The Soft Chains of Comfort

I’m as guilty as anyone else. I get comfortable with the indoors, with climate control, with running water and with my cupboards stocked with sealing plastic containers of food and an electric stove to cook it all on. I get used to having a computer to look things up on and I let it distract me and pull me in many directions while I should be doing productive work. I get comfortable with ease and lack of danger – and nothing could be more dangerous.

I don’t know whether I’ve gotten slothful or acclimated to ease until I thrust myself into a dangerous, rigorous or exposed situation and then I can feel the discomfort and fear that should have been overcome long ago but has crept back into my psyche.

I spent a couple of days fishing for steelhead trout earlier in the week, something I’d been looking forward to trying again since early last April. These large rainbow trout thrive in all of our Great Lakes and run up tributary streams to spawn beginning in early September (usually) and many are still found in these flowing waters in early April. It’s a long season but you have to love the cold or at least be able to tolerate it if you’re going to fish for these.

For me, the joy of fishing arises largely from its variety and steelheading is just one more unique way to spend a day on the water pursuing a unique fish in unique ways. I wrote more on fishing’s inherent variety recently here:

I’ve been learning to fish for steelhead over the last five years, a process that began “from the ground up,” knowing nothing about this game except that these fish sometimes appear in tributaries of Lake Erie and that they will hit certain lures, baits and flies even though they feed very little while ascending. Steelhead attract terrible weekend crowds of fisher-folk and that’s why I was so slow to begin at this: shoulder-to-shoulder fishing is just very unattractive to me. Nonetheless, I pored over maps and saw long stretches of stream that I couldn’t imagine filling up with anglers all the time and I began to make trips up to prospect these little-known waters.

So, again, here I was arriving at my special 3 flowages I’d come back to over and over again for a few years now. I wanted near-flooding conditions but a cursory look from the bridges revealed that this was not to be: water looked normal to low. The steelhead need high to flooding to make their runs and so, immediately, prospects for the two days ahead were diminished. Still, nature and its waters are filled with surprises.

I felt the discomfort strike as soon as I exited the climate-controlled interior of the car. It was cold in the out-of-doors and the near-hurricane-force winds off the lake didn’t help. I was well off the lake though, which is one secret to eluding the crowd. Another is to fish when it’s uncomfortable. And yet another is to spend the night where you fish. I trudged downhill as briskly as I could manage, knowing that blood flow is the foremost secret to staying warm.

My first stream has to be Pennsylvania’s most unloved steelhead water: there are no trails alongside it due to the Gordian knot of greenbriar surrounding almost all of it, a barrier akin to layers of woven barbed wire. Yes, that bad. This was uncomfortable and I wanted to give up and go back to something easier as soon as I was there facing it again. But I remembered the last time I’d been here at this most tepid and inaccessible flow, the time I’d hooked a trophy fish who’d snapped my line in the long pool just ahead. It was really hard to imagine any fish finding its way up this nothing of a brook and it was equally difficult to imagine a fisherman accessing this while wielding 9 or 10 feet of limber rod. The convergence of the two, fish and fisher, was highly unlikely.

And so, I waded and twisted through barbed vines and occasionally lobbed hook and float.  My frozen fingers soon bled at the knuckles. I crossed beaver dams and I paused to cut impenetrable stuff with my shears and I watched the little float work through the very few deep spots. But I didn’t see a trout. Something moved near my rod tip and then a young beaver popped up and quickly dove again, puzzled to see any human knee-deep in this his swampy slough.

It grew dark and I made my way out toward the access road through gradually diminishing thorns, all the more menacing when they can’t be seen well. I felt ill at ease alone here, a trespasser who might arrive back safely at his car but the wood around me was betting against it. I’d done this sort of thing so many times before but it felt unnatural and uncomfortable this evening. I longed to sit in my car and turn on the heat.

At the car I wanted to rush, cram things in, get back into my comfortable low-top boots and be warm for a bit but I wasn’t getting any supper like that. I walked around with the extremely limited light that remained and collected sticks then stood and broke all these to the right length next to my tiny wood-burning stove. The wind had slackened now but the temperature was falling. I had trouble lighting anything with the damp wood, frozen fingers and extremely poor matches I had to work with. Still, I’d done it in much more difficult circumstances. Soon a respectable flame was rolling from the top and the first of my dogs was skewered.

I found that I could tolerate the cold a bit longer and went on to brew a tea which would have been hardly a treat at all back at home but was exactly what I’d needed out here in the barren wilds, alone again at night in the woods. I finally did start the car and drove to a spot I’d selected earlier to park for the night. I have no idea of the legality of my overnight car camping but as long as I can tuck in out of sight, I’ve always been okay.

There was no morning light yet when the alarm sounded, signaling the time to unzip the bag and roll out. I’d slept in a minimal bag but hadn’t been at all uncomfortable, the temperature never really falling below freezing. Before getting out though, I could see that a white world awaited; just enough snow had fallen to glaze the leaf litter and branches. The boots were on in a moment and I jogged a quick jog down the lane to warm up for the morning.

A few minutes later wood was collected and the zip stove was lit and whirring. I looked up into the canopy of the silent pre-dawn wood and realized that I was feeling optimism for the first time. I was already acclimating. Now comfort didn’t mean the couch and computer and kitchen, it meant a sleeping bag that would keep me alive, boots that kept out most of the water and an old reliable stove that was about to get breakfast done. I took my time and savored the next 40 or 50 minutes of cooking, loading up on coffee, oatmeal, sausages and sweets – all the stuff I’d need burning in my inner furnace to get me through the day. I had optimism for the water today, yes, but I had greater optimism for myself. I wasn’t hopelessly tied to the comforts of home and work life. I could still make it out here. I could adapt – I’d done it before.

I went on to enjoy one of my least successful days of steelhead fishing ever. The water has not been high this season and the overnight snow had barely budged the levels of yesterday’s stream or today’s. One steelhead apparently occupied the stream’s first pool and he taunted me mercilessly with leaps to look me over for a second and disappear again, showing no interest in what dangled below my float. I walked upstream for hours, probing fine-looking holes that were, as far as I could tell, devoid of fish. Not long before sunset I spotted something huge in a pool far ahead of me, something rolling and splashing that I thought might be a beaver or maybe an otter. Creeping closer, I found that it was a steelhead, a fish of at least 25 inches and she had a friend who might have gone 20. I sort of “camped” here for nearly an hour as daylight faded, casting my finest casts and tastiest baits and resting the water intermittently. But it was no use, they’d seen me in the clear, shallow water and had retreated to a root mass where they’d happily wait out the invasive biped and his drifting danger candies.

Making my way back out again in the twilight through bracken and briars, I was smiling – against all odds. I was glad for the fish – the only two in the brook, as far as I could tell. They were obviously a mating pair and I wished them well, even somehow glad I hadn’t troubled them with an energy-depleting tussle. They were survivors and I hoped they’d be wise as other fishers stopped by in the coming weeks.

But I was also smiling because I was ready now – ready for the long winter. I was ready to acclimate, ready to adapt and ready to persist. I don’t know what the months ahead will hold but I know I can soon be at ease on the ice, alongside the steelhead waters or wading frigid and flooding local creeks for walleye. I’ll sleep outside in the snow and I’ll put on my snow shoes and I’ll roll out of the bag in the pre-dawn to seek adventure.

I’ll shed the thin skin of the indoorsman and give attention to the call of the wild.

And I’d like to stop there but I’ve got something more that needs to be addressed along these same lines. What’s the cost, not only to each of us but to society at large of comfort and complacency? Are we so very removed from hardship and the need to effect our own survival that we’ve lost our survival instincts and won’t fight anymore?

I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.

Thomas Jefferson

This year we’ve watched the rise of nascent totalitarianism in America and we really have watched it, like another reality TV show perhaps, and we’ve cooperated and fallen in line too. We’ve become fearful of a disease that threatens almost none of our lives, that almost exclusively kills those about to die soon anyway. Over and over, we’re shown drastically rising graphs of new infections without often being told that testing has simply ramped up proportionally. It’s not often mentioned that the death rate per infection is in drastic decline or that the average age of death from COVID-19 remains about the life expectancy of U.S. citizens anyway. The commingling of cause-of-death data is certainly never treated honestly by the authoritarians behind our evening news.

Would our ancestors have shut down and masked up? Could they have and would we be here today if they had? What price have we paid for our far remove from nature, a place where delusions won’t be indulged nor political machinations tolerated? With their commonsensical understanding of human nature, wouldn’t our forebears have recognized the chief threat as coming from the authoritarians rather than another rather tepid disease and wouldn’t they have had the knowledge even then to deal with the contagion effectively by isolating the most vulnerable?

We’ve let ourselves become weak and we don’t care. Our actions (or inactions) say that we’re ready to be taken care of and to let the thinking be done for us. We’ve let politicians and media and tech come between us and nature. Sadly, we’ll board the box cars if we’re promised disinfection at the other end of the journey.

We stand by dumbly while the thought police patrol the internet, shutting down dangerous speech and ideas. I wouldn’t emphasize this unless I’d watched it with my own trusted sources – people who were not agitators nor conspiracy theorists but rather offered alternative points of view and unpopular science. Within the last week, another of the nation’s best dissenting scientists disappeared from YouTube. You don’t have any idea of the breadth of the purge underway if you rely on America’s mainstream news sources. My own readership was throttled this year when I first began to offer an alternative, non-alarmist perspective on the virus and authoritarianism. Likely very few will see this and lately WordPress itself has begun to de-platform dissenters so perhaps soon you will have seen the last of me and my perspective as well.

Dissent is now sometimes relegated to hasty postscripts tacked onto outdoor blogs but even that’s more than can be tolerated.

How does this affect all of our freedom of speech – when we know we have to speak and write in such a way that we won’t draw the attention of the “Twitter mob” or the multifarious censors? What bearing does this have on the pursuit of truth itself? If it’s not affecting you yet, it will. And it’s useless to say this because declining freedom of speech surely affects us all.

The coming presedential administration promises to better fuse the surveillance and right-think capabilities of big tech to the coercive power of government. It’s not conspiracy theory stuff – they’re making this priority one now – to ostensibly thwart disinformation and let the voice of science reign. Our remarkably incurious legacy media can be counted on to abet such efforts.

Speech allows us to disagree verbally and in print, persuading and objecting and making our cases. It’s a cornerstone of western civilization. If we lose this right to big tech and government arbiters, how do people settle their differences in America? How can people hope to work things out? It seems that speech, however objectionable, remains the best alternative to violence and that violence is the recourse of people who are chronically suppressed.

Following the Jefferson quote printed above, this well known Founding Father closes the paragraph in his letter with this thought:

“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

Our smug dictators would do well to remember that revolutions have erupted over less.

It’s been nice to talk with you about nature and our role in it over the last few years.

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