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The Shape of Hope

Fishers are compulsive storytellers. Maybe it is because they have spent so many hours for just a few minutes of excitement and this is their way of justifying this profligate expenditure of time. In my experience, it just feels selfish to keep a miraculous experience to oneself. One wants to spread the joy.

In fishing as in life, one learns that getting the right results comes after careful preparation, knowledge, skill, and planning have done all they can do. Then something extra kicks in, something we wanted but that still feels like a surprise and we must confess that it wasn’t at all ours to demand or expect. It was merely a gift. And if catching a fish is a gift, then so too is catching the light as it strikes the water in the late afternoon, streaming as it does through the tall pines and casting your shadow upstream while the flies flit about above the surface of the water. It is then that you find yourself transfixed just by the very odd chance of being alive at all. Good fishers are grateful people, people who in the end have to admit that it doesn’t even matter if you catch something, so long as you, in all of your readiness, were able to enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of a mountain stream. Because, no matter your level of expertise, only the fish and the river will determine whether you get results. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “the race is not to the swift, but time and chance happeneth to them all.” Of course, without the preparation, chances are nil, but with it, you still know you are a beggar. And all you got was nothing more than time and chance, nothing more and nothing less.

The author landing a fish at the headwaters of the Colorado River. Photo by Andi Pitcher Davis.

The author landing a fish at the headwaters of the Colorado River. Photo by Andi Pitcher Davis.

Time, of course, feels foreshortened in the Anthropocene. Increasing rates of change over deep time augur a judgment against our inaction and disturb our sleepy confidence in an unending future. And the idea of things happening by chance is perhaps something we might look back on someday with nostalgia because a world still subject to chance would at least feel independent of our will. This is the great age of the human in which all of nature is now shadowed by every move and choice made by the most predominant species on the planet, human beings. But maybe this also means that nature is so profoundly interpenetrated by culture that human beings must finally confront and admit their profound interdependence with all life forms. The Anthropocene is also the great age of nature.

This confusion, this blurring of the distinction between the human and the natural, is lamentable but it has also stirred reconsiderations of the very meanings and definitions of the earth, of human artistic expression, and of humanity itself in biological context. Philosophy, theology, history, the arts, design, geography—there is scarcely an arena of human thought that has not been at least challenged by an Anthropocenic revolution. The Anthropocene certainly requires more than a tree-hugger’s guide to human history or the prizing of the spotted owl over the logger. Many are calling for new cosmologies, new ethics and values, and we have seen no shortage of strategies for shaming ourselves and for condemning our anthropocentrism. But if it is anthropocentric to tie the fate of the earth to humankind, it is also biocentric to tie humankind to the fate of the earth. Few seem willing to acknowledge that even human self-chastisement is a deeply and uniquely human impulse, the very foundation of much religious creativity. It might be more accurate to say that our problem is hubris and human self-centeredness rather than the facts of our human difference. If a contemplation of myriad life forms over the course of 4.5 billion years of history inspires awareness of our relative nothingness as a species, it is still a uniquely human exercise to contemplate and respond to that mystery. Now is the time and the chance to make sense of our human differences—our artistic imagination, our rich emotional life, our capacity for moral reasoning and moral action—because they are more indispensable than ever.

I am known as an environmentalist, an ecocritic, and a nature writer. I am in the habit of announcing my intention to foreground the environment, as if in hope that it might heighten the environmental awareness of others. And yet ultimately this is not done in the interest of nature’s protection per se but rather in the interest of a more careful, deliberate, and chastened sense of life’s strangeness, beauty, and holiness. I suppose I believe that better care for the world will come as a result of more appreciation and gratitude for the facts of our biology. I am less interested in a world of, say, more recycling, more clean energy, and more sustainable practices, as important as those things are. I don’t want others to join me in some specialized interest in the environment or in environmental problems, as just one subset among many philosophies that vie for our attention. I want companionship in astonishment at the bald facts of life. I want a world of less automatism, less objectification, and less predictability. I want more awe, surprise, and wonder. I want repentance. What I want in this more careful attention to physical life is a more spiritual existence.

Which is to say that what motivates me is deeply religious in its character. The word “religion” has many connotations, many of them negative in today’s society, but its root meanings include acts that bind all things together, that imagine the world as one, and that revisit and reread for greater understanding. In this sense, the word has echoes with the meaning of repentance—a turning around, a turning back, a resetting of things in their proper order. We need not reinvent culture. Perhaps only to reimagine, reinvigorate it. This is what Aldo Leopold hoped could become of our forms of recreation: not mere entertainment or empty sport but a re-creation, or remaking of the world, a going back—in body and in mind—to an imagined moment of creation, as if the world could always be new, again and again.

In the face of a world that changes with each breeze, each shift in season, each death and each birth, and that grows increasingly warmer, and in light of the fact that all living organisms, including our own bodies, depend on daily exchange of matter with our environment to sustain life, we can scarcely claim to be truly alive if we fail to participate more conscientiously and reverently in the ongoing creation of the world.1 Environmental consciousness is not the fruit of some new specialized form of thinking but of a consecrated effort to remember and rethink our inheritance—the fruit, it seems, of rituals and practices that actualize our present responsibility for the future we are making.

The Green River, Utah. Photo by George Handley.

The Green River, Utah. Photo by George Handley.

We need more nature lovers, to be sure, but not if love means superficial appreciation for beautiful sunsets or exotic landscapes or recreation at the expense of the health of the earth; not if what we love is an object or if we love beauty but cannot sense fragility; not if we seek to possess or control, selfishly or willfully. As the very substance of mortality itself, nature may be the greatest test of mortal love. How widely must we stretch the mind and heart to imagine that all of it—every twig lashing the eye, every storm wreaking havoc, every death and every rebirth, every unexpected and even unwanted change in the weather and yes, all beautiful sunsets and all fantastical and wondrous species—is integral to our human experience and meaning? We can no more afford to be dismissive or willfully ignore the ugly and deeply troubling aspects of the creation than we can ignore the inherent weaknesses in our own flesh. To paraphrase Rainer Maria Rilke, to love this life we must imagine a time beyond death when we look back on our nights of sorrow and see them transformed into the dark green meaning of our lives. To love nature is to love mortality, to accept, even embrace, the paradoxes of our human condition, and to live in hope in the midst of uncertainty. This is love with staying power. This is love that will not lash out in vengeful fits of anger, as we do to others and to the world when they refuse to conform to our wishes. This is caritas.

Nobody captured the essence of this existential joy better than Fyodor Dostoevsky whose life was famously spared at the last minute from the firing squad and who then found himself ecstatically embracing the very chance for existence. In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, the protagonist, Alyosha, goes to his spiritual mentor, the monk Zosima, weighed down by many of life’s unanswered questions and he leaves, after hearing Zosima’s life story, weighed down by life’s joy. Observing the silent night sky and the sleeping flower beds around him, he is overcome by “the mystery of the earth…. Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth. He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages.”2

Maybe the violence of climate change is too slow to wake us up. Maybe it takes a battle with cancer, the death of a loved one, or a narrowly missed accident to inspire us to accept the gift of existence. Wakefulness seems to be the fundamental impulse of much art, which performs the labor, as Leopold called it, of “building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”3 Art teaches us to see the little deaths of every day, the way in which the light changes, time passes, seasons shift, the way in which children grow, our bodies age, and the world keeps ailing and yet keeps shining.

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I have spent far more hours in preparation for a fish than I have enjoyed battling one on the line. There are the long drawn out hours of standing in the middle of a cold, hard wind, waiting for the rain to stop, disentangling my line from a willow branch overhanging the water, retying my line after it snagged under water. The expense of it all. The time driving to the right location. The thousands upon thousands of empty casts when I’ve caught nothing but air. Let’s admit it: the story of fishing is as dull as wax. What makes it an experience worth recounting is precisely the way in which routine is suddenly caught up in a rapture of surprise. We cast empty as if each cast will catch a fish until we do. As the Mormon prophet Brigham Young once said about prayer: “It matters not whether you or I feel like praying…. If we do not feel like it, we should pray until we do.” So perhaps we should love whether we feel like loving or not. Perhaps we should conserve and plant even if we don’t see evidence of the difference it makes, express gratitude and reverence even in the face of despair and degradation.

There is something about fishing, something about the balance of persistence and patience, of self-direction and submission to what circumstances afford that captures the shape of hope. In the labor of working upstream and against the current, there are days when the hours feel like weeks and the casts feel like vain repetitions. But you take the time to keep casting and keep hoping for chances. And chances are that when those patterns of the cast are in place, you will find greater satisfaction in the time spent because little by little you see that you are wresting life away from the relentless ticking of the clock. Then when the fish strikes, it is no longer possible to tell the difference between the world we hoped for and a world that was always and already given.

A caddis fly hatch on the Provo River, Utah. Photo by George Handley.

A caddis fly hatch on the Provo River, Utah. Photo by George Handley.

The grace of unearned love—unearned even if dearly hoped and planned for—is the magic of human experience. We might prefer to determine our chances, but we must at least admit this to ourselves: if joy were only what we earned the right to feel, it wouldn’t be joy at all. It would be more like getting a paycheck, rather than getting a Christmas package. What we hunger and work for is a present, that strange and awesome and humbling feeling that our small moment on the earth is a miracle. And when the flame of joy burns hotly, we will know we didn’t deserve it. This won’t disappoint us. It will be the best reason to guard it, share it, and sustain it for others to come.

Featured Image: The author’s son, Sam, fishing the Provo River in Utah. Photo by George Handley.

George Handley is an ecocritic and nature writer at Brigham Young University and is the author of New World Poetics: Nature and the Adamic Imagination of Whitman, Neruda and Walcott and the environmental memoir, Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River. Contact.

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  1. See William K. Purves, David Sadava, Gordon H. Orians, and H. Craig Helle’s Life: The Science of Biology (Gordonsville, VA: W.H. Freeman and Company), 694. 

  2. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002), 289. 

  3. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949), 176. 

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