Fly fishing is a duality of hunger: the hunger of the fisherman trying to deceive the hunger of the trout by means approaching but not superseding art, grace, delicacy, and a set of fairly arbitrary aesthetics based on a synthetic rivalry instead of true hunger. We humans hunger for our own true life but we also hunger for a release from life, that’s our duality. Hunger is not to be confused with emptiness though, as the former is not a result of the latter any more than passion is the result of love.
I hunger for adventure, for a 32” rainbow trout caught this spring on the Brule River, for a change of location every few months, for intimacy and trust, for contentment and peace, for fresh venison and wild rice, for a decent cup of coffee at a decent price, and for many other things I can’t seem to find on the menu of life. The things we crave and need the most are those things which we have little or no control over, like trout and love. When a heart is hungry it gets distended, unpredictable, unstable, malnourished just like your confidence watching your flies drifting aimlessly over water that you only assume holds a chrome steelhead. In both cases the remedy is so simple as to make a heart ache even more- a simple take, a hello, a primal welcoming of you into their life and vise versa, however brief that time may be. If that is too much then a passing how’s it going, a false rise, a smile or a “xoxo” if writing or speaking is too laborious will suffice. A hungry heart is a frozen lake, a frozen raven pulling a frozen silhouette like a kite across the Earth.
A season away from open water the frozen raven makes wide lazy laps overhead filling the chilled Maine woods with his metallic wood block “Toc- Toc” call. Underfoot the uncomfortable and uneasy sheet of ice makes similar noises to that of the raven, similar sometimes to a pod of blue whales, sometimes closer to the unexpected sharpness of cannon fire, other times complaining like a hungry stomach. The raven and the ice are hungry like us humans who walk between the frozen air above and the frozen water below. All Nature is hungry, the same hunger gnaws away at us as it does to all life; the cause of death is hunger, the cause of life is the same.
The raven craves for the sound of his own staccato Toc- Toc echoing through silent stands of mast- worthy white pines and off of lichen graffitied granite cliffs, for the feel of warm rabbit under foot, and for the space to free wheel and dive in an ever filling sky. The ice is hungry too, addicted to the same cold that will destroy it if gluttony rules over moderation, cracking under heavy compression and emitting resounding reports into the frozen air. The ice knows spring will ease the pain, the raven knows the same. We nomadic humans don’t feel that same sense of optimism since game is scarcer than it used to be before we knew this new hunger. The hunger has grown in all of us, we just chose different ways of placating the pain.
We 7 humans walking between the ice and air hunger for our daily bread as we pull 8 foot long loaded toboggans over the ice, ice left bare from cold rain and wind 9 days prior. Calories are short in the winter for all life. Breakfast is burned off before lunch, lunch long before dinner, and dinner well before breakfast leaving one cold and curled even under the warmest blanket or fur. A wise one sleeps with calories within arms reach, in one’s blankets, under your pillow just as it is wise to sleep with your love close at night lest the fire burn low and chill the air between us.
Our hunger is for the warmth only our muscles can make. In order to live we consume calories, ourselves, and others. The human body makes heat as a lumber mill produces steam: as a result of industry, but that metabolic heat starts to lose the battle against the cold around 85 degrees, assuming we are naked and still. Clothes fight off the long fingers of the cold to a point, keeping our frail little tropical bodies surrounded by an artificial tropical environment, but the deep cold requires action and action requires calories. 5000 calories or more a day can be hard to get down but might be necessary to stay warm and to keep body and soul together. Fat is added to all food as a seasoning, as a condiment with reckless abandon- a pound in morning oats, golf ball size lumps on bread and replacing milk in coffee. In times of starvation one gets reckless with life.
The cold too hungers, consuming sound left over from what the wind leaves behind like a lean coyote sneaking off with the dregs of a wolf killed moose. The colder the air the hungrier it gets for sound. As the temperature falls our footfalls change from whumph to crunch to squeak as the water is drained from the snowpack. The deep cold is a drain, a black hole into which life pours. I have been in the Wild on nights when the air temperature was -40 with wind chills at -60. Nothing moves. No sounds exists. The light from the stars hurts like cold water on bare skin. Smoke from a wood stove languishes and dies. Firewood piles become memories. Voices hush. Life on the edge of a black hole is intimate. Small. Fragile.
As the cold descends further our minds wander as our flesh stiffens, changes color and our vein- coursing sap thickens like motor oil. In the gelid little hours of the night trees crack and burst open scars as their blood freezes and all water gels to a slow syrup, then motionless paste, and finally into a solid, immobile medium. We too burst open and explode into the dark cold, making scars on the landscape, filling the night with a shower of sparks that bounce off oxygen deprived black ice and fall through where spring water seeps from the steamy core of the Earth. Where the otter has kept the ice open we emerge frozen from the water, propelled by the thought of reaching the sun 92 million miles away. Further out we fly, our colors changing like the colors of the stars from red to orange to white and finally to a blue that matches the sheen on the raven’s covert feathers. Once under wing we circle our territory looking for our shadows, chasing sparks from the wood stove, fly to and open the canvas tent doors and emerge inside as cold and hungry humans ready for some time with our numb feet on warm ground.
We invite the raven in for some tea but he explodes into a ball of fire ranging from red to white and laughs at his new found warmth as he leaves his mark on the southern sky in the form of a highly imaginative constellation. Stepping out of the tent in human form we move in slow motion into the mist of a frozen life, into suspended reality in the cold reaches of space looking for our little warm bubble of life in a black landscape. We hear the voices of long frozen humans muttering about dog sleds in the forest behind our tents and the gee and haw of mushers, smell 12 dogs panting whose frozen breath fills the air between our tent and the hungry cold so we decide to go inside to get away from what is obviously the first stages of hypothermia.
Leaving the tent at night is like leaving a lunar craft, the inhabitability is palatable, the end is nigh, you are left hungering for warmth, company and a hot cup of tea. Goodnight raven, see you in the brittle morning sky where border patrol planes grudgingly chug along choking on the thin cold air looking for, well, we never figured out what they were looking for at -60 Fahrenheit, all we could see was frozen water in about 6 different forms.
Like a palmed reel slowing a running trout, water is palmed by the cold, ceasing it’s wild run, hook in mouth and fear in heart. Our motions mimic those of water as we face the deep cold; motion and fingers move from fluid to thick to solid. Can’t touch pinky finger to thumb? Time to light a fire. Can’t talk without mumbling, walk without stumbling, hold without fumbling? Time to light a fire. We are about 60% water and none of that can be ice. The cold gets hungry for ice and we are on the menu, so is the otter which shows us where there is thin ice, the coyote who shows us where there is thick ice, and the raven who shows us nothing but his slate underbelly and amorphous shadows draping like a scarf across the landscape.
At those times when winter is at it’s hungriest, the best we can do is hunker down, eat warm food, drink hot beverages, keep the stove rolling and give each other the gift of humanity in a landscape so seemingly intent on consuming life. Sitting like radial spokes of a wheel, we lounge in the comfort of a warm canvas pyramid tent, telling bad jokes, sharing our life’s stories with as little truth as possible and eating until we are giddy with discomfort. Cedar logs are reduced to piles of shavings and a half dozen spoons are created, tools made to defeat the cold. The first- time spoon carvers marvel at the smell of fresh cut cedar, at the difficulty of carving a concave surface with a flat blade knife and at how our culture doesn’t appreciate a tool as simple yet important as a spoon.
It is not so easy to satisfy a hungry life as it is to keep the voracious cold at bay, so like frozen ravens we circle looking for our graphite silhouettes amid the ice pack and pains of remembered famines. Hunger is never fed alone no matter how empty the sky we fly in just as a river is never empty of trout even though it’s surface foretells of no life below. Have faith, they’re in there says the man with a full creel. Keep better company that trout and ravens says the man with a computer warming his bed instead of the warm heart beating angrily now 702 miles away, sorry, hunger makes for a poor companion. We humans are built for this famine, it’s worn into our genes like deer hide shoes troughing out a canoe portage into granite, so worry not brother raven, you will find your voice the same as how all trout will get caught by a well tied dry fly, all ice shall melt under a blue sky, and all hungry hearts will find their fill of life, love and whatever else your little heart yearns for.