My daughter’s birthday is June first, which is a real romantic day, right?
June 1: summer is just around the corner, the longest expanse of nice weather is ahead. Wildflowers in full bloom, morels and spring porcini starting to pop out of the earth. The stream and river fishing season has just begun. And strawberry season. Strawberry season. Like, your whole fucking life is ahead of you every year on your birthday. My birthday is in late March. You know what’s happening in late March? The world is rotten and decayed. Maybe some stinging nettle is starting to lift up a mat of slimy maple leaves. Joy.
So every year for her birthday, we’ve taken her camping. Not because children are born with some inherent desire to be out in the woods, but because that’s the sort of person we want her to be. But it has paid dividends. Fine dividends.
I’m not asking this to be clever, but just as a way to explain to you why I like the things I like: Have you ever caught a fish? Then you know the electric pull of something alive on the line. Something desperate and leaping and fighting. What does the trout know about it’s misfortune, except that it has lost its freedom?
And this is getting very clever-sounding, but the problem is that the things I like are so simple. What is there to say about them? The Bull Prairie Forest Camp and Reservoir are charming, but certainly not what most people would write home about. People write home about Yellowstone and Glacier because they’re awe inspiring, because they’re sublime.
There’s nothing sublime about Bull Prairie. It’s neither wild enough to be fearsome, nor icy or steep enough to be dangerous. Let’s ask Mary Shelley to explain the difference between sublime and beautiful. Here, Victor Frankenstein, having allowed his family’s longtime maid and nurse be put to death after his creature kills his own baby brother, is traveling the Alps, recovering from his distress:
The weight upon my spirit was sensibly lightened as I plunged yet deeper into the ravine of the Arve. The immense mountains and precipices that overhung me on every side—The sound of the river raging among the rocks, and the dashing of the waterfalls all around, spoke of a power mighty as omnipotence —and I ceased to fear, or to bend before any being less than that which had created the elements, here displayed in their most terrific guise. Still, as I ascended higher, the valley assumed a more magnificent and astonishing character. Ruined castles hanging on the precipices of piny mountains; the impetuous Arve, and cottages here and there peeping forth from among the trees, formed a scene of singular beauty. But it was augmented and rendered sublime by the mighty Alps, whose white and shining pyramids and domes towered above all, as belonging to another earth, the habitations of another race of beings.
What a wall of text. But Shelley here lays out, through pattern of language rather than formal argument, the difference between sublime and beautiful in Enlightenment thought. Cottages and trees are beautiful: safety, life, humanity, shelter. Snow capped peaks and ruined castles define the sublime: Danger, mystery, cold and lifeless stone. Bull Prairie is more the former, which gets short shrift in modern nature writing. It’s a park really, nowhere special. But a park in the mountains—with dark nights and rippling breezes, and the desperate croaking of thousands of horny frogs—that you can fish in.
And what a feeling, right? The feeling that you have something alive and wild in your very control, soon to be in your hands! When I get that tug from under the surface, my teeth clench. My teeth clench just thinking about it. Sometimes—unfortunately—my hands get overeager, and I start cranking the reel in desperation. If the fish is large, the line breaks or the knot slips through and I’m left with a limp piece of plastic string, floating in the water. This is the wrong approach.
In those rare moments that I’ve landed a fish larger than four pound test monofilament has any right to, when I myself, rather than polyester and fiberglass and boughten trinkets, have broken the surface with a flailing writhing animal, it’s been a languid time. I don’t remember how to do it. I don’t know how I overcome the frantic urge to just crank the damn wheel. It just happens.
First there’s always that powerful, destructive urgency, the fear that it will get away. Then calm deliberation breaks through, silences the stupid animal inside, and sets to work: Tug to set the hook; open the cage to let out some line; let it run a bit; crank a bit, let it run; fighting too hard, give it some more line; you have time—all the time; bring it in a few more feet…and so on and so forth until it gets to the edge, until you can reach in and pull it from the water with your bare hands. That is catching a fish.
I did not achieve this state during my latest venture, my “splorin’” as me and the kid call it. In fact, the trout were so incredibly lazy and stupid I felt…not bad exactly, but not like I’d accomplished anything. It was as if the trout were trying to feed me, as if they wanted to jump from the water directly into my waiting mouth. But it feels good to have a line under the water anyway, to have established a contact between this world of air and breeze, and that of water and currents, to get little pokes and nibbles by various hungry and vicious little animals. The most vicious of all though, turns out to be the little girl.
Spray, Oregon, a sagebrush outpost on the John Day River, has nothing but everything to recommend it. Spray’s got a motel, a general store with shakes and burgers, and a populace alternately offish and hospitable (more on the watermelon feed some other day). Then there’s the 284 un-dammed miles of the John Day River, with bass and history and plenty of water, for the desert. But it’s hot and extremely sunny, and coming from the Willamette Valley in the spring, it’s better that we go up. So up we go.
At 4000 feet above sea level, this “forest camp” has three clean bathrooms (clean in May anyway), a paved trail around the lake, and little fishing piers and benches. Despite this level of development, it has aesthetic value bigger than 70 or so acres of former timber land, adjacent to an OHV park, would suggest.
It may come as surprise to you to learn that a person who so passionately enjoys dominating and killing wild creatures also loves wildflowers in situ. Most wildflowers lack the food value that a fish or land animal does, or I’d eat them too. Were there enough camas lilies left to dig the bulbs and roast them, I’d eat them. Were wapato as plentiful as it was before the first wave of gentrification came through, I’d dig it with impunity. I’d decorate my trencher with calypso orchid bulbs and blossoms. Unfortunately, we covered all that with houses and farms. Who’s a killer now?
But I have to eat wild things, it settles those urges I can’t isolate or ascribe. What the fuck am I talking about?
Remember the first time you set foot into a place that looked “wild,” whatever that means to you? For my first time it was a tiny patch of old-growth, temperate-deciduous forest in Ohio—the kind that hardly exists here anymore. Later, it was drinking malt liquor with transient scum punks in a trash-strewn urban lot. The trash strewn-urban lot was a surrogate forest for a misspent youth in the city. That unquenchable feeling of longing that rises up in the chest in response to wildness is what I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to satisfy. Anais Nin isn’t known for her foraging prowess, but she nonetheless knows what it feels like, and can describe it better than me:
When the lights went on everybody was drunk, tottering with nervous excitement. Marcel said, ‘they like this better than the actual thing. Most of them like this better. It makes it last so long. But I can’t stand any more of it. Let them sit there and enjoy the way they feel, they like to be tickled, they like to sit there with their erections and the women all open and moist, but I want to finish it off, I can’t wait. Let’s go to the beach.’
…to the beach indeed Marcel, to dig razor clams!
I’ve always known how I could satisfy the longing: eating the wild things—not the scum punks, the other wild things. Anything edible is game: fish, mammals, birds, fungus, plants, protists (oh shit, I punned). Every kingdom of life basically.
This Bull Prairie Forest Camp isn’t wild and untamed nature, it’s got little of the bull in it, and that’s what I love about it. It’s like a forest park. It’s not groomed and landscaped, but it is subdued. There’s a nice easy slope down to the reservoir. The prairie is an even shade of green. The girth and height of the firs and pines lend the place an established gravity, that elusive authenticity. It satisfies in a way that truly wild places rarely do.
Some people like to be driven insane by the sublime heights of snowcapped peaks, the oozing depths of primeval forests, or the rushing rage of driving rivers. I like those things too, but then I like to be both comfortable and satisfied. I like to sit on a dock while the trout practically jump from the water onto the waiting fire.
Here the trout even jump for the hapless little children who still get fed. Case in point: five year old caught her first trout. It wasn’t very exciting: the fish bit, and we reeled it in with no ceremony or Zen breakthrough bullshit. The only exciting part was when I held it on the dock extricating the hook, and I asked her, “What do you want to do, put it back, or do you want daddy to kill it so we can eat it?”
“I want you to kill it so we can eat it.”
“Are you sure? The hook wasn’t too hard to get out, he’ll live.”
“Yeah,” she said smiling and nodding a little too fervently.
So I snapped it’s neck and threw it on the dock. Fried trout sandwiches.
I’m raising a little predator—all sharp teeth and viciousness and meaty appetite—and I couldn’t be more proud.