David
Carpenter 

 

WHAT WE FISH FOR WHEN WE FISH WITH CARP

by Robert Calder

Reprinted with permission from NeWest Review

Carp

"Calder. We've got to have a meetin'."
     
Now, there are meetin's and there are meetings. A meeting, in my experience of them after three decades at the University of Saskatchewan, is a gathering of academics for the purpose of deciding on a course of action, though it just as often seems to end up as a recourse to inaction. An evil necessary for the democratic governance of the University--to decide on a change in program, for example, or on the hiring of a new colleague--a meeting nonetheless frequently becomes an arena for scholarly showboating, filibustering, bruising of egos, and exhausting of patience. There are almost always a multitude of visions and revisions before the taking of toast and tea-- or, in my case, the taking of a large, tranquilizing scotch and water.
A meetin', on the other hand, as called by David Carpenter, is a different kettle of fish. In fact, it is usually called in order to plan how to catch a kettle of fish.                          Sometimes, though, a meetin' is called to devise a communal feast or a foray to a favourite restaurant, to arrange a celebration of a friend's success, or to put together a dawn excursion to observe the grouse in their mating dance or a slither of snakes in their migration. Even if the meetin' is called to decide how best to console a grieving friend, its tone is set by Carp's life-enhancing exuberance.
        In my younger, ambitious days, I enjoyed committee meetings, but I now much prefer Carp meetin's. For me, they most often involve concocting a trip to fish the many wonderful little trout lakes nestled in the Narrow Hills region in northeastern Saskatchewan. Carp and I first went there together in the 1980s, when he shrewdly guessed that some time in the wilderness and on the water would help me work through a particularly difficult personal crisis. It was, however, a research trip for his 1992 CBC Ideas program on trout fishing (if you can call being paid to catch, eat, and talk about trout "research") that started a ritual which has been repeated every spring and fall since. Several participants in that project--writers Bill Robertson and Warren Cariou, and Carp's wife, Honor Kever, a visual artist--have become regulars, but the circle has since widened to include a variety of others, most notably Doug Elsasser, a remarkable man who has developed a variety of ways of living off the land near Togo, and Len Findlay, a workaholic colleague brought up on sea trout fishing in his native Scotland.
        There are those who believe that to be a member of this group one has to possess what Cariou calls a primal urge inexplicably overlooked by Freud: the piscatorial drive. The truth is much more simple: the circle is widening because at its centre is an exuberant, optimistic, generous, comic life force. It also does not hurt that there is also a lifetime's knowledge of pursuing elusive trout. Paul Quarrington has his piscatorial "old guy"; we fish with Carp.
        On the road driving north and in the cabin assembling rods and reels the night before fishing, Carp spreads an infectious enthusiasm that engulfs even my own innate pessimism. (He claims that his birth in Alberta has given him a natural optimism while I, born in Moose Jaw, have the Saskatchewan habit of fearing the worst--and how could it be otherwise for a life-long follower of the Roughriders?). For Carp, every lake will yield trophy fish--so long as we determine their feeding patterns, overcome the elements, and place ourselves in the right place at the optimum time. He is always convinced that the next cast into some viewless depth will bring up something spectacular and thereby connect him to the natural world.
        Carp--an absurdly inappropriate nickname for someone who should have been call "Trout" or "Brooks" or "Brown," though never "Rainbow"--developed a love of trout fishing and a reverence for the natural environment in a youth spent exploring the icy streams of the Rocky Mountains west of his native Edmonton. Now married to Saskatchewan (though, judging by his latest book, still courting it like an indefatigable lover), he has found an equal passion for its various terrains and especially its trout lakes, stocked as they are with hatchery fry. A glistening brook trout or a muscular brown does not have its birth line checked before it goes into his creel.
        No one surpasses Carp in his love of a stuffed trout cooking on the barbecue or several pan-sizers sizzling in enough butter to clog an elephant's arteries, but it would be wrong to think that he merely wants to fill his freezer. Return trips to Alberta to find the streams of his youth now teeming with fishermen and empty of fish have convinced him of the need to conserve a delicate natural world. This is one of the reasons that he is a self confessed "trout snob"-- only on rare occasions condescending to pursue "coarse" fish such as pike or walleye--and even a snob among snobs since he will fish for trout only with flies even when one can catch many more with artificial lures, iridescent marsh-mallows, "heavy metal" spinners, and other such technological horrors. For him the victory comes in deceiving a trout with a lure contrived to be as close as possible an imitation of its natural food. Others may catch their limits with chemicals and plastic; he has his principles.
        If there is a melancholic vein in Carp, it is in his realization that much of the world he loves is being eroded, misappropriated and abused into extinction. It is not a loss that he takes willingly. On every canoe trip into remote lakes, no matter how many portages, he brings back a bag or two of garbage--beer cans, styrofoam, chocolate bar wrappers, and discarded fishing line--not our leavings, but those of some earlier fishermen or hikers. It does not matter that the spoilers have long since returned to their city homes and will never learn from this example; Carp hears his own voice, and it tells him that even a small, isolated step toward responsibility might help save the future.
        For years, Carp has been guided by the same principle in his urban life. His friends have long been accustomed to receiving notes and letters from him written on the back of old English Department memos or Writers Guild reading notices. I even once received a letter from him and, turning it over, discovered on the opposite page the letterhead of a long departed girlfriend who, if she did not leave her heart, had left her stationery behind. In the face of the torrent of paper that gets pushed through our mail slots and across our desks every day, one might question the point of such an isolated personal gesture. For Carp, it is a question of whether he will betray his own conscience.
        Readers of his hymn of praise to the prairies, Courting Saskatchewan, will recognize Carp's reverence for ritual--even newly created private ones--and dedication to principles--even if they are personal and quixotic. It is such dedication that is now leading him, at the age of fifty-five, to leave academia behind and devote all his energies to his other great passion (pace Honor Kever): writing. Though he will give up a Full Professor's salary and receive a greatly reduced pension (he calls it a "pensionlette"), he is determined to fulfil a commitment he made to himself years ago to take early retirement in June of 1997. Time has become more important to him than money.
        Carp's move from academic to fulltime writer is simply the culmination of an evolutionary process that has been going on for twenty years. When he came to the University of Saskatchewan in 1975, he had the usual young academic's idea of building a long career around teaching the literature one loves to students eager to read and talk. As an undergraduate himself, he had not intended to be an English professor, instead following his B.A. with a degree in Education. After taking a memorable English class from Henry Kreisel, then the brightest light in the University of Alberta English Department, however, Carp changed directions and took an M.A. at the University of Oregon and a Ph.D at the University of Alberta. After two years on a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Manitoba, which included teaching one particular class in prison while a convict was being beaten to death a room away, he came to Saskatchewan.
        Carp always found a great deal of satisfaction in his university teaching. Over the years, his classes in Canadian literature have attracted a large following, and his supervision of graduate theses has been particularly dedicated. On our trips north, even when he has been on sabbatical leave, I know that from Warman to Prince Albert I have to shut up, turn off the radio and contemplate the prairie horizon because he is reading a thesis draft. On one recent occasion, we stopped in Prince Albert so that he could conduct a long distance consultation--on his dollar--with a student about a particularly problematic chapter.
        Carp has also been excited about his creative writing courses at the University, and he is genuinely thrilled by seeing students discovering the imaginative possibilities of their language and voice. He did the same kind of mentoring in the glory days of the writers colony at Fort San, but less well known are the many people who have mailed him a manuscript or dropped a folder of poems off at his home, hoping to elicit an evaluation of their writing. They always get a careful reading and a generous response.
        The academic life, however, comprises much more than reading and teaching, and Carp soon discovered that he was uncomfortable with other elements in the building of a professorial profile: the politics of meetings and the scholarly publishing necessary, if not to perish, at least to prosper. At the same time, he discovered that he was a writer.
        In the summer of 1975, Carp was in Austin to do research on the University of Texas holdings in Canadian literature. Staying in the Williams Hotel, a bizarre little television-less establishment patronised by visiting scholars because of its proximity to the campus, he found that the oppressive July heat and humidity precluded evening excursions to Rattlesnake Billy's and other cultural arenas, and so he began to write a novella to pass the time. Though soon consigning this disjointed draft to the bottom drawer of his desk, Carp was hooked on the idea of pursuing a writing career.
        The literary muse would ultimately be productive: three novellas, a collection of short stories, two books of essays, numerous journalistic pieces, and, of course, a book on fishing. In order to write these pieces, Carp had to find a way to balance his career as a professor with this love of creative writing. He found this in 1985, with the help of a sympathetic Department Head, and an uncharacteristically astute University bureaucracy, in a professional arrangement unique in Canada.
        Beginning in 1985, Carp began a pattern of taking every second year off his academic duties without pay. Though his salary was halved and his pension reduced, he had the time to write. His replacements during these years were creative writers--first a series of appointments shared between Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane and then renewed terms for Maria Campbell. The benefits to the University were considerable: at a time of budget constraints, it was able to bring some of Canada's finest writers into the Department; and Carp always returned from the isolation of writing with renewed eagerness to be in front of a class.
        In recent years, this unique arrangement has worked well for Carp: in 1994 he published a collection of essays, Writing Home, in 1995 the revised edition of Fishing in the West, and in 1996 Courting Saskatchewan. Early in 1997 Coteau Books is bringing out his first novel, Banjo Lessons. So productive has he become, in fact, that he has now decided to turn to full-time writing (and, of course, to more than part-time fishing). He has found a voice as one of Saskatchewan's shrewdest and most mature essayists, but I suspect that he sees non-fiction as the coarse fishing of the writing world, while penning a fine novel is akin to laying a fly perfectly in front of a wily old brown. He knows that the mother of all trout is out there to be caught and the father of all novels is waiting to be written, and he is going to devote himself fully to the chase. I hope he gets them both. Unless, of course, I get to the trout first.

Robert L. Calder
December, 1996

trout

 


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