Monday, August 3, 2015

Longing to be Compleat

Hello.  My name is Phillip.  I have been asked by my friend Daniel to relate to you, dear reader, some details concerning my favored hobby.  I am an angler.  Using hook and line, I attempt to pull fish from their waters.  I invest many hours of my life, much sweat from my brow, and many dollars from my wallet in this pursuit. Sometimes fruitlessly.

I am participating in this blog to attempt to do something I have not yet been able to do.  Something that may not be, strictly speaking, accomplishable. I want to explain to you why I am an angler. I want to tell you not only how to fish, but why it is a valuable and pleasant exercise, what it can teach you about the world around you, and what it can help a you learn about yourself.

I would like to express what it feels like to be an angler.  Something that I don't think has been done for a very long time.

Since Izaak Walton wrote The Compleat Angler in 1653, there have been very few books on the topic of fishing to have any bearing on literature, or culture.  It is a bit of stretch to suggest that The Compleat Angler has even done this, but it does stick out as a bit of an oddity in the history of publishing.  It is a dialogue about a simple hobby, written by an otherwise unaccomplished author, aimed at a niche audience.  The book is half philosophical musing, half pre-scientific biological observations about fish and their habits.  And yet it is still in print, and has been in print almost continuously since it's first edition.

How did a weird book on an undramatic past time by a second rate writer stay in the collective consciousness?

Most writing on fishing focusses on how to accomplish the task: how to tie knots, how to bait hooks, how to find fish.  Perhaps the writer also waxes poetic on the beauty of this fish, or the scenery, or the artistry required to catch a certain fish.  Or, the writer commits the sin of cliche and exaggerates the drama of the hookset, the fight, the landing of the fish.  Soon, the writer is just another guy bragging about The Big One.

Walton does instruct the reader how to fish, and certainly waxes poetic, and brags on behalf of some of his closest friends.  I guess he sets the mood for all future fisherman in that way.  He also does something more important and more subtle.  Walton fills up most of his reflection on what makes the angler good.

It is important to Walton that angling does not simply pass the time, or put food on the table, or give him a story to relate to his friends.  Angling should also change the person who practices to for the better.  It should help the person cultivate some sort of internal virtues.

I share this sentiment with Walton.  I think that angling has helped me cultivate a variety of virtues, or at least identify the ones in which I am lacking.  And when I think of the best fisherman I know, I also think of some of the finest people I know.  Those possessing the virtues I most admire.

Sadly, Walton's work is long out of date.  Walton's Compleat Angler is a portrait of a man who has not existed for hundreds of years.  A man who has never faced a supermarket, or an interstate highway, or a freezer, or a video game, or nylon fishing line, or a mechanical fishing reel.  His fishing methods are baroque.  Most of the species he sought are not to be found outside of England.  His literary references, while charming and often lovely, are obscure and opaque to most modern readers.  The Compleat Angler is less and less accessible, and I fear that the virtues he celebrates will become less and less celebrated.

I cannot claim to be compleat.  I do not possess all of Piscator's virtues.  I have not mastered my craft. But I would like to.  Please, join me in the Anthropocene, and help me discover what it might be to be a Complete Angler in this new time, this new place.

Piscator: Sir, I hope you will not judge my earnestness to be impatience: and for my simplicity, if by that you mean a harmlessness, or that simplicity which was usually found in the primitive Christians, who were, as most Anglers are, quiet men, and followers of peace; men that were so simply wise, as not to sell their consciences to buy riches, and with them vexation and a fear to die; if you mean such simple men as lived in those times when there were fewer lawyers; when men might have had a lordship safely conveyed to them in a piece of parchment no bigger than your hand, though several sheets will not do it safely in this wiser age; I say, Sir, if you take us Anglers to be such simple men as I have spoke of, then myself and those of my profession will be glad to be so understood: But if by simplicity you meant to express a general defect in those that profess and practice the excellent Art of Angling, I hope in time to disabuse you, and make the contrary appear so evidently, that if you will but have patience to hear me, I shall remove all the anticipations that discourse, or time, or prejudice, have possessed you with against that laudable and ancient Art; for I know it is worthy the knowledge and practice of a wise man.

I will teach you how to fish.  I will teach you how to find fish.  I will occasionally wax poetic.  I will explore the virtues of angling.  All the while, I am sure I will remain incomplete.

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