Dispatches from the Madison Valley
- By: Seth Norman
THERE REMAINS FOR NOW A cadre of fly-fishing readers for whom books like this one matter. It’s true that most members belong to generations required to endure rude medical exams; and yet, we may still count ourselves lucky, because Inventing Montana speaks to us in a language we understand, except for some of the big words. Ah, but before I’m lost to the kind of praise for which I have been punished before…. I can’t remember if Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance anywhere addressed tire or belt repairs, but it’s not where I’d start out looking if I had a crippled Harley; you read that book for other reasons.
I do recall that early in elementary school I read scores of baffling pages in James Joyce’s Ulysses before demanding “Mom! Where’s the part about the ships?” Thus, Reader, this caveat: if you only know Ted Leeson from his tackle reviews in this magazine, or his terrific series of fly-tying primers and manuals—A Benchside Introduction to Fly Tying, with Jim Schollmeyer; The Fly Tier’s Benchside Reference, also with Schollmeyer; or five or six more titles; or his Orvis Guide to Tackle Care and Repair—then you are not yet familiar with what he does best, and does here in a dozen integrated essays written for Inventing Montana: Dispatches from the Madison Valley.
Let me clarify that. Of course you should trust forever an author who taught us to stand quill wings or tie and fish emergers. But understand in advance that you’re wading the author’s other stream falling from measured flows of mechanical facts into deep pools of larger truths. Lyrical, less literal; also, there are lots of funny parts. I don’t mean to insult, only to help you avoid confusion.
Given your history with Leeson, it’s possible this title suggests, say, a history by the author, possibly geologic, or vermillion writing like Zane Grey’s. And then there’s the chance that the Realtors and Developers—could these folks possibly wear more ironic names?—the author sentences in “Postcards of a Hanging” might soon sue “Inventing” from this book’s cover, insisting for legal reasons that “Montana existed long before Mr. Leeson arrived, which Plaintiff’s experts will prove.” As to the states of mind explored here—that’s different. Let’s start simply: For two decades author Ted Leeson—that Ted Leeson, one of our own—has spent a month of every summer staying in a comfortable, modest house—“a not altogether domesticated setting”—somewhere near the excellent town of Ennis.
The abode itself is a player in these essays; also an idea, elemental to a discussion of place, more-or-less throwing its low shadow on Plato’s Wall unless I’m wrong. So is Leeson’s wife—a character, I mean, whose place is in his heart—known here as “the Painter”; and so is a small crowd of sojourn (ir)regulars to whom Leeson also issues iconic names: (the) Cook, Writer, Photographer, Mechanic, and Poet, sometimes supplemented by the Hindu et al. Inventing draws substance from Leeson’s solo and shared sojourners adventures on and around the Madison River. “Dispatches,” he asserts; but ultimately, for me, he unifies these. I’m still not sure how, but this much I know: he extracts acorns from angling experience, grows these to oaks; and by the end I saw a forest through great trees.
I hope and trust Inventing does that for cadre Readers, though I don’t suggest it’s a test. Instead, a test is what follows this paragraph—a brand new and dubious reviewer’s device that may help you decide if this book is for you. Before you begin: while the English language does not yet include punctuation that allows for a seamless or even coherent presentation of this challenge, everything in italics is from Inventing.
1) If your thinking about fly-fishing includes how-to but goes way and well beyond inches, pounds and fish counts... “Fishermen do not necessarily behave like rational creatures, but we are, after our own fashion, creatures of reason, driven or inclined to explanatory conjectures. Simply catching fish or failing to catch them does not serve; the unrepeatable successes and persistent failures haunt us equally. We must know the causes, and if they cannot be objectively discovered, we will invent them. We generally prefer to anyway since it’s easier... I cannot call to mind another sport that so openly invites the more analytical forms of observation, so insistently encourages the construction of hypotheses, and so seldom rewards them.”
2) If your life on water is, like Leeson’s, rich with rumination and memories, even ruminations about memory... “Memory forms our most private domestic space, the architecture of our own past, with its hearth, warm rooms and cold ones, vaults of pleasure and places where we just toss our junk…”
3) If you have somewhere, sometime, on a bank or beside a fire, in a boat or cruising a river road, while camped or lodged or in merely in passing, explored friendships, with kindred spirits, with or without spirits liquid—transparent, not so much; if you have created or joined a community of the like-minded, arrant, and entertaining.... “(The Cook) has no patience with the kind of vocal showboating that has come much into fashion these days. The angler who connects with a fish and begins whooping in triumph...and otherwise behaving like a human exclamation point is an especial burden to him. (H)e becomes powerless against his own impulses…Standing in the front of the drift boat, he will set the hook on a fish and in a parody of the more egregious forms of angling prose, howl, ‘Eat hot nylon!’, then turn to me at the oars and narrate himself in the third person: ‘Good Lord what a fish! he involuntarily ejaculated.’”
4) If in solitary moments of fly-fishing engagement you find yourself excited by ideas, epistemological, “cosmic,” utterly incomprehensible to anybody who never says “Baetis,” spells dun funny, whip-finishes in public without blushing...
5) If you love language used precisely in prose that pirouettes or pounds, leaps and skips or ambles, all depending… “Beneath the Aquamarine of a high-summer sky, beyond the rising ripples of earth-warmed air, under the deckled shade of an August afternoon, we have deployed ourselves in the the various postures of voluptuary indolence...”
6) If ritual and innovation both seduce you…
7) If you question everything about a river—your presence there, to begin with—your odd role in the Natural World; also how you feel or should feel about a plethora of other, omnipresent anglers… 8) If that Nature is your sanctuary, Ideal or Eden, antidote—an Eat-or-be-Eaten arena that happens to be the best place you know to go… 9) If fly-fishing is a moveable feast you savor and at appropriate moments approach with a grain of salt; or, maybe, find spiced sometimes by foibles and marvelous failures… “(The stream) held little promise at first and would continue that way for a time until things finally changed and it held none at all. Our progess was slow... It ceased altogether when we rounded a point of land and found two barbed-wire fences, about twelve feet apart....Between them, on a mud-trodden bank, stood the largest Angus bull I ever hope to see—an enormous and forbidding animal with vast cumulonimbus swells of muscle on its neck and forequarters and a torso as big as a steam boiler abutting the great meaty pistons of its rear haunches, between which hung a scrotum the size of a regulation speed bag and farther along the undercarriage, in an image I will carry to the grave...”
Check your scorecard, also your pulse.
For my money, Inventing Montana is a fly-fishing life examined. Carefully. By an autodidact with all the chops—an author who thinks clearly about complex ideas and reveals these to us in phrases finely tuned, deftly turned and treacherously funny. To that add one more thing: Energy. Mental energy: Leeson’s will and skill to turn what might be ordinary observations into elements fitting an ontology full of wonder; into intellectual opportunities, philosophic rants and reveries; a better strategy for drifting those emergers you tied…a hundred chances to grimace or grin. Which you’re invited to share, mainly because Leeson assumes you agree to this: It’s a thrill to think. ?
Seth Norman lives in Washington State and is the author of Meanderings of a Fly Fisherman and other books.