Hiding Water and The Cost of Beauty

By Max Werner

A few months ago, a fellow Utahan chided me for revealing the names of the rivers I fish. Apparently, he was afraid that people would visit them and further strain the resource. My initial reaction to his reprimand was irritation: Where did he get off telling me what I should say and what I shouldn’t? Didn’t he understand the importance of using the right word or, in this case, the right name when describing a place and the experience of that place? But I also felt like I had made an irreparable mistake, which is of course

the worst kind. I wanted some perspective, so on our early morning, inaugural drive to the Junco River, I shared my mixed feelings with my friend Banjo, who is one of the most sensitive, moral, and level headed people I know.

To my relief, he made the point that I hadn’t revealed anything that the many Web sites, fly shop staff, and Utah fly-fishing guide books hadn’t revealed already. Now before anyone accuses me of cherry picking the jury, keep in mind that Banjo is the guy who famously said he hated all other fly fisherman except those he was with, and sometimes he even hated them. Amused by his misanthropy, I laughed. But rather than retract or soften his rhetoric, he topped it by saying “I’d hate myself if I weren’t me.” Suffice it to say, Banjo would rather not see more people on the unspoken rivers, and if I had written anything that might effect that outcome and further erode his solitude, he would be the first person to tell me.

Those of us who belong to the fly fishing community are the keepers and the disseminators of precious information. Fortunately, as a writer I am not obligated to share the where, what, when, how, or who of my adventures. Whether I disclose all, some, or none of this information depends on the place and how disgusted I’m feeling about my fellow man. In my October 2010 column The Lunkers of Secret Creek, I was convinced that not many people knew about the creek in question, so I was careful not to reveal its whereabouts. But when it comes to the places that are on the tongues of just about every fly-shop staffer this side of the Rockies and are recounted in great detail in the locally published fly-fishing guide books, I don’t worry so much about using their names.

However little merit my fellow Utahan’s criticism of me may have had, it did raise the question of how writing about fly fishing benefits me and the sport and if these benefits outweigh the apparent costs. The benefits to me personally are considerable, and I don’t mean economically. For although it is nice to be compensated for one’s work, rarely does that compensation reflect the true cost of producing any given piece of writing.

Norman Maclean was likely alluding to the clarifying power and value of writing when, in A River Runs Through It, he said that “all good things. . .come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” No one knows this struggle better than a writer. The exchange at the very end of the book--when Norman and his father the Reverend Maclean are talking about their murdered brother and son, Paul—illustrates this difficulty:

Once my father came back with another question. “Do you think I could have helped him?” he asked. Even if I might have thought longer, I would have made the same answer. “Do you think I could have helped him?” I answered. We stood waiting in deference to each other. How can a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions?

Indeed. Shortly after, the Reverend Maclean offers a kind of answer to this question when he encourages Norman to “make up a story and the people to go with it. . . . Only then will you understand what happened and why.” Thus writing not only allows us to see what we know, but (and this is the point the Reverend is making) it allows us to exhume and articulate the elusive aspects of our lives. Norman Maclean put it this way: “Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.” And how is it that he reaches out to them? Through his book, of course, which is one long and beautiful prayer.

But therein lies the rub: If grace and art don’t come easy, neither does beauty. That is to say, it comes at great expense to the writer, who in this way lives life twice. All it costs the reader is the dough to cover the price of the book or magazine or whatever. And then there will be times like these when it doesn’t even cost him that.

Max Werner is teaches writing at the University of Utah. His new book is Black River Dreams.