Thursday, March 29, 2018

Medieval Redemption


Part the first: A malaise of history


Adventures and thought journeys all have beginnings, even if sometimes we have to trace them back to their source like following meandering braids on our rivers. Our thoughts and reflections are often like our waters, changing with every bend in the channel and never flowing straight.

 This small journey began with the re-reading of Ernest Schwiebert’s book one of his two volume ‘Trout’; specifically his excellent and scholarly work on the history of fly-fishing. I had progressed to the chapter detailing the period of the middle ages in England and the famous ‘Treatyse on fysshyng wyth an angle’ by Dame Juliana Berners from 1496 when some chore or another distracted me. Later that day I was looking at an online video of fly-fishing, and something began bothering me. It was same theme I have written about from time to time: the ‘new’ world of fly-fishing and how somehow the reverence, the history, and the art have become whitewashed with a drone-like sameness. Every angler wears a flat brim ghetto ball cap, and except for color variation in gear, look like clones of each other. The flies were all ‘tactical’, with jig hooks and tungsten beads. They looked like miniature Christmas tree ornaments.

 Now I shouldn’t look at things that bother me, but often it is so prevalent that it is unavoidable. I saw it on the water a week before when the clone army visited a stream I was fishing, and I got a look at the new tactics. What was cool to them looked to me like a group of Shriners riding about on miniature motorcycles, each dressed the same and running in circles on the river. I stopped to talk to one, and somehow got on the subject of flies, and proclaimed that we had a lot to be thankful for in the writing of Ronalds and others. “Who” he asked?

 See, that made it worse, for now not just the art was gone, but so was the history…

 And that was what was finally bothering me: the utter eclipse of the history of the sport by runaway modernism driven by identity and marketing, with a dose of poor attention span and lack of curiosity thrown in for good measure. My inner peace was not at one, not flowing evenly.

 History is important to me, and it should be more respected, studied and cherished, if not even acknowledged more in our sporting… in my opinion. I just had to add those last three words, because we all have opinions, and one of mine, for what it is worth, is that if we don’t know where we have been, and how we got here today, we face the danger of a lack of foundation to guide where we are going… thus the jig-head ‘flies’ and desire to compete by catching more fish than anyone else, and prick every lip in the river to prove something to ourselves and others that should not even have to be proven.

 Peeking back into Schwiebert, I looked at his excellent illustrations of Berners’ flies and had a moment of epiphany. History. I would go back in time once again…

 I am no stranger to this, with a degree in history focused on ancient and medieval history, I had also been an avid medieval recreationist, fighting battles in armor, making armor, leather boots, doing illuminated manuscripts, embroidery, Celtic knotwork, etc. back in the day.

 So this would be my revival of a sorts, a cleansing of my soul of disturbances and corruptions. I would purify and free myself by tying and fishing simple medieval flies.
My medieval flies with materials and montage

 I had the picture in my mind as I sat down at the vise. I rooted through old boxes of detritus and odds and ends, and located a box of antique wet-fly hooks in size 12. Then I opened a box filled with dyed wool. Years ago I had purchased a large square of merino wool from Royce Dam, noted fly-tyer who passed away this spring, and had undertaken to use old Veniard dyes to color them. I dyed up dozens of patches in every hue in the rainbow, and also dyed the kitchen sink, parts of the floor, my hands, and even part of the toilet. I had enough wool dubbing for an army of a hundred tyers, and a cleanup project with bleach and scrubbing. No experiment is ever without its little mishaps.

 These English flies of the late 15th century were a ‘departure’, at least historically, from the standard silk-bodied flies in use at the time. I put ‘departure’ in quotes because our understanding of history is often like a team of one-eyed, myopic, opinionated professors trying to describe a picture with only seven pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in front of them, and the other 93 missing. No doubt, wool-bodied flies had been in use in regions where wool was abundant in Europe. After all, one used what one had from sheep sheared and birds falconed or fowled. There were no catalogues, or rather very few mass printings, since the press had not yet been on the scene for all that long, having been just invented in 1439, and dedicated mostly to religious subjects. Even Herter’s didn’t have a catalog in the 15th century, although old George might have claimed that he was around at the time, obtaining silk cuttings from ancient tapestries for dubbing mixes, or trading for Carolingian period French daggers (East German surplus) which he would pawn off as the greatest hunting knife ever… but I digress…

 I then located some silk floss, and a large package of various small patches of soft-hackle hen, rock partridge and grouse feathers, and was ready to go. The flies are as simple as they get, and that simplicity seemed in keeping with the cleansing process and journey. Floss is tied on, wool dubbed and spun on, the silk ribbed through, and two simple wings attached at the head, reversed or not. Three materials and a hook became an elegance in miniature, a subtlety of classic beauty without any baroque attributes of flash or flair.

 I spun up three variations: a fiery brown fly with yellow floss ribbing and a mottled brown soft-hackle hen wing, a yellow fly ribbed with olive and receiving a dun wing of hen, and finally, a dark olive fly ribbed with black and using mottled grouse for the wing.

 I was set, and as I made plans for the next day’s fishing, I assembled a bamboo fly-rod, and furled leader, and placed the flies in an old metal spring Perrine fly box.

 But would they work….


Part the second: The anachronism goes forth


 The day dawned sunny and cold and I decided to wait until the old thermometer hit 45 degrees and the afternoon sun had time to heat up the water. I fortified myself with medieval tea (cheap English Tetley’s), and a strong dose of hot soup that had been the fridge since the 100 years war. (more like two-weeks, but it was a bit old for vegetable soup…) I threw the gear into the car, and hesitated a moment looking at my old 13th century sugarloaf helm I used to fight in, and after musing a moment, thought it might be a bit shiny and bright for the prevailing conditions, and also might land me in the local asylum if anybody saw me fishing in it. I donned Dad’s old Irish hat instead, and placed a few of the new (old) flies in the band of tweed.
Not quite appropriate...

 The water was in spectacular condition: clear as a bell and with good flow, but the sunny skies made this upstream effort with a wet fly and no indicator kind of a leap of faith. I selected the olive fly, tied it on and began fishing anyway. I was lacking in control of the fly in its drift and had no contact at fifty feet distance, and the sun prevented me from getting closer. That and the splashy rises and midges in the air led me to switch to a dry and fish properly for the conditions. I caught a few fish and missed more by the time I finished the run and walked upstream to the next piece of water. I again tied on the medieval wet, and after it got ignored through the rises, clipped it off again and went with the midge dry. Perhaps this experiment was a bit silly after all. Five hundred year old flies might be pushing it, even for me.

 I continued to fish up the runs taking the odd fish on long casts in the clear water, and considering it a successful venture anyway since catching wily trout on long casts and light tippets using size 22 dry flies is an accomplishment any day of the week, even though it was not my mission this particular day.

 It began to cloud up a little to the south with dark gray cumulus legions advancing slowly, but the sun in its evening waning was still lighting the water. I should have known what was happening before it happened. A fish turned on my midge and ignored it. Rises were still sporadic, but my fly was now the strange ugly kid with warts that nobody talks to. Then I spotted a fly that seemed to be a little different than a midge. The clouds in the sky triggered a clearing of the clouds in my head as I realized I was in a light hatch of tiny blue-winged olive mayflies. Switching flies, I hit a nice ten-inch brown full of color that took down the tiny olive with an audible smacking of the chops. Then the wind picked up and I ran out of water as the sun crept behind the trees. No more risers. I had a bit of a walk back to the car, but since it was the witching hour and owls were beginning to announce the coming hunt, and the light was now fully off the water, I decided to put the olive and dun medieval fly back on and swing it downstream in the classic wet fashion dating back to the dawn of the angle.

 It was like a bomb went off in the water. The biomass of hatching olives were still present as emergers, even if the few hatching adults were blown off the water. The trout were cruising just under the surface picking off the swimming nymphs. I looked at my fly in the water and a light bulb went on. The soft hackle wing folded back along the curved semi-translucent wool body like an emerging wing of dun or gray to match the overhead clouds. The fly looked perfect as it swung, and I was unprepared for what was now happening. Every cast was tapped by fish, mostly not hooking themselves, splashing on the fly, bumping it and eating it too. I began to pick up fish on every other cast, mostly little punters, and I made my way downstream, taking a large step between each cast across and down the river. The technique was as simple as the fly was. It was working!

 When I got to the pool I had the most faith in, I immediately hit a slightly nicer brown and landed the lip-hooked olive diner with a smile. I thought, “Well, I did it!” Enough was enough, just time for one more cast or two…. After all, the old now chewed up medieval fly had just landed more fish than the rest of the day put together…

 The fly was struck as it turned the corner and tapped again. Thinking it a small fish pecking at the fly, I twitched it in the water and was surprised when it was jolted down, and the fly line was yanked out of my hand as I set the hook and the reel began playing out line. The fish ran down the length of the run with the old Orvis 1980s CFO reel protesting its age with a grizzled gravelly complaint. What had I hooked? The flash of honey and butter in the water as the fish turned to run back upstream made my jaw drop. It fought like Jack Dempsey, all dogged and bruising as a brown trout should be, and put a heck of a bend in the cane rod. When I landed it, I marveled at its colors. This guy was the big honcho in the pool, all one foot plus of him. He fought out of all proportion to his size, and crowned the day for me. I felt the clouds clearing from my soul, and the sun winked its last rays through the pines and hills, as the cleansing melted off the concerns and I clipped off the fly. I had done what I came to do. Prove that a simpler world can exist, and that something used in the middle ages could still catch fish, and even do a better job of it than all the rest of the day’s efforts. A blob of shredded wool on a hook with a torn up scraggly wing twitched and swung looked like a bug to him. All the technical innovations were absent in the fly. There was no hype, no noise… it was pure.
Five hundred year old flies still work!

 There was one more pool to go before the car, but I had enough of a good thing, and never re-tied. In that moment, it struck me. Restraint.

 Dame Juliana wrote about restraint and moderation along with her flies, methods of building a rod, and angling back in 1496. That and a new appreciation of history and simplicity went with me into my sleep picture as the night coolness descended and I dreamed of trees, and otters, and old flies come new again.

 I was healed.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The changing aesthetics of our tools


Found object wanderings and reflections…

I was going through my old Orvis super tackle pack vest the other day looking for something or other, when I opened one of the pockets and pulled out an old pocketknife. It was a Shrade old-timer model with three blades. At first I thought it was one I placed in the vest, but then as I examined it, I realized that it was in there all along, and belonged to the former owner that I inherited the vest from. The blades were a bit rusty after all the years, so I opened it up and gave it a quick pass with the Arkansas stone and some honing oil. I then sat and reflected that it belonged in there, and so placed it right back in its pocket. It will come in handy for the hundred things small pocket knives come in handy for, most of which can’t be predicted. This was just like my first pocketknife my dad bought me from the Downer Avenue Hardware store back in the early 1970s. That knife is long gone today, but it was cherished back in the day, and a big event for a kid, as I imagined all the amazing things I could do with it, most which would either get me in trouble, or were a bad idea in the first place.

In looking at this knife, it began to symbolize and aggregate a series of thoughts I had been having about the evolution and changes to our tools for the outdoors, fishing and hunting in particular…

I had recently visited a Cabelas store to poke about, and found myself in the hunting and gun area, where there was a knife display. There were still some simple pocketknives on display, but they were outnumbered by far with what I guess could be referred to as ‘Tactical knives.’ These all had several things in common. First, they looked dangerous… even outright gruesome. No bone or horn handles here, just plain utility of black plastic and stainless steel. They looked like something that would be at home butchering a small herd of Jurassic creatures, and if push came to shove, much of the neighborhood. They were half hunting utility knives, and half combat weapons.

I strolled over to the rifle rack to see what they had, and yes, there were still a few classic bolt-action rifles in the mix, but in general, 80% of what they carried were plastic stocked facsimiles of military combat weapons.

Then, while waiting at the bank, I picked up the stack of magazines on the side table and found a recent edition of Outdoor Life. As I thumbed through the pages looking for actual content, (what the heck happened to content?) I began to realize how completely things had changed since that day when Dad gave me my first knife.

Call me dim, or call me Rumplestiltskin, but sometimes I can’t see the bigger changes like the proverbial forest from the trees until confronted with the time to waste looking at things I don’t really want to see. The magazine I browsed through was so different from those I read back in the day, and the biggest changes were to those of our tools, and how they were portrayed being used.

The aesthetics had shifted so far as to baffle me. It was actually difficult to recognize some of the fishing rods as fishing rods. They looked like power tools. Also, somehow large trucks, chewing tobacco, and camouflage clothing crept in on every page accompanying ads for items as diverse as lip balm, or adult diapers. It all had a certain look, a certain aesthetic that sold a way of life. It hit you in the face. All things were POWER, BAD, RUGED, DEADLY. I turned back to the cover to make sure I didn’t pick up a survivalist magazine by accident. Nope.

Arriving home, I opened the mailbox to find a new fly-fishing catalog, and encountered similar themes. There was a new reel named ‘Assassin’, and some of the rods looked like odd struts for racing bikes that somebody had adorned with corporate logo bumper-stickers. There was a new fly rod named ‘Badass’. I wondered what had happened to ‘Goodass?’

Well, label me a luddite, but I was confused.

Everything changes. Consumer products most of all, as our generational outlook shifts and wishes to establish its unique identity, and distance itself in an unending quest from the past generation. Identity is the foundation of marketing. I pondered whether marketing and product design and aesthetics were leading us or following us. Were the changes utility, or a mirror of our collective outlook on the world. If the later is the case, it might be a little disturbing.

I guess I missed the beauty.

Yes, that can lie in the eye of the beholder, but I do think that a classic wood-stocked rifle with beautiful bluing, a pocketknife or fixed blade with rich wood or horn handles, and a fly-rod that actually looks like a fly rod are beautiful tools of the outdoors. There seemed to be no beauty in the black plastic and stainless world, for it contained not just utility, but a perceived technology and newness with more than a hint of ‘Badass’ thrown in for good measure. A technological look was better. Our tools of the trade had to look space-age now. They had to be dangerous.

The language had changed as well. We no longer seemed to be experiencing nature, but instead to be at war with it. Dad fished with a fly called a ‘Professor’ or a ‘Governor’, not a ‘Street Thug.’

There was always was a ‘Look’ to the outdoor sportsperson, from the fishing vest and bucket hat with lures dangling, to the felt shirt, tweed, pipe, and etc. that passes today for classic or old or outdated or silly. However, there was no required look in the past. We all dressed for the outdoors within a certain accepted boundary, but we were not yet pressed from the same mold or else not ‘Cool’. It seemed to me as I looked through the magazines that today, the new aesthetic was the ‘Look.’ That was more important than the deer or the fish, the skill, or the experience. I looked at an ad for a saltwater fishing trip and was instantly aware that if I were to attempt to embrace the new look, that I would not know which way to correctly cock my ghetto flat-cap, or which gang signs to flash as I held up the fish. If I did try, I might be like somebody’s aged uncle who, after imbibing too many martinis at a house party, attempts to perform hip-hop, causing everybody to excuse themselves, or stare at a house plant while grimacing in embarrassment.

But then… I am not the target market. Thinking people who like to read and research tend not to buy-in as readily. We seem to question things more. “Why is this better?” “What about this thing that has worked for years?” With knowledge of the outdoor sports and its history of gear, we can make refined choices, and more and more I see a push-back to a simpler time and an appreciation for both utility and ‘classic beauty’. Perhaps the growing legions of people who are turning away or back feel that marketing and the new gear have finally gone too far, and their intelligence is insulted, or maybe it is because we no longer listen to the noise, being too busy using the gear we have in outdoor pursuits to take the time to ponder if we are up-to-date or cool. When one stops looking in the mirror, a certain freedom can develop…

As a craftsperson I appreciate fine leather, wood, and natural materials. Waxed cotton instead of nylon, etc. Back in the day my father did too, and instead of trying to distinguish myself or differentiate myself by embracing the newness of generational change and marketing, I use what he and his generation left to me. Classic gear. Rooted in aesthetics, beauty and simplicity and not affectation, but also in a simple thrift. My old Pfluger Medalist or Hardy Perfect reels works as well today as it did when dads and uncles were fighting the Germans, and the guns they purchased when home and settled are still providing meat for the freezer. I hunt with Dad’s old Steyer and Browning today.

Just like the old pocketknife I discovered in the vest. Sharpened up a bit and polished, it will relive a boy’s adventures and dreams some fifty odd-years later. It still looks beautiful, and too boot… I actually recognize what it is. It may not be new, cool, or badass, but then… neither am I.



Thursday, March 15, 2018

Art is naked

This came out this last January as I wrote some sophomoric text or typing.. (writing vs. Typing...) on my website. I just needed to break free... and this emerged... Enjoy!

Art is Naked


Reflections and journeys in art and self-expression. A letter to myself.


Don Quixote by my mother Mary Theisen-Helm


Art is naked. Art is as naked and sensitive as we were the moment we were born. Fragile and at the mercy of a cruel world. Cold and bright and new and scary. Art is baring our souls to the world with no armor. Art is so fragile. Such a risk. Art is dangerous. Art is a hope for acceptance and joy, but a fear of rejection while naked on a stage. Art is bright, art is dark. Art is both a reflection of ourselves, and of how our expression is excepted. Mirrors upon mirrors…


Showing our inner-most thoughts and self-expression. Throwing it out there to be laughed at or… even accepted from time to time. The barriers and shields of life.. our shrouds of common existence laid bare and waste. Self-expression, putting out your inner self and fragility…


The birth of art is naked too. It exists alone, must be created alone driven by creativity bordering on madness.


Innocence of ideas uncorrupted by any other person or outside influence… of any critique.


The dangers of conformity. The voices in our heads or in others that want to change us. To make it all understandable. To be so unique as to be absurd… forced to find a voice that is not yours… or to conform to a common grouping… a classification.. you are an X artist or a Y artist. The unique but fragile voice like a child’s quavering first attempt to sing. Don’t quash it.


Without some sort of mental illness or psychological aberration, art could not exist.. the world would be black and white and boring and tasteless.  Albert Camus wrote : “If the world were clear, art would not exist.”


Dangers of listening to critique. Dangers of non-acceptance or ambivalence. Learning to put on soul-armor and masks. Self examination after criticism or non acceptance. Self-loathing and the decent into despair. The Van Gough effect? Putting down the brush and pen and picking it up again because you have to. Creativity and the need to get it out. Alcohol fueled ideas and paper and canvasses crumpled, crushed concepts reborn later in new joy and clarity.


The small acceptances along the way. A kind word like a feast… like light into a dark room. Warmth on a cold gloomy day. The flowers that bloomed in your head as you walked in the hills, blossoms of ideas in shades of seasons.


Of those who don’t understand and our wanting to explain or alter our art to make it more accessible. Our final acceptance that most people couldn’t ever appreciate the subtleties in a C├ęzanne landscape and move their lips when or if they read Yates.


It began with the realization of who you are. I spent my youth along side my classical pianist father, and my prolific and amazing mother who’s painting brushes dripped in colors of unending talent. I was always creative, but spent so much of my life trying to be someone I wasn’t. A success. A business guy. A corporate clown. Only to have a mid-life crisis, give up my job, my career, my life, move clear across the state to a small rural town and wallow in the joys, successes and fears of creating art. The risk is naked too… It was born long ago when telling a story around the dinner table. My cousin told me I should write these things down… so I did… Badly at first. Then with more clarity and gaining a voice… I never had my father’s ear, or my mother’s brush. Instead… in the middle of my life, I discovered a pen in my pocket.


Creativity is a joy in itself. Mom would finish a painting and move on to the next idea, seldom stopping to sign or frame it. I understand. It just has to come out…. Art for Art’s sake and creativity for creativities sake is not sin or vice.


The ups and downs. The self-doubts. The heights of joy unparalleled when revisiting a creation of art and finding it perfect… at least to our minds… and just being pleased with a line drawn or written…. For the moment.. the moment is naked too.


Living for that moment….


And the confidence….


To put it out there, structured how you want like a piece of jazz only ten people will ever understand…


And meeting some of those people…


Art is life. Life is living. Living is art. Art is home.