The classroom did not particularly work for me. I found sitting in the lecture hall difficult; and reading the books I was told to read, rather than the ones I wanted to read, was annoying. I’m stubborn that way. So it was that an autodidact was born.
Books have been my ideal teachers, as has travel and nature. I’ve attended many classes by these professors and never grow weary of them. The last lecture is, I hope, many lessons away. My syllabus is inconclusive on this matter.
One of my past favorite classrooms found me standing in moving water, chasing trout. In his great poem, The Theory and Practice of Rivers, Jim Harrison writes, “to study rivers, including the postcard / waterfalls, is to adopt another life.” I love the phrase, “adopt another life,” as if there were lives awaiting us, looking at us through kennel wire–not rescue dogs, but rescue lives.
Trout live in beautiful places and that’s as good an excuse as any to pursue them. I don’t know if it was the fishing so much, or rather the opportunity to be outdoors that fueled my obsession; to study the water, to determine the correct fly and pay attention to the natural clues which make for good fishing–these are compelling motivations.
I had a tradition through this period of beginning the year–literally New Year’s Day–fishing. It was more symbolism than anything and made for a short day on the water. If you’re fishing for trout on New Year’s Day in North America you will be cold.
One New Year’s I fished the Youghiogheny River. The Yough (pronounced YOCK) winds north along the Appalachian plateau through West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. It is one of the nation’s first recognized “scenic wild rivers” and is protected. The Yough freezes in winter, except for a few spots where the water falls quickly through rapids. On this particular New Year’s Day, layered, bundled and protected, I entered the river where it turned fast on itself then broke over a boulder field. There was no ice at this spot and soon I caught a beautiful little brook trout. Brookies are exquisite fish, with speckles and subtile flashes of color. They are evidence of Thoreau’s remark that, “There are little strains of poetry in our animals.” The fish fought hard and when I brought it to hand I slipped the hook from it’s lip without removing it from the water. It remained suspended at my knees, it’s gills pumping like crimson bellows. I stared, observing. I instantaneously realized that the fish was doing everything in it’s nature to survive the winter. That it needed to conserve energy. That my fly had been interpreted as a rare meal. That our fight had exhausted it. That I had in some fashion, betrayed it. Slowly the fish recovered then drifted away.
My heart for fishing left me that day.
Over the years, as the passion for fishing waned, an interest in birding arose. Where one activity presents a classic battle with nature, the other is an invitation to lay aside weapons and peacefully observe. Such is the changing classroom.
Every morning, I pick up my field glasses and walk my dog, Lucy. Our routine consists of a one mile loop. The trail cuts though a woods and circles a small field. It is a beautiful walk and sometimes I look so forward to it that it is my last thought upon going to sleep.
Lucy relishes our walks and spends most of her time staring up trees. I carry my binoculars and stare up trees too, looking for birds. This morning, there being a lot of snow, we shared the loop with two gliding cross-country skiers. Another dog walker stopped momentarily, as our dogs made their introductions. “See any interesting birds?” he asked. I replied that yesterday I spotted the first red-winged black birds of the season. I told him that I’ve also seen cardinals and robins this week, a sign that winter is losing it’s grip. I made a sweeping motion and announced, “This is my classroom.” I lifted my binoculars, saying, “these are a reminder to pay attention.” He smiled and from the look in his eye I believe he understood. Or perhaps he just thought me daft.