Mark Spitzer loves fish and he loves to fish. As a nationally known author (Seasons of the Gar, Return of the Gar), writing about fish and their issues is what he does best. In this blog series, Spitzer shares his experiences traveling the American West while researching a select number of freshwater fish that are often considered monstrous or freaky or hideously grotesque. The full version of this incredible tale can be in Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West (Bison Books, 2017). And next summer the journey will continue with In Search of Monster Fish: Angling for a More Sustainable Planet (June 2019).
Order and Disorder, Part I
The environmental monster-fish book Grotesque Fish of the American West was recently honored at the 2018 Arkansas Philological Association’s annual conference as the focus of the keynote speaking event. Since the theme of the conference was “order and disorder,” and since this book just happened to be written by me, it was my job to make sense of the order and disorder discussed throughout the narrative arc. So, armed with a PowerPoint presentation featuring big, ugly fish and a plenary lecture entitled “Order and Disorder in the Grotesque Monster-Fish World of Human Perseverance: The Philology of Consequence,” I strode to the podium to launch my barrage of grotesque images under the pretense of “Who doesn’t want to see pictures of weird, freaky fish?”
The audience was laughing along as I joked my way through the talk, but underneath my jocular veneer, I was damn serious. Like the book, a knee-slapping paradox of fantastic leviathans mixed with dire messages, I was also combining fear and facts. My main talking points were:
- What’s interesting about American eels is both the order and disorder that’s resulted from how American waterways have been engineered to depend on dams which create disorder for eels by blocking migrations. But on the other hand, dams keep eel parasites from spreading across populations, so there are both pros and cons in humans expanding their range and altering river systems. But do the pros outweigh the cons?
- Nope, not when global warming is a factor. The combination of invasive species and climate change is already delivering catastrophic blows to myriad ecosystems worldwide, and we need to be vigilant. Take the burbot, for example, whose caravans have invaded the Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border, a phenomenon I investigated during the 2014 Burbot Bash. What I discovered was that the fishing pressure from this bi-annual tournament is enough to keep order from breaking into disorder while redefining angling culture in the region and invigoration tourism (otherwise known as “making lemonade”).
- The “urban sturgeon” metaphor of the white sturgeon, a behemoth trapped between the landscape of the American West and its ever-expanding concrete Goliaths, was then employed to make a point harking back to the oldest known story in literature. In The Gilgamesh Epic, chiseled in stone 4,000 years ago, a culture clash (disorder) was illustrated between civilization and wilderness. Still, a bromance (order) was shown to be possible—which is the balance to aspire to for fish and humans to survive.
- In the case of paddlefish and razorback suckers, I argued that in reordering our natural riparian geography by creating reservoirs and levee systems, a new order was established. But is this new order robust enough for true sustainability? That’s the burning question.
- Enter the invasives: silver carp and snakeheads, both of which suffer from a slanderous, stigmatic disorder. But as research confirms, we can create order and capitalize on disorder through rebranding and reimagining the way we perceive such boogeyfish.
- All hail the Existential Midlife Crisis Mobile! A 19-foot, shag-carpeted, disco atrocity born from disorder then lost to happenstance en route to catch the Nebraska state record bowfin. From the ashes of its demise, though, order was reborn through triggering action. The result being a state record yellow bullhead as well as the book’s major hook: a highly human, transcendental experience in which breaking the cycles that shackle us to disorder creates change and saves us from ourselves.
- The fanged and furious alligator gar was then recalled for how it helped me deal with the death of my mother. This personal disorder, this cycle of visions focused on death, just came to a point where a fish made the difference. In two days, I caught ten lunkers between five and seven feet long, enough to knock me out of my funk. Why? Because the experience was revolutionary. Literally. That is, it got things rolling again, thereby injecting the storyline with the human perseverance factor it needed to make a bridge to the next point… a larger point… a point not focused primarily on myself… a point concerning community, responsibility, and empathy for fellow creatures.
But guess what? This blog has just slammed on the brakes in order to create the first environmentally grotesque, monstro-fish cliffhanger in Blogtastic History! Yep, this white-knuckle crazy-train of a conference session recap is so red hot that it can only burn burn burn at a later date. So stay tuned, Fugly Fish Fans, to find out what happens next in the Philology of Consequence…
(to be continued)