It's about fly-fishing. And life. And spiritual practice. And just about anything and everything.
Reading Duncan makes me want to believe in reincarnation so I can come back and be able to write like him. He's got, well, a way with words. Not to mention fishing.
He was born in Portland and grew up here in Oregon. There are lots of other fly fishing maniacs in the state, one of whom is in my Tai Chi class. I'm not one of them, even a catch and release kind, which I gather is the usual fly-fishing modus operandi. But I've spent many hours walking along the banks of the Metolius River, a fly fisherperson's Mecca, and appreciate the lure of this activity.
Which usually is a solitary pursuit. Mostly I see a man (or woman, occasionally) standing in the water by himself, in waders, intently casting. Sometimes I wave to them. Rarely do they wave back. Too focused on their art, seemingly.
Duncan doesn't see much reason to rely on a guide. Nor do I, not now. I used to. But like Duncan, I've come to appreciate that a spiritual guru can be as distracting as a fly-fishing guru when it comes to communing with whatever is communable. He writes:
My reservations about the average fly-fishing guide are a lot like my reservations about the average spiritual guru. Both can be highly entertaining. Both can also be any of several types of idiot. Both usually charge for their services in either case. Why risk rewarding idiocy in hope of a little guidance?
…The average guide mediates so relentlessly between you and your fishing that it feels as if you and the river are divorcing and trying to split up the property. The average guide plants an invisible ego-flag on every fish you catch, as if he were a mountaineer, the fish were the summit, and your stupidity were Mount Everest.
…Fly-fishing guides accept payment in order to help clients circumvent their ignorance. But ignorance is one of the most crucial pieces of equipment any fly fisher will ever own. Ignorance is a fertile but unplanted interior field. Solitary fly fishing isolates us in this field, and leaves no choice but to try to cultivate and plant and grow things in it.
A guide, on the other hand, is like a hired farmer who, for a price, drives his tractor into your interior and plants your field for you. When the two of you are finished, he may know what's growing inside you. But you sure as hell won't. Fly-fishing guides turn clients into the absentee landlords of their own interiors.
I like Duncan's style. Irreverent and sacred at the same time. It's just that he'd rather worship in a river rather than a church.
Yes, I realize there's something a bit incongruous about looking upon Duncan as a guide to guidelessness. But there's a large difference between guides who advise "You don't need me, or anyone else, to show you what to do and where to go," and guides who want you to latch on to them with their promise of Great Things.
These are remote possibilities. Far, far less remote is the possibility that at day's end you'll be handing your guide three hundred bucks, shaking his hand, and biting your tongue as you fight the urge to say, "Thanks that the insects you said wouldn't bit did, while the fish you said would, didn't.