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for people who care about the West

If only binoculars were cool

 

I've been a bird-watcher since I was a kid. Or to put it another way: Since I was a kid, I have not been cool. For the most part, that stopped bothering me a long time ago. Still, every now and then, I feel it. This happened recently when I got a close-up look at the epitome of outdoor cool: the literary fly-fisherman.

This spring, my hometown of Ashland, Ore., sponsored a "Community Reads" event. The idea was to get everyone to read and talk about the same book at once. It's a wonderful idea, and the library system chose a wonderful novel, The River Why, by David James Duncan. For those who don't know the book, go out right now and buy it. It is a moving coming-of-age story, the story of Gus Orviston, whose consuming passion is fly-fishing for trout in the wild, fragile streams of Oregon.

The River Why stands in the distinguished literary tradition that takes fly-fishing as a metaphor for life. Other well-known examples are the Nick Adams stories of Ernest Hemingway; A River Runs Through It, by Norman MacLean; and The Sky Fisherman, by Craig Lesley. Their often doomed heroes personify grace, skill and a manly love for the natural world. There's no doubt about it: Fly-fishermen are extremely cool.

This was brought home as I sat in the rapt audience and listened to Duncan himself give a reading from The River Why and his other books. Duncan was as cool as his protagonist — funny, emotionally honest and effortlessly elegant in his writer's blacks. And yes, he is a passionate fly-fisherman, and lives on a trout stream in Montana.

So, there it was again. My uncoolness as a bird watcher, stark and undeniable. Could part of the problem be that birders like myself lack literary role-models? The literature is thin. Sure, there is Terry Tempest Williams's magnificent Refuge, a book that elevates the watching of birds into a journey of emotional discovery. But more typical are self-deprecating memoirs like Tales of a Low-Rent Birder by Pete Dunne, in which the very uncoolness of birding is part of the fun. And I don't know of any novelist who has taken birding as a metaphor for life. The Great American Birding Novel has yet to be written.

I understand that the cool of birding is, literarily speaking, a tough sell. For starters, physical skill plays a big part in cool, whether it describes fly-fishing, jazz saxophone playing, or slam-dunking. The skill required to make a perfect cast, placing a dry fly just in front of the nose of a big trout in an alder-rimmed pool, is undeniable. Add to this that trout are profoundly mysterious and can be caught only by one with an almost spiritual connection to the fish. Birds, in contrast, are everywhere; there's probably one visible outside your window right now. How hard can it be to watch them?

Then there's the fact that fly-fishermen get to choose between the roles of predator and environmental saint; and both are cool. A trout fisherman can eat what he catches or release it, showing mercy and advanced consciousness. It's a win-win. All a birder can do it check off his bird on a list — an inescapably nerdy activity — or choose not to do so, in which case he's left with nothing at all. Finally, where's the danger? After all, there's always the chance that a fisherman might drown. This possibility comes up with remarkable frequency in the literature of fly-fishing, adding pathos to the tales of these difficult young men. But danger in bird-watching? Please.

As I said, most of the time I'm fine with being uncool. I long ago learned to ignore the amused stares of passers-by when I break out my binoculars to get a good look at the warblers in the park. Still, I can't help but feel that literary artistry could go a long way toward elevating humble birders like me into the rarified realms of cool now reserved for fly-fishermen. Maybe something like...

...With a practiced motion, Brent lifted his binoculars, his index finger rotating the focus ring even as the superb German optics rose toward his eyes. Graceful as a dancer, he crouched slightly and directed his lenses through the trembling aspen leaves, at the exact moment that the wildly crying woodpecker, its heart-stopping swoop-and-rise complete, alighted upon the sun-dappled trunk. It was a Williamson's sapsucker, 50 grams of feathered freedom ...

Oh, never mind.

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is writer and lifelong bird guy who lives in Ashland, Oregon.