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Branching Out: The complexity of aliveness

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Stumbling through riverbed boulders and log jams, the beams of our headlamps were lightsabers, slicing erratically through black night. Snowmelt sloshed in my 20-year old waders. My friend George shivered, soaked up to shrinkage. Neither state though, dampened our mirth. Out after dark, we felt like kids at play. Crossing a marsh, odd pinpoints of light pulsed in and out amid the sedges and grass — mountain fireflies?! It was a kicker that sent us over the top. What a night.

In his push for a shift in humankind’s role on the planet, scientist and thinker E.O. Wilson writes a reality where “the invisible appear, the small grow large, and the immense complexity and beauty of life are more clearly revealed.”

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In my 20s, it took so much to make me feel alive — fear, triumph. Epics, fails. Climbing. Dirt bikes. (Still love all that.) Remember when you were a kid and the days seemed so short? So much to discover and know and learn? Ranger Rick and then National Geographic were portals to the planet “out there.” Indiginous tribes, fantastical beasts, vast cave networks, inconceivable river gorges, massive rock walls and mountain ranges — all stirred a hunger for the grandiose.

Somewhere along my way, the outdoors inverted and climbing turned to fishing. From sending up to diving down. From the 6” of fissure in front of me to the meeting point of fly and stream. An unknown universe unfolds beneath the “film,” that flashing, whispering, burbling, ever shifting mirror of the water’s surface. So much unseen is connected to that singular point of contact, above and below— and still, inside of me.

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I don’t know what will happen when I approach a stretch of water, but I do know this: the most potent memories are those that E.O. Wilson wrote of. Why does the flash of a brookie make me gasp? Where else, kneeling in a creek, can I stare into the blinking eye of a cow moose, towering above me? How does rainfall dissolve the veil between river and sky, becoming one— and how is it that I “feel” it?

“Feeling” is the most significant draw to fishing.

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I fished a creek recently, thinking the runoff had dropped. It had been a raging white water, flooding the banks and side channels on an earlier hike, and I had been counting the days to get back. Oh, so beguiling, it fell through dense forest with a lush understory rich in diversity. Fallen behemoth trees and car-sized boulders created huge pour-overs, long runs and alluring pocket water. 

Upon return, I was 10 again, poking upstream, far from the trail. I giggled on my second cast when a rainbow tossed my hook mid-air and disappeared. But I saw her! A few more roll casts, and my rod tip bent and quivered, a small but strong life at the other end. The dank tang of river and fish filled my senses as I marvelled over his luminous dots and colors — Nature’s design of depthless patterns matched the splash of scattered sunlight, the flow of water, and shifting river bottom. Slipping the barbless hook from her lip, I held her under the water, making sure she was raring to go and released her. As my eyes returned to the larger world, I watched a 130-pound bear spring from the water and into the woods.

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Torn between “oh my god!” and “holy shit!” there’s no way to describe the chemical flood or electrical storm my amygdala let loose. Shaking, I ducked into a hollow in the bank, behind a log jam. 

Earlier, at the trailhead, I had lingered, sipping a beer, slowly arranging my pack; stroking my nerves through journaling, letting the reality of solitude sink in. Far from the lovely burble I had hoped for (music pouring and spilling from every direction) it was a steady roar-meets-whoosh, obliterating sound. The creek was rather high, still — but fishable, I told myself. I didn’t want to just “quit” or hike. 

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Tying my river boots where I decided to first drop into the creek, I had noticed a dead fish at my feet. I picked it up and studied what turned out to be my first sculpin sighting, hoping awe would dispel my anxiety. No, this isn’t a sign, Geneviève. (Being alone exponentiates fear and stress. Talking to myself helps.) 

So hiding there along the river bank, I was already at the threshold of fear, just being there. Seeing the bear, I half hoped to see it again, half wanted to high tail it home. With Fumbelina  fingers, I pulled my iPhone from my flybag hoping to capture a memory, and promptly dropped it in the river. Frantically retrieved it; shook it out; blew on the holes— phew it still worked. And dropped it again. Seriously, Geneviève. 

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I did finally pull myself from the river. 

Of all the “feelings” I need to learn to listen to, it’s this one, the adrenal dump. It warps my senses and makes me clumsy. I rush, making rash decisions: I’ve been rescued by climbing rangers. Gotten stitches longboarding. Been bucked and nearly trampled by a resentful horse. All trying to push through fear. While I did tell my housemate where I was going, I was but a moving pinpoint on a topo map at 1:24,000. What if something happened to me?

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Hiking back to my car and a cold beer was a mental wrestling match, my old me and present me duking it out. Was I a coward? A fool? Was I still selfishly chasing fear and epics?  

As I shed my gear and watched the dusk settle in, my 48-year old self pulled out the piece that brought peace. Unlike my 20s and 30s, when I had nothing to lose, this wasn’t a foolhardy “pushing through fear” to up my score. 

It was an innocent desire to see and feel — be in the world more— just as when George and I lit up, like the fireflies all around us. Ventures of reasonable risk and containable fear are a part of feeling alive. In the moment I experienced that bear scramble, as George and I did, up the river bank, I felt alive. Like you do, perhaps, when you see wildlife or pets mating. And for me, equally so when I pick a stone from the river bottom — the variety and action of nymphs squirming on its underside also enliven me. 

I think our capacity to feel is a measure of our connection to the “immense complexity and beauty of life.” When the invisible appears and the small grows large, and we can appreciate that? That is aliveness. That is why I fish.

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