John Merwin Book Excerpts

It was a lemonade evening, hot and muggy; the kind best spent in a big rocking chair on the porch of an old country hotel, with a pitcher of freshly squeezed lemons and a water and sugar and ice close at hand. Thunderheads had filled the afternoon sky but were now passing to the northeast without rain, and the sky was clearing as the sun went down. The air was gradually becoming cooler, but not much, and I was grateful for the chill of the river around my feet as I sat on a rock and watched for rising trout.

A big yellow mayfly drifted on the surface past my legs, and I scooped it from the current. Large wings of pale-yellowish cream and a butter-yellow body marked with fine bands of brilliant orange. A Cream Variant--Potamanthus distinctus, if you prefer, which is a common northeastern mayfly--and one of many I hoped to see as darkness fell. If present in sufficient quantities, the flies are big enough to draw the attention of large trout….

I watched another yellow dun emerge at the surface, float briefly, and then go lumbering off through the still air as it headed for the shelter of the hemlocks. Its flight disappeared in a brown blur, and I was startled. There were almost a dozen cedar waxwings perched on as many hemlock branches overhanding the pool, and they were obviously waiting as I was, although not for trout. Another mayfly took to the air, and two of the birds went in long, swooping dives toward the same target. The mayflies were clumsy, slow fliers and easily taken by the birds, which made me wonder how enough of the insects could ever reach shelter along the banks and thereby survive long enough reproduce.

There were more mayflies at the surface now, and even more in the air, which was also filled with darting birds. I heard a trout rise in the dark water near the far bank, the sound of a low, deep chunk! that one learns to associate with bigger fish. The fish fed once again as I watched, taking a dun from the surface with the same noisy authority. I had marked its location the second time, and dropped a big Cream Variant about 3 feet upstream of the fish. The fly drifted for only a few seconds before the trout took hard in a broad swirl…[and] made a long run upstream along the ledges. Eventually the fish came quietly to hand at the edge of the pool….

It was almost dark, and the birds had disappeared. The mayflies were continuing to hatch in gradually diminishing quantities and were flying to the sheltering trees unmolested except for a couple of small bats that flew in crazily erratic circles over the water. The bright yellow insects were like points of light over the black water, and I could follow their flight easily until they disappeared among the dark green branches. It was obvious that in spite of all the predators attendant to their hatching that the mayflies had found their safety in numbers.
--From The New American Trout Fishing (Macmillan, 1994); used with permission from The Booksource, Inc.

Black clouds curled around Red Mountain and swept quickly up the valley. The big maples turned silver and gray as leaves by the thousands turned their pale undersides to the gathering wind. I got out of the river and walked up to the shelter of a covered bridge just as the rain started clattering on its metal roof. There was a quick flurry of hail amid occasional spits of lightning and the echoes of thunder in the hills. Stream-bank alders bent and tossed deeply toward the water in the gusting wind, and small branches went skidding and twisting through the air, then splashing into the river. It was a furious few minutes, exhilarating to watch from my secure spot sheltered by the trusswork bridge. And then it was over.

The hot, humid August afternoon resumed as if never broken by the storm, whose passing was marked only by a few small branches and leaves floating into the current. The black macadam of the Cambridge-Arlington road steamed in returning sunlight, quickly becoming as dry and hot as it had been before the rain. Although it had rained hard, the storm had passed quickly enough not to raise or muddy the river, so I walked back down to the quiet, alder-shaded run where I'd seen several trout rising earlier in the day.

The river was quiet and cool, its summer temperatures kept quite low by numerous springs along the banks and bottom and the shade trees along its margins. There were little blips and bubbles against the far-bank darkness where water dripped from the alders, and several times I started to cast until the dripping water repeated itself and I realized I'd been fooled. Finally, there was the merest wrinkling of the smooth surface amid some green, drifting leaves. Then another. Soon I could see the quiet riseforms of half a dozen trout feeding almost imperceptibly at the surface. I smiled and rummaged in my vest for a little box of terrestrial patterns, happily counting my trout before they were caught.
--From The New American Trout Fishing (Macmillan, 1994); used with permission from The Booksource, Inc.

Along the upper Battenkill, there are Dorset ladies with cheeks of tan. They come back in the spring--May, usually--as gaily colored in their country-club cotton prints as the warblers that arrive at about the same time. The warblers have wintered in Central or South America; the ladies in Palm Beach or perhaps Sarasota. You can find the bright little birds if you look carefully along the marshy bottoms where the Battenkill slips darkly without a sound through the alders, and you can hear their sweetly insistent songs in the high Taconic thickets above the village. The ladies are more evident, flocking as they do to the post office, village store, or any of a number of golf courses, much like a Helen Hokinson cartoon from the old New Yorker days: "Oh darling! How was your winter?" in a voice gone to gravel with gin and pushed past a jutting jaw. These are summer folk, of which, like warblers, we have many.

On a recent holiday weekend, one of those in July that brings throngs of hikers, bikers, picnickers, walkers, and assorted other tourists to the upper valley, a veteran Dorset lady stood outside the post office complaining at length about the traffic. She ended her tirade with a devout wish that her little village would be as peaceful as it was a hundred years ago. At that point, a local man who happens to be well versed in local history stopped reading his mail, turned, and said loudly, "A hundred years ago, you would have hated it here!"

Her eyebrows shot skyward…as the man explained…that a century ago our little town had been a major center of marble quarries with dust, dirt and assorted rough characters everywhere. The local population had been much greater then, the man continued, and various forms of commerce more evident; so wasn't it nice that things had settled down so quietly?

The woman had no answer, turned abruptly and escaped to her car. My neighbor went back to his mail. I drove south down the river valley, smiling at my newfound perspective and braking often to avoid flocks of bicyclists. Many miles downstream and into New York, I finally found a river section free of swimmers and canoes where I sat on the bank, fly rod in hand, hoping to spot a rising trout. Here a yellow warbler flashed brightly above the slow-moving river, snatching a small mayfly from the air and returning to the dark bushes along the opposite bank. The bird's brilliant yellow reminded me of my morning village encounter and set me to wondering what the valley must have been like; not a mere century ago, but before white settlement. The brook trout must have been giants then, measured in pounds instead of scant modern inches, and I might have heard a howling wolf rather than the automobile horn of an irate motorist.
--From The Battenkill (Lyons and Burford, 1993), used with permission from Lyons Press

Just as the railroad bums used to sing of a Big Rock Candy Mountain with its eternal springs of lemonade, so trout fishermen dream of No-Name Brook. The brook always flows somewhere in a shadowed ravine or sunlit meadow. Here the water is always cool and clear; never high and muddy, and never low and hot. There are always wildflowers along the bank or carpeting the meadow, and green moss thickly covers the rocks and ledges, perhaps with a bed of watercress where a cold spring quietly drips. You'll see songbirds, of course; probably bright little warblers darting on golden wings from bushes to snatch mayflies in the air, or perhaps a water ouzel, with its quick white wink, slipping out of a rapid and onto a rock with its beak full of caddis larvae collected underwater. Unlike many such brooks, No-Name has no blackflies or mosquitoes in its little valley; rattlesnakes, leeches, and other things that bite, claw, or scratch have been likewise mysteriously banished. The wind isn't the reason, I know, because in this valley the wind never blows.
--From The New American Trout Fishing (Macmillan, 1994); used with permission from The Booksource, Inc.