Outside Magazine, October 1998
I was struck in boyhood by a suspicion that rivers and mountains are myself turned inside out. I'd heard at church that the kingdom of heaven is within us and thought, Yeah, sure. But the first few times I walked up a trout stream, fly rod in hand, I didn't feel I was outside at all; I was traveling further and further in. The great love of my outside life became rivers, and the intricate web of water-dependent life that enables my favorite vice: fly-fishing.
A few years later I discovered the first love of my inner life: Asian mythology and scripture, an unlikely passion for an adolescent Oregon river rat. I read the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, the rivery wisdom of Lao Tzu, the bhakti poets of India, the Sufis of Persia, the mountain recluses of Japan. I learned how Valmiki — the author, according to legend, of that other Sanskrit epic, Ramayana — composed his verses. At the beginning of each day he scooped a little river water in his palm, gazed into it, and saw first Rama, then Rama's wife, Sita, then every god, demon, and hero, every love dalliance and bloody battle, every nuance and cataclysm, in all the Ramayana's 25,000 couplets right there in his palm. He sang what he saw.
I love Valmiki's story for an odd reason: In the summer of 1969, in the center of my left palm, I saw a trout rise. What's more, I believe its rising was a message from the mountains and rivers inside me, and that this message may have saved my life.
In the late 60s, my outside and inner loves ran into trouble. While I was forming my passion for rivers, the Columbia, just down the street, was being dammed, her salmon blighted. While Kabir was advising me to "seek the bird's, the fish's path," my friends were waging war in Southeast Asia. I began to feel that poetry and rivers and Asian scriptures might not cut it in this world. So I put both to the test: I abandoned them, instead setting out to get tough, get money, get real.
The highest-paying job I could find was in a plastics factory. The factory produced a red polyurethane dubbed Redskin, which started as a stew of toxic liquids and then was poured into molds and baked to hardness. There were spills at every fluid stage of the process, and spilled Redskin could only be removed with an acetone solvent. My main job was pouring solvent on spills, then hacking them free with a garden hoe. In the 140-degree heat of the factory's huge walk-in oven, solvent vaporized the instant it hit the floor, turning the place into a blinding, brain-fogging sweat lodge. I spent my Redskin career blitzed on fumes.
Six weeks into my new life, after another session in the oven, I staggered back to my work station feeling as if my mind was dipped in plastic. That's OK, I told myself. I'm getting paid. I'm getting tough. I'm getting real. I fetched an X-Acto knife and began trimming sloppy edges off plastic parts. Then something interrupted my leaden reverie.
Feeling a faint swirling sensation in my left palm, I glanced down — and saw a silver fin crease the surface of the skin. "Trout," I murmured, too oven-stoned for surprise. A trout had risen in the palm of my left hand. Its dorsal lazed up into sight and stayed there; broke the surface, making no ripples, and stayed there. I'd seen a lot of fish rise in my life, but never one from inside me. Half-forgotten river thoughts began to swim through my head. How did a trout get there? Did it rise for a fly, or what? What does it do inside me all day? Is it trying to escape?
Then a second set of notions struck. That something as fragile as a trout could survive in the Redskin plant seemed even less likely than the idea that one could live in my hand. But since this was the case, what was I doing in the Redskin plant? I grew aware of a throbbing that never left my body and realized it was the digestive rumbling of the whole dark building; I looked at the men with whom I worked and joked all day, saw the black rings under their eyes, the lethargic movements, the dried plastics slopped on clothes and skin.
I looked back at the rise in my palm and began to gasp. Like a beached trout or salmon I began gasping for life, suddenly needing clear running water, pebbled streambeds, and wild canyons so badly that my toughness collapsed, my eyes filled not with fume-tears but with real tears, and my palm — could this be happening? — began to bleed. I watched blood gliding down my lifeline like water down a sandstone canyon, watched it fall, then pool, on the factory floor.
It took me the longest time to realize I'd stuck the X-Acto through my hand from the back side and was staring at the tip of its blade in my palm. It took so long that, in the end, I reacted not to a blade but to a trout's rise and began trying to rise myself. Taking fresh aim at life and water, I quit my job, bought a box of 39-cent trout flies and the makings for a cheap fiberglass fly rod, built the rod, and began, like a blind man with an eight-and-a-half-foot cane, to feel my way back toward things I'd once loved and trusted.
The palm of a hand is impassive. Fists and fingers have an agenda, but what rests in a palm is free to tell its truth. It's been three decades since the trout rose, and over the years I've stood in the flow of rivers for thousands of days, held tens of thousands of wild fish in my hands, watched a million silver rises. To this day I sometimes cup a little river in my scarred left palm, and check for signs of life there.
David James Duncan is the author of two novels, The River Why and The Brothers K. He now lives in Montana.
Illustration by Jason Holley