“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not the fish they are after”
—Henry David Thoreau
My dad doesn’t go to church. “The great outdoors is my church, honey,” he’d say as he packed his truck full of fishing gear every Sunday morning, before climbing in with his thermos of hot tea. Every Sunday of my childhood there would be an impasse: my mother would plead with my dad to come to church with us, he would decline, and then there would be war. Inevitably, my sister and I were asked to pray for his salvation, and we did, fervently. If there was a Heaven, we wanted dad to go there. Later, sitting in the sanctuary, watching the light filtering through stained glass, I was jealous of my dad and his Sunday morning freedom. I loved fishing, almost more than anything else, but on Sundays I was committed to church and its basement full of children and popsicle sticks and memory verses. I’d think of the chill of the wind coming off the water, the sound of the reel clicking, the taste of Earl Grey tea steeped way too long and with “too much” sugar. And of course, the trout. If you’ve never fished before, the feeling of catching one is beyond description. If I were to come close I’d have to say it is equal parts of nervousness, pride, and complete joy.
Now that I’m an adult, and have since made my own decisions regarding religion and church—and fly fishing—I choose how I spend my Sundays. I am not pulled one way or another by dad or mom, nor do I feel guilty for choosing the river over the pew. And to be quite honest, I think dad was right when he says that the great outdoors was his church. It’s outside on the water that I feel most at peace, and where I have the most space and seclusion to think, all the while casting to coastal cutthroat or the ubiquitous Oncorhynchus mykiss.
But, if it’s not the fish that we are after, what is it?
There is a lot that can be said about Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, but the prevailing sense of his experience in the Concord woodlot was one of the connectedness of the human spirit with nature. This is probably the reason that recreational fisherpeople can spend an entire day hip-deep in freezing water, catch nothing, and still feel content with the way everything went. Nature itself is full of meaning. Cut open a seastar, peel back its tough skin, and the control freaks among us will see the pleasing geometry of its little body, inside and out. Look at a blood cell or a maple leaf or the scales of a salmon and there is order and meaning there. Regardless of what you think about the world’s origins, there is an underlying homology and connectedness to it all.
Nature is full of meaning, yes: what does it mean? One of my professors liked to say, “If you want to contemplate infinity, lie on your back and look at the stars.” That is, if you think you understand philosophy and science and theology and poetry, go look outside. Nature is deeper and wider than our understanding can possibly bear, and this fact alone is what makes it such a powerful place to spend time. Much of my time on earth has been spent reinforcing how important I am as a self and as an individual. Next to a turbulent river 50m across, I grow smaller. My intense drive to look cool, to sound smart, to be better than others disappears. Faced with nature, I am humbled. Nature means to say that there is something bigger than ourselves, be it simply the grandness of nature itself or a supernatural creator responsible for all of nature still. When we lose ourselves, it makes room for other things in our lives, from compassion for others to a respect of the great outdoors that brought us these revelations in the first place. So I agree with my dad: the great outdoors is my church—find yourself and then lose yourself there.
Walt Whitman writes in his magnum opus “Song of Myself”:
A child said, What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrance designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners,
that we may see and remark, and say Whose?