Photos by David Fettes (davidfettes.com)
Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while may remember when I wrote about my dad giving a speech on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The post was about the power that can come from knowing who the foxes in your henhouse are. In that post, I explained that my dad is the author of a book called Wilderness and the American Mind, an intellectual history of the idea of wilderness in this country that has been heralded for those same 50 years. He is also the author of a book on wilderness ethics called The Rights of Nature, and a series of books on early American history. You could easily look at my dad’s resume and conclude that he is a scholar who loves the outdoors, and while that is a true statement, it’s not the whole story.
The wild places came first. He loves the oceans and the mountains and the forests of the West, and above all he loves the rivers. He came west from New York when he was still a teenager to teach flyfishing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He learned to be a river guide – which is to say that he learned how to rig the boats, plan the food, entertain the customers with tales about the storied country through which they travelled, deal with weather, deal with emergencies and most importantly, read the water.
A boatman has to know how fast the water is running, how high the volume is, where the current is strongest, what the waves are doing and what is happening on the riverbed (rocks, sand, a submerged log?) The best ones work with the river the way a jujitsu master works with his opponent’s energy – with it, instead of against it.
I was on the rivers a lot as a child and I loved to watch my dad watching the water – standing on a slim trail on a cliff over a big rapid to scout out the safest way through, standing at the oars at the top of the rapid to get one last look before the plunge, standing on the rocks at the shore at the bottom of the rapid to watch his fellow boatmen pick their line through the waves and execute their plan. Even then, I knew I was watching a master at work.
My dad just rowed the Grand Canyon for what he estimates is well over his 50th time. He was in his beloved dory, Canyon Dancer. He is 76 years old, and he didn’t make a single mistake – didn’t grind over a rock, didn’t slam into a wall of granite, didn’t flip the boat in a massive wave. My husband was on this trip – fulfilling a lifetime dream to get to the bottom of the canyon – and Rob reported that the people who didn’t know my dad marveled at his physical accomplishment.
Those of us who know him marveled, but in a different way. It wasn’t, “Wow, how does a 76 year old do that?” It was, “Wow, that’s what six decades of being on the water teaches you. That’s what a lifetime of devotion looks like.” The rivers are my dad’s natural habitat. They are where he feels most at home, where he feels most connected to the planet and its habitants. He has given much of his life to the river – and that’s why he can navigate it with such grace.
So what does any of this have to do with writing?
It reminds us that mastery takes time. Being able to do something with grace and assuredness doesn’t come just from having passion; it comes from taking action, from doing the thing. It comes from practice, from study, from repeated failure, and endless effort. For a boatman, what this looks like is a lot of time at the oars, a lot of days under the sun, a lot of nights in a sleeping bag. For a writer, what this looks like is a lot of time in a room alone putting words on the page, taking them off and starting over again. It means learning how narrative works, studying how other writers move you, figuring out how words evoke emotion, inspire action and pierce a reader’s heart in a way that little else can.
It may be many years, or decades, or an entire lifetime before you have the knowledge and the experience to write the way you dream of writing. But it’s a wonderful way to spend a life, safe in the knowledge that you are doing what you were made to do.