Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Once, I read a story about a Chinese poet who rode through the hills and valleys all day on his little pony, writing lines of verse. He carried two pouches with him. One was filled with blank strips of paper on which he would write about the things he encountered and imagined. After he wrote a line or phrase on one of the paper strips, he would put it into the second, empty pouch. In the evening, he would empty the second pouch and arrange and rearrange its strips of paper into a poem. Over a glass of red wine, I like to think.

I thought about this distant poet and his method when I encountered a deer’s foreleg along the Truckee River. Someone hung it on a pine trunk. On this rare occasion, my pocket-sized notebook wasn’t with me. It was back in the truck. These are new times, though, and new technologies are available to the plein air poet. My cell phone’s text messaging function enabled me to write a line, and send it to my own e-mail address.

Severed deer’s leg hung eye-high on a pine trunk.

The game was on.

As always, I watched for insects during my approach to the river. I kicked the meadow grass and shook the bottlebrush aiming to “match the hatch.” Grasshoppers everywhere.

Grasshoppers jump one step ahead on the meadow’s edge.

The day was hot. I tossed my thermometer into the water and soaked my hat. The sky was Sierra blue and vast.

One small cloud and the sky no longer empty.

Sixty-four degrees. Trout thrive in water between fifty-eight and sixty-four degrees. The oxygen content is just right in that temperature range. When the temperature is higher or lower they seek out lies with higher concentrations of the oxygen they need to breathe. And when the sun is high and bright the trout simply want shade like the rest of us.

Brown trout slumbers in alder shade.

Over the course of half and hour, the brown trout refused the dry fly, nymph, and streamer I did my best to present to him. I text-messaged the line about the alder shade to myself while standing waist deep in the calm spot behind a big boulder, after I eased my cell phone out of my shirt pocket—the highest dry place on my body. Then the rubber hatch was on. A dozen kids floated by on inner tubes and makeshift rafts.

A young girl giggles through the rapids.

I was as careful and deliberate as I could be when I used my cell phone in the river. I’d dunked and destroyed my digital point-and-shoot camera the week before, on home waters. As can happen when the flows are high, I found myself pressed into much deeper water than I’d intended to wade. My fanny pack was completely submerged and I learned its old seams weren’t waterproof anymore. Now my cell phone doubled not only as a Moleskine notebook, but also as a camera. I used it to snap the (low-quality, I admit) image of the deer’s leg.

Bright trout struggles in Osprey’s talons.

While I was texting myself, an Osprey snatched a Rainbow trout from the riffles, just like that, from the shallow zone at the downstream edge of a gravel bar. The bird carried the fish up and up, onto a tree branch. The trout writhed high above the river, over an abandoned ice pond’s rock walls. An ice pond that was handbuilt by Chinese laborers one hundred forty years ago.

The ice from the pond was used to preserve the flesh of the river’s wild Lahontan Cutthroat trout. They were packed on this ice and shipped on trains to supper plates as far away as Chicago. Perhaps millions of these much-desired "cutts," which ran about the size of a salmon, were harvested during their spawning runs. These spawning runs were very effectively put to an end in the 1930s, with the construction of Derby Dam and its associated water management practices. Imagine, humans put an end to more than 4,000 years of a wild trout species's spawning run.

The river's dark memory pulls at stones beneath my feet.

Truckee’s Chinatown was the second largest in the West when workers built the Central Pacific railroad over Donner Pass, across the Sierra. Standing in the river, I thought about the transience of the Donner Party, the Chinese laborers, and finally the near-mythical Lahontan Cutthroat—all here on the Truckee River in their times.

Later that night, while drinking a glass of red wine, I thought about the Chinese poet and began assembling the day’s lines into a poem.