Holy Water

Hello all, we have the distinct pleasure of including this essay on wildsonfrack.  It was written by Kimi Cunningham Grant this past summer and published in the most recent issue of the literary magazine, Whitefish Review, and just released earlier this month.  I hope you enjoy it!

Holy Water

Beneath where we stood, there was disruption, activity deep below the ground, the outcomes of which are still not fully known.

I’ve always wanted to love fishing. As a girl, I’d go with my father, who found no shortage of opportunities for my brother and me—sunfish at his friend’s pond; bass from his boat on the lake; trout along the skinny, twining streams near our home in central Pennsylvania. When I was a teenager, I even took fly-fishing lessons, and, with my instructor along an open pond in Colorado, I learned the technique of back casting fairly quickly. I loved the way you could train your arm and wrist to learn such precision: the motion, the acceleration, the white line rolling across the water. There was music in that. I asked for a fly rod for my fifteenth birthday.

Unfortunately, despite my good performance at my fly-fishing lesson, back on the overgrown banks at home, back where there was real fishing, the truth became clear: I was no good. My father taught me to roll cast, but still, I caught my line in the branches that arced over the water. Often. After a while, I sensed that my father, despite his abundance of patience, was not particularly fond of having to scamper back through the dogwood to untangle me, again and again. When I was along, there was little time for him to fish.

Though I failed at fishing, my brother excelled. In those days there was little that maintained his attention the way fishing did; he’d rise early, come home late. He never grew tired of it. Having caught his limit for the day, he’d return, and in my parents’ kitchen, line his fishes up on thick stacks of newspaper to clean, their skin shiny and bright as Christmas bells, their smell thick in the house.

Maybe I was destined, then, to marry someone who loves fishing—or, more accurately, , someone who loves fishes. I’ve spent numerous vacations watching my husband, Chris, fish: red drum on the surf in the Outer Banks, cutthroat in the Sawtooths in Idaho. A fat, orange-fleshed lake trout in the Wind River Range. On occasion I’d toss in a line too, but mostly I’d watch, settled in the grass nearby, or perched on a rock, happy enough to observe.

Chris, a field biologist whose most recent research examines the potential effects of Marcellus shale fracking on stream ecosystems, disappeared for a few weeks each summer, heading to the remote Pennsylvania Wilds, where he and his team of student researchers shacked up in a homestead that had no television, cell phone reception, or internet. I’d never gone with him on these trips, where, among other things, he caught brook trout. Of course I’d heard the stories about these adventures; I’d seen the photographs of the black and tan rattlesnakes stretched across gravel, the bull elk who stood in front of the van once, chin raised, as if daring them to proceed. I’d seen plenty of trout photographs, too. “Look at this one,” Chris would say, pointing out the coloring, or the patterning, as if I should be able to see the difference between one brook trout and the next. “Isn’t it beautiful?” Though I couldn’t quite sense that beauty, I’d nod: “Sure is.”

Three years into this research, I finally had my opportunity to join him. We met up with the team of Juniata College student researchers at a district conservation office, where we shuffled seats and headed to our first stream. As we trundled over the wide, gravel road, the dust rocketing into the June sky behind us, we passed metal gate after metal gate, well pad after well pad, owned by various companies and painted different colors.

To my surprise, these well pads, now in their finished, working form, were relatively inconspicuous and tidy, each one a trio of metal tanks sitting atop a wide, cleared space with a few additional pump-like looking objects nearby. I guess I’d envisioned something more massive, something uglier and dirtier. And yet—out here, with the oaks towering and the ground thick with mountain laurel and huckleberry, with the boulders draped in moss and the loud hurry of stream water ringing—something about the abundance of the well pads, so many of them dotting public land, the state forest, and the Allegheny National Forest, too, with their warnings and phone numbers and locked gates, did feel, well, menacing.

We pulled the van off the road and parked in a patch of grass, where the students, with a military sense of order and focus, unloaded a vast amount of equipment—long white nets, an electrofisher, buckets, scales—all of which they reloaded onto themselves. We followed an old road, which was not much of a road anymore, but a swath where timeworn ruts held water from the abundance of May and June rain. Tadpoles scuttled as we came close. In a handful of these puddles, a gray-purple, oily sheen clouded the surface. We wondered: could that sheen be from one of those three stern green containers near where we’d parked? It seemed so out of place here, miles from where any motorized vehicles traveled. A student scooped up a sample in a clean bottle.

A mile in, we arrived at the 100-meter reach of stream the researchers were now assessing for the third year in a row. I slipped into a pair of chest waders and followed Chris and two students downstream, where I was then given safety instructions and a net.

The first fish turned up right away. “There! Right there!” the three of them shouted, pointing to a flash in the snarling white stream. I obliged, thrashing my net through the water, but the truth was, I hadn’t even seen it. My mind shot back to childhood, when my brother would reel in fish after fish, while I slumped along the shore, waiting for help, my line snagged in a branch. Clearly, regardless of the gear—fishing pole or net—I was not cut out for this.

But then I caught one. And another. Two small brookies. A big one. I scraped up crayfish, too, their brown claws raised like Pentecostals. When we’d finished the 100 meters, another student joined Chris to count and measure the trout. This year, there were half as many as last year.

I asked if I could touch one of the trout.

“Of course,” Chris said.

“Are the fins sharp?” I asked, remembering the razor-like fins of bass, the spots of blood on my brother’s hands.

“No.” (He seemed surprised that I would ask such a question.)

As I plunged my arm into the white bucket, the brook trout darted about the cold water, too quick for my inexperienced hands. It glided through my palms, cool and soft. Delicate and lithe, tigered fin on its top, burnt amber fin below, body spotted with red within blue circles, it was—there was no other way to describe it—beautiful. The team took their measurements, holding each trout carefully along the ruler, placing it onto the scale, and plopping it back into the bucket.

When they were finished, I asked if I could help release the fish. I clambered back down the steep bank, and it was there, kneeling along the stream, sinking my hand into that bucket again and grabbing one of those magnificent little creatures, that I felt I understood, for the first time, that fascination, that love, that had taken my father, my brother, my husband. As I held the trout, its body lissome and glimmering against my palm, my four fingers wrapped tenderly around its belly, as I then opened my hand to set it free, back into that stone-bottomed, glinting water, I could almost forget, for the briefest of moments, that just up the hill from this place of perfect isolation, hundreds of those tall metal cylinders collected waste. That a gray-purple sheen glistened in the puddles we’d passed. That beneath where we stood, there was disruption, activity deep below the ground, the outcomes of which are still not fully known.

But with my knees pressed into moss, ferns sighing, water singing, there was a holiness—and this is what I think my father, brother, and husband had all at some point felt, and loved—a holiness compelling enough that, in that instant when the trout shot off into the riffles, slipping back to where it belonged, all was right in the world.

Kimi Cunningham Grant