Archive for the ‘Fishing and Religion’ Category

The Fly Fishing Literature Course: Fall Semester, 2013

June 5, 2013


Brothers of the Angle.

May 20, 2013

In other words, for those who have a religious experience, all nature is capable of revealing itself as cosmic sacrality.

Mircea Eliade, Romanian author and  historian of religion, The Sacred and the Profane (Harcourt, 1959), 12. While some of his theories are now questioned, Eliade had an immense influence upon the academic study of religion.

It has been a while since I have posted. I have been distracted by a variety of things, including fishing. For instance, last week I had the pleasure of meeting some people in Romania to fly fish. My thanks go to painter Claudiu Presecan, who helped arrange the trip, and to his gracious family. I extend thanks, also, to rod maker Paul Sas for fishing and keeping good company with Claudiu and me. Claudiu and Paul are fine men — great fishers and thoughtful human beings — and I look forward to spending more time with them in the future. I am also grateful to some of their fellow fly fishers in Transylvania, especially their friend Dan, who allowed us to spend a couple of nights in his cabin. Transylvania is a beautiful place.  Its people and wild salmonids are as well.





Wild grayling.

Wild grayling.

Claudiu and Paul

Claudiu and Paul.

I’ll write more about recent events soon.  At 5:00 tomorrow morning however, I will meet another friend here in Magyarorszag (Hungary) for a second days of fishing for asp on the Danube.

A fly rod, an icon, and a stack of books, by Mircea Eliade and Ioan Culianu, at the fishing cabin.

A fly rod, an icon, and a stack of books by Eliade and Culianu at the fishing cabin.

Short Reading List of Angling and other Environmental Literature. Recommendations?

April 24, 2013

As the semester comes to a close, I am providing my “Religion, Nature, and Environment” students (the theme is fly fishing literature) with a bibliography of selected readings.  If you feel that there are any important texts that must be included in a reading list on the topics mentioned, please let me know. Of course, the wonderful texts we’ve already read in class are not included here.  Note that I will add titles, as I think of them and as they are recommended to me.


Bibliography of Selected Angling, Environmental, and other Outdoor Literature (to serve as supplements to assigned readings).

RELI 438, Spring 2013

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854.

Essays produced during transcendentalist Thoreau’s two-year stay at Walden Pond, in MA.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Wind, Sand, and Stars, 1939.

Early reflections by acclaimed aviator, best known for writing The Little Prince.

Beryl Markham, West with the Night, 1942.

Amazing memoir by aviation pioneer, who spent her childhood and young adult years in Africa.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, 1949.

Foundational book in American conservationism.

Heinrich Harrar, Seven Years in Tibet, 1952.

Austrian Mountaineer and Himalayan explorer (and then member of the Nazi Ahnenerbe) described his escape from Allied  internment in India, and subsequent years spent in Lhasa with the Dalai Lama (book was made into film starring Brad Pitt).

Henry Bugbee, The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form, 1958.

Lyrical wilderness philosophy, in the existentialist vein, from University of Montana professor and angler.

Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude. Farrar, Straus & Cudahy. 1958.

One of many books on contemplation by Trappist monk and nature mystic.

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962.

Book that helped launch the modern environmentalist movement.

John McDonald, Quill Gordon, 1972.

Historical essays on fly fishing literature by economist and Fortune magazine contributor.

Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, 1986.

National Book Award winner by prolific author of environmental literature.

Arnold Gingrich, The Fishing in Print, 1974.

Detailed, bibliographic tour of angling literature through the centuries, by founding editor of Esquire magazine and early promoter of Hemingway and others.

Robert Traver (John Voelker), Trout Magic, 1974.

Entertaining essays by circuit-court judge and famed author of Anatomy of a Murder.

Peter Mattheissen, The Snow Leopard, 1978.

Chronicles personal and professional Himalayan quest by founder of The Paris Review literary magazine.

Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: an Essay on the Imagination of Matter,  1983 (orig. published in French, 1942).

Influential French philosopher and historian of science considers the epistemological significance (or significations) of water.  The text is part of a larger series.

Russell Chatham, Dark Waters: Essays, Stories, and Articles, 1988.

Successful artist and angler reflects upon past experiences and friendships with such figures as writer Richard Brautigan.

Harry Middleton, The Earth is Enough, 1989.

Moving memoir of a childhood spent with eccentric, fly fishing grandfather and uncle by the later nature writer, which now has a cult following.

Doug Peacock, The Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness, 1990.

Vietnam-era Special Forces medic retreats to the Glacier National Park area to find himself again and becomes grizzly expert along the way.  Peacock is the model for one of environmental writer Edward Abbey’s.

Pete Fromm, Indian Creek Chronicles: A Winter in the Wilderness, 1993.

Author leaves college to work alone in Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

Lyla Foggia, Reel Women: The World of Women who Fish, 1997.

Addresses various female figures in the world of fishing, from Juliana Berners to living individuals.

John Krakauer, Into Thin Air, 1997.

Book based upon tragic 1996 deaths on Mount Everest.  Krakauer was there as a journalist for Outside magazine.  He also authored Into the Wild.

Craig Nova, Brook Trout and the Writing Life, 1999.

Describes the place of fish and family in Nova’s early years as a writer.

Thomas McGuane, Some Horses: Essays, 2000.

Reflections upon individual horses loved and admired by McGuane.

Kathy Scott, Moose in the Water/Bamboo on the Bench : a Journal and a Journey, 2000.

Reflective essays upon craft[wo]manship and nature.

Thomas McGuane, The Longest Silence, 2001.

An acclaimed series of essays on angling by one of America’s best know Western writers.

Jamling T. Norgay, Touching My Father’s Soul: A Sherpa’s Journey to the Top of Everest, 2002.

Book by son of Tenzing Norgay, Sherpa who was first to summit Mt. Everest, alongside Sir Edmund Hillary.

 Yvon Chouinard, Let My People Go Surfing, 2005.

Patagonia’s founder explains how he came to understand that sustainable business can be profitable.

Steven Kotler, West of Jesus: Surfing, Science, and the Origins of Belief, 2007.

Book explores the phenomenon of “soul surfing,” and other forms of outdoor recreation often described as religious, from a biological perspective.

Wayne K. Sheldrake, Instant Karma: The Heart and Soul of a Ski Bum (Ghost Road Press, 2007).

Religiously oriented memoir of an avid skier’s early years.

Paul Schullery, Royal Coachman, 1999.

Essays on fly fishing history in the U.S.

Maximillian Werner, Black River Dreams, 2009.

Reflective, religiously oriented essays on angling by creative-writing professor.

Anders Halverson, An Entirely Synthetic Fish, 2010.

Highly acclaimed book on the role of non-native fish in changing the American landscape.

Erin Block.  The View from Coal Creek, 2011.

The writer describes her angling centered life in Colorado.

Eric Eisenkramer and Michael Attas, Fly-Fishing, the Sacred Art: Casting a Fly as a Spiritual Practice, 2012.

Co-authored by a Reform Rabbi and an Episcopal Priest/MD.


The Professor

October 18, 2012

At last year’s Fly Fishing Show in Raleigh, I met fly tier  Brad Kern (pictured above), a graduate student at Duke University.  I was impressed by his work.  Eventually, I decided to approach him with an idea I had in mind for a good while: I wanted someone to tie me a salmon fly version of the classic “Professor” wet fly.  Brad’s talent, his probable need for money as a graduate  student, and the fact that he was local, helped me make my decision. A few days ago, Brad finished the fly I proposed to him.  You can see it at the top of this page and, again, at the bottom.

 In Favorite Flies and their Histories  (1892), Mary Orvis Marberry provides an illustration (above) of the classic “Professor” wet fly, along with an annotation:

The Professor was named after the much-loved Professor John Wilson (Christopher North), and the story of the fly is, that one time, when this famous angler was fishing, he ran short of flies, and, to create something of a fly-like appearance, he fastened the petals of buttercups on his hook, adding bits of leaves or grass to imitate the wings of a fly.  This arrangement was  so successful that it led to the making of the fly with a yellow silk body, since then so widely known as the Professor.

Prof. John Wilson, incidentally, was a Scottish author who lived from 1785-1854.  “Christopher North” was his pseudonym.  If he first tied the “Professor,” then it has been around for many, many years.

Brad Kern utilized many of the materials associated with the classic “Professor.”  In turning it into a full-dress married-wing salmon fly, however, he added quite a few other materials and colors.  Some of these — the blue and red (the latter is also present in the original) — signify my terminal academic degree (Ph.D) and discipline (Religious Studies).  Brad provided a beautiful frame for the fly, and he included his maker marks or “chops” — one for his Korean family name and another for his personal name (also in Korean).  The fly itself, if pictured below.  I am very pleased with it.

You can see more of Brad’s work at Justwondering’s Flies.

My little Fly Fisher

September 9, 2012

My daughter hears a great deal about fly fishing, and she has joined me fishing from a boat several times.  She also has several fishing games with which she loves to play.  As a little girl just approaching her third birthday, however, she has yet to actually fish, herself.  Still, she loves to grab or rod or reel, when I have one sitting out.  Today, after rescuing a favorite rod from her, I pulled out a Hardy Glass “Aln” rod and matching Flyweight reel, which were given to her by close friends when she was only a few months old.  Her fishing attire was a lady bug costume, as she happened to be pining for Halloween.  I’m almost certain–very hopeful, at least–that she will be ready to fish within a year’s time.


July 20, 2012

The little lake in the Big Blackfoot River drainage, where our cabin is.

My wife, daughter, and I were in the West earlier this summer.  We visit there often, as it is home for me.  The highlight of these trips is the time we spend at our family cabin, which is located on the shore of a small lake in Montana’s Big Blackfoot River drainage.  Recently, one of my sisters and I were discussing the fact that the cabin has always been our one “constant” in life.  This, in addition to the beauty of the place, makes it immensely important to us.

I’m back in the East, now, trying to wrap up some writing and prepare for some fall teaching.  My wife left for an extended work trip shortly after we returned from Montana.  I just picked her up at the airport, last night.  My little daughter was terribly excited to see her mom, and she insisted on sleeping with us.  As I lay in bed, I could hear my sleeping wife breathing, and I could feel our girl nestled between us.  Meanwhile, my dog was audibly licking his paws on the floor.  All of this reminded me of our time at the cabin.

I thought, specifically, of another night.  It was late, but I was awake as usual.  Getting up for a drink of water, I looked upon my wife on the bed, with the dog at her feet.  Our daughter was in a tiny mummy bag on the floor–she loves that sleeping bag.  The moonlight lit interior of the cabin and also called my attention to the scene beyond the windows.  Outside, I could see the stars, the moon and its reflection upon the lake, and the outline of the surrounding mountains.  I thought to myself that, at that very moment, life was perfect.

The cabin.

Perfection is something I address in some of my college classes.  The students and I discuss, with the help of both academic and nonacademic sources, how perfection is a fleeting thing in our world.  The sources suggest we should cherish it whenever and wherever we find it because, soon enough, we’ll have to return to our daily lives, which are marked by our social and economic statuses, our need to pay the bills, maintain our health, and so on.  Anthropological and philosophical sources argue that our daily lives are so different—so imperfect—because all of these things prevent us from feeling the sense of connection that we do during the moments of perfection.

Indeed, religious mystics and scholars of mysticism tell us that it is connection or intimacy with our loved ones, nature, or even our creator that characterize perfection.  One such scholar, Margaret Smith, writes that, in mysticism, “consciousness is deepened to a sense of the Beyond as a unity . . . .”[1]  Smith first made this claim in the 1930s, and there much critical scholarship on mysticism has been published since.  But I won’t drag you through all of that.  After all, I’m trying to enjoy the last few weeks I have outside of a college classroom, before returning to the lectern after an extended break.

Regardless, scholars and mystics alike suggest we can we can live our lives in ways that will allow us to achieve moments of perfection as often as possible.  In fact, we should lead our lives in such ways, for it is the moments of perfection that make life most worthwhile.  No doubt, this is why I am drawn to fly fishing, to the wild places where trout live, and to our cabin in the Big Blackfoot River drainage.  At these places, I am most likely to find perfection.

Fly fishing on the lake, just outside our front door.

Norman Maclean might be the most famous fly fisher of the Big Blackfoot River.  In his novella, A River Runs through It, he describes the fleeting moments of perfection in a way that few people ever have.  He suggests, too, that fly fishers may be especially prone to experiencing them:

Poets talk about “spots of time,” but it is really the fisherman who experiences eternity compressed into a moment.  No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone.[2]

A “Bunyan Bug” fly, fished by Maclean in his novella.

That sense of connection, intimacy, or “compression” is explicit in the moment he describes.  Elsewhere in his novella, he compares this sense of connection to electricity (read the entire passage).  At this point in the story, he is sitting with his father, watching his brother Paul fish.  In the larger context of the book, it is not only the connection felt with the larger world of fish and other beings that is important here, it is also the connection felt between the family members:

Everything seemed electrically charged but electrically unconnected.  Electrical sparks appeared here and there on the river.  A fish jumped so far downstream that it seemed outside the man’s electrical field, but when the fish had jumped, the man had leaned back on the rod and it was then that the fish toppled back into the water not guided in its reentry by itself.  The connections between the convulsions and the sparks became clearer by repetition.  When the man leaned back on the wand and the fish reentered the water not altogether under its own power, the wand recharged with convulsions, the man’s hand waved frantically at another departure, and much farther below a fish jumped again.  Because of the connections, it became the same fish.[3]  

 I think we all feel these moments of perfection and connection, on occasion.  If you have trouble finding them yourself, however, you might visit a wild place.  You might even bring a loved one and a fly rod, too.  At the very least, you might take time to reflect, in the quite of the night, upon the connection you feel to the most important people in your life.

Flies owned by Norman Maclean, at the Seeley Lake Historical Center and Museum

[1] Margaret Smith, The Way of the Mystics: the Early Christian Mystics and the Rise of the Sufis ( New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1978), 2.

[2] Norman Maclean, A River Runs through It, and Other Stories, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2001), 45.

[3] Ibid., 98.

Joseph Seccombe, Ethics, and Nature in 1739

February 21, 2012

In 1739, Anglican minister and avid sport fisherman Joseph Seccombe delivered a sermon on the religious justification of recreation, particularly fishing, at Amoskeag Falls, in New Hampshire. Published later, in 1743, the sermon would become the first document published in the American colonies dealing with these subjects. The sermon is now known by the title, Business and diversion inoffensive to God, and necessary for the comfort and support of human society. A discourse utter’d in part at Ammauskeeg-Falls, in fishing season. 1739.

Following is an excerpt from the sermon:

But here, in Fishing, we are so far from delighting to see our Fellow-Creature die, that we hardly think whether they live—— We have no more of a murderous Tho’t in taking them, than in cutting up a Mess of Herbage. We are taking something, which God, the Creator and Proprietor of all, has given us to use for Food, as freely as the green Herb. Gen. ix. 2, 3.

He allows the eating them, therefore the mere catching them is no Barbarity. Besides God seems to have carv’d out the Globe on purpose for a universal Supply: In Seas, near Shores, are Banks and Beds made for them; ——to furnish the Lands adjacent——and Lands which lye remote, are more divided into Lakes and Ponds, Brooks, and Rivers; and he has implanted in several Sorts of Fish, a strong Instinct [or inclination] to swim up these Rivers a bast Distance from the Sea.  And is it not remarkable, that Rivers most incumbered with Falls, are ever more full of Fish than others. Why are they directed here? Why retarded by these difficult Passages? But to supply the Inlands? Does forming and disposing of these Things argue nothing? (16-17).

Seccombe was undoubtedly familiar with fellow Anglican writer, Issac Walton, who wrote of the presence of the Christian God in nature several decades earlier and whose book, The Compleat Angler, or, The Contemplative Man’s Recreation (1653) remained in print.  Still, Seccombe is relatively unique, as a writer in North America, in describing the wilds as possessing God-given value.  It appears that he even wrote letters, filled with observations of “nature,” to superior members of the Anglican Communion.

On the other hand, Seccombe clearly places little intrinsic value upon those beings that inhabit the wilds about him.  Here, he is not so unique.  It took well over one hundred more years for American anglers to realize, as a whole, that their activities were impacting fish populations negatively.  And it took them well over one hundred years beyond that for them to engage in concerted conservation efforts.  No doubt, Seccombe would have been engaged in such efforts, himself, had he realized the impact his fishing would have upon the salmon and trout that he hunted.  He is to be admired, however, for advocating that his listeners and readers appreciate the natural world around them, and to do so with religious seriousness.  That, at least, was a first, very early step toward conservation.

Fly fishing, Fathers, and Children

August 3, 2011
Copyright 2011, Kenneth H. Lokensgard
One of the most beloved works in the centuries-old body of fly fishing literature is Norman Maclean’s novella, “A River Runs through It.” It was published as part of A River Runs through It and Other Stories, by the University of Chicago Press in 1976. The well-known opening passage has always resonated with me.

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and flyfishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

I earned a doctoral degree in Religious Studies. And because my scholarly work has involved the religious practices and beliefs of indigenous peoples — practices and beliefs that rarely correspond to those found in Christianity — I have a broad understanding of “religion.” To me, religion is that which, to paraphrase scholar and mentor Charles Long, provides “ultimate orientation.” In other words, religion is that which helps us understand where we come from, where we stand in relation to others, and where we are going. Thus, it provides both identity and meaning. It makes sense for me, then, that Maclean said that religion and fly fishing were essentially one for him and his family members. In fact, not only does it makes sense to me, it also expresses my own feelings about the relationship between religion and fly fishing. Neither I, nor, I think, Maclean would suggest that fly fishing can replace “traditional” religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, or the practices and beliefs of the indigenous peoples with whom I work. Rather, it simply functions in much the same way that established religions do; it helps many of us find “ultimate orientation.”

Maclean’s book resonates with me for another reason, unrelated to his religious views. Like him and his brother, my two sisters and I are the children of a Presbyterian minister. Moreover, my “home waters” are in the same area in which Maclean learned to fish. That area is The Big Blackfoot River drainage in western Montana.

Just as Norman Maclean did, my father grew up fly fishing with his own brother and father. Unfortunately, his dad was a hard man, who did not make fishing (or much of anything else), enjoyable to his sons. Still, fly fishing was one of the few ways through which my father and his brother could connect to their dad at all.

Our family cabin, on a lake in the Big Blackfoot River drainage.

As an adult, my father always kept fly tackle at our family cabin. And even if he largely left the practice of fly fishing behind, he encouraged it in me. I remember flinging the occasional “Royal Coachman” onto the waters of the lake, near which our cabin stands. And once I grew more interested in fly fishing, he taught me all the requisite knots and passed along the other pieces of fishing knowledge he retained.

My father and I, before fishing.

My uncle left fly fishing behind as well. Sadly, he had an even more difficult relationship with my grandfather than my dad did. There is little doubt in my mind that this difficult, often violent, relationship contributed to my uncle’s debilitating mental illness. When he retired from his life as a professor, though, he did try his hand again at tying flies. And shortly before his death, he gave to me a size 12 “Black Gnat.” It had been his favorite fly, as a child.

My story only resembles Maclean’s in a broad sense — both of our fathers were Presbyterian ministers living in the same area of Montana, and both of us find fly fishing meaningful in the deepest of senses. When it comes to day-to-day family life, however, there is probably a greater resemblance between my father’s and uncle’s lives and those of the Maclean brothers. Unlike my grandfather, the Reverend Maclean treated his sons well and shared his love with them. On the other hand, like Norman Maclean, my father lived a life during which he was always concerned about his brother, until my uncle died from cancer.

A trout I caught, while fly fishing with my father.

Like the Reverend Maclean, and unlike my grandfather, my dad has always been loving and supportive, despite carrying some demons with him. We have occasionally fly fished with each other through the years. Until fishing together this summer, however, I think we let close to ten years pass since our last outing. It was important to me, then, that when one of my sisters called from Missoula a few days ago (as it happens, she attends the Rev. Maclean’s old church there) and said my dad might finally be ready to fish again, that I meet him at the cabin with my gear. My sister was right, as she most often is when it comes to family matters. My father and I had a great time on the lake. Clearly, it brought back a few unpleasant childhood memories for my dad. But it just as clearly meant a lot to him to get out on the water once again with his own son.

My daughter, during her first fly fishing excursion onto the lake.

I recently became a father myself. I have a beautiful little girl. While she is not yet two years old, she, her mom, and I were able to fish a bit on the lake earlier this summer. She saw her dad catch a fish with a fly for the first time, and she loved it the experience. Fishing may never be religious for her, as it was for Maclean and as it is for me. Nonetheless, I trust it will always be a means through which she can connect with her father. I also trust, however, that she will be able to connect with me during every other imaginable activity too. In spite of their love for each other, this was not the case in the Maclean family, and it was certainly not the case for my father, uncle, and grandfather. Thankfully, life is all about change, and my daughter is the very embodiment of change and possibility.

My daughter helping to release the trout her

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