Doug Bruns

“…to adopt another life.”

In Dogs, Life, Memoir, Nature, Travel on March 4, 2012 at 6:42 am

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.

  1. I’m delighted that you adopted the birding life. The classrooms can be as small as the yards around our homes and as big as the entire globe!

    • I broke down and finally got a field scope. I think that makes me committed! I remember a fishing trip about five years ago, to Terra del Fuego. There were six of us and a guide and we stayed at a little wind-blown lodge out in the middle of nowhere. I was paired up with a fellow from the Pacific NW whose name escapes me. Every night after a day on the water, he’d come back and study his field guides. Every time he wasn’t fishing he was studying his guides. His days were split between fishing and birding. He was beside himself, adding to a life list birds that he’d never see elsewhere or ever see again. I’ve carried that vision of him, sitting in the lounge before dinner, studying Birds of South America. I was envious. And now I wish I’d paid more attention. I’m going to Nepal to hike the Annapurna trail in two months. You can bet I’ll have a Birds of Nepal in my pack!

  2. Doug,
    Good to see you writing again. I enjoy it.
    Your thoughts regarding the classroom connected today as Pam & I were going through our library here in North Carolina & saying goodbye to my collection of college texts. As I thumbed through “The Politics of the Prussian Army” and “Modern Introductory Analysis” I couldn’t believe the notes in the margin were actually by my hand…yet I can recall with crystalline clarity the touch of my father as he guided my fingers through the fisherman’s knot on a lake near Hayward, Wisconsin 15 years earlier.
    See you at Chandlers in April,

    • Craig ~ So kind of you to “stop in” and comment. Thank you.
      I have a friend who is considering Joyce’s Ulysses. She stopped by the other day and I grabbed my copy off the shelf. Like you I saw my squiggly marginalia–on almost every page!–and couldn’t believe it. Oh, I long for those youthful days of discipline and purpose.
      I left most of my library down in Maryland when we moved here. My son, who now lives in the house, sees the collection shrinking, as with each visit I cherry pick a book or two, making the trek back north with me. I am a book mule.
      I look forward to seeing you in the spring. I look forward to spring! Thanks again.

  3. I hold with those who see the god-belief as originating with the idea of aligning yourself with the force of the universe. Sounds like you experienced significant alignment through your encounter with the fish on New Year’s Day. What a gratifying way to begin the new year.

    • That’s the thing exactly, setting one’s self up to have those moments. There is a haunting fragment in one of Camus’s notebooks: “…that longing for clarity…” That’s it. The longing for clarity. When you stumble upon it, bam, then you’ve got something, indeed.

  4. Now, two days after your post and a walk on Peaks Island, I have attained new insight into birding and its popularity.

    It’s about the attention…quieting the monkey-mind by attending to the environment where birds are to be found. And after a while the bird and the attention merge; appreciation of the details of the birds is enhanced. And, the grand finale is one gets to write it all down in one’s beautiful bird journal.


    • I suspect there is someone out there talking about the zen of birding. But you’ve hit it in all its glorious zen-ness. Photography has had the same effect, that discipline of looking and studying of getting into the place where everything falls into lock. Most wonderful, that is. Birding has the addition of being out of doors and being nature driven–that is being driven from outside rather than inside (like music for instance, another phase that arched many wonderful years of study and practice, but inward nonetheless). Thanks for reading and, as always, your thought provoking comments. They are much appreciated and enjoyed.

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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