A common theme among writers that I admire is their descriptions of encounters with wild animals. Brian Doyle has a great book of essays that is focused on this theme Children and Other Wild Animals. I love his essays on fishers, sturgeon, and falcons. Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek describes waiting and watching a weasel. Poets often get into these little encounters.
My reality is often informed by things I’ve read. I watched enthralled, this last fall, an otter down by the river. An otter, which on further reflection turned out to be a nutria. When I see a porcupine in the woods, I can’t help but recall the passage in The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert where Eustace Conway describes to a classroom of children how a porcupine saved his life. He told them he was starving, and that he ate it.
My students have colorful stories about cougars, and hunting. I’ve assigned this “encounter with a wild animal” as an informal essay topic in the past, but can’t think right now of any great examples from students. If I were forced to write an essay about an encounter with a wild animal, I think I would focus on this moment:
It was winter and we were sad. Our apartment was dark, and college classes were dreary. And we were tired of each other. He was thinking of moving back to California. We thought fishing would cheer us up. We sloshed through the river.
We had been dragging our spinners through every hole, up and down the stream, all morning. Nothing. We admit to each other that we never really learned how to fish, but sometimes just got lucky. And then they came. Red bodied, fins out of water, schools of salmon on their last run. We put everything we could in front of them, but they had other things on their mind.
The salmon were on genetic autopilot, brushing against our legs, more and more traveling upstream. How many hooks had they evaded in their life? How much of life do they understand? How aware of a larger reality are the fish? It was an experience, something you remember.
* * *
In an ethics class, a week after the soggy Saturday with the spawning salmon, the stakes in the animal cruelty argument are raised to include fishing. For some in the class, this was the last straw. They burst out with the purity of catch and release fishing: no barbs, no fish out of water, no cheap nets to scratch eyeballs, etc.
The human equivalent to catch and release fishing is attempted, but devolves into absurdity. We wonder if some fish might even enjoy the experience. How do they know that they might be dinner? And they weren’t. “It’s just like a rollercoaster. No difference.” Someone may have said this. I think it now, not believing it. There’s always a difference.
Always tempted to draw connections, I wonder if catch and release is a valuable way to view some relationships. You aren’t going to kill them and eat them, but you are going to enjoy the moment and let them go. And sometimes the moment doesn’t include you, like watching spawning salmon travel upstream, all you can do is enjoy the experience of witnessing a hardwired unavoidable purpose being lived out. Spawning salmon, and all the near equivalents, are something to appreciate.
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