I’ve been known to mail a book every so often to a friend, hoping they would catch the joy or humor or delight that I experienced reading its pages, but its much more wonderful to receive a book, out of the blue; its like the thrill of a sudden hit at the end of your fishing line. I got such a hit recently when I opened that ubiquitously familiar padded envelop and pulled out a copy of “Surfcaster’s Quest”, by Roy Rowan, sent to me by a friend who has been savagely bitten by the fishing bug.
The quote on the back of the book was enticing, “Anyone who has never battled a bull bass on a beach may not understand the instinctual strand that binds humankind and fish.” Great quote, topped only by the subtitle , “Seeking Stripers, Blue, and Solitude at the Edge of the Surging Sea”. I’m in… hook, line and sinker.
A quick read, which made me wish to grab my shamefully unused surf pole and drive to the shore immediately with its simple descriptions of standing in the surf casing out to the endless sea and more often than not walking home empty handed. But that is the point, says Rowan. You’re not going to reel in prize longsides with every cast and sometimes you don’t want to.
I grew up fishing the Ramapo River in NJ angling for freshly stocked Rainbow Trout, so I was a bit insulted when Rowan poo-pooed the plight of the freshwater fisherman. His spiel is that the surfcaster is a far heartier and a more adventurous and weathered soul who can exist for hours waist deep in the turbulent seas nourished only by the sand, sky, beef jerky and Slim Jim’s. They cast out into the vast unknown each time, unlike the river fisher who more often than not knows the particular bend or mud hole in the river and can actually see what lurks beneath. Not untrue, save for the fact we timid trout hunters can also exist on Slim Jim’s.. if someone opens them for us.
Rowan is a fairly known guy, a writer, editor and correspondent of some renown, so I was a bit surprised by the flatness of this writing. I chalked it up to his extensive, international reporting background and kept in mind the spirit of Hemmingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” and how that was written as I read this sometimes plodding and uninspired text.
I was also quite baffled by the chose of quotes at the start of each chapter. I love reading a great quote to tee off a narrative. I just finished Shoshana Zuboff’s “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” which prefaced each chapter of this massive tome with a section of the sonnet from W. H. Auden’s “In the Time of War”. Not only were these lines in and of themselves meaningful, but they perfectly set up the context or imagery of the following ideas. Rowan used such cliched bits from Shakespeare or Huckleberry Finn, or quoted other authors of fishing books that did nothing but make me wish I was reading them instead.
There were a few good morsels of facts and other flotsam that did keep things interesting. He told of ice fisherman in Siberia who needed to thaw out the worms in their mouths before placing on their hooks, and of early Colonial times where men would sweep the sandy beach with magnets to gather the iron pilings that the surf washed up – is that really what the tiny black specs are in the sand?
Make no mistake, Rowan set out to explain his soul and its impetus to get out there to face the void day after day and got there with great moments of Zen with passages like:
“I sometimes play a little game of trying to determine how many telltale sign of various hidden creatures I can find. I look for the scribblings in the sand left by a starfish, a hole bored by a fiddler crab, the squirt from a buried clam, or the slightly exposed edge of a sand dollar.”
Rowan waxes poetic of all geologic time captured in the markings of the beach at low time; but also the inevitable sense of humankind’s fleeting existence and the planet’s continued evolution. He did pick a quote from Rachel Carson to better capture and express his feelings “When we go down to the low tide line we enter a world that is as old as the world itself – a primeval meeting place of the elements of earth and water, a place of compromise and conflict and eternal change.”
This is nice, and the book was nice, but I’ll do them both one better and quote Neil Peart from “Natural Sciences”, for yes, it always comes back to Rush:
“When the ebbing tide retreats
Along the rocky shoreline
It leaves a trail of tidal pools
In a short-lived galaxy
Each microcosmic planet
A complete society
Wave after wave will flow with the tide
And bury the world as it does
Tide after tide will flow and recede
Leaving life to go on as it was…”