Column: I fish, therefore I am: angling for anwers to life’s big questions

Great Outdoors by James Murray

Over the years I have spent many an hour sitting in a 12-foot aluminum boat, casting a line and pondering the true meaning of life.

I have philosophized and wondered, soul searched and asked questions out loud and, after 70-plus years, I am no closer to an answer than I was when I first asked myself the simple question: “Why am I here – in fact, why are any of us here?”

René Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician who sought to apply both mathematics and logic in order to attain an understanding of the natural world, once decreed “I fish, therefore I am,” or something to that effect. I sometimes wonder if scholars have perhaps not read a bit too much into his statement. I leave that for greater minds than my own.

Emmanuel Kant, though not ever described as an avid angler, was certainly known to have raised a glass of ale or two with a number of his contemporary Left Bank thinkers, writers and anglers of the day – including a young Ernest Hemingway. It is a little known fact that Friedrich Nietzsche was a charter member of several fairly prestigious European fly fishing clubs. However, his name was scratched from their records due to the fact he was twice arrested and charged with poaching. He was able to avoid incarceration by declaring in front of the judge he had not been fishing for the sole purpose of catching fish, but rather because the need to experience catching fish is, in essence, the very heart and soul and lifeblood of the human condition. Not a bad defense if you ask me.

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Even Jean-Paul Sartre, who apparently had a reputation for being somewhat contemptuous of elitist anglers and their fly-fishing fraternities, was seen on more than one occasion rowing a rather delapitated old lapstrake dory while trolling a line and bobber with a glob of worms on the end of it.

Yes, it would seem many modern-day philosophers, writers and contemporary thinkers have been anglers – with the existentialist being inclined towards dry fly-fishing and the pragmatists leaning more towards the old worm and bobber.

If I am not mistaken, it was while fishing a small mountain stream that Marx came up with the notion that in a truly classless society, everyone should have equal opportunity to fish the best fishing holes on all the streams with the best reputations. He had apparently always felt a deep resentment of the fact only the rich seemed to always have better gear and access to private waters. (I am not altogether certain though as to whether it was Karl or Groucho who came up with that particular treatise.)

My point is there is a certain philosophical bent to the idea of sitting out in a boat or standing on the banks of a stream, observing the wonders of nature around you and pondering just where any of us fits into the whole of time, eternity and the cosmos. Angling and philosophy are somewhat alike in the sense they both reward patience, so perhaps a more proper question might be why do we (anglers) spend so much time fishing when we could just as easily go to the store and buy a fish?

When it comes right down to it, I don’t really have much of a philosophy on life or anything else for that matter. I’m more or less just trying to get through life one day at a time.I probably stopped being philosophical when I realized everything works out in the end – one way or the other. As far as I can see, advocating any given philosophy only seems to complicate things.

I did, however, spend a very nice afternoon last fall sitting out in the boat with my friend Cory discussing the literary works of such well known philosophers and anglers as the French writer and fly fisherman Albert Camus, sixties poet Richard Brautigan (who wrote Trout Fishing in America) and Noam Chomsky, whose philosophical perspectives on contemporary issues include both anti-establishmentarianism, and, catch and release.

We managed to while away a number of hours when the fish weren’t biting, talking, drinking some sort of organic fruit drinks and eating deli sandwiches and, as I recall, at the end of the day we concluded Nietzsche was right – fishing is indeed the heart and soul and lifeblood of the human condition.

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