Lately, I have appreciated David Quammen’s trout thoughts. Quammen, whose career took off with the popularity of his Natural Acts column in Outside Magazine, moved to Montana for the trout. He has a lot to say on the topic of trout, such as in “Synecdoche and the Trout,” an essay included in Wild Thoughts from Wild Places. When he was fresh out of graduate school, Quammen writes, “Trout were the indicator species for a place and a life I was seeking.” These days, I am trying to write about trout, to write my way into a story about trout in the Southwest, about native trout species in Arizona and New Mexico specifically. I have no idea how to fish, mind you, and am not entirely confident I could pick a trout out of a game fish lineup, although I am working on it. This glimpse through the eyes of a man who loves trout – who loves them as synecdoche, part and symbol of a place and way of being – has been immeasurably helpful as I study the strange connections between human and fish.
But what especially catch my eye these days are Quammen’s asides, the places where trout swim to the surface of his thoughts unbidden – in an essay about mountain lion hunting, say, or a chapter on komodo dragons. In such moments, the trout are Quammen’s way in. Quammen translates lion-speak and komodo-speak into trout-speak, not his mother tongue perhaps, but a language in which he is fluent. In “So Huge a Bignes,” a chapter of The Song of the Dodo, Quammen compares the egregious overestimation of komodo dragon length by researchers – in one case, biologists guessed a komodo to be four feet longer than it actually was – to what happens when an angler tries to recall the size of a fish. “Trout fishermen are familiar with that phenomenon. When an animal is vividly impressive – struggling and leaping at the end of a line, say, or ripping apart a water buffalo with its teeth – it assumes a certain enhanced bigness, which mysteriously dissipates as soon as the contextual terms change and a tape measure is brought into play. The twenty-three-foot komodo is the one that got away.”
Yes, I think. Quammen is right in his approach. And then – what is my way into the story of trout? It is not, obviously, trout. What are the metaphors with which I make sense of things stirred up in men and women by the thought of these cold-water fish? I remember the passage from “Eat of This Flesh,” where Quammen is trying to bridge an ethical distance between lion hunters and himself. One doctor from a small town in Montana recalls to Quammen the moment when he first saw a lion, before ever trying to hunt one, and how the moment moved him to somehow interact, as he put it, with the cats. “His interactions took the form of hunting, and though that leap of logic may seem perverse and paradoxical, I can’t dismiss it as nonsense, because I remember a similar weird logic in my own feelings about trout,” writes Quammen. “When I first became familiar with wild trout in mountain rivers, they seemed so exquisitely gorgeous, so thrilling, so magically animate, that I wanted to interact—yes, exactly the right word, vague but candid—with them somehow. I wanted to participate in the darting, lambent dynamics of their lives within their environment.”
I remember what I said to a bemused writer friend when I first started researching trout. I was interested in Gila trout specifically. “I want to see a live Gila – I want to see one, to try fishing, to catch one, to eat one!” To appreciate the synecdoche as part and whole. Never mind that wild Gilas are nowhere to be found in a bikeable distance of my university neighborhood home in Tucson. I have mentioned already that I do not know how to fish; now might also be a good time to mention I became vegetarian 21 years ago. But this is how I learn the names of plants when I botanize in the desert, a much more familiar activity to me: I never feel I know a plant until I've touched its surface, observed its colors, and sometimes, chewed and swallowed one or two specimens. How I know plants is how my mind wants to know trout.
But Quammen’s essayistic asides about trout do more for me than provide examples of using prior knowledge to bridge distances in understanding. Quammen’s use of such trouty musings reminds me of how he defines research. “The researching and writing of a piece is always an experience of discovery, challenging what you think you know and what you feel you believe,” Quammen said in a 2008 interview with Terrain.org founding editor Simmons Buntin. “If it isn't, you're in a rut, working too formulaically on subjects that are too comfy and safe.” In other words, if no trout (or plant, or other familiarity) swirls into the imagery of an essay, if there is no need for it, perhaps the essay isn’t doing enough.
Quammen wrote “Eat of This Flesh” after a mountain lion hunter (the Montana doctor mentioned above) objected to what Quammen recalls as “some shoot-from-the-hip sarcasm on the subject of mountain lion hunting” in an essay for Outside that was reprinted by the Montana Wilderness Association. Quammen took the reader’s angry response as an opportunity to explore the topic of mountain lion hunting from an angle that made him uncomfortable. In “Eat of This Flesh,” Quammen invokes trout to connect with someone whose world view seems, on the surface at least, completely at odds with his own. The trout are a symbol of Quammen’s willingness – desire, even – to find his way into the story of Man Who Hunts Mountain Lions. “This is not a retraction,” Quammen writes, “…but it is an admission of incompleteness.” He pushes the research and himself. He meets up with the hunter; he accompanies him on a lion-tracking trip; he tries, at least, to hear him out.
So when I write about fish, it will be with Quammen’s trout in mind. Is there something about how I came to understand and connect with plants as a botanist that will guide how I now investigate fish, the way that Quammen’s trout fishing informs so much of his writing? The urge to start in a place of familiarity – a fish, a lure, water slapping boat – then write a way into a new and disconcerting reality – that is what I’m learning from Quammen’s trout moves these days. As for making a meal of this endeavor: I don’t know if I will get my trout, but Quammen? He goes there. He does the work. He casts his line; he eats some mountain lion.