Thursday, May 30, 2013

In Defence of Izaak Walton - The Compleat Angler

In Defence of Izaak Walton – The patron saint of fishermen

I know you have heard of it, and I know you have not read it.  And what you heard about it can be summarized by one quote you know very well. "Izaak Walton is not a respectable writer.  He was an Episcopalian and a bait fisherman."

Forget that.  The The Compleat Angler has as much to do about fishing as The Old Man in the Sea.  Its a book about how to live, about sitting in the shade next to a trout stream, giving fish to milkmaids and getting songs in return, and spending many, many hours in pub, drinking beer, eating trout poached in wine, and trading fishing stories, and half baked theories  on fishing.  How can you not like a book like that?

Look, when Walton wrote this book England was in the middle of the English Civil War between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians.   King Charles I (Royalist) was beheaded in beheaded in 1649, Oliver Cromwell (Leader of the Parliamentarians,  Lord Protector of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland ) lead what could be called a genocide against Catholics in Scotland and Ireland and died of natural causes in 1658, but when the  royalists eventually returned to power in 1660, they had Cromwell's body dug up, hung, and his head put on a stake.

And what was Walton’s response to this in The Compleat Angler?
"I will walk the meadows, by some gliding stream, and there contemplate the lilies that take no care"
Walton was a voice calling out saying that maybe we all would be better off fishing.  That’s it.  Go fishing.

He knew the power of a stream, how you have to look and lose yourself in it.  Have you ever noticed that when you are in a car traveling 60 miles per hour and you come to a bridge you have to look at a river, or a stream, or a cesspool as you cross it?  You stop talking as you contemplate the water and any fish that live in it.  At the same time your car mate just keeps staring straight ahead, yapping about the sale on khakis at the Gap. Walton felt the same thing 350 years ago:
"rivers and the inhabitants of the watery element were made for wise men to contemplate, and fools to pass by without consideration"
Most of The Compleat Angler speaks about fishing, of course, but i think Izaak Walton placed more emphasis on why to go fishing (philosophy), than how to go fishing (science).  More observations about fish than how to catch them. For example he reflects on the relationship between pike and some frogs.   Apparently there is great animosity between the two species.    He retells a story where a frog leapt onto a pikes head while the pike was peacefully bathing in the sun in Bohemia.  The frog held on tight, biting the pikes eyes while the pike rolled and dived, trying to rid himself of the frog...
"but all in vain, for the frog did continue to ride triumphantly, and to bite and torment the Pike till his strength failed" 
Eventually the pike dove deep, and
"then presently the frog appeared again at the top, and croaked, and seemed to rejoice like a conqueror,"
The pike was later caught, eyes missing.

In the end, The Compleat Angler is more about how to lead a simple, quiet life.  About spending more time with a rod in your hand instead of a keyboard and a mouse.  It's as if Henry David Thoreau had a fishing rod, and spent most of his time not in the woods or in a cabin but on the side of a stream in the day, and having a ale in the evening.  
"be quiet; and go a Angling. Study to be quiet."