A Professor’s Journal: A river runs through it

Since I had open- heart surgery, I do not believe I am the same person. Along with a new heart valve, I also look out upon a new world in a new way. It takes me longer to complete routine tasks.

Orienting myself in this brave new world has been at once challenging and exasperating. So maybe it is not strange that while considering life anew, my thoughts have also turned to an activity that, in my thinking at least, is peaceful and calming. I speak of fishing, of course.

I enjoy reading about the art of fishing, while I have never really been successful. I have especially been instructed by a beautifully-crafted book about woods and waters, a book that was made into a motion picture.

Norman Maclean did not write the novella, “A River Runs Through It,” or any of his other stories, until he was in his seventies. The book is about history and the tragedies and hurts inevitable in the passage of time. Two brothers, both fishermen because of their minister/father’s love for angling, grew up to take decidedly different directions in life.

Both of the sons became writers, but the younger of the two, the brawling, drinking, freedom-loving, prodigal son, made fly-fishing into an artform before dying young.

“In our family,” Maclean wrote in the voice of the older brother, “there was no clear line between religion and fly -ishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others.

He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen, and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.”

I love this book. While my efforts have always been clumsy at best, I have dreamed about casting out in perfect rhythm a fly tied with my own expert hands.

I know, however, that even when I waded out into Casey Creek I was not and should not have been successful, for as one of the sons stated in “A River Runs Through It,” “if our father had had his say, nobody who did not know how to fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him.” Oh well, I can still dream.

And I can still learn from the eloquent writing in this elegant book. In the closing scene, Maclean writes these achingly beautiful lines: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.

The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

Even as I look out upon a new world with new eyes, I, too, am haunted by the waters of the past. Sometimes the past weighs us down, in the sense that the late great Southern historian C. Vann Woodward referred to as “the burden of history.” At times we must seek to overcome the past. But then, there are times when the haunted waters of the past lift us up, and inspire us to wade on in a new world, somehow buoyed by what has already been endured.

Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history.