David Forget Award Essay 1998

Monday, November 23, 1998

by: Duncan Mackay

The lacy blanket of the cedars casts shadows and timeless sunbeams on the river bed. And, where the sun reaches the bottom, the stones are golden and liquid in the crystalline blanket that dances its way to infinity. I am struck by the moment. My thoughts are fast and fleeting, but they leave me with a feeling of nostalgia.

The memories of past summers fill my head and the timelessness is overwhelming. The end of the awesome moment is marked by the sound of a fish smacking my trout fly. As if it knows the hypnotic powers of the river, the trout takes a moment to reflect upon the naturalness of my fly and spits it out before I can collect my senses. I set my hook into nothing but the warm gentle breeze flowing through the gorge.

I am drawn by the timelessness of rivers and have no interest in knowing the hour of the day; the age of an afternoon is best measured by the strength of the sun. I suppose that is why I do not wear a watch when I fish. It is, perhaps, ironic that the only watch I can claim as my own, I found at the bottom of a river. One lazy summer evening as I was exploring waters I had never before fished, I stumbled across a deep pool that undoubtedly held brown trout. I laid my fishing bag on the shore and stepped into the river. I slowly moved into deeper water, apprehensive of the unfamiliar river bed. While examining the stony underworld through the clear water, I was suddenly taken by a most intriguing sight.

As if it were a creation of the river bed itself, a small wrist watch lay peacefully cradled between two cobbles, its existence a secret, hidden from the world by three feet of water. Later that night, when I returned home, I discovered the watch read the exact time. To this day, it has barely lost a minute. Recently, as I have learned more about the earth and its unimaginable age, the symbolism of this event has haunted me.

As a young boy, the refreshing waters of the rivers were far more appealing to me than the neighbourhood swimming pool. But now, as I grow older, my time spent by the river means more than just a search for fish. With my increasing knowledge of the world around me, my attention is often diverted from the rover to the land through which it runs.

Today, standing in the same gorge, evocative of my childhood days, its mysteries intrigue me, but the walls are silent and leave me only to guess at their past. I decide to move further upstream where the high walls of the gorge will give birth to longer shadows and less wary trout. The humidity and the long drone of a cicada turns reality into a dream-like state. As I walk upstream, along the cliff-top, the river, forty feet below me, appears for a moment to be still. Despite the white water and swirling eddies, their forms are unchanging, as though the river is motionless. Only its sound convinces me otherwise.

I arrive at a spot where the wall has been down-cut by a tiny stream. I head down the natural trail. I begin the descent into history - a thousand years a footstep. At the bottom of the limestone staircase, the river lies several metres in front of me. A large emerging Mayfly floats daringly on the surface of the water. As I walk through the tall grass towards the river, my heart skips a beat as the head of a trout barely exits the water and, with expert precision, sucks in the fly. I immediately tie on to my line, an exact imitation of the Mayfly that had so unknowingly tipped me off to the location and feeding preference of the trout. On the first cast, the trout spots my fly and sits only inches below. The fish follows my fly the length of the run but does not take it. The fish does not respond to my second cast. Today is too bright and too hot for the trout to be anything but wary.

Content with the scenery, I sit down for a moment and look west, down the length of the gorge. Thunder heads sit awkwardly on the horizon. The inevitability of the storm excites me and I search the cliffs for a cave or an overhang for shelter. Perhaps the trout will be more lively after the passing of the storm and the ensuing drop in temperature.

Along the length of the cliff base, water seeps from the limestone walls like cold, clammy sweat. I find a hideout where an overhang stretches for several feet and sits equally high above the ground. By the time I make myself comfortable on a large flat rock, the skies have opened and I am locked under the cliff by a vale of heavy rain. A feeling of isolation overwhelms me. My life comes sharply into focus. I realise why, as a child, I was initially drawn to fishing and, later, to the study of the Earth. I have been learning not only about the Earth and the natural environment, but also about the anonymity of mankind in both time and space. So wrapped up are we in the study of humanity in our everyday lives, we take our relative, momentary life on Earth for granted. Even our existence as humankind has been so brief, that most people cannot fathom the age of the earth. Just a few years ago, the difference to me between one million years and one thousand million years lay only in the number of zeros. Now, the vastness of time and my existence within it comes sharply into focus. My time in the classroom and my study of geology has enabled me to recognise how unique and how precious our time on Earth has been. Our existence in the span of time is as ephemeral as that of the Mayfly I have just observed.

Earth, not mankind, is great historian of time. The floor and walls of this gorge are but a few pages in the history of the world. At this moment, I am overcome by a deep sense of isolation. My thoughts turn to James Hutton, the eighteenth century Scottish geologist, who realised that the world was far older than anyone had previously suspected. He too must have felt isolated Ð his theories running counter to his contemporaries who firmly believed in catastrophism. What were his thoughts as he stared at the exposed rock in Berwickshire? Was the time-gap of the unconformity marked by a lost pocket watch peacefully nestled in the crack of a rock? I envy him for being the first to record his revelation for the rest of mankind to share and for his courage in putting forth his views. And, as I sit here sheltered by a million years of time, I too am a Geologic Romantic.

The rain ends as suddenly as it began. My thoughts and hopes are refreshed. As I emerge into the open, the last few raindrops fall to the earth around me. The thick, wet grass is bent over with the weight of the rain and it licks my legs like a thousand cats' tongues.

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