It was shortly after reading Harry Middleton's The Earth is Enough that I made the decision to give up trout fishing. Since fishing is one of the things my life has been largely about, perhaps this might indicate the vitality, resonance and power of this book.
I discovered Middleton later than most, a function of my suspicion of all things new, especially books, and especially squared books of fiction or books with fishing in them. I was aware of this author, but put off reading him, a gesture not unlike circling a sleeping rattler for several years.
Now, thinking back, I don't recall exactly what moved me to try. Maybe it was the quotation at the book's beginning by Loren Eiseley, someone I profoundly love and respect. Middleton's own preface was good, too. So, I thought, one page couldn't hurt anything, what was I afraid of? A page it would be then. It was a good one that soon became two, then three, then a blurred rhythm of reading and turning, turning and reading. Everything was there as it should be, the timeless craft of the old, arm in arm with the freshness of a new vision draped around the fundamental constants of life, death, love, God and family.
This is a book about love for all things that matter. In this case, one of those things is a simple fish, brook trout to be specific, brook trout living in Starlight Creek which runs through a poor Ozark farm. It is a book about a boy, three men, and a dog; it is the story of youth and age, and of learning. Like A River Runs Through It, this tale is based on fact, shaped by fiction, and the grace of it comes from the seamless combination of the two. Unlike MacLean's book, which is inevitably ruled by an abiding Scottish sternness, Middleton's work is something of an organic loose cannon, the texture plush and full of real surprises. In common with A River Runs Through It, the elements of humanity, time and place are made rich and true and enervating through genuine passion. Middleton's passion is manifested through intelligence, sensitivity and compassion to create a profound ode to the earth and to mankind, governed by respect, gentleness and humor. At all the appropriate moments this story will make you weep convulsively, burst out laughing, and cause you to ache with longing. The sadness is that these qualities certainly contributed to the doom of their creator. Passion and soul, the dual sources of everything valuable and meaningful, are not very hot commodities in our largely puritanical, Calvinistic, money-driven republic. In a society like ours, layered with ennui, greed, aggressive ignorance, dispassionate, poor-quality living, all soaked in a gooey solution of snake-belly-grade voyeurism a la Oprah et al., the sensitive frequently don't make it.
Shortly after reading all of Middleton's books the first time around, I called Jim Pruett, publisher of this current edition (whose urging to read them in the first place I ignored) because I wanted badly to get off a congratulatory letter to Mr. Middleton and I needed his address. Too late, Jim said, he just passed away. I'm only going to whine for a minute because, as Jim Harrison is fond of advising whiners, Go tell it to Anne Frank. To which I might add Dylan Thomas, or Rilke, or Calvin Kentfield, or Ray Carver, or Richard Hugo, or Don Carpenter, or Richard Brautigan, etc., etc. Self-pity won't get you a packet of ketchup at the cheapest restaurant on earth. But it still hurts to know that Harry Middleton rode the back of a garbage truck every night during the wee hours to put groceries on his family's table. All too frequently, in addition to endless money problems, many artists have difficult personalities and/or drinking problems, three omnipresent occupational speed bumps, any or all of which can be fatal.
At the end of this beautiful book, a young Harry Middleton takes a break from school to go back and visit the place where the story takes place. Standing on the hillside in the rain, he reflects:
All three men were there . . . . They were of the earth, totally, completely. I stood in the rain for a long time, just looking and trying not to think at all, for I had no wish to make judgments, nor to seek answers, nor harvest messages. It was only important that I had come one last time to this place, a boy's sanctuary. His solace. His home.
How dull the stones looked in the rain against the black-browed hills, the dark sky. Only here in these mountains, here with these old men, amid the creek, the trout, the natural world, had I ever ceased to feel alone. I recalled those winter nights on the roof of the farmhouse when we waited for the geese to come overhead and I'd felt like a giant nautilus adrift in a boundless sea. Yet how contented had I felt, even in that reverie, for all I was, all I would be, was inexorably with me there in my chambered shell. Albert, Emerson, Norwell, Elias Wonder, the wildness of the mountains, all of it was with me, and the weight of it all, my time here, set my course, marked my way. So it was still; so it would always be.
Russell Chatham Livingston, Montana 1995