OCTOBER 9, 2016
I AM 10 OR 11 YEARS OLD, sitting in the spruce canoe my father built, my fishing line over the side. My two older brothers are nearby in our rowboat, floating next to a kelp bed. For some reason, I’ve been banished from their boat, but I don’t mind. My brothers don’t feel like fishing, and I do. I paddle backward from the line, using the stroke my dad taught me. The side-to-side roll of the canoe doesn’t bother me. The waves are slight; there’s no danger. I’m holding the rod between my knees, so I feel the tug in my body first, before I see the line curve sharply down toward the water. I grab tight with one hand, ship the paddle with the other, and snap the tip of the rod to set the hook.
It’s my first time out alone with a rod. Nothing so special and everything special: the cloud cover, the sun appearing and disappearing, the Pacific madrone trees on the rocky shore, the knowledge of being insignificant, a feeling I love.
It is precisely this sense of communion that fly-fishing guide and poet Chris Dombrowski investigates in Body of Water: A Sage, a Seeker, and the World’s Most Alluring Fish. The book is essentially a biography of the “sage” of the title, a bonefishing guide in the Bahamas named David Pinder, and much less about the “seeker,” Dombrowski himself, who has previously published two collections of poetry. “Perhaps the heart of bonefishing is ecstatic,” he muses, “more like prayer, which makes the elusive fish a grace we intuit or perhaps even glimpse at the verge of sight, then probe toward via the faith we place in the cast.” And later he writes, “After we catch the fish and hold its pulsing form briefly in our hands, we typically release it, since grace isn’t edible or own-able.” He explores this idea, this search for grace, through three sections: “Beginner’s Mind,” “Limits of Pursuit,” and “Far Country,” but his quest for wholeness through sport fishing comes with complications, personal, political, and environmental — among them habitat loss for the bonefish and other species on the Grand Bahama Island.
About his hero, Pinder, Dombrowski writes: “Few people alive today have attuned themselves for an entire lifetime to a single creature the way Senior has attuned himself to the bonefish.” He interviews not only Pinder and his son, David Pinder Jr., as well as other family members, but also his clients, and colleagues at the Deep Water Cay Club on Grand Bahama Island, where Pinder worked for nearly 40 years. It’s almost as though Dombrowski doesn’t know why he became a fly-fishing guide in Montana before he spends time with Pinder in the Bahamas. At one point he asks Pinder straight out: “What was your mission out there, aside from catching fish?” Pinder answers, “Normally when I get out there on the water I start to think about my soul.” He uses the word, Dombrowski tells us, without a shred of self-consciousness. Then he goes on, “The fishing was a way of getting people to feel more than the fish on the end of their line. The guests were always much more educated than I am but they had misunderstood some of the principles of their life.”
As it happens, while reading Dombrowski’s Body of Water, I heard Terry Gross interview Jonathan Balcombe about his new book, What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins.
His reason for publishing What a Fish Knows is clear: “To date […] no book has been written on behalf of fish,” he writes,
Their place in human culture falls almost universally into two entwined contexts: (1) something to be caught, and (2) something to be eaten. Hooking and yanking them from the water has not just been seen as benign but as a symbol of all that’s good about life.
The book is separated into seven parts: “The Misunderstood Fish,” “What a Fish Perceives,” “What a Fish Feels,” “What a Fish Thinks,” “Who a Fish Knows,” “How a Fish Breeds,” and “Fish Out of Water.” Balcombe’s mission is to change our attitudes. For instance, about sport fishing he asks:
Is angling really so benign? I doubt the fishes think so. Being hooked through the mouth (or worse) and forcibly transferred into an environment that causes suffocation certainly doesn’t sound like something any of us would choose for an afternoon of peaceful recreation.
Unlike my own first experience of fishing, Balcombe’s first time, at age eight at summer camp, was unsettling. “[A]s a sensitive boy with a soft spot for animals,” he writes in his prologue,
I was disturbed by a lot of what went on in that rowboat. I worried privately about the worms. I fretted that the fish felt pain as the stubborn hook was extracted from their bony, staring faces.
Balcombe is the director of animal sentience at the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy; when he speaks and writes about our relationship to fish he sounds like their patron saint. In a fascinating chapter on the “Social Contracts” between fishes (he prefers the plural to emphasize the individuality of different species), Balcombe explains that “[g]iven creatures with personalities, memories, and the ability to recognize one another as individuals over time, the stage is set for a more sophisticated form of interaction: the long-term social contract.” For example, groupers will line up “to be cleaned.” These fish have learned to wait their turn while other species, “cleanerfish,” nibble small encrusted organisms from their scales. To start, Balcombe writes, “A cleaner will sometimes butt her snout against fins and gill covers to signal the client to spread them for inspection.” As for the clients: They are not “passive participants. When it is their turn, they approach the cleaning station and hover in place, spreading their fins to help cleaners reach all the nooks and crannies.” Balcombe goes on to demonstrate that “the cleaner-client symbiosis of fishes […] is one of the most complex and sophisticated social systems of any animals — not just fishes.”
When I eat fish, it’s the wild Alaskan salmon my brother Tony and his sons catch on their fishing vessel, the “F/V Antonie,” during summers in southeast Alaska. My husband, who grew up in an Italian Mediterranean town, hated fish until he tried Tony’s king, coho, chum, and sockeye. My brother is a single father. His business, a family-centered fishery, is called MojoCoho Inc., and it’s through time on the water with him that my nephews have learned what our mother taught us years ago: if you eat meat or fish, you have to be able to do the killing yourself. When I was a kid, she used to stop me at the grocery counter in front of the steaks and fillets sitting on Styrofoam and ice.
“Never forget that this comes from a once-live animal,” she’d say, pointing her finger first at the meat and the fish, then at me. “It doesn’t appear here suddenly wrapped in plastic.” For me, the idea of catching a fish for anything other than eating seems odd and cruel. Otherwise, though, fishing is part of my family story and my coming of age.
But Balcombe has touched a nerve in me. It’s not just the harm done to fish, even — as described so beautifully by Dombrowski — in a sport that emphasizes catch and release to keep them alive. (Any practice, however spiritual, that involves harming another creature seems somehow perverse no matter what kind of serenity or insight it affords the humans involved.) I’m also beginning to be uncomfortable with my own stance: how is it that the sport, which spares the fish, bothers me more than killing them for food? Together, these books, written on behalf of fishes and fisherman, ask us to think hard about behaviors we find necessary to body and soul.
Back in my canoe all those decades ago, I land my fish: she emerges bright reddish-orange from the dark blue water, a rockfish of a size I can keep. I bring her over the gunnel, into the bottom of the boat. I’m positive my fish is a girl, the way boats are girls and islands are girls and I am a girl. She flops twice, and I grab my dad’s club, which I’ve borrowed for just this purpose. He calls the 10-inch long tool “the priest” because it gives the last rites. The end of the club unscrews to reveal a knife inside, which I’ll use to clean the fish once I get back to shore.
I bash her head two times in quick succession so she won’t continue to suffer. I don’t hold her, only because I don’t want to touch the spines on her dorsal fin and prick my fingers. I would not describe my excitement as a sense of dominion over nature; even at the time I know it for a quieter feeling, part communion, part awe, and part pride, of course, in having caught my own dinner. But the truth — no way to pretend I don’t understand this now — is that whether we are seeking spiritual or physical sustenance, fishing for sport or fishing for food, our individual actions have consequences we cannot afford to dismiss or ignore.