Thursday, March 23, 2017

In Defense of Orwell’s Toad

In April 1946, as Europe was recovering from the second war-to-end-all-wars, George Orwell published “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad.” Though an avowedly political piece, Orwell’s essay is neither a discourse on a vanquished Ubermensch or a treatise on future oppressors (at least, not on the surface). Instead it offers—and here I claim joyous use of the present tense—a defense of the human urge to find solace in the natural world and its unrelenting beauty. Faced with an urban landscape scarred by Hitler’s campaign of bombs—more than a million homes were damaged or destroyed in London alone—Orwell chooses to focus on the “vivid green of an elder sprouting on a blitzed site.”

Less than a month later, the recently widowed Orwell would leave London for the Scottish island of Jura, where he would write 1984, the novel that evokes the battles of our current spring like no other. The book is about much more than Newspeak and doublethink, of course, but how can one not feel terrified at the prescience of sentences like these: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” And not simply terrified, but saddened too, a sadness approaching despair.

Yes, we have given ourselves unhealthy doses of Brexit and Trump and Wilders and Le Pen. But in some simultaneously parallel universe, the world has returned a veritable feast of migrations and blossomings, everything from ducks to daffodils. Now it is our responsibility to choose among them, to honor some and embrace others. As Orwell writes, “I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and—to return to my first instance—toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable.”


Not likely, you understand, he wouldn’t go as far as that. But we must nourish hope where we find it, as strange as that may seem. At some moment between 1946 and 1948, during repeated bouts with tuberculosis, Orwell had this thought: “In principle the war effort is always so planned as to eat up any surplus that might exist after meeting the bare needs of the population. In practice the needs of the population are always underestimated, with the result being that there is a chronic shortage of half the necessities of life; but this is looked upon as an advantage. It is deliberate policy to keep even the favored groups somewhere near the brink of hardship, because a general state of scarcity increases the importance of small privileges and thus magnifies the distinction between one group and another.” (The architects of President Trump’s budget blueprint appear to have taken these words as gospel.)

Sounds crazy, yes. Crazy and plausible. Which is much preferable to crazy and hateful, or crazy and demonstrably false. Both of which have been in depressingly abundant supply.

And by crazy and plausible, I don’t just mean Orwell’s reference to “deliberate policy.” I mean the notion of looking to dystopia for hope. Before inventing Winston Smith, Orwell created another hopeless nostalgist, George Bowling, the anti-hero of Coming Up for Air. This George admits, as a first confession, “that when I look back through my life I can’t honestly say that anything I’ve ever done has given me quite such a kick as fishing. Everything else has been a bit of a flop in comparison . . . . And the other confession is that after I was sixteen I never fished again.” Which was not true of Orwell himself; he fished and caught lobsters while in Jura and—so sure was he of his imminent recovery—his favorite rods were leaning against the wall of the hospital room where he died at the untimely age of forty-six.

George Bowling explains his deprivation like this: “Because that’s how things happen. Because in this life we lead . . . in this particular age and this particular country—we don’t do the things we want to do.” But we don’t live in Bowling’s age (the late 1930s), Orwell’s prophecies are not yet a done deal, and neither is the previously unimaginable convergence of Russian plutocracy and American idiocracy.

Orwell would have disliked the idea of himself as oracle; he rather preferred the role of “pamphleteer.” In other words, he wished to move his readers to action, even if that activity was no more revolutionary than enjoying a strong cup of tea or another pint at the pub. Such things, after all, are what remind us of our common heritage, the bonds we share as creatures who live and yearn and die. If we want to raise the odds of that “peaceful and decent future” ever more slightly, then all of us in this particular age and this particular country need to do those particular things that we want to do. Now—before everything is, as George would say, “cemented over.”

I don’t advocate the sharing of inconsequential pleasures as a source of distraction from the news cycle or a respite from active resistance; I do it to prime the well. The small is not the enemy of the good. Without raindrops, there would be no river; without yeast, there would be no beer. 

So enjoy a walk in a chestnut wood. Listen to the trilling song of a common blackbird. Plant a few nasturtiums in your window box. Me? I’m going fishing.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Another 36 Hours in Lisbon, Revisited

Thanks to the vagaries of budget airline itineraries and the American holiday schedule, we’ve found ourselves arriving in Lisbon again and again and again. Roundtrip from Tangier, one-way via Casablanca, on a forced layover from Rome—you name it.


If you are indeed lucky enough to have a night or more in the city, make your way up the hill from the Martim Moniz station to Santa Maria Maior, where Marília Silveira of Chez’L Lisboa Mouraria will greet you with a welcoming glass of port. Once a psychologist, Marília turned to innkeeping as a more direct way of “making people happy.”

After dropping your bags in the attic room, descend to Cervejaria Ramiro. Join the eager crowd, who will be talking animatedly, shifting their weight hungrily from foot to foot, doing their best to balance that ticklish combination of patience and expectation.


Judging by the name alone, you might guess that this place is a family beer hall, but that represents only a small portion of its DNA. On the night we first ate there—Thanksgiving 2015—we sat at a large table with strangers from as near as the next Metro stop and as far as Taiwan.

Although you could order beef, what you really want is shellfish: oysters, shrimp, cockles, and so on—they’re all fresh here and prepared in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the individual flavors. If you’re feeling flush, splurge on a plate of carabineiros, an unusually large scarlet prawn that tastes richly of lobster.

The next morning, set your sights on the sixteenth-century tower of Belém, about five miles south and west from your room chez Lisboa.


The pleasant two-hour walk along Lisbon’s waterfront will provide both grand views of the River Tagus and sufficient appetite for an expansive breakfast at Pastéis de Belém. (Hint: Get there early to avoid the sometimes insanely long lines of tourbus passengers.) Though the throngs rightly gather for a taste of the iconic custard tarts, it’s worth experimenting with the bakery’s savory options as well. Both pair well with coffee and Moscatel de Setúbal, a fortified wine with the winning flavor of sunlight and raisins.


But what if you have only a three- or four-hour layover? In the afternoon or early evening, ride the Metro to Cais do Sodré, then find your way to the chefs’ counters at the Mercado da Ribeiro, where some of Lisbon’s best culinary talents serve fine-dining plates at takeaway prices.

To give yourself time to eat, you’ll want to make your choices quickly. We particularly recommend Marlene Vieira for her tempura green beans and duck-and-asparagus risotto, but you really can’t go wrong.

And if your brief layover is in the morning? Then you should forget about eating at the Mercado, because most of the restaurants won’t open until noon.


But you might still want to make the trek to Cais do Sodré, about forty minutes from the airport.

Your reward? Repeated iterations of painter António Dacosta’s “I’m Late,” an homage to Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit. (Perhaps because I’m no longer a commuter, I find myself increasingly appreciative of subway art.)


A few steps away, you’ll find a wide range of cafés—some adjacent to the Mercado, others by the river—where you can fortify yourself against the next flight . . .



Note: My earlier post on Lisbon appears here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Forecast for Taimen

One of the best things about taimen, the world’s largest and most idiosyncratic salmonid, is that they are related to trout. This is a bit like saying that one of the best things about tigers is their kinship with tabby cats, but the connection is undeniable.


When you see one coming full length for the fly—the green jaws, the broad shoulders, the red tail—the conflict between what you think you know about trout and what you are about to learn provides an excruciating tension.

As you might guess, taimen prefer wild rivers and wild country. One of the rivers where I work, in the valley where Genghis Khan was born, is as undomesticated as they come. By long-term agreement with local, provincial, and national governments, there are no hatcheries, no hotels, no dams, no mines, no commercial logging, and no motorized boats along its banks.


In September 2013, when Sage Flyfishing’s technical service manager visited the river, the weather was far from tame. A series of cold fronts had frog-marched across northern Mongolia, and the leaves on the currant bushes gleamed damp and red. Although the once-in-a-generation flooding had mercifully subsided, the water was still high. In fact, a resupply vehicle from the capital Ulaanbaatar had become bogged down many miles from our first camp, while attempting to ford what is usually a shallow tributary.

On the atypically muddy steppe, upland buzzards, saker falcons, and marsh harriers hunted the mice that had fled their soggy burrows. And yet, after the second day of our trip, I wrote this in my journal: “An ordinary day of fishing. Meaning fun—with lots of action.”


Our log for the day shows that eight anglers hooked twenty-seven taimen, landing eleven. (This count does not include missed strikes, which happen more often than many anglers like to admit.) Of the sixteen individuals that escaped a photograph, one extremely large fish fought downstream for at least five bends of the river before the hook pulled. Another taimen, not nearly as large, was landed after the rod exploded into three pieces on the hookset. (Yes—it was a Sage.) We also were graced with a trio of Amur trout—an endemic species with thick, coppery flanks—and a solitary Amur pike.


In the dining ger that night, Handaa, our camp manager, presided over appetizers, dinner, and dessert. Between courses, she instructed us in the ritual style of toasting, in which each invocation is punctuated with a dip of your ring finger in the vodka: one for the sky, one for the earth, one for the winds, and one for yourself.

Later, some of us sipped red wine, while others (who should not remain nameless) indulged in extravagant concoctions like apple-tinis and lemon drops. Out of the din of conversation, I heard this twosome wisely dubbed “a hangover sandwich.”


A few guests at the table had been friends for many years, while some had just met. But the world of international flyfishing is small enough for coincidences to become routine. Because the guy from Sage has worked in Chile, he and two of our Chilean guides had several acquaintances in common. And because his father had been an industry rep, it was no surprise that one of our other guests, a former New England flyshop owner who has come to the river nearly every year since 2004, recognized the family resemblance.


We have a minimum of four guides on every trip and, in the service of fun, each guide tries to fish with every angler at least once during the week. On the day that I rowed for the Sage guy, he cast a 400-plus-grain sinking head and a huge epoxy fly that, together, cut through the wind like a ballpeen hammer and crashed the water like a depth charge. That rig drew strikes from two healthy taimen and we managed to coax both into the net. His fishing partner began with a floating line then changed to an ordinary sinking tip and went without a strike. By the end of the day, the wind was strong enough to drive the boat back upstream and the current lines were filled with willow leaves.

That unpredictability is part of what makes taimen fishing addictive. Like humans, they can be close-mouthed and sulky one minute, then irrationally exuberant the next. No matter what the weather conditions.


And though weather can sometimes feel like it’s happening specifically to us, cruelly and personally, it can also remind us of our collective smallness in the larger and more mysterious world. What does it mean when, on a morning so warm that you sit as far as possible from the woodstove, someone else says that he can feel snow coming?


Perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, that season’s unusual weather will be a net positive. The surge of water tumbled many willows and poplars from the banks. More wood in the water means more nursery habitat. And more nursery habit could eventually mean more trout and more taimen.

To put it in geek terms, the flood was an outlier: a stray point in an expansive data set. As the planet warms, the resulting effects on individual drainages can vary considerably; given our current failure to foresee the bigger picture, I plan to devote myself to further close observation. The river is ancient and ever-changing. All I can say after ten seasons in Mongolia is this: it never gets old.


On the final afternoon of the trip, six days and many dozens of miles downstream, a harrier stooped on a mouse pattern just as the leader unrolled on the forward cast. The bird stuttered above the river, attempting to snatch the fly from the air. The angler exclaimed with surprise and I shouted with delight. Neither of us really wanted to hook a harrier, but we needn’t have worried—the bird made one last, half-hearted stab as the mouse hit the water, then wished itself back into the sky.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Pretty in Print

Two recent publications that can’t be read online: the first in Gray’s Sporting Journal’s fortieth anniversary issue, the next in Songs of Ourselves, from Blue Heron Book Works.

If you can’t get to a newsstand, here’s what the opening spread of the Gray’s story looks like on an iPad.


The painting is by Alberto Rey and—in case you were hoping to add it to your collection—is already owned by the University of Virginia.

The story itself is set in Mexico and Montana. Although it’s absolutely fiction, the narrative roughly chronicles the puzzlement I feel both when stalking bonefish on the flats and trying to understand the so-called new economy. (Remember Touch America?)

My contribution to Songs of Ourselves, on the other hand, feels like a big departure from my usual work. Subtitled America’s Interior Landscape, the book wants to identify an idea that I’ve been searching for from Morocco to Mongolia: “the thing that makes us American.” As I was telling my sister today, my bit—which I called “The Journal of Infectious Diseases”—is “basically a memoir in the form of a collage.”
According to the Journal of Infectious Diseases, the most common reason for travel among tourists who contract cholera is—you guessed it—a visit with the relatives.




Monday, November 23, 2015

The River in Books, Books on the River

Following on the spate of media coverage inspired by the 2013 Nobody’s River Project, the Amur basin and its headwaters have now found their way to National Public Radio, which reviewed Dominic Zeigler’s Black Dragon River this past weekend.


This isn’t the first book to chronicle a long journey down the Amur. I’ve read at least two others—one was published in 1860, the other in 2005.

NPR’s review was a bit garbled on the topic of fish: “The river’s waters swarm with life. The Amur is home to a hundred-twenty fish specimens, ‘a primal soup, thick with wanton life and death. Myriad fish gorge on the tapioca pears of fish eggs caught up and down by the current.’”

My guess is that they meant species, not specimens, and pearls, not pears. But who knows about “caught up and down”?


For more on Amur fish and fishing, I recommend two books available free online: Fishes of Mongolia, underwritten by the World Bank, and Amur Fish: Wealth and Crisis, published by the World Wildlife Fund.



Wednesday, October 21, 2015

More Things We Can Learn from the Bottle

While preparing lunch one day on the river, I couldn’t help but notice the desire of these moths for our bottle of wine. (An imported Argentinian red but, then again, all wines in Mongolia are imported.)


Turns out that a technique called wine-roping is well known among moth enthusiasts. If any of you are reading this, would you kindly confirm that these specimens are Red Underwings?

Monday, August 10, 2015

The View from Tangier

Since moving to Morocco last month, we have spent many hours contemplating the view from our third-floor perch. White storks often fly above the clay-tiled roofs, sometimes landing on nearby television antennas, where they exhibit a remarkable sense of balance in the fickle winds.


Like some fortunate humans, they are migrants, able to cross between Europe and Africa at will.

According to James Edward Budgett-Meakin, author of Land of the Moors: A Comprehensive Description (1901), “As a slayer of serpents the stork is held sacred, and if he fails to return any year to his accustomed haunt, some evil is feared.”

In The Land of an African Sultan: Travels in Morocco (1889), Walter B. Harris wrote this about storks:  “They are men, say the Moors, who have come from islands far away to the west, to see Morocco. Like all the world, they know there is no other land to compare to it, and so they even abandon their outward form of men to come and see it.”