You can find a new poem of mine, "Frozen Antlers," in the Fly Fishing Edition of Gray's Sporting Journal.
My poem, "You Laughed when I didn't know what 'Jaded' Meant", is published in the new issue of the San Pedro River Review - "Music", Spring 2018 Volume 10 Number 1. You can purchase a copy here.
The fire red underbelly of ferns yellowed by
low water and late fall
greet us as we step out of maple and oak
into swept old rolling Appalachian mountains.
The green is leaving the canopy along with us, a trail cut
bank along the slide.
Red blazes on pine.
The dirt roads of Pennsylvania
are a good breakfast for a day in the woods.
I swear, some day I’ll just pull off
to the side of one and rest, watch the suns and moons
of its days and nights turn into each other.
Some clouds. A rain.
Cross Forks to Windfall to Red Ridge.
There’re your directions.
Up this high, the ground is soft.
Not like most of Pennsylvania. Didn’t turn my ankle on a rock once.
The trail curves, gaining a few feet of elevation, slowly as it
wraps itself up into the Hammersley Ravine.
No deer. No bear. Just a few chipmunks.
This morning trout were snatching my woolly bugger
as it dipped and streaked through their water.
From up here I see no water. Just endless wooded crescents and ridgelines
folding into each other
tired from the shift of the plates of years ago.
Tonight we’ll eat fajitas around a fire, but right now
it’s just you, me, our dog
standing in the middle of this old burn - 1964 -
small birch stained yellow by October, groves of ferns,
teaberry, dark streaks on rock nestled among little thorns.
We stop and stand before leaving,
eyes closed, a wind comes up out of the deep
sweeps across our mouths, chilling the sweat, the hair at the edge
of our ears.
The taste of this settles in my tonsils.
Shade mountain, Jacks Mountain, Penn's Creek.
A Bobcat in the rear view mirror
with still a few gulps of coffee left in the parking lot.
I got pissed at the big water by noon.
A morning of slight takes and spitting flies
ended with two dudes dropping into the middle of the run I was fishing.
I cut up the bank, crossed into the meadow and threw some hoppers.
It was lunch, I was hungry.
I had eaten my last granola bar an hour ago.
I walked back to my truck and drove up the mountain
until I found a pull off
and the stream winding itself out and away
into the rhododendron and mountain laurel.
I took one fly and my 6'10" rod.
Hiked into the woods
following the only path the water cut.
A few deep plunges,
some shallow riffles,
a cut bank that bled
into a hill of ferns,
some small brook trout
and I was fishing.
Eventually I reached the road,
walked back to my truck and off to find lunch.
We set off around 8:30 a.m.
The clouds were coming in from the west over Brunner Island.
The kayaks, smooth.
The water, muddy.
The sun couldn't make it out of the east,
let alone onto our shoulders.
"You're gonna have wet asses"
Steve's uncle politely mentioned as we pushed off.
"Eh," we shrugged. We've been getting advice from his uncles for years
and they're usually right and we usually ignore them.
Just a few weeks ago, they had to tow Steve's boat back upstream
after the engine died,
after they carved a wooden plug so we wouldn't sink.
Luckily, we were able to paddle hard enough to run into some trees
leaning out into the river and tie off so we didn't get washed downstream.
Just a few minutes later and a about a hundred yards downstream, just past the first bend,
it started to rain.
There was a break in the clouds down past Shocks Mill Bridge
so we paddled. Didn't fish much.
Past the Conoy
Past the White Cliffs,
Through the Haldeman Riffles
skirting Ely and Pole Islands aiming for a big slow eddy where we pulled ashore.
There, under a thick grove of river birch and maple,
we had a morning snack and shot the shit for an hour
until the rain passed through.
We watched the water.
will fall into the river.
Somehow the beavers keep it solid.
The water behind
is murky with mud and bugs,
grasses and dead wood.
It captures the moonlight
as mayflies hatch.
In the spring it flows.
In the summer it shrinks.
In the fall it fills with leaves.
In the winter it freezes.
Sun Ra and Rain Dogs tenderly blister the morning.
Instruments and melodies I don’t understand,
sublime abstract cacophony of the unexpected.
dark, with a bit of sugar.
Ice, slush, April air after a December winter storm,
wind keeping the leaves off the ground.
Bull trout in Idaho, the panhandle,
that slender slice of land between Montana and Washington,
campgrounds down winding gravel roads -
Dreams of summer.
Wrapping pheasant tails around #14 hooks,
Peacock hurl, red thread, gold bead head and lead wire.
Unknown melding with known.
These flies work.
They catch fish.
Keep it simple.
They’re all I know.
Big water out west, flies in the vice.
My mind wanders to mountains, a cathedral of pines, cold beer.
The dog barking down the alley, the train tracking its way downstream,
bring me back.
I’ll have to try these flies on some local water, first.
"Along the Girard Ridge"
We hitched for nine days
up along the Girard Ridge.
Shasta to our north, giving us looks all day.
Frost over the sixth night.
Along the Girard Ridge we spread
like sinuses on a cold morning.
The crew went through with loppers first
then brush-cutters and pole saws
to widen the trail.
Some dusty tread work with McCloud and Pulaski
to finish the hitch.
Pine pitch to start fires,
a bag of potato chips as a snack.
It's been a slow fall of fishing for me. Points just didn't seem to connect throughout the last two months. I ended the summer of fantastic bass fishing and big Maine brook trout and landlocked salmon by falling quickly back into a deluge of work. I lost all my headspace that allowed me to explore in a pile of papers and lesson plans. So it goes. No complaining here. Sometimes it's just hard to not let your life become, as Jim Harrison mused, "the sloppy leftovers of your work." This is just to say that it's easy for me to trace my life over the lines of fishing and come up with a pretty dynamic and accurate portrait of how I've been living. The past few months have held very few points and the lines that were connected seemed short and didn't draw much more than a few incoherent shapes that look like they were traced left handed by a right handed person. Pretty symbolic of how I've been feeling.
It's easy for us to measure our life by one or two points: relationships, work, hobbies, money, politics, things, whatever our focus goes to, and not take into account the whole landscape of what we've been living. Now that the leaves are mostly down and the sun is gone by 6, I'm left with some space for reflection. It's easier to see further when the trees are naked, but you have less time for it. Anyway, a few points have bolded themselves and have marked the last few months. One has been Jack Gilbert. Life seems to always go back to his words. There is one poem that I keep coming back to, rereading every other day - "I Imagine the Gods" . Two lines in particular.
"Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present, Help me to find
the heft of these days."
If ever there was a prayer that I should say every day, this is it.
On a purely stylistic note, I absolutely love his choice of "heft" instead of "weight". Completely different connotations in this context. Weight holds us down, requires strength to maneuver. Whereas Heft has the duality of functioning as both a noun and verb, thereby not immediately attaching itself to its root meaning of weight, but also of action and active engagement in the moment.
I spur my horse through the wrecked town,
The wrecked town sinks my spirit.
High, low, old parapet-walls
Big, small, the aging tombs.
I waggle my shadow, all alone;
Not even the crack of a shrinking coffin is heard.
I pity all these ordinary bones,
In the books of the Immortals they are nameless.
- Han Shan
#4, Cold Mountain Poems.
Head for the mountains; my first inclination and instinct when my summer vacation starts. I packed some books, fly rods, good food and brew, and headed up to Potter County to get away from the constant murmur of traffic and work that seems to have taken a strong, subtle hold of life here in Lancaster County.
The winds shot up Route 44, tracing along dark early spring clouds and short bursts of showers as I weaved my way down into the valley. Within a half hour of pulling into my campsite, I was set up and back in the car to pick up some flies from the Kettle Creek Tackle Shop, one of my favorite fly shops. The owner is always eager to share some stories and knowledge and he has over 300 of his own, hand made fly rods for sale. One of these days I'm going to pick up one of his bamboo rods. One of these days. I was on the water soon thereafter and quickly hooked into a mess of rainbows and native brook trout.
I got up early the next day and hiked up into a beautiful wild area. I only scratched the surface of one of the more remote places in Pennsylvania, and am looking forward to taking a full day to fully explore the stream.
The afternoon brought more rainbows. So many that I started trying new flies and different techniques, just to see what would happen. I was hoping for more wild fish, but I'll still take a 30-40 fish day over getting skunked every time. Every time a few bugs started coming off the water, a burst of wind would tumble down the mountains and put them back down. A hare's ear variation that I tied up before the trip landed most of my fish. In fact, most of the fish I landed the entire trip were on flies I tied. A big improvement over the last time I was up here a year ago where I didn't even know how to dub a hook.
That evening, after a killer supper of rotisserie chicken soft tacos, I ventured upstream and soon found myself in a thick haze of bugs - mayflies, some sulphurs, and even some slate drakes. This part of the stream held a lot more wild fish and browns. They were keyed in on Light Cahills and the evening quickly became one I'll remember for a long time, a memory that I'll go back to and re-fish when I'm lost in a daze of work and habit. One after the other, these trout would swoop up from their deep lies and hit my fly. Eventually, I realized that I didn't need to count fish anymore and instead fell into the upstream moment, looking for the next seam to throw my dry. I fished until dark and took a nice long stroll back to camp under a beautiful summer night sky.
I settled at Cold Mountain long ago,
Already it seems like years and years.
Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
And linger watching things themselves.
Men don't get this far into the mountains,
White clouds gather and billow.
Thin grass does for a mattress,
The blue sky makes a good quilt.
Happy with a stone underhead
Let heaven and earth go about their changes.
- Han Shan
#7, Cold Mountain Poems
My buddy Scot came up to meet me early the next morning. We had a quick chat about the state of the world over some coffee and oatmeal, then headed out to a nice size trib teaming with wild browns and native brookies. Within the first run I fished, I hooked a double on a GW emerger and hare's ear. My first time ever catching two fish on both flies I was fishing. This was definitely one of my favorite streams I fished the entire trip. It's a classic mountain freestone with deep pools, fertile riffles, and plenty of room to make a back cast. When I head back up there later in the summer, I'm already planning on spending more time fishing it.
To get over to Scot's camp, we weaved our way through the mountains bordering a Wild Area and down into the next valley over. I love these long dirt roads that traverse the mountains. It reminds me of being out west and driving through National Forest lands. You could spend a day just getting lost on them, stopping where it seems right, fishing for native brook trout. There's a freedom you only get where there are no stop signs or pavement and if you break down, your walking miles to get to a camp with a phone.
That last few days of my trip were spent at Scot's camp with Kurt and Andy, helping them christen their new-to-them old-school-trailer that they rented (appropriately named Wild Boy Hops & Trout Camp). I am blessed to have good people in my life willing to share their places, their knowledge, their jokes (Kurt is the best joke teller I have ever met, a master of the lost oral tradition of making people laugh with great timing and a good pun), and cured meats (not a euphemism). We explored the valley, caught a ton of fish, sat by the fire while an old white skunk skulked around us, and ate great charcuterie. It was an awesome trip and just what I was looking for to start my summer. I explored a bunch of new water, landed over 100 fish (most on flies I tied), embraced some magnificent solitude, hung out with good friends, and had beautifully deep sleep each night. I can't wait to head back up there.
I was recently asked to describe who had an impact on my life as a "naturalist" and lover of the outdoors and chose Gary Snyder. An excerpt of this piece ran in this article in the local paper. Below is the full piece.
Having grown up in a family that didn’t really venture into the outdoors and only ever being a very part-time Boy Scout, I was left without much of an environmental ethic until high school when I came across Gary Snyder. I first heard of him as Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums which led me to his book of poetry Turtle Island and eventually The Gary Snyder Reader, an anthology that has followed me to college, up to Maine, across to the California coast, up into the rockies, and still sits on my bedstand here in Marietta. His poetry about being in the mountains and wildness spoke to me as a teenager living out his adolescent flailings in suburbia. I latched onto his sparse, beautiful aesthetic and quickly took on his views of the importance of place. This ethic that place and how we interact with it has the ability to define us has shaped who I am today.
His poems like “For the Children”, “Riprap”, and “I Went Into the Maverick Bar” have all acted as a soundtrack to my life at different points. His writing taught me not only to protect and care for our resources, but also to find beauty and connection with them. Thanks to Snyder, I was put both on a literary path through the likes of Ed Abbey, Jim Harrison, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Han Shan, Li Po, and Rick Bass and a lifelong path of writing, trail work and environmental education, and now as a catch and release fly fisherman and steward of our coldwater resources. Thanks to him I was given the chance to create my own set of environmental ethics and was able to create my own path through place and wildness.
Every once in a lucky while, a poet, writer, musician, or artist of some kind will come along and speak specifically to you. Thankfully, Jack Gilbert came to me through podcast whispers and secondhand comments and now I can't put his work down.
I haven’t read a poet that has resounded with me so much since Gary Snyder back in late teens and early twenties when I was living out of a backpack doing trail work.
I think what I love most is how Jack speaks about life without making it any more than just life.
"we must unlearn the constellations to see the stars..."
I have found myself lately, much like the protagonist in The Talking Heads’ song “Once in a Lifetime”, in a large automobile, letting the days go by, and the water holding me down. Then Jack came along and spoke clearly about this adult malaise that seems to afflict us at some point.
One day you may wake up old thinking you know it all, seen it all, and exist simply to just put in another day. The eggs are burnt to the pan and the coffee needs some sugar; minor adjustments just to make sure the routine goes smoothly. Maybe that’s what life eventually becomes and maybe that’s what life is, but we don’t have to suffer the knowledge of knowing it all before it happens. Sometimes we need to let our eyes wander over to the trees on the horizon as the sun bakes its last leaves for the day.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
As we grow older, as another day passes, it’s easy for us (maybe it’s a human nature) to begin finding patterns in life, routines. We slowly begin to live these patterns, expecting certain things to happen at certain times, expecting certain people to be nice, others to offhandedly shake us off. Through these expectations and their inevitable disappointment, we end up missing out what is actually there - life. We become blinded by the constellations we project onto our daily existence and lose sight of real moments right in front of us. I think that’s what Jack is trying to tell us here: tear down your preconceived notions and pre-judgements of people and experiences and find the heart of it all.
I highly recommend Jack Gilbert's Collected Poems. It's a collection of pretty much all his work. Often times I'll find myself sitting down after the day is done and flipping through this collection, reading which poems stand out at that time. A poet (or artist of any sort) that speaks to you is worth more than most other things in life, that's for sure. It is imperative that we find those voices that speak to us. Seek them out, listen to them, and then use your own.
“Tear it Down” - Jack Gilbert
We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within that body.
There's a random painted highway
And a muzzle of bees
My sleeves have come unstitched
From climbing your tree
And dogs laugh, some say they're barking
I don't think they're mean
Some people get so frightened
Of the fences in between
And the sun gets passed from tree to tree
Silently and back to me
With the breeze blown through
Pushed up against the sea, finally back to me
I'm assuming you got my message
On your machine
I'm assuming you love me
And you know what that means
Sun gets passed, sea to sea
Silently, and back to me
With the breeze blown through
Pushed up above the leaves
With the breeze blown through
My head upon your knee
Half of it's you, half is me
Half of it's you, half is me
I'm not sure what there really is for me to say about this song other than that I absolutely love it. The lyrics... pure poetry. The performance... man can Nels Cline rip. I also love the people you can see walking outside the windows. It seems to fit very well with the performance and lyrics.
Two poems that I should read every day, like prayers.
I met Wendell Berry once and was stunned by the sheer magnitude of his self. He read his poems like he was tilling this fields, with rough hands, a deep voice, and a plaid shirt and jeans. He hadn't shaved that morning; he read his poetry like he was working, like they were as much of a part of him as was his daily chores around the farm, like he had just come down from his bedroom and was sipping his coffee, looking out at the day through his kitchen window. He helped me realize that poetry should be a simple extension of your self, of what you do and what you are and how you breathe.
The Peace of Wild Things
BY WENDELL BERRY
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I first heard this poem on NPR's A Prairie Home Companion on my little wind up radio, sitting in my cook cabin at Kidney Pond in Baxter State Park. I had just finished eating some home made pizza and was sipping a cold beer, staring out at Katahdin. Bly came on and read from his most recent book, Turkish Pears in August, with a violin accompaniment. "Wanting Sumptuous Heavens" has stuck with me ever since. I had been feeling pretty lonesome up there in Maine, wondering what was next, what I was doing, where everyone went. Then this poem came to me and I sat there, transfixed by his voice and the violin, by the pond reaching out to Katahdin, by the loons and the canoes, and was content. At times when I feel overwhelmed by life, when I feel like I'm being pulled into places I don't want to be in, I try to remember to recite this poem, to go back to that moment and to take a few deep breaths. Good prayers, these poems be.
Here is the link to the poems he read that day along with the audio file - http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/programs/2008/03/01/scripts/bly.shtml
Wanting Sumptuous Heavens
BY ROBERT BLY
No one grumbles among the oyster clans,
And lobsters play their bone guitars all summer.
Only we, with our opposable thumbs, want
Heaven to be, and God to come, again.
There is no end to our grumbling; we want
Comfortable earth and sumptuous Heaven.
But the heron standing on one leg in the bog
Drinks his dark rum all day, and is content.
Sketches & scatterings. Rooted in Pennsylvania along the Susquehanna River.