Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Walden: Two Fishes, One Hook

(What is Borrowed Fire?)

Here's the text of Walden from Project Gutenberg.

In earlier posts, I've suggested some parodic modes of dealing with Walden. Now here's a passage that I think is just straight-on gorgeous:

Sometimes, after staying in a village parlor till the family had all retired, I have returned to the woods, and, partly with a view to the next day's dinner, spent the hours of midnight fishing from a boat by moonlight, serenaded by owls and foxes, and hearing, from time to time, the creaking note of some unknown bird close at hand. These experiences were very memorable and valuable to me—anchored in forty feet of water, and twenty or thirty rods from the shore, surrounded sometimes by thousands of small perch and shiners, dimpling the surface with their tails in the moonlight, and communicating by a long flaxen line with mysterious nocturnal fishes which had their dwelling forty feet below, or sometimes dragging sixty feet of line about the pond as I drifted in the gentle night breeze, now and then feeling a slight vibration along it, indicative of some life prowling about its extremity, of dull uncertain blundering purpose there, and slow to make up its mind. At length you slowly raise, pulling hand over hand, some horned pout squeaking and squirming to the upper air. It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward into this element, which was scarcely more dense. Thus I caught two fishes as it were with one hook.

From "The Ponds," this is my favorite passage in the book, partly because I've had similar experiences. I recall fishing at night, once, with my father, although I sometimes think I've imagined it. Especially because I also recall seeing the aurora borealis that night, which I suppose could have happened in northern Michigan but would have been exceptionally rare. I don't fish now, and regret all those bluegill and perch and pike we killed back in the day. But the line extending from air to water, the mysterious communication from some unseen thing below--I find these images fascinating. I'm especially drawn to the disorientation in this passage; the idea that sky and water could change places, just as thoughts and waking dreams change places with fish. Thoreau's line connects the abstract to the concrete, and somehow that flips the world on its head.

We're told in writing workshops to be very careful when writing about dreams and mystical experiences. Too often they come out overblown, laden with obvious symbolism, and somehow boring. But that doesn't happen here, and I think it's because of that horned pout--a fish I've never seen, but which must be as ungainly as its name--squeaking and squirming in the middle of the dreamscape. The precise, mundane and inelegant detail constrasts (as Thoreau himself notices) with the "vast cosmogonal themes," setting them both in relief. In fact, the pout represents detail here.

So go ahead and write about dreams or moments of transcendence or drug trips. But be sure to throw in the horned pout, who'll keep you tethered to earth while you're flying.

1 comment:

Robin said...

I'll bet you have too seen a horned pout, Ann. It's just a brown bullhead catfish. Those familiar with the game fish of Michigan will have met many of them.

Nice post!

Robin (country boy from the Big North Woods; Thoreau aficionado.)

Rusty Ring: Reflections of an Old-Timey Hermit (blog)