Friday, August 13, 2010

Maclean was a fisherman; I'm a cyclist

"Poets talk about 'spots of time,' but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone. I shall remember that son of a bitch forever."  

So writes Norman Maclean in "A River Runs Through it." I think a lot about Maclean every time I head toward the mountains. His relationships with his father and brother are the sort I always wished I'd had when I was a boy.  

But what I find most compelling about his work are its attempts to use his passion for fly-fishing as a metaphor for the nature of his own existence. That's a recurring strain within Romanticism: poets (and their critics) try to figure the interplay between ourselves and our surroundings as a union of the self and the other. Meditating upon an object like a Grecian urn, a meteorological phenomenon like the west wind, or the shelter created by the shade of a linden tree becomes an act of self-disclosure and unification with the world. If the phenomenon that we call the world is wholly contained within the imagination of the individual, then things like urns--or activities like fly-fishing--can join with the person and break down the isolation that so many of us feel when we're faced with an apathetic world. We flow out of ourselves and violate the boundaries of our own existence, becoming one with nature or another person through the merest observation and contemplation.

So sometimes, time stops, and if we're lucky and attentive, we can feel the enormity of life contained in one crystallized moment. More importantly, we experience this sense of the sublime not as an isolating and self-destroying aesthetic, but rather as something which expands our sense of self in order to encompass everything we see. The world stops being elsewhere and becomes a part of us, just as we become a part of it. 

That's why I ride. I've written here before about the ways in which pedaling through an environment makes me feel like I'm immersed in it rather than "floating dully along." But when I've been pedaling for so long and hard that I start to lose the ability to define myself, I sometimes become hyper-attenuated to the world. In those moments, life takes on a grace and an artistry that it seems to be lacking most of the time. I don't really care whether or not this perception shows me life as it is or life as I dearly wish it to be. I just know that in those moments, "there is life and food for future years."   

Here's Maclean again: 
Life every now and then becomes literature--not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remember, and often enough so that what we eventually come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going sideways, backwards, forward, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense and inevitable, with a complication, climax, and, given some luck, a purgation, as if life had been made and not happened.
Riding the bike on Trail 401 in Crested Butte felt like writing the story of riding the bike. There was poetry in the world as I bombed down the trail: a lyric about myself, my friend, and mountains.

But Wordsworth knew--as does Maclean, as do I--that only in poetry can such moments endure, that "life is not a work of art, and that the moment could not last:"

Why is it that all wonderful things seem so fleeting, yet the pain of their passing endures? 


  1. I remember the exact moment I became a "cyclist." I was in college at UNK and for fun, I'd ride around town. UNK cleared out on the weekends since most of the kids lived in nearby towns and would leave campus to visit friends/family. I had a 3 hour trip to Omaha, no money, and no car, so I stayed and found things to do.

    One of my favorite spots to hit was Cottonmill Lake State Rec. Area. It was a short paved trail ride away from my dorm. On the north side of the park, there was a large area of prairie land that was inundated with Prairie Dogs. It was a joy to see how close I could get to them before they'd scamper into one of the million holes available to them. Then they'd peep at me to go away.

    But the day I'll never forget was, as you said, poetry in motion. There were gravel roads around the park that I'd ride on to look for wildlife. As I was riding along the dredged up and mostly dry lake, I must have startled a group of deer drinking from a rain water pond. They ran onto the gravel road and galloped along while looking for clearings in the forest to hop into. As they ran along, I kept my pace and followed for what felt like an eternity. I didn't stop, I didn't speed up. I joined them. But when I snapped out of that moment, I put my foot down and just witnessed their grace.

    From then on, I knew the bike could let me be something more than just me.

  2. First off, that picture of you and the bike is RIDICULOUS. Secondly, especially after spending the last 4 days tromping around Wordsworth's turf, and because I've been re-reading his stuff again and thinking a lot about the incredible outdoor places we've experienced in the last 6 months, and even more because Maclean always makes me cry (in a good way), I just wanted to say, thanks for this post. I like. :)

  3. What a lovely place to go cycling.

    we can feel the enormity of life contained in one crystallized moment.. . . . . . so true