Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Voices from the Past: John E. Harris

Today I want to share with you my favorite piece of vintage fishing writing you've never seen before. Written by John E. Harris, an author of whom I have no information, it captures perfectly the nostalgia and beauty of angling. It is simply fishing writing at its best. It was first published in 1909 in The Hardwick Gazette and republished in the March 1911 edition of The Vermonter: The State Magazine. As The Vermonter declared: "If it doesn't warm the cockles of your heart, you were never a boy--like other boys. The boy who is being brought up today without knowing all the pleasures of sliding, skating, fishing, hunting, swimming, and berrying will never have any good times to look back to. No amount of pleasure seeking, all over the earth, will compensate for joys lost as a boy."

Going Fishing

by John E. Harris

Old men frequently tell in a hopeless and reminiscent way of being a boy again, but nothing under the blue dome of the limitless ether will actually accomplish it except a day on a trout brook. Then the man of any age goes back into boyhood.

Trout fishing is not a recreation, nor a sport, in the sense that other things are. It is something in the nature of an hypnotic trance, a transformation, a dream. When the brook is reached time is at an end. The world with its cares and worries recedes and fades away. It is as a tale that is told.

Time ends and eternity begins. How hardly earned and longed for and infrequent were the half days off in those far gone years when the boy was permitted to go fishing. The final little jobs and chores were done in a hurry.

The bait was hastily dug out behind the barn, and with a cheap cotton line and a couple of treasured hooks and a roll of sheet lead for sinkers a bee line was made for the nearest brook. Not a step was taken to the right or left and not a moment was wasted. Every second not spent in fishing was time worse than lost.

Arriving at the bank of paradise regained for only such a little while, a pole was hastily cut from the nearest clump of alders or other suitable growth, the line was attached, hooks tied on, a small section of the lead foil wrapped around the line near the hook to steady it and an obstinately wriggling worm was impatiently impaled.

Then the boy entered into dreamland. With good luck, poor luck, or no luck at all, he fished. The minutes and the hours floated by until the boy suddenly awakened to a dreary sense of the realities of life. The sun was sinking and home was a long way off.

With a sigh of sobbing regret he cut off the pole just below the wound string, shoved the relic into his pocket and tried to get home in time to help do the chores as he had promised. On the issue of the fulfillment of that promise depended his being allowed to go again during the entire season.

Forty years after, the same boy goes again to the same brook. There is no father then to remind him of chore time. There is no mother to watch him hurrying away across the fields. The old farmhouse is gone or changed. Some woods are cut off and some are grown up on the old place, and the boy looks about him with the sense of a great void somewhere.

Although there is no father and mother to control his hours, although he has a nice new fishpole now, there seems to be something indefinable which is broken or out of joint or lost out of his life. The world has grown old, and unsympathetic and chilly, and just over there he remembers so vividly of once seeing a beautiful rainbow, is now only a bank of cold and gloomy clouds.

But he knows well where the brook is and the nearest way to it. And he takes the same old once familiar way to the brookside. He looks at it and listens to it and the weight of the years begins to slip from his shoulders. The brook whispers and gurgles to him that it has not forgotten him, that it has been watching and waiting for him all these years, remaining faithful to the early friendship and waiting while the shadows longer grow. The boy again thrills with the infinite charm of the old days, as he hurriedly prepares his outfit and begins.

The hours come and go while the dream is on him. Two-score years are as a watch in the night, while the course of time has run backward by the mighty compelling force of memory. He is in the land where it is always afternoon, where thoughts outrun the ages. Along the rippling brookside he wanders, heart and eyes and soul intent only on the rippling waters. The only concession to the influence of earthly things is to light the pipe as an antidote to the too numerous familiarity of the mosquito.

Slowly the sun sinks toward and behind the treetops, and the deepening shadows at last bring the awakening. The weight of years has returned. The little boy has vanished into the backward years, and slowly and wearily the man plods back to the old house on the hillside.

For a moment the thought comes to him that he must be home in time to go after the cows and bring in the wood for the night. But it is only the echo of a dream. There are no cows any more and father and mother are over there in the churchyard. But he has been a boy again in spirit, and in truth, and by the only means which can accomplish that mighty magic. He has been fishing.

Thus the boy vanished and the man again takes up the burden of the years.

"Lest we forget," let us push back the curtain of the generations and go down to the brookside and listen to the welcoming murmur of the rippling waters over pebbly reaches.

-- Dr. Todd

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