The Habit of Rivers

Ted Leeson - The Habit of Rivers

Lyons and Burford (paperback) $14.95
Merlin Unwin Books (hardback) £16.95 - out of print
ISBN 1-55821-300-7

Ted Leeson teaches English at Oregon State University, and he has a direct and intellectual approach which repeatedly hunts down and hits its target, dealing out some sublime writing in the process. This is Zen and the Art of Fly Fishing, an unashamed attempt to capture the essence of the philosophy that we all feel lies behind fishing. It is also a modern classic.

Much of the writing is about fishing for Pacific salmon, and the epic landscapes through which their home waters run. Anyone who has fished a west coast river in fall will remember the sweet smell of rot that is the first thing to greet the fisherman in the morning, and is the last memory before sleep brings on the night. Farson makes a kind of poetry out of it; Leeson makes sense of it: ‘Sex and death are forever linked, I suppose, but never so tangibly and unequivocally as in the salmon. Even now, the first fish are spawned out and dead, washed by the current into calm water and visible on the river bottom.’ He can be devastatingly sarcastic too, when he talks of the ‘pellet-stuffed techno-trout excreted in impossible numbers from the modern American hatchery,’ and he points up the irony of anglers who use several thousand dollars’ worth of equipment to deliver a ‘quarter’s worth of chicken feather and wire’ to a fish. His piece on turf wars between anglers fishing a choice run is so accurate that it instantly reminded me of a morning on Hat Creek Riffle in California, where we found thirty fishermen solemnly occupying a space suitable for one man and a small cat.

Comparisons with Gierach are inevitable, but Leeson’s writing has a different quality about it, more sombre, more reflective, with less of Gierach’s ‘up-yours’ infectiousness. The Habit of Rivers will strike an instant chord with anyone who has fished the west and the book has been a smash hit in the States.

The image is the hardback first edition and the book has become such a favourite that it is still in print nearly a decade after it was first published.