Reading Water by Nancy Mugele


I have been looking for my dog-eared copy of Upstream by Mary Oliver for months. I am inspired by this collection in which Oliver illustrates the importance of creativity, her insatiable curiosity for the natural world and the great responsibility she feels, handed to her by writers before her, to observe thoughtfully and record her passions. She encourages us to keep moving upstream – to lose ourselves in the beauty of nature and to find time for the creativity that lives inside each of us. “I could not be a poet without the natural world,” she said, “someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”

I found the book last week in an unexpected place, but one which I should have assumed. Jim surprised me with a short trip to Montana, after a few days in LA for Jim’s business and a little time for me to visit family and a dear friend.The dog-leg to Montana was the perfect end to a week on the West Coast (not to be confused with the Western Shore). I was so happy to see, for the first time, James’ new home, visit Sweetwater Fly Shop, meet the store’s owner and James’ fellow team members, and of course, hug Boh, James’ black lab. Yes, my book was in James’ bedroom sitting casually at the top of an opened, but not entirely unpacked, moving box.

I learned a lot about fly fishing in a few short days as we spent time on Mill Creek and the Yellowstone River. To me, James is clearly one-third fisherman, one-third entomologist and one-third, like Mary Oliver, a joyful nature enthusiast. The 19th Century British chemist Sir Humphry Davy, who invented the miner’s safety lamp, described fly fishing rods as “a fly at one end and a philosopher at the other.” I can attest that this is true.

James told me fly fishing is all about “reading water,” recognizing how the slightest breeze or even the movement of a cloud across the sky changes everything; noticing the dark, slow pool next to the faster water where fish may be lurking. The more time he spends observing and understanding a river, the more success he will have as an angler. Jim caught his first cutthroat trout on a fly on this trip with the help of his personal expert guide!

James also needs to know the bugs that the fish eat and how they perform on the water so that he can tie flies that replicate actual insects. We saw a lot of mayflies on the river. James thinks these are the prettiest bugs; I think they are romantic. Mayflies are aquatic insects and spend all their lives underwater. Then, one day, they leave the water to dance with each other in large groups over the riffles (the rocky or shallow part of a river with rough water – Merriam Webster), lay their eggs, and die. Fly fishermen make use of mayfly hatches by tying, or choosing, flies that resemble these flighty bugs. Tying flies is most definitely an art and a science.

Our Montana river adventure took us through Pray one afternoon and I took note of the town’s name. (You know I am thinking about Kent School and what word I should select for next year’s theme, but that is another story.) Pray, Montana was founded in 1907 on the Yellowstone River and is 30 miles from the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Pray graced us with breathtaking views of the Absaroka mountains in the Gallatin National Forest. It was a spiritual experience for me, and I left the state believing that James is just where he should be, albeit very far from our Chester River.

To me, reading water is literally to read works such as Upstream and poems by others who share their thoughts about the power and mystery of water. This beauty is from Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry by Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison which sits in my office on my coffee table. Enjoy!

Only today

I heard

the river

within the river.

Nancy Mugele is the Head of School at Kent School in Chestertown and a member of the Board of Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s.

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