The Peripatetic Reviewer
EXPERIENCE tells me that fishing with Freddie is a losing game: to begin with he does not like fishing, and to end with he has no patience —plenty of patience for the grouse which elude him as he tramps up the Welsh hills, but none for fish. Yet he hankers for expeditions, and if I have a lucky catch (and if nothing better presents itself), he can whip up an apparent enthusiasm which is beguiling.
I had had good sport my first day with Cooper: he is the tallest Negro on the Cay, and a joy to watch as with effortless grace he swings his twentyfoot pole; when he plants it hard against the bow I know there is a fish ahead. The wind was soft from the southwest as Coop piloted us through the gut, slowly across the shoals and up into Munjack Creek. The tide was at ebb, maybe a foot and a half above the grass matting on the flats, and hardly had we cut the motor when a bonefish tailed fifty feet dead ahead. Coop swung our bow to port and planted his pole, and as my first cast settled into the water I saw the fish make his V toward the conch bait; watching the line, I felt the slight tautness, I felt his mouth, and set the hook. About ten minutes later he came into the net a gleaming six-pounder, not a great fish but a good one.
This is like drawing three aces in the first hand, and of course it couldn’t last. We saw and stalked a school, and one of them — he was certainly bigger — smelled the crab I had added to the conch and made the water roll as he darted toward it. But he broke me — I will forget to cut and tie the nylon after a fight — and when Cooper, using my little rod as if it were a pencil, had cast high and far for a dark shadow, that one also stripped us and never came again. The tide was now too high for further business. At supper, 1 must have embellished the telling enough to pique Freddie’s interest, for he announced that he was going out with us next morning.
It was colder then, for the wind had swung around to the north. “Bring a windbreaker!” I shouted, but Freddie is a hardy type and came just as he was. Again we slid in through the narrow channel that leads to Munjack; the strong wind had put down the fish, and Cooper had to pole for the “smoke,” the smudges of sand which show where bonefish have been feeding.
In the distance, egrets were feeding close to the mangroves; nearby we saw a needlefish skip across the water, and then the lolling black fin of a big turbot, Nelson’s favorite fish, which shied away from our shadow. Freddie groaned at not having his gun along to shoot it, said he had shot one a week ago, and it was delicious. Cooper poled on until suddenly, fifteen feet from the boat, a shark broke water in swirling pursuit of an octopus. Oblivious to our approach, the shark lashed this way and that, and finally wound up in the black smoke screen while the octopus scuttled away. We idled until the water cleared, and then Coop poled us over to peer at the octopus’s hole surrounded by conch shells; here the shark would stalk him for days, Coop said. Poling and peering, we came at last to the thin water of a coral reef, where bonefish were making their V’s on either side, but now the sun was half dimmed by the clouds; in the opal light nothing came to our vagrant casts.
Bored, Freddie took to reading Peyton Place, and could not be disturbed until at the edge of the rocky shore Cooper spotted and speared a crayfish. In no time flat Freddie had his pants off and was in the shallow water spearing like mad. We wound up with four scuttlers in the bilge whose tails would be added to our evening chowder.
Now the sun had gone under for good, and with rising wind came the rain. “God’s teeth, it’s cold !” Freddie exclaimed as he spotted my raincoat in its nylon packet, “Why didn’t you tell me you had it with you? You must have known I’ve been shivering ever since I went overboard.”
The only fishing I have ever seen Freddie enjoy was off the end of the dock. There, before our time, someone had discarded a metal chamber pot, presumably because it had a hole in its bottom. It had landed on the coral strand face down and had been taken over as a domicile by a slender tang, who used the hole for its entrance. Out of the hole the tang would emerge and flit gently here and there, seemingly unaware of a young barracuda a foot long which was skulking in the seaweed. Tempted beyond endurance, the barracuda would make its rush, the tang would flash back into the hole, and with a ping the barracuda would ram its nose into the enamel pot. Hour after hour this was repeated while Freddie, lying above in a snorkel, giggled. As I say, it is the only fishing I have ever known him to enjoy.
THE GODS OF TREES
Of all experts. Army Engineers, state highway engineers, engineers in the Bureau of Reclamation stand in my mind as the most powerful, efficient, and ruthless. Their estimates are based on economy, and for this we respect them. We would respect them the more if in their planning they showed some consideration for the nation’s heritage. The best through way is a wind tunnel and water culvert cleaving woods and hills with a mania rivaling our love for speed. The more expensive the project — be it throughway or dam — the more support engineers will get for it politically, and it is this fact, taken together with their imperviousness to our natural instincts, that makes these professionals such a devastating force.
In THE LAST REDWOODS (Sierra Club, $17.50) PHILIP HYDE and FRANCOIS LEYDET have told in photographs and text a fighting story. The photographs, some in color, are of forests so unbelievably beautiful that they make a man catch his breath. But these pictures of California enchantment for California is the last great stronghold of this national treasure — could be a memorial. Now the last and finest of the Coast redwoods in the great watershed north of San Francisco are about to be subdivided by the state highway engineers in defiance of all that has been given to save the redwoods and in defiance of common sense. Highways, it seems, have a prior claim, and those who build them can destroy any trust.
“As timber the Redwood is too good to five,” wrote John Muir, and how true those bitter words have proved to be. The National Tribute Grove, so beautifully illustrated in this book, consists today of five thousand acres, at the northern end of the state, protected “in perpetuity” as part of the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. The state engineers argue that they are not planning to cut down the entire grove, merely a swath through it about a mile long removing “only a few of the
trees.” Sure, sure. We have heard that same argument again and again in the East, and we have seen what the wind tunnels on Route 128 did to the unprotected stands of Cathedral pine in Essex County, and how the pine, maple, and hardwood have been thumbed down along the Connecticut River. There might have been alternate routes which would have saved the woods, but the engineers’ ideal is a route that cleaves, without any curve or deviation to protect the past.
The Last Redwoods is a poignant, infuriating record of American impatience. Here, in pictures like that of the “Malarkey Forest” near Crescent City, is the shocking callousness with which lumbermen will terminate a chain of life going back farther than any other race of trees. The first positive identification of redwood fossils dates back some 130 million years, but the trees which had once reigned from the Black Sea to Greenland had to retreat before the glaciers; in time the species was reduced to two, and in time the last stand of the great monarchs, such as the Big Tree, which had stood for four thousand years, was confined to California — and this is what the highway engineers will willingly disperse for a throughway. “If ever there were gods of trees, here they stand,” and I suppose we should count ourselves lucky to have seen such giants, lucky to have felt the light and the hush in the depths of such a forest. I suppose, given our rapacity, our grandchildren will say we did not deserve such beauty.
THE PLACE NO ONE KNEW, by ELIOT PORTER (Sierra Club, $25.00), is not a fighting book but a requiem for the Glen Canyon on the Colorado, which died in 1963. Photography, when in the hands of a colorist as perceptive as Mr. Porter, achieves, as no drawing ever could, the height, the power, the contrast, and the secrecy of the rock world. Many great naturalists have been here and had their say: “In no other portion of the world,” wrote Clarence E. Dutton, “are the natural laws governing the processes of land sculpture exemplified so grandly.” That is how it was.
The Hoover, Parker, and Davis dams were already in existence. Their control of the Colorado and their production of hydroelectric power were considered by many adequate before the dam which killed Glen Canyon was authorized. But builders must build, if not for us, then, as they imagine, for the future. What the citizen is never told is whether these projects are imperative. We heard a great deal of talk about the Missouri when General Pike and his staff were out to tame it, and it was not until the extent of valley destruction and land change was realized and resisted that the project was pigeonholed. Too often these days the rivers of the West are being tampered with by short-term projects with long-term devastation. If Glen Canyon had to go last year, will the Grand Canyon be next?
THE SKELETON IN THE CLOSET
SHIRLEY ANN GRAU is a Southerner who writes about the Deep South with a word choice as fastidious as Willa Cather’s and with a passion aroused by the turbulence in her home country. Her new novel, THE KEEPERS OF THE HOUSE (Knopf, $4.95), a beautifully designed, beautifully written book, is a story told in two moods. The first half is the evocation of the William Howland plantation, which was staked out north of New Orleans by one of Andrew Jackson’s veterans and which was greatly extended by a grandson who had married a wealthy Catholic who spent her money buying up bottomland and sandy pine ridges. After him came one more William Howland, burly, blue-eyed, and resourceful, a man who knew how to get the best out of his soil, and whose business manipulation during World War II made him one of the wealthiest men in the state.
Will Howland is a powerfully drawn figure, and what he did to the women who loved him — to his brief young bride; to Margaret, his mistress, part Choctaw, part Negro, by whom he had three children; to his white daughter; and to his only grandchild — is the story. “Sometimes he must have felt that he was being smothered in dependents. There hadn’t been a man of his blood in so long. All those clinging female arms. . . . And then there was Margaret.” This is the situation as it is gradually perceived by his granddaughter, Abigail, to whom his wealth is bequeathed. At the outset she writes of her grandfather’s house and of her love for the varying seasons of the Gulf Coast country with “the glitter and hush-breath quality” of an adolescent. But as she matures and before she goes to college Abigail has accepted certain realities: her grandfather’s powerful grasp of life and his contempt for his neighbors; his love for Margaret, whose three children were sent north for education just as soon as they were old enough to travel; and the pride he has in herself which he rarely shows.
The tone of the telling changes after Abigail’s marriage to handsome John Tolliver. She suspects that he married her for her money, and he did; and she suspects that he is a philanderer, which he is. But she knows that he is a hard worker in his law office, and she loves him; she bears their children and works for his political career, until they are flung apart by the scandal over Old Will’s miscegenation. The bitter vengeance that follows is hard to take.