Quinn Grover teaches English at Brigham Young University–Idaho. His work has been published in national fly-fishing magazines such as the Flyfish Journal, the Drake, and American Angler as well as literary outlets such as Newfound, Cirque, and Juxtaprose. His new book, Wilderness of Hope: Fly Fishing and Public Lands in the American West, is available now.
In a literature course I have been teaching this past summer, the students and I read and studied Norman Maclean’s well-known novella “A River Runs Through It.” Maclean fictionalizes the story of his family, focusing primarily on his relationship with his brother and his father, two men he knew best through the time they spent together fly fishing Montana’s Big Blackfoot River. The story famously opens: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”
As I read the students’ written analyses of Maclean’s story, I was struck by one student’s argument that the narrator fails to help his brother because he places too much significance on fly fishing while ignoring the more important aspects of life and religion away from the river. It’s a credible reading because, after Maclean’s brother is killed near the story’s end, the narrator reveals that he feels as if he never knew his brother as he would have liked to.
As someone who was waiting for my own book of fly fishing essays to be published, this argument forced me to stop and think. I grew up in a family that takes fly fishing pretty seriously. My father taught my brothers and I to cast on our back lawn. He carried us across rivers and instilled in us a love of wild places. As my father has gotten older, my brothers and I have tried to return the favor by making sure he goes fishing and catches fish for as long as he is able.
Similarly, I am connected to some of my best friends because of our shared love for trout waters and our shared experiences in those waters. My student argued that fly fishing was a “triviality” and I can see how it might seem that way. Grown men and women pulling on rubber boots and waving a stick in the air hardly seems to be the sacred ritual that Maclean describes it as.
But somehow—for me—fly fishing manages to locate some of the most important aspects of life into the trivialities of casting a hook wrapped in feathers at a fish that may or may not respond. Fly fishing’s trivialities offer an escape from the stresses of every day existence. At the same time, fly fishing asks an angler to think like a trout (or a permit or even a carp). Like Aldo Leopold’s advice to “think like a mountain,” viewing the world from a nonhuman perspective is far from trivial because it re-locates the angler into a new relationship with land and water—the environs of the nonhuman. Such thinking is especially important as humanity careens toward a world of climate change.
It is this paradox—the simultaneous feelings of escape and intense immersion—that I have tried to capture in Wilderness of Hope. For me, fly fishing somehow manages to offer both.
Some of the essays in the book were initially drafted a decade ago while others were written recently. As I was working on a last major revision of the manuscript, I found myself wondering what united these experiences beyond the commonality of fly fishing. I realized that the vast public lands of the American West made my collective experience possible. Intense immersion and escape from civilization are only possible for a guy like me because of national parks and forests, the millions of acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the state parks, and the liberal stream access laws in western states such as Montana and Idaho. Without public lands, my fishing life and my connection to the place I live would be severely diminished. With this realization in mind, I tried to craft a book that captured the serious trivialities of fly fishing as an argument in favor of keeping public lands (and waters) in public hands.
When my author copies arrived I presented each of my two daughters with a fresh book. I was surprised when they dug in and began reading; I didn’t think they would be interested in the book too much beyond the chapters in which their names are mentioned. But they were interested in the places they found inside the book and now they want to see some of those places for themselves. It shows, I suppose, that books themselves are more than what they seem. Like fly fishing (and public lands), books offer both escape and immersion, the chance to inhabit a world that is otherwise inaccessible.