While working on the Bells Gap Headwaters Project earlier this summer we were joined by two avid fly fisherman, Todd and Noah Davis, who spent the day working along side us. In addition to the significant help with our field work, they had a wealth of knowledge about this watershed, it’s history, and the best places to drop a fly in the water. Todd, an accomplished poet and English and Environmental Science Professor at Penn State, shared this poem entitled Young of Year (partially inspired by his time in the Bells Gap watershed) with us and has allowed us to post it on wildsonfrack. We hope you enjoy.
Young of Year
By the time you hold the native in your hands it is you who has been caught; you who shines, and feels like silver; you who came, long ago, from water; you who suddenly can’t live without this beautiful river.
—David James Duncan
The water’s footsteps descend the stairs
of the mountain, digging pools
where native brook trout feed and lay down
their seed in redds, where even more water
forces its way up through gravel
ushering in the young-of-the-year.
Springs rise everywhere in this stream,
struggling to forgive us the mines we tunneled
and left behind in a century we try to forget.
Part way up the mountain acid mine drainage
seeps from the punctured side of the ridge.
Iron sulfate sweeps down and banks
its orange flames in a grotesque tongue
of deceit. Scientists call it a “kill zone.”
Nothing lives in its wake. We walk
more than a mile downstream
before we see the first crayfish
and further to find a lone brookie.
I spend most of my time searching
for these native fish. My wife asks
what I wish to do with them.
It’s not about hunger, although
a few times each year I build
a small fire in a ring of stone, melt
butter in a cast iron skillet. How easily
the pink and white flesh departs
from needle-thin bones and fingers
bring quivering meat
to the tongue, sweet muscle
that lashed the body to the current
and now fixes itself to the threads
of my flesh.
I suppose another kind
of hunger causes me to cradle
them, to long for a connection
with that life hidden
in rock-seams, the breach
of boulders, white foam
of oxygen fashioned by water
falling over downed beeches
At fifty my eyes have begun to fail.
Before it all goes dark
I want to take in
the dimensions of each fish,
arrange their bodies on moss beds
and capture what I’ve missed
in a photograph. I’ll return to
these pictures when sleep
offers no reverie as improbable
as the dream of creation
and the forever-shifting fantasy
of evolution that caused this Atlantic char
to convert, to become landlocked
in a creek most mapmakers ignore.
We all worship something.
I’ll take the beauty and strength
of these fish, holy and godlike,
with backs vermiculated
so you can’t see them as they fan
above strewn rocks at your feet.
I’ve caught myself praying to them,
hoping such prayers might help them
save themselves, and because I can’t
escape the religion of my youth,
I still believe God is one, or at least three-
in-one, the world drenched by the Holy
Spirit of this fish’s colors.
Stepping along the bank,
I crush wild mint with my boot.
The fragrance rises into the June air,
reminding me of the mint we grew
at the back steps of the farmhouse
and the friend who would drape
his fish in these pungent
leaves at the bottom
of his creel, keeping the fish
fresh for the evening meal.
Consider each cell trembling
in my hand as I hold this precious
fish that gives me faith; or the scales
that cover its side and quake as it fights
at the end of my line; or the life
that runs through rushing water,
and the gravity that forces that water
down the slope of this mountain
in which these ever-moving bodies
bless us with their unceasing
If you’ve been in a room
when someone dies
after a long illness,
then you know how
sight recedes, how
the dying fade from
the physical body, the silence
somehow different: not the lack
of sound but its absence.
In high school I read about
the transmigration of souls,
and later in college
about how the sun would go out
and the earth would cease to be.
I wonder where these souls will go
when that day comes.
Here the hermit thrush breaks
the stillness as it praises
the river and all those that reside
within its banks. I’ve seen the bird’s notes
written in a field guide as oh, holy holy,
ah, purity purity, eeh, sweetly sweetly.
Who could argue with that?
I wish I could sing a few of the bird’s notes,
but only a croak flies out of my mouth.
As vast as the green world seems
when I’m inside this seam of forest
that was nearly destroyed,
I know we’ve been left a fragment
of what ought to be here.
So many of us have the urge to travel
long distances, to escape the place
we were born or find ourselves
consigned to. I don’t drive my pickup
more than ten miles in any direction.
The news of the universe I’m interested in
is written on the sides of these fish.
At the edge of the riffle’s white curling
I count three brookies looking up
for a terrestrial to float by, a chance to dart
skyward, to sip the surface with open jaws.
As these fish grow older, longer in tooth,
I understand better what Wang Wei wrote
after the death of Yin Yao: Of your bones
now buried white cloud, this much remains
forever: streams cascading empty
toward human realms.