"And now, in the leaping of this fish, how wonderfully, laughingly clear everything becomes!" — Exploring Advent with Henry Bugbee (3)

Winslow Homer, "Leaping Trout" (1889

When Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) met Henry Bugbee (1915-1999) in August 1955 Heidegger asked him ,“What occasion prompts philosophical reflection?” Bugbee replied: “Could the sound of a fish leaping at a fly at dawn suffice?” (recounted in Ed Mooney's Introduction to The Inward Morning).


From “The Inward Morning” by Henry Bugbee (University of Georgia Press, 1999, p. 86-87)

Saturday July 11 (1953)

I recall mornings, at the crack of dawn, on the Gualala River when we would walk up along one or another of the long gravel bars. As we approached the water in the gathering light, we sometimes perceived all up and down the length of a pool, such as Miner’s Bend, the breaking and swirling of a fresh run of steelhead trout. The day before there may have been only occasional fish showing, the vestigial fish, darkened from having already spent some days in fresh water. But on this morning the lower river is alive with new, silvery trout, fresh from the sea. On such a morning as this there is a temptation to dissipate one's attention over too many fish and too much water; one makes a cast above where a broad back has just shown. But even as the drift begins there is a resounding smack on the smooth surface twenty feet upstream. Then two swirls appear forty feet below. Meanwhile your partner clear down at the tail of the slick is backing out of the river, his rod nodding in sweeping arcs, and a gleaming ten-pounder ascends from the water almost into the branches of that overhanging pine on the bank opposite him. It is a glorious thing to know the pool is alive with these glancing, diving, finning fish. But at such moments it is well to make an offering in one's heart to the still hour in the redwoods ascending into the sky; and to fish in one place, for one fish at a time. On such mornings, too, one may even catch nothing at all. It takes many, many days to learn of what may and may not be in the river, Let us wade right in and keep fishing where we are, with our fingertips touching the trembling line. It is just in the moment of the leap we both feel and see, when the trout is instantly born, entire, from the flowing river, that reality is knowingly defined.
          Now the river is the unborn, and the sudden fish is just the newborn — whole, entire, complete, individual, and universal, The fisherman may learn that each instant is pregnant with the miracle of the new-born fish, and fishing in the river may become a knowing of each fish even before it is born. As he fishes the ever-flowing current, it teaches him of the fish even before it is born, just in so far as this alert fishing involves *“abiding in no-abode”, or  the “unattached mind”. If one is steeped in the flowing river and sensitized through the trembling line, one anticipates the new-born fish at every moment. The line tautens and with all swiftness, the fish is there, sure enough! And now, in the leaping of this fish, how wonderfully, laughingly clear everything becomes! If eventually one lands it, and kneels beside its silvery form at the water’s edge, on the fringe of the gravel bar, if one receives this fish as purely as the river flows, everything is momently given, and the very trees become eloquent where they stand.

* For the use of these phrases see e.g. Suzuki, D. T., Living by Zen, London, Rider and Co., 1950, pp. 66-67

And from Paul's First Epistle to the Thessalonians (4:11)

“. . . study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you.” 



One way of interpreting what Advent is all about is to say that John the Baptist seems to have been encouraging his hearers to prepare and develop in the wilderness some kind of patient, disciplined practice so as to open themselves up, in an actively receptive way, to the creative possibility that something new was soon to enter the world. In the Christian tradition this something new came, of course, to celebrated on Christmas Day in the myth of “the Christ-child”.

But today, of course, we need not take this myth literally because we have come to feel the gift of the “Christ-child” may come in many forms both sacred and secular, Christian and non-Christian, and though, at times, it may come in the form of a new-born boy or girl, it may also come to us in the form of a new and creative idea, insight or, as you have already heard today, in the silvery form of a fish. In each case, we know that it is this gift when brings about in us a change of heart which transforms in positive and creative ways the manner in which we look at the things of life and, therefore, how we live and move and have our being-in-the-world.

Over the past three weeks I have been trying to suggest that this gift is only going to be come unto us in so far as we can learn from an insight of the philosopher Henry Bugbee found in his Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form that:

“Philosophy is not a making of a home for the mind out of reality. It is more like learning to leave things be: restoration in the wilderness, here and now” (Inward Morning, p. 155).

To which he immediately adds on the following day,

“By ‘leaving things be’ I do not mean inaction. I mean respecting things, being still in the presence of things, letting them speak” (ibid. p. 155).

This insight allowed me to introduce to you the idea of “patiency”, something which we develop through what Bugbee calls “a meditation of place” that is an immersion in, and reconnection with, wilderness and the wild. Patiency, remember, is not simply an “act of being patient” that a person may (or may not) display, but rather an ongoing, inner disposition which continually comes to guide their way of being-in-the-world.

I also introduced you to the associated idea of “Gelassenheit”, a word valued by both the thirteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) and the twentieth-century philosopher, Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). As Bret W. Davis notes, this word, in its traditional usage anyway, “conveys a sense of ‘calm composure’, especially and originally that which accompanies an existential or religious experience of letting-go, being-let, and letting-be” (in “Country Path Conversations” p. xi).

The River Granta on the way to Grantchester last week
Now, all these thoughts and themes were in play last week when I took myself off for a lovely, long walk over to Grantchester and Byron’s Pool along the course of the river Granta through the meadows. Along the way I passed a couple of people out fishing and, on the way back, I took myself into the Green Man to drink a lovely pint of porter before a warming open fire and engage in conversation with the hospitable landlord, Josh.  

The mix of these thoughts and themes along with the walking, fishing and the pint in a warm hostelry, put me in mind of Izaak Walton’s (c.1594-1683) book, “The Compleat Angler”, first published in 1653 and which, astonishing to relate, is still the most frequently reprinted book in the English language after the Bible. I discovered and fell in love with this book very early on in my life. Here’s how and why.

I was born in 1965 at home in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire and, at the age of five, we moved just five miles further north to Ware both of which lie on the River Lea. I loved this river for many reasons. One was the brief refreshing pause we made every weekday on the bridge across the river as we walked to and from school; the sight always seemed to me to be splendid and well worth a small boy’s attention. There were often many boats and swans to see and I was endlessly fascinated by the flash of sunlight as it suddenly caught the underside of a turning fish. It was just like looking down into a night sky and the experienced mirrored the wonder I felt when seeing an unexpected shooting star.

I’m sure this early “upside-down” experience (with the river becoming as-if the sky) was one of the reasons I so readily connected just a few years later with the author Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) who wrote the following memorable words (in his book Walden):

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one.”

Thoreau’s mention of “time” and “eternity” brings me to another important reason why I loved the River Lea. It was so obviously a place of rest and calm repose where one could spend a quiet moment contemplating both “time” and “eternity” in the midst of a very busy town and in the pressured hustle and bustle that came with going to new and much bigger school. I remember at times desperately wanting to be down there walking meditatively by the slow moving waters in the presence of the patient, waiting fishermen who never seemed in any rush to do anything other than “respecting things” and “being still in the presence of things, letting them speak.” I felt much as did Izaak Walton who says of the Fishermen Apostles in his book “The Compleat Angler“:

Izaak Walton window in
Winchester Cathedral
“. . . that the hearts of such men by nature were fitted for contemplation and quietnesse; men of mild, and sweet, and peaceable spirits, as indeed most Angler’s are” ("The Compleat Angler", ed. Marjorie Swann, p, 37).

Observing all this helped me see for the first time something that Heidegger movingly speaks of in his “Memorial Address” for the composer Conradin Kreutzer, namely, that man’s own special, essential nature is “that he is a meditative being” and that one of the greatest tasks we have in our fast-moving technological age is that of “keeping meditative thinking alive” (Discourse on Thinking p. 56).

Just before we left Ware in 1975 for the creeks and marshes of coastal Essex I remember discovering Walton’s book on my parents’ shelves. I immediately fell in love with it for two simple reasons.

The first was that it contained some lovely engravings of the fish I could seeing from the bridge. Even as a precocious ten-year old reader I clearly could not properly comprehend what this book was “all about” and so the pictures were very important. This reason for loving the book should not be wholly dismissed for even Walton himself says in his preface to the reader:

The trout (p. 63)
“. . . let me add . . ., that he that likes not the book should like the excellent picture of the Trout, and some of the other fish” (ibid. p. 5)

The second reason was that the book itself begins on the self-same stretch of river over which I walked and paused by every day. On it’s opening page the fisherman, “Piscator”, tells two men he has just met walking by the river that he has stretched his legs up Tottenham Hill to overtake them, “hoping your business may occasion you towards Ware whether I am going this fine, fresh May morning.” One of them, a hunter, “Venator”, replies, “Sir, I for my part shall almost answer your hopes, for my purpose is to drink my mornings draught at the Thatcht House in Hodsden” (ibid. p. 17).

Because of this living, local connection, the book, from the first, felt to me to be somehow an integral part of who I was and would become. Again, this was the first time something that Heidegger movingly speaks about in his “Memorial Address” impacted upon me. There he says: “It is enough if we dwell on what lies close and meditate on what is closest; upon which concerns us, each one of us, here and now; here on this patch of home ground; now, in the present hour of history”. He goes on to express the thought that this helps us to “grow thoughtful and ask: does not the flourishing of any genuine work depend upon its roots in a native soil?” (Discourse on Thinking, p. 47). For “native soil” here we may also read “native river”.

I would not, of course, been able properly to articulate any of this at the time but it is significant, I think, that the book stayed on my shelf and never made it back downstairs into the living room. I have it with me still and, looking back upon all this, it seems not unreasonable to say that “The Compleat Angler” was the entry point for me into thinking about the importance of patiency, letting-go (gellasenheit) and local place. Naturally, it also helped me shape my own walking “meditations of place” and my eventual practise of both philosophy and theology.

But the question remains here, what is the chief lesson I have learnt both from fishing myself or, as has most often been the case, learning from those who fish?

Of course, one learns many obvious practical things along the way, things about rods, reels lines and flies; one learns about the best (or worst) place, season and time to catch this (or that) fish. These are important things and should not be dismissed or forgotten.

But in addition to these technical matters one can also learn something about how to live. As Marjorie Swann says, in her excellent introduction to Oxford University Press’ most recent edition of “The Compleat Angler”, the book presents

“. . . Walton’s deeply felt response to a universal question: How should we live? As a survivor of [the English Civil] war and heartbreak, Walton turned to the natural world for his answer to this question and in the process created one of the most important, formative environmental texts in the English language” ("The Compleat Angler", OUP, 2014, p. x).

For this extraordinary achievement I love, and imagine I will probably always love, Walton. But, as I have walked quietly and thoughtfully by the river he walked and, by now, many others, I have found that his underlying view of God and nature is one I can no longer share with him. When Walton looked at nature, and no matter how beautifully and movingly he writes about what he saw, he felt this revealed the supernatural all-powerful, all-seeing and all-good creator God of Christianity.

Over the years I’ve explored with you many of the reasons why the existence of such a supernatural being has become less and less persuasive to our own age which is increasingly understanding the interconnection, interpenetration and interdependency of all things. We find it hard to live any longer with the old idea of that God and creation are separate things (or realms).

But, as I think our reading eloquently reveals, Bugbee sees in the river something that is much more akin to that seen by Buddhist or Taoist thinkers, something that gestures towards non-dualist ways of understanding the world. I know that for many of us here today (including myself) this more East Asian way of thinking about the divine and the sacred is, today, more congenial and is helping us to envision very different ways of living than were available to our forebears.

Now, here, I’m not going to try and interpret the reading from Bugbee's book we heard at the beginning because I think it is better simply to let it stand before you as it is and for you to form your own response to it. But I hope you agree that, with it's themes of patient, actively receptive waiting and sudden birth of something new, the silvery fish beside which Bugbee kneels in gratitude and wonder, this reading seems highly appropriate for the season of Advent and Christmas. All I ask of you is to consider how Bugbee's story helps us to ask ourselves, "How should we live?"

But what I will do is conclude with a few words from Bugbee that he wrote towards the end of his book which in which he begins to answer this for himself:

"Is it not more accurate to say that we participate in creation than that we create? Is not creation as it touches us in what we do an interlocking of the resources with which we act, an interlocking of them with that which firms and claims them as a province assimilated to incarnation? To participate in creation is to be relieved of undue emphasis or accent placed upon ourselves" (Inward Morning p. 222. Also quoted by Andrew Feenberg in an excellent essay entitled, "Zen Existentialism: Bugbee's Japanese Influence" in Wilderness and the Heart: Henry Bugbee's Philosophy of Place, Presence and Memory, University of Georgia Press, 1999, p. 89).

Bugbee’s fishing story stands for me as a perfect case-study of what patiency is and how, on certain days like Christmas Day, it can deliver up to us extraordinary, incarnational gifts of wonder and gratitude — and that, in the leaping of this fish, or in the birth of a child, the blooming of a flower, the squeaking of a door or the plop of a frog, how wonderfully, laughingly clear everything becomes!