Water Brooks

SUMMER resorts may not have been invented by women, but they would have short shrift in a womanless world. They are one of the more terrible products of civilization for which women are responsible. Suburbs are another. The average man hates half-and-half in all its forms; he wants either the city or the country; he is willing to be overcivilized during half the year if he may be under-civilized during the other half; for him it is either Broadway or the backwoods; and while, for prudential reasons, he may tolerate a suburban residence or even a summer resort, he can never be really happy in either.

My own taste does not run to resorts of any kind, but it runs least of all to seaside resorts. They are composed of sand, pavilions, hotels, and people, and I disapprove of all four, especially the people—not because I am undemocratic, but because I dislike to spend a summer watching people, whom I have seen all winter, amusing themselves in droves and herds, all doing the same things, wearing the same clothes, eating the same indigestibles. And there are too many of them. Sitting on a bench and watching them saunter by on the board-walk, most of them blistered and peeling, I want to push them off into the ocean. At such places there is usually an ocean, but it is a poor affair except at night or during a storm. At other times it is only so much water; nobody ever looks at it, though all keep up a pretence of loving it and liking to bathe in it. Still, I do not mean to be too hard on the ocean. I like it better than I do the people, and, if I could look at it in peace, I might even grow to love it. I have watched it playing with the children, and for it to condescend as it does to fill the holes they dig and knock down their forts and gently lay scallopshells and razor-shells and sand-hoppers at their feet, is companionable, to say the least. What I object to is having it lay banana-skins and crackerboxes at my feet, and having its unplumbed salt estranging leagues of distance intercepted by rubber caps and bandana handkerchiefs.

When one turns landward, there are abominable formal beds of coleus and cannas in the foreground, and beyond, bath-houses and hotels and boardinghouses, of the jig-saw school of architecture, against a sky-line of chutes and Ferris-wheels and scenic railways, all simmering in the sun and exhaling an atmosphere of seaweed and clams, and humming with the drone of harmoniums and phonographs and the distant wail of merry-go-rounds.

That I view all with a jaundiced eye is not my fault. As a little boy I spent many summers in one of those curious places in which evangelical people used to gather once a year for a religious debauch. One could start going to church at six o’clock in the morning and continue singing and praying and listening to sermons until ten at night. When you were not attending a meeting in the temple or the tabernacle, you could enjoy yourself looking at a model of Jerusalem in the park. If I remember rightly, even the merry-go-rounds played hymn tunes.

In my inarticulate way I disapproved more than all of this religious undercurrent, which turned a summer resort into a kind of gigantic Sunday-school picnic or church sociable. I had more than I wanted of Sunday-school picnics and church sociables at home, and condemned them in my infantile ignorance as feeble inventions of people who were afraid to have a good time after the manner of the unregenerate. Here, really to have a good time without circumspection had the air of misbehaving in church. No matter what you were doing, you had floating to your ears the strains of ‘ There is sunshine in my soul to-day,’ or ‘ Throw out the lifeline,’or ‘ The Ninety and Nine ’ — good enough tunes, I supposed, for those who liked them, but tending to make me irreligious. The pious old ladies and gentlemen at the boarding-house, who went about carrying Bibles and hymn-books on weekdays, became special objects of my aversion, because I obscurely held them responsible for the existence of the place.

To this day these early experiences have an odd effect upon me. I can go to no seaside resort without looking about furtively for the tabernacle. Viewing the sand and the boardinghouses, I suffer from a profound oppression; and watching the people, I find myself growing misanthropic.

This is all the merest prejudice, and yet not even the dithyrambics of the Byrons and Swinburnes can ever make me grow enthusiastic about the ocean. If I could have been introduced to it under other auspices; if I could have spent my boyhood summers on a lightship or a Gloucester fishing-smack, I might have another story to tell; for being at sea on a ship — the Hispaniola, with Jim Hawkins, for instance — and looking at the sea from the shore — during a beach prayer-meeting, for instance — are two different things.

When a man says to me wistfully, ‘ I want to go to the mountains, but I suppose we ’ll go to the seashore,’ I understand; I know precisely where he wishes to go. He wishes to go fishing. There is community of spirit between us. We could both be happy on a catboat, but would both be miserable on a board-walk.

Philosophers have observed that most families are torn with dissension once a year over the question where to go for the summer, all the men wishing to go to the mountains and all the women to the seashore. Unmarried people who have no responsibilities of course see instantly how to arrange the difficulty. ‘ Let the men,’ they say, ‘ go to the mountains and the women to the seashore.’ But this solution is of specious simplicity, such as could proceed only from an unmarried brain. As the newspaper humorists put it, the married men compromise by going to the seashore; and it is a mournful thought how many of them are assuming an hilarity which they do not feel, on board-walks, piers, beaches, carousels, wearing stiff collars and white trousers, listening to band-concerts, and dancing and playing bridge, all because they are gentle creatures and would rather suffer mutely than be happy under a cloud of disapprobation.

Much thought on the subject has convinced me that the primal cause of this male suffering is to be found in the fact that women do not like fishing and that, not liking fishing, they are driven to inane amusements in summer, such as staying at hotels. Certain it is that in a woman less world every man, except a few bloodless creatures, would go fishing as soon as the ice broke up in the spring, and would continue to fish until the hunting season began in the fall. The summer resorts would all be sold for taxes, but there would be a very strong market for tents. Man, as feminist lecturers are so fond of telling us, would revert to the stone age — or, rather, to the iron age, for one must have fish-hooks. Business would go to the dogs.

My introduction to the sea was unfortunate, but my family, aware of my dislike of the seashore, though not of the irreligiosity that it induced in me, took me to the mountains in August. Here my cabined soul expanded; my father, too, being a male, felt his heart leap up, I know, though he never said anything about it. I found him quietly content to wander miles and miles with me every day in the fields and woods, naming things with all the gusto of a new Adam in a new Eden. At the seashore there had been nothing to name except an occasional dead fish, and, as a consequence, our walks there had been to the last degree tame; but here there was a world of new things to be labeled, and every walk was a voyage of discovery. I looked upon his knowledge as encyclopedic, and he was wise enough not to undeceive me. I suspect that, when he did not know a name, he made one up; at any rate, there is a little blue flower which I still see by roadsides which he once told me was a Jerusalem daisy. I suppose that he had his tongue in his cheek, but a Jerusalem daisy it remains to this day.

Above all, we haunted the water brooks because we hated the public roads. Now, a brook is the loveliest thing in nature. It has the beauty of motion and the beauty of transparency and the beauty of iridescence; of the wind, the crystal, the rainbow; of the song, the flower, the bird, the butterfly. Almost all we can say in dry technical language about the charm of poetry or music is that it is the charm of ‘ the greatest variety consistent with regularity’; under the play of surface variation is the march of fundamental rhythm; there is ‘many a winding bout,’ but there is, too, a ‘ linked sweetness.’ A brook is a poem even according to this dry-as-dust definition — a lyric of pure joy; above, the wayward ripples and changing shadows, the flowers, birds, and insects; and beneath, the urgent flow of the current. Compared with it other beautiful things are as nothing: nothing else is both cold and friendly, translucent and colorful; can both dance and sing and flow; is so fleeting, yet so permanent; is inanimate, yet so full of life and so richly the mother of life. Everything that lives in it and by it is delightful — the ridiculous caddis-worms, the grotesque cray-fishes, the whirling waterbeetles and darting water-spiders, the may-fly that dies at midday and the white miller that dies at sunset, the burnished dragonfly, the wise muskrat that lives under the bank and the wiser old frog that booms from the pool, the trout swift as light and the dace and minnows that haunt the shallows; with all the mint and pennyroyal and cress by the swift current, the jewelweed and arrow-heads and lily-pads of the back-waters, the birds that dip and the cows that drink, and ‘everywhere the sound of running water ’ — they are all a part of its text or its gloss.

Once to have fallen in love with it is to be in love with it forever. I fell in love with it when I was very young.

There was a pool by which we stopped one day to look at a great dragon fly in golden mail lighting on a lilypad. I suppose that he did not live the season through, but his race has not lost a scintilla of his radiance,and there is a curious comfort in thinking that even in days like these, when mankind seems to have gone mad, and ‘ when but to think is to be full of sorrow,’ I have only to go to the same pool to see a creature as beautiful, lighting on a lily-pad as green, floating on water as pure. Nor is this mere sentimentality. To become aware of the fleeting permanency of all these bright short-lived things, their incessant change with essential changelessness, their passing beauties but persistent Beauty, brings health to the spirit of man. After his wars and revolutions he always returns to the brooks, and is surprised but happy to find them still dancing and singing.

As I grew older, I took to fishing. In the strange soft-hard age in which we live there are men who condemn fishing as inhumane, and to hear them talk one would suppose that Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton were monsters of inhumanity. There was a time, indeed, when, after reading Leigh Hunt, who is very hard on fishers, I strolled along streams without rod and line. On such occasions I invariably saw the largest trout of the season. Finding, moreover, that people were calling me poetical, I was driven to taking along my tackle in self-defense. Even yet, abstractly, I disapprove of fishing; hunting I think barbarous; ‘ he who wantonly treads on a worm is no friend of mine ’; and yet I fish. I do not merely carry rod and creel: I use them. I suppose it is like smoking: that seems to me a feeble-minded habit, and yet I smoke. Working, too, seems sometimes as foolish, and yet I work. Some pessimists have convinced themselves that living is a waste of time; and yet, so far as I have observed, they continue to live. Sweet are the uses of perversity.

Your fisherman is the most perverse of men. I once fished for trout in Pike County, Pennsylvania, where there was a law against fishing on Sunday; and I observed that the other fishermen on week-days studied the barometer and weather-vane, and never stirred off of the verandah unless temperature, humidity, sun, wind, and time of day were all propitious; but on Sundays they trooped to the streams in a body, without so much as a glance at the sky.

It is unnecessary to say that there were no clergymen among them; yet all clergymen fish, and it is a matter of nice speculation whether one cannot guess their sect or denomination by their manner of fishing. I have not observed widely enough to risk an induction. Methodist ministers, I know, however, fish as they preach, very thoroughly, using the democratic worm and affecting some scorn of fine tackle. Episcopalian rectors, I should imagine, on the other hand, show a decided predilection for dry flies and smooth water.

A Presbyterian minister, an advocate of down-stream wading, initiated me into the mysteries of trout-fishing. He charged through the middle of the stream with an athletic vigor that sent the billows breaking on the banks. He had a poor opinion of the intelligence of fishes and a Calvinistic faith that he was predestined to catch or not to catch enough for supper.

I was so far skeptical, piscatorially at least, as to give up after the first half-hour of politely following him, and sit down on a rock in the middle of a pool and ignobly angle. By sundown I had filled my creel without stirring a step. When at sundown he reappeared, somewhat heated over my defection, and asked in unministerial tones where in thunder I had been, and I told him and showed him my catch, he merely snorted.

‘ That is n’t fishing,’ said he,£ that’s angling.’

‘But,’ I answered, ‘I have the fish. How many did you get? ’

He made no reply, but tramped off toward home, grumbling. As we were passing through a cornfield, however, I stole up behind him and peered into his basket. He had one fish, and that was a chub which he was taking home to the cat. The women at home praised my prowess, for they saw only the fish; but my clerical friend continued to make light of my success and insinuated that I ought to be ashamed of it. He seemed to think that I had taken advantage of the innocence of the trout.

Yet he was a good fellow, and his obstinacy was only a part of the sweet unreasonableness that characterizes the entire fraternity of anglers. Perverse or not, I could understand it better than I could his theology, on which latter science, art, habit, or pastime we suffered from an imperfect sympathy that would have persisted had our bones waxed old as Methusaleh’s. On fishing, however we might disagree on superficialities of ways and means, we were in perfect fundamental accord: we agreed that it was good fun; while no one could have convinced me that his theology was even mildly amusing.

I have found, in fact, the subject of fishing the universal solvent of antipathies among men, as the subject of ghosts is of diffidence in a mixed company. Under its genial influence a revivalist and a biologist and a poet and a broker and a pacifist and a soldier could be brought to pass a peaceful evening together. There is no other to compare with it unless it is baseball, and that is inferior because it offers no such field for the fictioning, not to say prevaricating, which is so dear to the masculine heart.

As for the ladies, to learn to like to fish they have only to fish: their hostility or indifference to the gentle art is entirely the fruit of ignorance. Many are already fishing from boats, and a few are wading the streams. They make excellent fishers and are always lucky. In time they will become aware of the utter inanity of their present summer employments, which give them no such heart-easing mirth as brookside rambles do their husbands and lovers. These vagrancies of the men they now endure or pity, but do not commonly embrace. It is their fault, of course, if there is a lack of perfect concord between the sexes on this important subject, and it lies with them to establish one. They must not expect man to conquer his proclivities, for in this regard he shows the higher evolution. They must cure themselves of their restlessness, their gregariousness, their worldliness, and must cultivate the contemplative and reflective mind. At present, during the winter, they are bent on reforming the world, and until their energy has spent itself, man will be chronically uncomfortable. Some day they will have completed their task, or will have given it up, and then they will have time to cultivate contentment along the water brooks. Not till then will they be eligible, except under sufferance, to join the gentle fraternity of the anglers, or to pronounce its password, —

Et ego in Arcadia.