“I went to the woods,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden, “because I wished to live deliberately.”
And that’s why we all go to rivers and fields, to natural places, to wild country that may be near or far from what is called civilization.
It offers a life of the chase, whether of fish or game.
Some have labeled this activity recreation; others, leisure.
Whatever it is, it recreates us with an often neglected or forgotten part of ourselves.
It re-creates the whole person we were born to be.
From the long hours practicing skills that make for a successful hunt, learning to use the tools we carry with us, tinkering with gear, fashioning fly or lure, tying knots, to the actual hours in woods or along streams, we are engaged in activities that draw our hands, head and feet into a kind of rhythmic concert—into an old and happy pursuit of something otherwise lost deep within us.
When we pursue game (white-tailed deer or black bear or wild turkey) we become hunters.
We drift into the past and bond with our ancestral tribe. In a brief span, we are able to converse with our psyche.
I happen to enjoy the cluster of activities by which I’ve put okra on my family’s table—teaching, writing, taking photographs on a wide scope of subjects for newspapers and magazines.
This affection for what I do is not an accident; I worked feverishly and desperately hard when I was young to find what I wanted to do, rather than do what others thought I should do, and then to develop the skills I needed.
I didn’t want to do work I didn’t love.
Work has required me, mostly, to use words, to be a wise teacher and sufficiently aggressive entrepreneur to earn a living.
But a life must include human relationships too.
I’m lucky because I have a wife and best friend who is a good manager; she complements my own lack of certain basic skills in supervising assets.
When I need a new toy (whether it’s a camera body, a fishing rod or a hunting rifle), she helps me save for it.
And yet, I don’t seek diversion in the outdoors because I have to. I fish and hunt because in so doing I follow the deliberate rhythms of the chase and of myself, not those of classrooms and offices, which impose their own particular rhythms on me.
Something always calls to me from that other, larger world.
And as I bend my ear to every ringing bell, I realize I must be accountable to those who depend on my wisdom and encouragement, for they too one day will teach and encourage others.
Still, some part of me remains outside the realm of space and time. A grouse flushes. A deer comes into view. A trout rises and I watch it at my pleasure.
I like the sweet randomness of a rock, a tree, a cloud—of places where I can feel spiritually linked to things I don’t always see, wandering along a creek, drifting along the shoreline of a swampy lake, pursuing a wary game fish.
I love to fish because all water—pond, lake or stream—carries a certain mystery in its liquid frame. Alive, it guards its secrets closely as I try to understand its creatures.
Don’t get me wrong.
I find my work neither tedious nor irrelevant, but another part of me takes vast pleasure in roaming the magical world, pursuing some cunning elusive game.
Fishing completes me as it filters through my days.
The magic of fleet-footed deer, ghostlike in crossing an upstream riffle, haunts me in my dreams. None of these things are for leisure or recreation only.
And I cannot conceive of life without such measured grace and poetry. I go into the woods, like Thoreau, because I too wish to live deliberately, to visit places that may be near or far from what is called civilization…
And yet, I’m reminded every day that nature isn’t as simple as it once was.
Writing about the natural world in the pristine tradition of Thoreau is a luxury we can no longer afford.
Today the domain of nature includes nothing less than the whole environment and all the social and chemical and biological and political issues that are involved in its destruction and its protection.
It’s an important and even an urgent issue. The question arises, “Are we losing our outdoor heritage?”
Not the monetary pleasures but things that etch into memory like works of art: an owl silhouetted against a full moon, the sound of geese at night, frogs after an April shower, a mockingbird singing, sunrise across the mountains—such are the things that we used to consider free.
Sadly, we’re learning that there is a price. What we pay depends upon our willingness to defend what we value.
The greater value of a heritage is more priceless than the Midas touch. That is what Thoreau is talking about.
And that is why we all, sooner or later, return to the woods and the wilderness.
Whether it is fish or game you’re after, the great outdoors offers a life of the chase, something you can’t get from indoor activities such as punching a time clock. Nature provides a vehicle for getting in touch with ourselves and few will deny its healing qualities. Woods and streams can offer an escape from jobs and civilization.
Top o’ the morning!