Harry Middleton, The Earth is Enough: Growing Up in a World of Flyfishing, Trout, & Old Men
(1989, Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1996), 206 pages.
Harry, Albert, and Emerson
It’s 1965. The Vietnam War heats up and involves Harry’s father. As a twelve-year-old who has lived around the world, Harry is sent to stay with his grandfather and uncle on a hardscrabble farm in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. While most of his classmates look for ways out of the community, Harry wants to find a way to stay. He learns to fish and hunt along with gaining wisdom of the two old men (Albert and Emerson), and their dog, Cody. Both men have lost wives and now together. While they haven’t travelled far from where they live, they read widely. An atlas takes them to trout streams around the world. During trout season, they are on the creek at dawn. After fishing the morning Starlight Creek, around Cody’s Rock or Karen’s Pool, they work in the fields until evening, when they again fish. For the old men, fly fishing was a blessing to a “hard and often depressing life.”
Take only what you need
When a man in town known as a great killer of turkeys brags in the local diner about how one needs to be camouflaged to kill turkeys, Emerson digs out an old Santa Claus outfit and heads into the hills. Dressed as Santa, he kills a large Tom. He drops the bird off at the diner, saying that the key isn’t camouflaged, but being quiet. But the other man’s idea of slaughtering large number of birds goes against Albert and Emerson’s philosophy. Their fishing is mostly catch-and-release. Likewise, they only hunt for what they needed, a deer a season for meat and a few birds for a variety. When heading out to hunt, they only take a few shells. The rest of the time they delight in seeing.
Ambition appears lacking in Albert and Emerson. The local agriculture representative tries to tell them how their farm could be more profitable, but they aren’t interested. After all, more money would bring complications and complications are to be avoided. Fly fishing “saved them from the dreary life of subsistence farmers.” It gives “them a way to participate in the rhythms of the natural world other than my shouldering a hoe.” (77)
Nearby, in an old cabin, lives Elias Wonder, a Sioux and former Marine, who was gassed in World War I. Waking from the experience, he first thought he was Robert E. Lee and volunteers to surrender. As he regains part of his senses, he decides he is in hell as only white men populate the hospital. Ten years later, Elias shows up on the farm on his quest for death. The two old men, who weren’t yet so old but having lost their wives, adopt him and nurse him back to health. They help Wonder out by providing him with corn which he converts to moonshine to supply himself and the town. Along the way, for 40 years, Elias kept seeking death. When he was struck by lightning, he complained it only cleared his sinuses.
Another character in this book is the Reverend Biddle, pastor at the Primitive Methodist Church. One Sunday afternoon a month, he’d come over and enjoy some wine as he talked salvation with the two men and occasionally Elias. While Albert and Emerson fail to see the benefit in religion, they enjoyed the conversation. Having heard from the Reverend Biddle that the poor would inherit the earth, the two old men realize it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. “‘By the time we get it,’ snapped Albert one Sunday, ‘it’ll be like inheriting last month’s fish.’”
Conclusion and my recommendation
This was a delightful story, but Middleton’s writing can be difficult. More than normal, I found myself reaching for a dictionary to check the meaning of words like piscator, prolix, bilious, and splenetic… At times, the author jumps forward and looks back, such as when in the middle of the story, he thinks back on one of the men’s deaths. While I found this annoying, it didn’t keep from giving the book a five-star review on Goodreads. I enjoyed this story and will have to read other books by the author. Sadly, he died young, in the 1990s.
Many writers compared this book to Norman Maclean’s novella, A River Runs Through It. Both are about coming of age and trout fishing. Both involve the author’s life’s story with some novelist flare. While I see the similarities, I found myself thinking about the movie, “Secondhand Lions.” The old men in the book and movie come from different circumstances, but both stories involve a young boy staying with older men and learning from them.
I found the book to be a joy. While I don’t recommend the religious attitudes (or lack thereof) of the men in the story, knowing that we’ve been given enough and being grateful for what we have is a lesson worth learning.
A Quote to take with you:
“The angler hopes for nothing and prays for everything; he expects nothing and accepts all that comes his way.” (79)