It takes neither a literary critic nor a serious outdoorsman to gather two basic facts about Ted Leeson: he is a lifelong practitioner of fly fishing and a masterful writer of lyric nonfiction. At the intersection of these pursuits there is The Habit of Rivers, Leeson’s lush collection of essays first published in 1994. The book blends philosophical musings, local detail, and the cheeky, often self-deprecating snipes of a man whose “real-life” responsibilities—he is a creative writing professor at Oregon State University and a recovering academic—are as irksome as they are sustaining. Preferring to address the world from the rocky foothold of a trout stream, Leeson is happily unable to shed either his propensity to think like a literary intellectual or his nearly clinical urge to go fly fishing whenever he can. As he writes, “There’s nothing interesting about a resistible urge.” In The Habit of Rivers, he reveals just how complex and instructive the fishing urge can be.
Indeed, reading Leeson, we realize that the project of catching fish and the project of writing nonfiction are intimately related. Both are repeated “tries” or “attempts,” as the French etymology of essay would have it; both constitute a rich pedagogy of failure, where meaning always leaves a tantalizing remainder, a further stretch of water to explore. The fly fisherman, in confronting the challenges of finding and catching fish (learning the ecology of rivers, improving technique, cultivating a perpetual “husbandry of hope”), learns to make an “argument.” The things that make fly fishing distinctive—the handmade imitations of insects and the delicate, intricate casting styles that present them to the fish—give the argument its shape. But its final form is encompassed in one tiny object: the fly, that “quarter’s worth of chicken feather and wire” that, released into the world, has just the earnest gravity and terrifying insubstantiality of a newborn piece of writing. The fly—like, arguably, the essay—is “an end as well as a beginning”; it “forms the terminus of all our preparations, study, practice, and observation.” As Leeson sums it, invoking further genres still:
Grosser things serving finer ones, the clumsy and tangled labor for the ordinary, the consequential hinging on the apparently slight—these imbue the whole affair of fly fishing with a dramatic structure, like a novel… In its details and techniques, fly fishing may be poetry, but the fact of the fly gives it the shape of narrative.
The upshot of this mirroring between Leeson’s arguments about fishing and his cast of fishing as another kind of argument is more than aesthetic: it is also a compelling model of human-nonhuman interaction. To construct an “argument” by fly fishing (by choosing what fly to use, where to cast it, how to control its drift, and so on) is to attempt to answer a fundamental question: as Leeson asks, “Have I accurately inferred and observed the principles by which the river works?” The fish’s “take,” or bite, is then the brief chance at a yes—a precarious moment of comprehension that “instantaneously validates our efforts, conferring a measure of definitiveness and closure to an enterprise otherwise riddled with uncertainty.” As opposed to the mechanical craft of catching fish, this is a holistic “art of angling”: learning to be actively receptive, to pursue a quarry and yet still let “one thing lead to another until, if only locally and momentarily, you realize some small completeness.”
In this sense, fly fishing’s harvest is always elusive—the “impassioned anticipation of an uncertain thing.” Like the writer, the seasoned fisherman knows that arguments are only ever “inferences about undisclosed things.” Yet this is precisely the point. The committed fly fisherman does not single-mindedly “read the water” (a venerable fishing metaphor) for current and trout. Rather, he or she hones the ability to inhabit the “penumbral grayness” at the edges of vision, to realize that “the path of most sensitive perception is often indirect.” This is a reading style that sees surfaces as a product of depths, and vice versa: “The visible,” Leeson insists, “is an index to the invisible.”
And it is, too, a reading style that recalls how good writing is so often about discovery rather than explication. The Habit of Rivers constantly displays the process of “converging on the essences”—a practice that is truly successful only when, as Aldous Huxley once wrote of the ideal essay, “freely, effortlessly, thought and feeling move… hither and thither between the essay’s three poles—from the personal to the universal, from the abstract back to the concrete, from the objective datum to the inner experience.” Leeson’s fishing essays, then, his essays that are also methods of fishing, skillfully avoid nothing-in-particular in the service of discovering, in a sense, everything-at-once.
It’s worth quoting one longer example of this phenomenon from the many that braid through the collection. Writing of a cold, wintry trip to the Metolius River, in Oregon, Leeson fulfills Huxley’s ideal as he alludes to what all of his essays are about:
Upstream, the small steel-and-concrete bridge weathered to dullness divides a gunmetal sky from its own reflection in the flat mirror of the pool. As in a neatly ruled perspective drawing, gray river and gray sky recede to a vanishing point hidden behind the bridge, which appears to span a vast chasm of air. The scene is a study in the undifferentiatedness that is the essence of a winter landscape. Most of the birds have sought lower altitudes and other animals their burrows. There are none of the sustaining particularities of other seasons. The streamside vegetation—waterhemlock, vetch, brookline, monkey flower, bog candle, corn lily, lupine—all have shriveled to an unvarying, husky brown, a reminder of the way that all dead things come to resemble one another. You are tempted to burden this with an emotional valence, to saddle it with the sadness of something lost; it takes effort to ignore what’s missing and regard what’s there.
That Leeson, in a quiet homage to Wallace Stevens, cannot finally name “what’s there,” and that he finally loses the one trout he hooks in the pool, evokes far more than failure as we look at the broader project of The Habit of Rivers. In this book’s exchange of ends and means, of practice and theory, of writing and fishing, what we gain is at least half thanks to what we lose—and what we passionately, even obsessively, continue to try for and lose again.
Occurrences of the word trout in book: 107; Of salmon: 47; Of “lamina”: 2; Percentage of author’s “home water” diverted for agriculture in summer months: 98; Partial list of writers who have addressed fishing, in roughly descending order of celebrity: Ernest Hemingway, Norman Maclean, Elizabeth Bishop, Aldo Leopold, Sir Izaak Walton, Linda Greenlaw, Thomas McGuane, David James Duncan; Author’s literary preferences, based on epigraphs: nineteenth-to-twentieth-century English poetry, nineteenth-to-twentieth-century fiction, nineteenth-century Japanese poetry, ancient Chinese philosophy, twentieth-century philosophy, sixteenth-century didacticism; Representative sentence: “Winter here is the land reduced to a lowest common denominator, condensed to innermost borders on the extremity of a year, with the river itself risen to the threshold of ice.”