Sunday, October 6, 2019
The Perfect Taper
A thought experiment
I just returned from a gathering of bamboo fly rod makers where I cast dozens of wonderful handcrafted rods, gave casting demonstrations, and participated in a nice panel discussion.
After these events, it is not unusual for me to go on a philosophical or thought journey as to what I learned or observed with no end in mind, and with enough twists and turns or detours in the path as there are synaptic junctions in my brain. This often results in a headache, and aspirin might be in order, or a visit to a psychiatrist.
In this case my reflections centered on the design of tapers for bamboo rods. Some discussions of the legendary rod builder Everett Garrison, a structural engineer who used an engineering and mathematical approach to try to achieve a chimeral concept of the perfect taper in a fly rod were juxtaposed in my mind with the final product on the rod racks outside. Each rod was different, and each was made by a different builder. No rod had the same aesthetics.
Would it even be possible to build the perfect fly rod, and what is perfection exactly?
What is measurable, and what cannot or should not be measured?
Where do engineering, art, craft, nature’s material, and casting meet or cross paths?
Can perfection be measured?
Where does the human element come in?
So many questions to explore… so enjoy this little thought experiment with me…
Lets imagine that there is an engineer working for years in his attic on the perfect mathematical model for taper design. One day he finally finishes testing and proofing all the math, and designs a computer program to reflect it. One simply enters the variables of rod length, line weight, number of sections, ferrule measurement, etc. into the program, hits the calculate button, and gets the results. Scrolling through the report schematics we now have calculated stresses, deflection numbers, measured diameters at intervals for planing, load calculations, and all the other myriad elements of structural engineering design right there at our fingertips. Charts and graphs display the performance of the rod too, so that we can visually see the calculation’s resulting perfection.
“Excellent,” mutters our engineer, and begins the long process of splitting the cane, and putting it through all his machines to bevel, taper, bind, heat-treat and transform the natural bamboo into a blank ready for hand finishing. Numbers guided the machines through their process, the cane being ground and shaved to the mathematically perfect model, while the human hand moved the pieces between the machines.
Finally, the guides were wrapped on, the varnish applied and let to dry, and eventually the rod was finished. It gleamed with perfection.
Our engineer took the rod out on his front lawn, attached a reel, strung up the rod, poured himself a half a glass of wine to celebrate the perfect rod, pulled out thirty feet of line, and with a grin… made the inaugural cast.
Alas, the puzzled and quizzical look on his face did not derive from the poor quality of the wine he sipped. Instead, it sprung from the rather unspectacular performance of the rod. He had expected bells to go off, epiphanies to form, and a piercing light to part the fogs and miasmas of past fly rod designs, but what he just experienced was rather anticlimactic.
He cast the rod for an hour, testing the flex with short and long casts and trying to get a feeling for what the rod was doing. It seemed to do everything moderately well…. but not
spectacularly. It had no real clunky spots or faults but also no real shining performance attributes. It was just sort of… fly-roddy in a non-descript mediocre way.
He went back inside and spent the rest of the week checking his engineering math and computer program, and finding no errors at all, re-entered the variable data, getting the same result.
Then he took the rod to his local fly-fishing club, and asked the members to cast it and provide their feedback. The following is a faithful recording of the often reluctant but mostly honest commentary:
“Beautiful to look at, but it doesn’t sing to me.”
“A little fast and slow at the same time.”
“A nice rod if you like Wonderbread…”
“It does everything right, but yet something is wrong…”
“It seems to have no real personality…”
“Reminds me of a punch we made at my frat house in college. We each added different ingredients and liquors until there were over 20 substances in that bowl. It got us drunk, but it tasted like gasoline.”
And finally… “I don’t get it…”
So what went wrong?
Well, from a pure engineering standpoint, nothing did. The measurements were perfect. It was what could not be measured by engineering and math, the myriad variables, the human element, the creative process, the lack of art and involvement, the clinically dry and romantically sterile approach that doomed the rod to failure.
What if he had succeeded? Where would we go from there? Is there life after perfection? Would perfection eliminate personality and diversity? Would uniqueness die under the dissecting table of science? I would ask him if I could, but I have never met science on the river. If I did ask science how he felt today, he would probably answer, “Rather methodical, thank you!”
Imagine a world where every fly rod was the same. It might make a good horror movie. It could be called ‘Perfection’ because only in the fantasy world of movies could perfection even exist.
Perfection is a human concept. It cannot and does not exist in nature. There is no perfect tree, perfect flower, perfect raindrop, or perfect human. Every object and individual is different in some way, shape, or form. So is bamboo. It is not a manufactured substance that can be predicted. It is a natural grass that is effected by the wind, moisture, rain, where it grows, when it is cut, and how it is stored. One could say that every culm of raw bamboo has character traits and personality. Now those are human attributes, but perhaps the human was missing in our perfect fly rod experiment. Humans can interpret, apply abstract concepts and even imbibe a fine crafted object with a little of their personality. Mathematics cannot. That’s not to say that mathematics and engineering should not be a part of the design, indeed they are necessary and vital, but with a human there to provide a touch of well… humanity and personality to the process. Machines do not create, humans do. Machines perform tasks and duplications. Human thought put them there.
And… of course… a machine will not be casting the finished bamboo fly rod, a human will.
Each of us has a different casting stroke, a different approach to casting a fly rod, and a different level of proficiency. There is no perfect cast as there is no perfect fly rod taper. Even our mood effects the cast… the mortgage is due… that was a beautiful sunrise… these trout are so frustrating… I better hurry because I only have an hour to fish… Gosh, I feel so relaxed…
Another variable that math and engineering can’t take into consideration is that as individuals with personalities, we each have preferences; likes and dislikes. One person’s concept of what he or she wants in a fly rod will contrast and differ with another angler. As the saying goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. That variety is the very spice of life.
If we did in effect achieve some sort of ‘perfection’ that would appeal to everyone’s differences, wouldn’t we instead have to first eliminate those differences first in the person and then in the product? We have been there already, it was the dystopia of soviet era manufacturing which gave everyone the same cars that barely drove, the same clothing in a shade of gray, and housing reminiscent of industrial chicken farms.
Diversity comes from craft, from a lack of common approach, from ideas born and followed without being ironed to perfection. Wrinkles might just be a good thing.
The rods I cast that day all had different tapers. They all did something different. I loved the quirks.
One thing a pure engineering and math approach cannot do is add variations on purpose or by accident to a human design or purpose. If we did achieve one ‘perfect taper’, and had ten different rod builders build ten rods off the same taper, all ten would be different. That is because we are not machines… yet. That cyber A.I. nightmare is around the corner, and until it arrives, we are still in charge of the creative process.
Engineers may be searching for perfection, but on the other side of the fence, artists are working toward failure. Huh? Well, artists unlike mathematical models understand that in an aesthetic sense as well as in the properties of individual objects or creations, perfection is not just immeasurable, it also can’t exist. By working toward failure, the individual artist and craftsperson is always pushing the envelope by asking, “Why not this or that?”
“What would staggered ferrules do here?… Why do rods all have to be a common length?… What would happen if I did this?… What if I hollow-built the butt section?… etc.
These experiments not only give us diversity, but also often end up in failure. Failure fosters learning. Failure is also fearful. It takes an intact and secure ego to admit and even celebrate failure in the process of creative design.
In our ‘engineering only’ design-process, from start to finish there is little room for deviations.
These deviations are a human element of the artist. A painter for example has a blank canvas. He or she has a concept in mind and goes about capturing that concept as a painting which can evolve as it is being created. Many artists, craftspersons, writers, and composers will tell you that some of their best work evolved to deviate from the original intent. A bamboo rod maker that feels the material in their hands rather than pushing it only through machines may be in tune to the raw material. In other words, the bamboo might be in charge to some extent, of the evolution of the taper. It may be able to tell us what needs planing or shaving here and there. This might be more in keeping with crafting a fine casting fishing instrument out of a natural substance instead of conquering it or forcing our will on it with a pure mathematical model.
This is how all artist-quality musical instruments are crafted. There is an intensive process that involves adaptation in the horn or violin to achieve a unique and rich sound. That could be comparable to the vibrations in bamboo listened to by the rod crafter and interpreted into a fine casting instrument. One can’t really listen very well when machines are making noise.
Which brings us back to the very beginning and Mr. Garrison. Now before you poor readers of this philosophic detour off the deep end send me letters excoriating me for some sort of heresy against this fine rod-builder, let me say that Garrison made a great cane rod; one of the finest out there, and even if the search for the ‘perfect-taper’ may be illusory, we should still search for it. For in that search, the conversation continues. The language of that conversation being perhaps a bit more wine-enhanced and romanticized rather than mathematical… The ‘perfect-taper’ awaits… if we close our eyes we almost touch it.
Tuesday, October 1, 2019
Or… the road to perdition is paved with Wooly-Buggers…
Jr. Trout (proper family name Jr. Brown esq.) was a tad late arriving under the bank in the family domicile in time for his evening meal. As he nosed through the silt and rocks to munch vittles of fresh-water shrimp appetizer and awaited the main course of Hendrickson nymphs, his Grandpa eyed him suspiciously.
“Boy, you have been hanging out with those brook trout again haven’t you? Now don’t lie to me.”
Jr. kind of wiggled his fins in a guilty manner and looked askance at the old man. His grandpa was the oldest of the Brown clan in this part of the stream under the shade trees. He had scars on his back from disagreements with herons, and his fins were a bit worn with age. He was no longer the biggest fish in the pool, but he was the wisest, and all the extended Brown family looked to him for sage guidance.
“Sorry Grandpa, but it is hard to stay away ‘cause they are my friends. They even taught me a new game called ‘chase the tail’ today!”
“Son…” the old man began slowly with a frown, “I have told you before that those darn fish are no good for you. They are Yankees, and like Yankees, they hang around in gangs and get up to no good. Look at them there in the middle of the water just swimming around like they don’t have a care in the world. If they had any self-respect they would be in the shade being quiet, not doing acrobatics and water-polo where any darned otter or even uncle Fritz could make a meal of them.”
“Why do you call them ‘Yankees’ Grandpa?” Junior asked carefully.
“Because they are American Trout, boy! See their colors? Like the American flag; all gaudy in their red, white, and blue.”
“Catholics too I would bet, and just as catholic in their tastes… they don’t give a damn what they eat for heaven’s sake.”
“And we are Germans, right Grandpa?”
“Germans, Protestants, and gentleman too,” the wise one said, swelling up with pride and showing off his spots. “Just look at our colors… Like the German flag, gold, red, and black… quiet colors, respectful colors.” Like gentlemen, we Browns are not frivolous. We don’t play games, we shy away from bright places and street-corners, and we absolutely don’t eat wooly-buggers.”
“What’s a wooly-bugger Grandpa,” came the inevitable question.
“Well now, take a seat by this here rock, and I will tell you. Don’t tell your Mother or Father or they will get sore at me again for frightening you, but I think any Brown in this family should know a few things before they go out into the next pool. Served me well for years, even if I learned the hard way myself by making the mistakes I keep scolding you about.”
The old trout rested back on his little pile of gravel, and taking a caddis case from his pocket, began slowly chewing it as he always did when he was telling a story.
“You had a cousin named McSpotty once upon a time. Lot older than you. He was a distant cousin too from some island, on your Grandma’s side,” he recollected with a frown or a wink… it was often hard to tell the difference.
"This young trout got his name from the amount of spots on his side… all black and few red. He was wont to fraternize with those brookies, and even to tipple a bit of brackish water even at his young age. You couldn’t tell him anything or get any sense to stick in his noggin no matter how often we tried. He was always chasing the ladies, even the American gals that hung out in shallow water and had bad reputations. He went to worship on Sunday, but we never could find him for scripture during the week.”
“Well, McSpotty started to get a taste for exotic foods. I always blame those brookies for corrupting him, but he never would have come to trouble if he ate plain fare like us Continental Browns. He began to chase worms and leap at dragonflies like a hoodlum. He left home after a bit, and preferred the company of his new friends on the wrong side of the rocks.”
“One day there was a big commotion and splashing in the water. After a bit, some of your relations and me swam over from the bank to investigate. Your Cousin was nowhere to be seen. Story has it that there was something in the water that the Americans were chasing, but McSpotty got there first. From there it was hearsay. Some of those fish claimed that a giant hand came down from the sky and just scooped him up. Others said that he exploded all by himself. Anyway, he was never seen again. One old gal, the matriarch of the clan, by the name of Char or something like that, finally said that he had eaten a wooly bugger. None of us knew what that was at the time.”
“You can imagine that it put us off our food for a spell, and even the frisky fingerlings stayed close to home for the next week. Rumors as to what a ‘wooly-bugger’ was began to run their course among the youngsters, and even the old-timers began to tell stories.”
“Some said it was a ghost that appeared when the sun was high and the sand was shifting, others speculated that it was bigger than a beaver or a muskrat and only ate trout who missed church or lied to their parents. My own uncle Günter thought that they came with the rains, and lulled their prey to sleep with a song before they ate them.”
“Did you ever see a wooly-bugger yourself Grandpa?” Jr. asked with a shiver of his dorsal fin.
“I did see one once, not close-up like, but in the distance and in murky water. It was big and black and ugly, yet enticing. I felt my will tried as it shimmered and wiggled like one of those belly-dancers I read about once in my Pa’s magazines. I still shudder at that memory. Funny thing was, even with all my teaching and learning, my discipline faltered for a fraction of a second. I started to swim over to it when it just disappeared out of the water. Don’t know what I would have done if it hadn’t have off and left. I might not be here now.”
That story made a bit of an impression on our young lad. For a month, he did all his schoolwork, and never swam in the shallows. However, as all boys are fickle, there came one day when his family was all out on some errand or another, and he swam over to find out what the brookies were up to.
At supper that evening, he claimed he had no appetite, and begged off his caddis soufflé. His Grandpa got suspicious.
“What’s that scar doing on your jaw there son? Have you been rubbing your nose on mussel shells again?”
“Mrrn…” was all Jr. could answer.
“Speak up boy, and come closer. Is that a hole in your mouth? You are getting a likkin if you got any body piercings. You know how we feel about that….”
“Well, speak up…”
“Mi mink mi mate a mooly mugger,” Jr. confessed with tears.
“No kidding. You don’t seem to have disappeared, so maybe it taught you a lesson. What did it look like?”
Jr. flexed his jaw a few times, shook himself, stood on his head, blew some water through his gills, and feeling a touch better, answered his Grandpa.
“Mit was morrible! First it looked big and black and ugly, then after I ate it, it tasted like hurting and changed to the hugest, most ugly thing I ever saw. It had a big floppy head and its fins were really long and pale. One of them had a long pole as big as this whole stream in it. I thought I was a goner for sure, but somehow I escaped!”
Grandpa stared long and hard at the boy…
“Now, seeing that you survived, how’s about telling me what you learned…”
“Hanging out with brookies leads to eatin wooly-buggers, and the road to perdition is lined with wooly-buggers!”
“Let that be a lesson to you son,” said the old trout. “Now come and finish your caddis, its getting cold.”
So…take a lesson from poor Jr. Brown. Stay away from those vagabond brookies. Keep out of the shallows. Eat your tiny bugs, and whatever you do, if you fly-fish, don’t have that extra glass of wine with dinner while looking out the window at the rains and flooded streams, it only leads to fables and parables… or wooly-buggers…