Simple Life

Brief Notes from a Transcendental Trout Stream

By Jim Dodson


Essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that life comes with compensations.

I’ve long believed this to be true, and this week did nothing to dispel this ancient wisdom.

We’d planned to spend the early part of this week hiking with our dogs and tossing a fly line into a tumbling stream deep in the Pisgah National Forest.

It seemed like the perfect getaway.

Because of the heavy rains that followed us to the mountains for our much-needed four-day break, however, fly-fishing proved to be an elusive hope. The Edenic pool 40 feet below our rustic cabin, fed by a roaring waterfall, was the perfect place for our dogs to take a swim and their masters to cool their weary urban feet and appreciate the awesome power of gravity and water.

The beautiful hand-made dry flies I picked up at a local outfitters shop, alas, never touched the stream. Though the shop’s owner did warn me that, given conditions, little more than the mosquitoes might be biting. Instead, we played like children in the water.

Our other ambition to hike to the top of Mt Mitchell also proved problematic. Our cabin by Bolens Creek sat at the end of dirt road and the head of a trail that ascended to the top of the east’s highest peak. It all sounded divine until we discovered that the trail on offer turned out to be rated the most “difficult” on the mountain, requiring a “hard ten-hour hike one way to the top,” i.e. a full day and night to make it up and back. We settled each morning for a quarter of a mile hike up the steep and stony trail to a serene spot where a moss-wreathed footbridge crossed a quieter stream pool beyond which the ascent became even more daunting.

It was a good place to pause and rest in a living cathedral of trees, water and stone, elements that are vastly older than any human footprints.

So what were the compensations?

Pretty simple, really.

Rain on a tin roof was one. Sleeping with open windows and nature’s air conditioning was another, conducive to deep sleep without dreams.

Beneath these natural sounds of stream and rain lay an understory of silence that felt almost holy. The philosopher Paschal said that most of our problems arise from our inability to sit still in a room. Meister Eckhart observed that nothing in the universe resembles God more than silence.

My wife Wendy took four books into this healing silence – a novel about a muralist, a book of culinary secrets, a wine atlas and a book about race – and read parts of them all. She cooked some wonderful meals as well.

I took two books but read only one from cover to cover, naturalist Douglas Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope, a bestselling exegesis on how we can save our endangered planet from a sixth mass-extinction by transforming our suburban yards into natural habitats for native plants and wildlife, natural corridors where eco-diversity can not only survive but thrive in the face of development that is systematically destroying our last wild places. When native plants and animals disappear from our landscapes, he argues, our lives won’t be long to follow.

The other book was Irish poet John O’Donohue’s Walking in Wonder, a beautiful little book I turn to whenever the world down in the flatlands of America seems riven with fear and loathing. The Year of Our Lord 2020 seems a banner year for that.

“One of the reasons our post-modern mind is so packed and tight is that we have lost touch with our wildness,” O’Donohue writes. “One of the most natural ways of coming home to your wildness is to go out into a wild place.”

I happened to be reading this very paragraph when the sun came out and something quite wonder-filled happened.

An Eastern Blue-Tailed butterfly settled on my page-turning hand and stayed there for at least ten minutes, checking out my book and maybe its reader. After a bit, the beautiful creature flew away but soon returned and stayed even longer, taking inventory of my bare knee and the end of my stream-soaked sneaker for almost an hour. I briefly dozed off in the sun, and when I awoke, to my amazement, he or she was still there.

The afternoon was sunny and warm and suddenly the water meadow below the cabin was full of butterflies – magnificent Swallowtails, Cabbage Whites and Cloudless Sulphurs. At one point, a squadron of stunning Monarchs swarmed around the meadow, pausing to dine on milkweed for their long flight to Mexico.

The message was clear.

In this same meadow, the wild phlox and larkspur were barely hanging onto their colors and the Joe Pye Weed and yarrow were fading fast. Ditto the last of the Indian pinks and toad flowers, fading to rust and bowing their heads to summer’s end.

All in all, though I never tossed a line at a trout, I found exactly what I’d hoped for in that cabin by a wild mountain stream – a reminder that all life is fleeting and beautiful, a winged thing that feels as miraculous as an answered prayer.

It was the perfect getaway after all.


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