In older times, the tradition of handing down manly skills was largely accomplished from father to son. How to tune up an engine, grill steaks, tie a double-Windsor knot, and open doors for ladies are but a few that come to mind. We learned by watching our fathers and listening to their instruction and correction.
My father certainly was my instructor for those things and more. He introduced me to fishing and hunting, and the moral choices faced by participating in those pursuits. Those days afield with him are among my most treasured memories. They continue to fuel my passions and guide my choices to this day.
But as I look at the skills and interests I now have specifically concerning outdoor pursuits, I find that I have additional fathers.
In his book “Fathered By God”, author John Eldredge recounts his attempts to become a fly fisher; a story that resonates with me on a visceral level.
Eldredge’s father taught him to fish, but he did not fly fish. Living in Colorado, John always wanted to take up the quiet sport, so as an adult in the information age. he did what I did. He turned to books and the internet to learn all he could on casting, fly selection, and reading the water. Having assembled book knowledge and equipment, the author set out for the river.
Eldredge waded in and began to cast, but was unable to catch even a single fish. Downstream, another fly fisher seemed to hook a trout on every cast.
Humbled, Eldredge left the stream. At a respectable distance, he sat to observe the master fly fisher. It turned out that the master was a guide on his day off . He invited John to share his water, gave him the right flies, and made sure he caught a few fish. Eldredge was “fathered” or mentored in an outdoor art by a stranger.
My own journey is a similar. My dad didn’t teach me to hunt waterfowl, bow hunt or fly fish. because those were not activities he pursued. He planted the seed that lead me to those passions. I desired to become those things, so I read, researched, and in turn was also fathered by men (and even a woman or two) along the way.
I also have fathers whom I never met; but I hear know them – I hear their voices in the words they left behind. Authors who instructed me in ethics, like Aldo Leopold; entertained me like John Gierach and Gene Hill. Still others who gave me glimpses into times past like Norman Maclean, Gordon MacQuarrie, Robert Ruark, and Roderick L. Haig Brown.
To this day, if I do not re-read MacQuarrie’s Old Duck Hunters trilogy (which is not only about ducks, but trout, deer, bears, partridge, and a warm relationship between a man and his father in law) before hunting season begins, I feel as though I have missed a significant part of my personal tradition…like Thanksgiving without smoked turkey.
Voices of the past guide me; a great cloud of witnesses accompanies me on my quests. I carry with me experiences and memories that are mine not only experientially, but also vicariously.
When I am gathered to my fathers, will I leave such a legacy so my children, and to those who come after that? Selah.