Tag Archives: fish

One, Two, Three, Brim

Jerry fishing for brim

Mary Rowell and I have been talking about putting together a band for a while now, and we spent a few days together at Montalvo in late March developing more rep for that project. Along with new work that’s still in progress, we made new versions of It Happens Like This, which you can listen to here, and Landscaping for Privacy, which I will post soon as well.

On Good Friday, when H. C. Porter and I were wandering around the almost-ghost-town of Rodney, we came upon a man named Jerry, who was fishing in the swamp on the edge of town. The water in Rodney is even higher than it was around Thanksgiving, when Mary and I visited there the first time. The river has moved about three miles west of where it was during the Civil War, orphaning the town in the woods. You can’t actually get to the river without a boat, because the intervening land is flooded most of the year.

Jerry is one of very few residents of Rodney — there are perhaps three families actually living here — and he lives off the land. While we watched, he was catching brim at the rate of about one a minute: hooking a worm, throwing in his line, pausing a moment, pulling the next fish in, taking it off the hook, and beginning the cycle again. Some guys we met later in the day told us that they had asked Jerry how many fish he caught and the answer was “Brim.” Jerry is a man of very few words, and it is possible he was answering a different question — what kind? rather than how many? — but of course the bucket was indeed full. Jerry was on his way to Lorman, walking the ten miles of back roads as he does several times a week to sell his fish at the market in town.

Mary and I have agreed that the name of our new band is Brim.

Jerry on his way

Bayou Farewell


Several months ago the composer (and Louisiana native) Frank Ticheli recommended I read Mike Tidwell’s 2003 book Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast. I strongly recommend it to all of you in turn: it is a beautifully written and distressing eyewitness account of what’s happening to the wetlands of Louisiana. Here are a few clippings I copied out, but the whole book is better, lots of wonderful character sketches and a real feel for the region:

Commercial fishermen are more likely to be maimed or killed on the job than any other profession in America. The work is more dangerous than coal mining, being a cop, or parachuting from planes to fight forest fires. (p. 25)


The marsh is disappearing at a rate of 25 square miles per year. “Dere won’t be no more nothin’ left anymore, forever.” (p. 58)


The total number of birds detected by radar crossing the Gulf of Mexico each year has decreased by half within the last twenty years. (p. 62)


For help [getting out of the big ocean and into the estuarine coastal marshes], the infant crustaceans, roughly the length and width of grains of rice, turn to a spherical body 92 million miles away in outer space, a G2 dwarf star otherwise know as our sun. Twice a month this fiery body of hydrogen gas nearly a million miles in diameter joins forces with the earth’s moon, a mere 238,000 miles away, to create a combined gravitational and centrifugal force of enormous power. This force generates ocean tides on earth — so-called spring tides — which are much greater than the tides occurring daily throughout the rest of the month. Every two weeks, when the moon shows itself to the earth either as a barely visible new moon or as a blazing full moon, the phenomenon is at work: the moon and the sun have fallen into a straight line relative to the earth, reinforcing each other’s gravitational tug, pulling the earth’s oceans into two bulging masses of liquid on opposite sides of the globe. These fantastic waves, these great heaping ridges of water, are brought into collision with the earth’s landmasses twice a day as the planet rotates. this, in the simplest terms, is how tides happen, and spring tides are the bimonthly champions. So strong is the combined pull of the sun and moon during this period that even the earth’s atmosphere bends outward and parts of the continents bulge ever so slightly. (p. 144)


Among many of the fishermen whose support is critical, virtually any form of ambitious government action is seen as synonymous with the whole sorry history of state corruption and the Army Corps’s incompetence. (p. 161)


If nothing else, my time in the bayous has made me conscious–acutely so–of just how great the Mississippi’s influence is everywhere you turn, all across lower Louisiana, its presence felt even hundreds of miles from its actual course. It’s a river which, one way or another, is always calling the shots. Always.

Which is why you can never quite get it out of your mind. (p. 184)


“When God created the world,” a bayou priest once told me, grinning, “he accidentally made the Mississippi more powerful than he intended, then found his mistake too powerful to correct.” (p. 216)


If you want to see what will consume the energies of Miami and New York, Shanghai and Bombay, fifty years from now, come to Louisiana today. The future really is here. (p. 326)

gars and gambling


This morning I finally left dear David and Shawna, who have been so so wonderful to hang out with, and tearfully bid adieu to my fuzzy bedmate Fred, and started heading south out of Memphis on the east side of the river this time. At Tunica I saw signs for a riverpark, so I turned off and drove over to the river, where this multi-million-dollar facility sits right on the river’s edge. Clearly, casino revenues are allowing all sorts of things to flourish in Tunica! But before I could even get to the door of the museum, a gentleman on a golf cart rode up and offered to buy me lunch and show me around. I’m definitely beginning to understand what is meant by Southern hospitality! Craig, who was the Construction Supervisor of the park but is now its unofficial mayor, took me over to the Hollywood Cafe, a great place nearby, (mentioned in the song Walking in Memphis,) where he showed me pictures of his carpentry and woodworking, and told me many excellent stories about Tunica and environs. Then he took me back to the grounds of the park, where they have built miles of wooden bridges for walking through the bottomlands, although the water is high enough now that portions of the bridges are impassable. It’s a wonderful place, one of the few I’ve come across that makes it easy to explore the river side of the levees from the land. Other than boat launches, there isn’t much chance of that.

Here is one of Craig’s stories, just to give you an idea of how I might have spent the whole afternoon with him: he and two employees were building one of the bridges when a machine broke. Craig asked his workers to take a break and go away for a while, because it made him nervous to be watched while he was trying to fix something. They left, but after a moment he wondered if they’d snuck back and were spying on him, because he felt eyes on him. He looked up and there was a black panther, just along the other side of the bridge. I keep picturing Craig looking up in irritation, about to upbraid his employees for coming back too soon, and locking eyes with a black panther instead. I bet he was really grateful when his workers got back and the panther melted off into the woods.

The museum itself is really beautifully done; it turns out that John Barry, the author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, one of the books that inspired this journey of mine, was an adviser for the exhibits. Along with a simulated diving bell, and many cool videos and photographs, and some fine Native American artifacts, there is also an aquarium, with some river creatures even stranger and more mythological-looking than I had known existed. Alligator gar, anyone? If that doesn’t creep you out a little bit, nothing will!

Alligator Gar caught on Moon Lake
Alligator Gar caught on Moon Lake, March 1910

high-fiving Asian carp


We had a really fun night at Bob and Wita’s in Alton. Their house is on a bluff with a great view the river, and they were amazingly warm and generous to us: we had dinner with them and their neighbor Barb, and heard lots of stories about Alton and growing up in Calhoun County (Bob grew up on a farm there that didn’t have electricity until 1955!!!), and it was also great to sleep indoors after these days of dealing with the rain, that’s for sure!

We headed back up river this morning to Pere Marquette State Park, where Mary put in on the Illinois River (just for a bit of variety) and paddled down to Grafton, which is the confluence with the Mississippi, and I took over from there. It’s a gorgeous run through this whole area: beautiful limestone bluffs line the river on the Illinois side with just enough room for a road with a great bike path that goes all the way from Pere Marquette to Alton.

Two days of rain caused the river to rise twenty feet! The river looks fat and happy, it’s carrying lots of stuff down the river, mostly tree branches it grabs off the shore, and I certainly don’t have to worry about the water being too low to be able to get through the back sloughs. There’s just more river everywhere, and it’s moving faster even here in the Alton pool (the last lock and dam is just below Alton.)

About halfway through my trip, I got ambushed by several schools of Asian carp. (It’s an invasive species that’s been a problem ever since the 1993 flood, when they escaped the pens they’d been kept in before that.) There must have been about 100 crazy fish jumping out of the water, hitting the boat — one even hit my paddle. They get stirred up by any movement in the water and just jump straight out and up in the air, and they are big! It’s as if they’re all on crack or something. You can hear them jumping behind you, which is bad enough, but when they jump in front I’m really glad to be wearing a spray skirt. I definitely wouldn’t want one landing in the boat with me. It’s like something out of Guindon, or perhaps Tobit.


I arrived in Alton at a launch directly under this beautiful cable bridge, and Bob and Wita took Mary and me on a drive to view the sights of Alton: we stopped for a beer at Fast Eddie’s, a huge bar downtown, very fun; looked at a lifesize sculpture of the gentle giant, a resident of Alton who was 8’11”; drove around the campus of the community college and the town park, visited the site of the final Lincoln-Douglas debate, and then had a really excellent dinner downtown. A very fine time in Alton, which is doing a great job of maintaining its own unique identity even with St. Louis looming just a few miles downriver.

you can’t say you can’t play


After putting Mac in this morning, I went to find a church in Prairie du Chien. The Episcopal service had been at 8:30 am (what are they thinking?!), so I headed over to one of the two Catholic churches in town, where I arrived just in time for the 10 am service, which was full of at least 350 people, maybe more. Given that each of the two Catholic churches has multiple Sunday services, it’s pretty clear this is a thriving community. And afterwards, I could not find open or functioning internet cafes anywhere within thirty miles, so I headed down to Guttenberg, and caught up on This American Life episodes in a park overlooking the river while waiting for Mac to arrive. One really interesting episode was about an experiment they did in a kindergarden at the Chicago Lab School, called “You can’t say you can’t play.” I figure it’s one of the slogans for this trip of mine. It’s definitely a compelling idea, not just for kindergardeners…

I also read this morning in an article by Alex Ross in The New Yorker that Theodor Adorno planned (but never wrote) an opera based on Huckleberry Finn. Can you imagine anything wackier?

In the afternoon, one of my oldest friends, Stephen Dembski, drove over with his student Becky from Madison, where he teaches, and the four of us took a walk at the very cool Effigy Mounds National Monument and then headed back to the same brewpub in McGregor for some more of their excellent Weiss beer. Effigy Mounds is very beautiful: turns out these burial mounds are found all over southern Wisconsin and into Minnesota and Iowa, remnants of an ancient culture of people who clearly spent a lot of time imagining what things look like from the sky. Dembski mentioned that the Native American name for Long Island is the name of a fish, because the island looks like a fish. But how do you develop that kind of geographic perspective by walking and canoeing around an island? I like thinking about the imaginative extrapolation involved with projecting the tiny details of land and sea in an overview that says: fish!

between Monticello and Anoka

instead of writing, I decided to do today’s post as a sort of voicemail from the river:

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