Harry Middleton, the Smokies, and Life as Fire

Time has a way of defining its own symmetry and fulfilling its own rhythms.  Days are days, though, and are best used by spending each one fully, nothing saved.  For years I tried collecting time as though it were precious stones, certain than if I gave myself completely to earning a living fifty weeks a year, I could wrench a year’s worth of solace, solitude, relaxation, joy, and fulfillment out of two weeks’ vacation.  It never worked.  I never felt better, only empty and exhausted.  These days I try not to divide time but only use it, use it all, as it comes, living through it all like fire moving through dry grass leaving only ashes.  Because things come and go.  Come and go.

Harry Middleton, On the Spine of Time: An Angler’s Love of the Smokies (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), 192.


This last weekend I spent a few days fishing in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.  A friend, who is familiar with the Park and the neighboring Eastern Band of Cherokee Land Trust, or Qualla Boundary, showed me some of his favorite streams and taught me a bit about Cherokee culture too.  The waters we visited were wonderful, and I enjoyed learning about the people who call the area home.

Hiking along some of these Smokey Mountains streams, I found myself thinking of the late writer Harry Middleton.  During his all-too-short life, Middleton authored a number of books that have become true classics in the canon of outdoor literature.  Middleton struggled with the professional troubles that many authors do.  But some of his writings indicate that he seemed to face some more fundamental, personal challenges as well.  Sadly, he passed away in his mid-forties (and age I am rapidly approaching).  Still, in some of Middleton’s books, particularly in the pages of On the Spine of Time, he left a clear record of his love of fly fishing in the Smokey Mountains and his deep appreciation for those who shared his love.

Middleton and his writings came naturally to mind as I walked some of the same fishing paths that he walked, only a few years before.  While my own life has been far from trouble free, thoughts of fish caught and future fishing adventures are among the things that keep me going.  Of course, my love of family and the world less touched by human culture are also among these things.  These may not have always been enough for Middleton, even if this speculation contradicts the implicit claim in the main title of his first book: The Earth is Enough (you can find a copy of this book on my for sale page).

In the preface to the 1996 edition of The Earth is Enough: Growing up in a World of Flyfishing, Trout, and Old Men (1989), author and painter Russell Chatham writes the following:

Middleton’s passion is manifested through intelligence, sensitivity, and compassion to create a profound ode to the earth and to mankind, governed by respect, gentleness, and humor.  At all appropriate moments this story will make you weep convulsively, burst out laughing, and cause you to ache with longing.  The sadness is that these qualities certainly contributed to the doom of their creator.  Passion and soul, the dual sources of everything valuable and meaningful, are not very hot commodities in our largely puritanical, calvinistic, money-driven republic.  In a society like ours, layered with ennui, greed, aggressive ignorance, dispassionate, poor-quality living, all soaked in a gooey solution of snake-belly-grade voyeurism a la Oprah et al., the sensitive frequently don’t make it.

I’m pretty sensitive myself.  Nevertheless, all those things I mentioned above bring pleasure to my life.  So does reading Middleton’s books.  If you haven’t read them yet yourself, I suggest that you do.  And you need not be a fly fisher to enjoy doing so.  Indeed, my first Middleton book was given to me by a non-fishing student.  Inside the cover, the student inscribed, “it most definitely made me dream of a lifestyle much different than the one I lead today.”  Middleton would have liked this inscription.  And he might have hoped that my student began to live “like fire moving through dry grass.”  

By the way, if you find yourself in the area, spend some time in the Smokies.  The mountains and streams of the area are truly gorgeous, even to a displaced, home-sick Montanan like myself.

3 Responses to “Harry Middleton, the Smokies, and Life as Fire”

  1. Harry Middleton in The Smokies | MidCurrent Says:

    […] works, it is hard to enter the Great Smokey Mountains without channelling Harry Middleton.  Count The Literary Fly Fisher in that group, as they quote Russell Chatham’s preface to The Earth is […]


  2. The LFF mentioned in Midcurrent « The Literary Fly Fisher Says:

    […] a nice little mention in the online magazine, Midcurrent: Fly Fishing at its Best.  My November 11, 2011 post on the late, renowned author Harry Middleton was referenced in the “Book News” […]


  3. Southern Appalachian Fly Fishing and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians | The Literary Fly Fisher Says:

    […] tasted just a hint of the former, in the writings of Harry Middleton. Middleton is the author of On the Spine of Time and several other beautiful books about fishing the Smokey Mountains (and Ozarks). Even though I […]


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