Over the course of 19 books, John Gierach has emerged as a fantastic writer and a remarkable observer of people and the natural world. He says what he means to say beautifully, in crystal-clear prose, and he does so within the context of chasing fish in running water.
Over the course of the 21 essays that make up his latest collection, A Fly Rod of Your Own, it becomes clear that what Gierach truly specializes in is adventure writing for people whose idea of adventure is only occasionally death-defying. For example, I've told just about anyone who will listen that I'll consider my life a failure unless I someday get to go somewhere that requires the use of a floatplane. Floatplanes are cool and evoke a thrilling, deep-in-the-wilds adventure from which you may not (though you probably will) come back alive. Gierach understands the allure. In the first paragraph of the essay "Floatplanes," he describes his first flight in one, back in the late '70s:
"Flying in a floatplane had been a boyhood fantasy, so I tried to soak it all up: the aluminum ladder leading to the rounded hatch, the unforgiving tube-frame seats, the bulging cargo netting, all wearing the colorless patina of hard use. I peeked into the cockpit, where a pilot in coveralls was fiddling with mysterious knobs and hydraulic levers as the twin engines warmed up. I had no idea what I was looking at, but it was unbearably romantic in a steampunk sort of way."
In another essay, "Camp Food," Gierach takes on all the ways we prepare meals based on the ingredients we carry with us into the backcountry. From freeze-dried backpacker fare to canned beans cooked over a fire, he weighs the pros and cons. Along the way he touches on food in America in general, as in this passage:
"We Americans do many things well, but feeding ourselves isn't one of them. Much of our food is poisoned by refined sugar, preservatives, and saturated fats, but health-food snobs are sanctimonious enough to make you long for fast food anyway."
Gierach's wry humor is a highlight of the book as a whole, and each essay is peppered with such observations. It's never forced—unlike that friend we all know who tries a little too hard to be funny. Instead, it's the wit of someone who is maybe smarter than he lets on, and whose commentary is based on a habit of listening, rather than flapping his gums.
Growing older on a framework of choices made as a younger man is a common theme throughout. Describing the type of men who try to make their livings in the hinterlands as guides, he says, "Some are young and starry-eyed about life in the backcountry; others are older and realize that while your twenties and thirties can be about reinventing yourself, your forties and beyond are more about trying to make the best of who you've become."
Gierach doesn't dwell on it much, but it's clear that his commitment to a life of fishing as often as possible, financed by writing, probably hasn't been the easiest of paths. That he seems to have pulled if off is more a testament to his skill on the page than with a fly rod. The best nonfiction writers can make their subjects interesting to readers who think they have no interest in the subject. Gierach does that and more with his essays on fly fishing, which are ultimately about people, the wilds of water and forest, and the trials and triumphs of a life lived in such places. In the close to the floatplane essay, he explores why it is that people—fishers, sure, but anyone, really—go to the wilderness. "We go into places ... to catch wild fish," he writes, "and for more personal reasons that may be complicated or as simple as the urge to escape the present—which admittedly looks none too promising—into, if not the actual past, then at least the kind of timelessness where life still makes sense."
A lot of us are stuck in lives that don't allow for such excursions. A Fly Rod of Your Own gives readers a satisfying peek into the freedoms that Gierach has so obviously earned.
John Gierach reads from A Fly Rod of Your Own at Fact & Fiction Thu., April 13, at 7 PM.