelche hunters (some of them with a groove around the circumference and some without) were a sort of primitive weapon used to hunt guanaco and rhea, among other things. They were tied to short woven leather lines, sometimes also wrapped in rawhide, and then swung around the hunter’s head before being released with a trajectory intended to hit the target animal and crush enough bone to bring it down, or in the case of multiple bola boleadoras, wrap and tangle the cords around the animal’s legs. It is hard for me to imagine how much work must have gone into the making of these things, and even equally amazing to me that there should ever have been enough of them “lost” by the Tehuelches that I might somehow come to have three of them (well, two and a half) sitting on a shelf in my house all these thousands of years later. Just holding one in your hands and thinking about the fact that at the time it was made even the people of Europe were still also in the stone age makes quite an impression on me, and also calls to mind that in the millennia that followed, the Tehuelche simply continued to live in this same form – all the way up to, in fact, their first contact with the by then more modernized Europeans only a few scant centuries ago. They were a nomadic people, hunter-gatherers by way of life, and judging by the artifacts like these bolas and spear points and the paintings and etchings themselves, it seems that for well over ten thousand years they lived in very much the same fashion, with the same culture, and little or no change at all took place in their way of life over all that span of time. Contrasted with what those peoples who experienced the agricultural revolution across the Atlantic have done over just the last three thousand or so years (going from much the same way of life as these Tehuelches to the sort of horrifyingly beautiful mess of things like fly fishing, nuclear weapons, and reality TV programming that we have today) it makes me wonder a little bit sometimes: how and why did this all actually come about? The paintings and etchings tell us a little bit about what Tehuelche life was like for the thousands of generations that they existed here in this form. There are guanacos and rheas, renditions of these same animals’ tracks, images and negative imprints of the people’s hands and feet, images of women giving birth (like the one seen above), images of hunts, and interesting but inexplicable circles and geometric forms of all sorts, possibly astronomical in nature, but equally possibly not. What there are none of, however, are images of war. And this contrasts markedly with the Egyptian hieroglyphs and other vestiges of post agricultural-revolution Arab and Eurasian cultures we all know. Some of what I found a few weeks ago was recent enough to be accompanied by the still preserved (though by no means fossilized) bones of the animals the hunters had killed. Chips of obsidian scattered behind “blinds” constructed of stone were amongst piles of guanaco ribs and legs, indicating that as little as maybe one hundred and fifty years ago hunters had crouched in that very spot, making arrow points and waiting on their prey, then perhaps processing and eating it there as well. And at the same time, five thousand odd miles to the North, our American ancestors were engaged in a bloody civil war complete with canons, muskets, and the newly developed Henry repeating rifle. It is a strange world indeed. It hasn’t been just items of human making that have caught my eye since I’ve been down here though. There is a lot to be seen amongst the stones at river and lakeside that goes far further back in time than that. You may remember from sometime back in May of 2011 this piece of petrified wood I found on the Rio Limay, a vestige of a tree that stood on those plains during the Mesozoic Era, which came to its end some sixty six million years ago. Or how about these fossil imprints of bivalves I found just a few weeks ago on a nameless river drainage I was exploring to the south. Or this giant fossilized oyster shell from the Rio Jeinimeni that weighs more than thirty pounds. Who the hell knows what they are? Or how old? The stone with the clamshell imprints was in the midst of a myriad of other types of stone, pushed into the place it lay by the last glacial retreat I would imagine, but I’ve not yet had the opportunity to ask someone better educated in these matters than myself and thus find out. I move on now though, to the beast of all beasts, and one that thankfully also rests in my tiny collection, the mighty dinosaur. Yes folks, I have dinosaur bones. Or, well, fossils, actually, but damn if they don’t look like bones. Only heavier. These segments of jaws (complete with teeth) and a leg joint belonged to a creature that apparently (according to the museum up in Santiago del Estero) looked like a sort of triceratops with the horns in reverse. It had two huge tusks coming out of its mouth and extending almost straight forward, elephant style, but also a unicorn like horn sticking straight out of the protective plate that extended from its head. They have a complete skeleton at the museum there, and the thing is about twenty five feet long and probably twelve feet high. All I can say is that I’m downright thankful to live in a part of the world where it is possible to just stumble across this stuff. And when you do, well, it really does make you stop and think.
But now on to the fish. I know you all want to hear about the fish. Fishing has been good and my last group had three and a half days of spectacular weather down on Lago Strobel with Tweed and Alfredo and the boys before me and the clients headed north to Rio Pico for the rest of the trip. The wind though, was acting strange. Now, I’m no Paulino Arias, and the number of my years of climatological observation in these parts is a fairly limited, at the geologic scale of time – but I know one thing: The wind here comes from the West. I can count the number of times I’ve seen wind out of the East in Patagonia on a single hand in fact; that is, until this last two weeks I could. It started while we were still in Santa Cruz. Tweed had one of the clients on his four-wheeler and I was behind him with another when I noticed something strange. The dust coming off of his tires was going the wrong way. I honked to pull him over and we both remarked on how strange it was, but I certainly didn’t expect it to last. Last it did though. Off and on for the next week and a half. Why should this interest you? I’m not sure. I’m not yet sure even what it means to me. But I do know what it means to the trout in my area of expertise, and it makes them start acting awfully strange. Mind you, we caught them; yes, we caught them just like we always do – but not in the places or in the ways we always do. The fish just weren’t acting the same. It is hard for me to imagine how a simple change in wind direction should affect the behavior of a single outsized brown trout lying in a pool on a tiny spring creek in the pampa. The water flows downstream just like always, the sun and moon rise and set, maybe the grasshoppers get blown into the water from the left bank instead of the right, but how the hell does he know which way they come from anyway, and why should he decide to move his place or do something different than he always has? Who knows? But he does. There’s a lot more going on here than we will ever understand. It’s like trying to balance an equation with far too many variables and far too few numbers, or find the patterns in that never ending decimal string that is π. Yet we can’t help but try to systematize the thing, to understand it, take it apart, and examine how it works so that we can make it work to our advantage. Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev said once in a letter to Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy dated January 3rd, 1857, “The only people who treasure systems are those whom the whole truth evades, who want to catch it by the tail. A system is just like truth’s tail, but the truth is like a lizard. It will leave the tail in your hand and escape; it knows that it will soon grow another…” I’d say that about sums it up. In many ways though, this is in fact the very attraction of fishing from the start. It is never going to be something we can control, never going to be something we can perfect; and there is always going to be something new to learn. “Tomorrow, the river will look much the same. But it won’t be. No two days are ever the same for a fly fisherman.” (Roderick Haig Brown)
Okay, okay, so maybe book reviews have no business getting posted on a blog which is ostensibly about guiding and fly fishing in Patagonia, nor by a fly fishing guide, however marginally published he may sometimes claim to be. But why not? Who knows, maybe I’ll end up making this a regular thing. Sitting in the wind down on Lago Strobel this morning I’ve just finished a book that made far more of an impression on me than I expected it to: Bury Me Standing, The Gypsies and Their Journey, by Isabel Fonseca. I bought this book because of an interest I have had in the somewhat unapproachable history of Gypsy culture for some time now, and ended up getting a lot more than I bargained for. Fonseca’s research navigating the tenuous and unwelcoming government offices of post Soviet block countries, the volatile newly emerging order of a wholly nomadic “cultural government” that borders on being a tribal mafia, and on the ground in Gypsy communities (many of those dangerous eastern European slums) is impressive, to say the least. Not only did she get in and have a look around, she stayed long enough to make an educated guess and draw some conclusions about what the hell is really, and has really been, going on. Many aspects of the book’s historical research shocked me completely. From the centuries of actual slavery under feudal lords and monarchies, to the accounts of Josef Mengele’s beyond twisted fascination with and generally lethal experiments on Gypsy twins (most of them children) are enough to make anyone’s blood run cold. Its true I wouldn’t call the book impartial journalism; Fonseca clearly has a love for the Gypsies and a sympathetic interest in their future; but she is realistic in her portrayal of their culture, I believe, and also able to shed some light on why it has been such a difficult culture for the outside world to understand for so long, and so easy a culture for that same world to fear, despise, and oppress. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever wondered about the subject. But put your seat belt on before you open it; this one is going to hurt.