Men's Lives: The Confluence, Fly-Fishing, Tall Tales and Art
A book examining why inessential activities often give significance to our lives
Posted Apr 16, 2016
Having had, since childhood, the unshakable belief that much of nature exists to humiliate me personally, I was surprised to be charmed by a book about fishing. Although you will not find me in a stream or river anytime soon (at least not willingly, and if you do find me there, please notify the authorities) I have learned from reading a book titled The Confluence, written by David Van Wie, Phil Odence, Norm Richter, Bob Chamberlin, Ed Baldrige, Dave Klinges and Bill Conway, that fishing seems to be a celebration of unreliability and inefficiency; I have learned that fly-fishing is a joyful, patient and willing subjection of the self to what can't be controlled but which can be enjoyed.
The Confluence is an appropriate title for a collection of creative non-fiction pieces by a group of men pushing 60 who refer to themselves, with some irony, as “The Boys.” Confluence refers to a gathering, a merging, an assembling but while it applies to bodies of water, it doesn't necessarily refer only to that. Subtitled “Fly-fishing and Friendship” the essays included in this volume would not seem to come under my usual aegis since I can think of roughly 16,000 things I would rather do than go fly-fishing, yet the sharp and compelling collection of perspectives reminded us why inessential activities often give significance to our lives.
While using fishing as the ostensible prompt for each essay, the writers go beyond fish tales and tall tales. They examine men’s pasts, men’s emotions, men’s ideas about aging, men’s thoughts about family, men’s understanding of art, and men’s lives—and how they change--when viewed through the lens of long-term friendships: “We …drink more wine now. We fish until we’re ready for a break but don’t feel as driven to maximize fishing and beer consumption. Like the new Beaujolais, the early days were fresh and exciting, anticipated and satisfying. Time has smoothed the rough edges and blended the notes, and the vintage has mellowed into a familiar old favorite.”
When addressing the differences between the friendships of men and the friendships of women, it’s often noted that men more often base their groups on shared activities whereas women will get together for almost reason at any time. For example, women have book groups, but how often are the books actually at the center of our conversations? The book discussion is the occasion but not the basis of our meeting.
Men will go bowling, go to car shows, play poker or, yes, go fishing. Think of every old movie you’ve ever seen. The men go fishing.
But men are no less strengthened by the sense of community they forge during these shared experiences than any group of women—just because men seem to engage in parallel play or competitive activities doesn’t undermine their sense of tribal assimilation—or their ability to cook together (there are recipes and a fairly lengthy discussion of a food-stuff known as “Veg-All”), talk about literature and children and work, and enjoy one another’s company.
The Confluence celebrates adventure: not life’s huge and dangerous adventures but instead life’s small and repeated ones. The book reminds us that rewarding journeys don't have to involve danger or loss.
The Confluence reminds us, too, that even something as old as fishing still has resonance in today's world. Even when it’s no longer a practical skill—most of The Boys practice catch-and-release (something I’d once thought was a practice in dating)-- the act retains significance as an emotional rather than a practical act.
As one of The Boys explains, “Proponents of the catch-and-release ethic, doing our best to return the fish unharmed to the river,” enjoy watching the fish “dart off and hide in the waters from whence they came. We like to think of our excursions as ‘visiting the fish’ and that we are simply seeking to have a brief interlude with them before we go back to our business and they to theirs. Sort of like visiting a piscine Oracle or the Dalai Lama with fins.”
Each essay brings us close to a character by revealing something about the writer. Stories about family are sometimes wonderfully joyful and sometimes of breathtaking tragedy but none of the writing is sentimental and none of it is melodramatic. There's an even-tempered quality to the book that makes it seem as if the practice of fly-fishing itself guides these men to their better natures.
The weighty matters of the world are dealt with in passing—yes, there are mentions of climate change and questions about how the environment will sustain itself--but they’re not of the heart of The Confluence.
Like A River Runs Through It or A Walk in the Woods, The Confluence is a book for the best men in your life, the good guys, the ones with a sense of humor and intelligence who value loyalty and love, the ones who cherish rituals without becoming sanctimonious and who take the world seriously while taking themselves with an appropriate lack of gravity.
“We had discovered fly-fishing. It was going to be like this every time,” says one of The Boys. “Bugs galore, rises everywhere, catching fish, and drinking beer. With respect to the beer at least, we were pretty accurate. But in twenty-plus years, The Boys and I have yet to see another hatch anything like that first evening at the Grant.”
Let's hear it for The Boys.