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.