I forget where I first read that fly fishers are optimists by nature. Of course I didn’t need to read it anywhere, having on many occasions been the beneficiary of one more cast, a pinch more of split shot, or a fly change that caused a previously dead run to erupt with the wrath of a lunker trout. How many of us have arrived at a blown out stream where the blizzard hatch ended yesterday and earned a surprise fish instead of taking a skunk? Ask a good steelheader why he perseveres through a days-long losing streak. He’ll tell you his next swing will get a grab.
Even in 2014, one might take comfort in the notion that fly fishing has faced existential threats and come out on top many times since the days of Theodore Gordon and Charles F. Orvis. Rivers and lakes, we optimists might argue, possess obvious sacred value embodied in the mountains that hold them and in the trout that swim their waters. Not everything, trout streams especially, has a price. I first learned this in the 1970’s, when talk of damming the Yellowstone led to nothing. Some time later, Denver tried to put another dam on the South Platte. Fly fishermen were among the loudest voices telling Denver where to shove it.
Alas, anyone with a functioning brain can see that our society no longer offers safe haven to spiritual practices like fishing. Our government – due in part to a population that has grown by 100 million since the 70’s – has become clumsy, overbearing, and mean. We know the government we now hate is but a foil for that which truly rules us. We understand that corporations not only keep the lights on around here, but are willing to turn them off for the sake of the exclusive enrichment of the self-annointed deserving. In the eyes of the Supreme Court – aka, the known universe – corporations are persons now, although, unlike real people, they are not sent to jail or unfairly disrespected for accepting government assistance and skipping out on their bills. Like real people once were, corporations are the government.
Another evil that has evolved since the 70’s (or 1980 if we’re to mark a specific year) is the notion that money, like God, is inherently good and benevolent. Thus, even as we might despise the corporatocracy and its most objectionable impacts, we are loathe to do too much in protest. Regulation of any kind has become sacrilegious and can invite retribution.
I’ve said it many times, this pickle we’re in is our own damn fault. We have allowed agendas to endure without accounting for their negative effects. We allow conservatives to wield power without demanding that they conserve, and we suffer progressives who won’t deliver progress. Mesmerized by our televisions and cell phones, we’ve let the powerful abduct our language, to the point where their definitions have no relationship to the lives we actually lead.
Taking our language back would be a great first step towards ensuring the survival of our beloved sport. For example:
“Good” – Money is a good, it’s true, though not an unqualified one. For it to be good, it needs to be in more pockets, not fewer, a concept that does not require the redistribution of wealth so much as an adequate distribution from the start. Healthy food, clean and ample water and land, roads, bridges, libraries, family health, time away from work, and activities (outdoor recreation?) on which to spend it must receive equal billing in our definition of what’s good.
“Personal Responsibility” – As currently touted by pundits and politicians, this concept applies mainly to the less fortunate (oh, would that a predatory lender might receive the same jail sentence as the single mom shoplifting a loaf of bread). Under a more empathic definition, personal responsibility would mean doing our best to help our neighbors make out as well as ourselves, or at least not turning their hardship to our advantage.
In their purest forms, our religions mandate this ethic, which is not an excuse to blame others for not helping, but an encouragement to follow the most beautiful of human instincts. Catch and release fishing is a perfect acknowledgement of how blessed we should feel for our interdependent world. We release so that others may catch.
“Courage” – While soldiers are certainly brave, the people who put them in harm’s way are not brave by association. The parent working three minimum-wage jobs, the miner toiling in unsafe conditions, the steelhead guide blogger tapping into the night for wild fish and unpolluted rivers, the 9 to 5 cubicle jockey with a mortgage and good kids, the 7 to 7 elementary school teacher, the pro bono attorney, the doctor and the nurse – we must honor their courage as well. All too frequently, folks like these are viewed as money left on the table, even as they mop up messes of the cowards that be.
“Freedom” – Relatively speaking, freedom is still prevalent in America. Believe it or not, if you’re gay, muslim, poor, female, a minority, indigenous, a market, or of another category routinely jacked up in this country, your liberties are less infringed upon than in many others.
The problem is that the corporation has come to possess grotesquely more freedom than the rest of us. In exercising its freedom, this “person” restricts our own in almost every aspect of life. It controls our government, health care, food, water, the safety of our towns, schools and workplaces, our elections, information, technology, energy, transportation, bank accounts, our love lives and education, even the climate of our planet. If its motivation were different, if the corporation was fueled by a desire to safeguard freedom instead of usurp it, the power it possesses would be a wonderful thing indeed. But this monster is as insatiable as cancer.
One freedom it does not yet control is our ownership of the actual dirt of America, our public land. Make no mistake though, the corporation is coming for it as sure as night follows day. In legislatures across the west, efforts to transfer federal lands to the states are being driven by corporations. If these efforts succeed, states won’t be able to afford to manage such a windfall and will be forced to liquidate. That’s the plan, and if it happens, adios.
The future of fly fishing depends on our land remaining ours. Or public lands model, the likes of which is found nowhere else on earth, is the physical contract signed by generations of mothers and fathers who built our cities, fought in and paid for our wars, who in their turn, sacrificed their own children for crisply folded flags. What the wars were about hardly matters in this context. What matters is that ordinary Americans have held up their end. Now they get to fish.
It seems cute to define freedom as the right to watch a trout eat a dry fly on your favorite mountain stream, but I’m serious as a heart attack. This, my friends, is our final stand.