Untroubled waters 

A "Joe" takes on Montana's river culture

I prefer the mountains to the rivers. So much so that a good portion of my honeymoon was spent floating on an inflatable raft on a tiny alpine lake in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I like the grueling climbs, the unpredictable weather and that a mountain is alien ground, inhospitable, even fatal if the wrong kind of weather moves in. But above all, there are the views. There's no feeling comparable to standing on the windswept peak of an enormous mountain looking out over miles of terrain. And far, far below are the silver ribbons of river snaking gently in soft parabolas across the flattened valley bottoms, dotted here and there with houses or scorched with town grids.

I admit that I never really understood a river until I moved to Missoula more than a decade ago. That first spring, there was a particularly fierce runoff that pushed the Clark Fork up to its banks and was rumored to have swept away a house or two upstream. The water roared through town, and we Missoulians stood agape on our bridges and watched it roil on the supports below us, alternately mud-yellow and milk-white. And that was just the opening movement to a year-long concerto. As the year progressed, and the hills ringing the valley changed from green to yellow to brown, the river, too, changed its sights, sounds and smells in a kind of ongoing narrative that repeated itself yearly, but with variation. A river is a kind of performance, or story.

To properly see a river, you have to get right down into it, day after day, and scrutinize the wealth of detail it offers, from the various smells of the water, to the inexorable movement of riverbed and riverbank over the seasons, to the insects that hatch, mate and die on the river's surface, and, of course, the fish that ply the current. And fishing just might be the perfect excuse to bring a writer to the water's edge, day after day, to stand idly by the river, making successive and too-often fruitless casts. Which, if you think of it, is an apt metaphor for writing.

Maybe that's why there are so many books about fishing.

Enter Ted Leeson's latest addition to the genre: Inventing Montana. Leeson's perspective on Montana's Madison River and the fishing there is unusual. He's one of thousands of seasonal anglers who flock to the state in the summertime to crowd the state's trout streams, though one of a few writing about it. He's a regular, seasonal visitor—a "Joe," as he hears a guide refer to his kind of angler—whose impression of the landscape has been formed by only a few days' visit each year, and under special conditions: in summer, and at play. The result is the dreamlike, meandering work of a weekend philosopher who, like a river, follows the currents of his thoughts—dabbling here in the kitchen contemplating his friends, there at the put-in with the crowd of fly-fishermen, bending smoothly in the contemplation of the land, its people and the metaphors we create to bind ourselves to them.

A few distinct things populate Leeson's Montana. There's the house he regularly inhabits, an "unprepossessing" structure "you would probably take no notice of when driving past except to remark on its fortunate situation among the trees." There's his group of friends, who he refers to by particular character traits, such as "the Cook," "the Mechanic," or "the Bohdi," nicknames that are loaded with the gentle mocking common among good friends. There are the inhabitants of the land, the guides and townspeople, related with an anthropologist's eye. There's the tackle, flies, waders and boats, the myriad and necessary detritus of an angler's life. And there's the land itself, and the river.

"There is a certain and distinct pleasure," writes Leeson, "in simply watching water run downhill, an endless scroll of current on which the river inscribes the complicated history of itself."

At its worst, Inventing Montana is the fly-fishing version of The Big Chill, with long-acquainted couples baking white pizza and flatbread together, listening to music and working on their art projects amidst light, good-natured banter. It's your friend's too-long and semi-coherent retelling of her summer vacation. At its best, the book has blinding flashes of insight. My favorite chapter, "Postcards of the Hanging," is a staccato burst of passages alternately railing, warning and ruing the big moneyed development of Montana's riverbanks. It's free of the clutter of insider jokes and wayward prose, and it's good, rousing literature.

But above all, Leeson's book is marked by the giddy ebullience of play. Play, of course, is serious stuff, a chance to toil up switchbacks with 40 pounds on your back, or muck about a river looking for fish. Playtime is when we rise above the congested traffic of our everyday lives and hang, suspended, in the here and now.

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