Tuesday, July 3, 2012

How I Got Back to Nature

Like many British people, I grew up disconnected from nature. Though my small town was close to forests and woods and water, we pretty much left the animals and plants alone. Specialists, known as “farmers”, were our mediators. Every now and then you might go for a ramble between fields, but that was about it, even though (in Scotland at least) you are never very far away from a herd of sheep.
Texas is different. The landscape is harsh, the climate severe. If you neglect your lawn, it will sprout spikes. If you don’t regularly spray your house with pesticide, insects will eat it. Where I live, the land was only reclaimed from the wild about seven years ago. Nature is always ready to force itself upon you.

In turn, Texans like to force themselves upon nature. In this they are like Russians, who are always fleeing the city for the dacha where they summon potatoes and cabbages out of the dirt. Texans enjoy things like hiking and speeding about in boats on lakes, or killing animals for sport and food. I’ve always been intrigued by these activities, which are alien to me; so last weekend when I was invited to go fishing, I leapt at the chance.

My friend and I arrived at the lake early Sunday morning and it was exceedingly quiet - aside from us there was just a dad teaching his two sons how to fish. I admired his fatherly forethought, for when civilization collapses this skill will surely mean the difference between life and death for his boys. As for me, I hadn’t gone fishing in 13 years. The last time was in Kazakhstan, when a local Russian took me and some friends into the mountains where a fish Gulag was located, shallow pools in which the incarcerated fish swam up and down ad nauseam.

Somewhere around here I once went fishing. I think.

“Drop your hook in the water and twitch it a bit,” said my Russian friend. Soon I was heaving fish out of the water one after the other. It felt like cheating. Nor was whacking fish heads off the ground (as I’d been instructed to do) proving to be a very effective method of piscine execution. A slowly suffocating fish was staring at me in obvious agony and I realized that if I was going to kill and eat it then I had a responsibility to make its death swift. My friends were appalled when I brained it with a big rock. But when their fish were still slowly expiring in the trunk of the car half and hour later, I knew who was the more humane.

There were no such existentially troubling moments this time however; I was just learning how to cast a line. I’d throw the lure in the water and then reel it back in, hesitating periodically to give it the right kind of “action.” Meanwhile a few other people had shown up on the lake, men drifting past on expensive boats specially designed for fishing.

“How much do you think that boat costs?” I asked my friend

“Oh about $5,000” he replied.

It’s amazing how seriously Americans take their hobbies. He’d have to catch a mountain of fish to recoup his investment. Later, a guy showed up with a speedboat kitted out for water-skiing that must have cost tens of thousands of dollars, and yet he probably only uses it a couple of weekends out of the year. Americans spend a fortune on their recreation equipment even though - thanks to the country’s brutal work habits - they have hardly any free time. Or perhaps that’s precisely why they blow so much cash on their pleasures: free time is precious, so it must be utilized in the best possible way.

But as I stood there on the lake, casting my lure into the water and then drawing it back in again, I suspected that all this activity was an illusion, a cover for something else. Only once did I feel something tug on the end of my line: a fish? A turtle? Or had I snagged some mud? And then it got away; and I didn’t care. Standing there, mesmerized by the play of sunlight on the water, the gentle undulations of the lake surface, I’d completely forgotten I was trying to catch a fish. Wild thistles were blooming close to shore. Berries were growing over the paths. Monarch butterflies fluttered in the breeze. I could have stood there forever, almost.

And suddenly I wondered if the attraction of slow outdoor activities to Americans is that they provide an outlet for nothingness, a chance to stop in a society that is permanently agitated, where people are insanely busy, overworked and chronically anxious about their status. Fishing and hunting consist of 99% waiting, during which time you can contemplate the cosmos or the light refracted through the early morning haze.

And yet that remaining 1% is important. Could I have just stood by the lake doing literally nothing for hours, holding a stick instead of a fishing rod? No. I had to at least allow for the possibility of killing something to enter into the bliss of transcendent calm. Living is a strange business, gentlemen.