I never really understood fishing, kind of hot & bored, or shivering & bored, sitting on a dock or a boat…waiting, waiting, the line sent dissapearing into the water hoping the lure or bait is the right one, or that mimic-bug sent floating on loops, hoping it will be tricksy enough to fool a fish, maybe a trout, shaped in the flowing streams of the last ice-age melting, when blooms of flying insects, paired with the sleek fish to make the story of a thriving system—the trout and flying bugs in a co-evolution; add in an angler with a fancy hand-tied fly and you have a narrative. Anglers (from the old English word for hook: angle) Fishing without a hook—nets and gathering isn’t angling.
I get the eating part of fishing, and oh!… now that I think about it, I’m remembering being on a boat in the waters off East Bali, near Chandi Dhasa. I’m fishing the waters of my own mind and look what I’ve hooked. I’m with a guy I got friendly with who owned the hotel we’d used for one of my tour groups teaching watercolor, that gaggle had skedaddled home and I had a week to poke around, to see what I could find on my own, off the train track of a tour —I was teaching him about painting pictures of the fish he’s caught—loves the fishing—he took me out with him so I could snorkle those waters to see the reef-glory face-to-face. I’m back in the boat after seeing the school of Moorish Idols I would use in the picture called “The Committee”. Their stolid expressions rang a bell in me. Balance and coordinated motion on a tapestry of turquoise, the stunning grace of an ecosystem intact and thriving. Wonderful warm water, it’s hot on the equator.
The night before our fishing excursion we had gotten together with his fishing buddies for a little ceremony (did I say the Balinese live in an ongoing carousel of ceremony?). They do. Temple refreshing ceremonies which always include some kind of performance; mask dance, shadow puppets—every village has three temples to Bhrama, Vishnu and Shiva refreshed with music and colors and flowers—there is always some gaiety going on. Every 70 days brings a new festival. At every doorway there will be a little basket of rice grains, some flowers and a smoldering joss stick. Refreshed every morning. One economist from the University in Denpasar estimated the Balinese spend 30% of their waking hours ceremony-izing. We had a visitor from Bali who was a University Professor of English Lit, a very rational person, who was deeply disturbed walking the streets of San Francisco, “There are so many Demons loose, no one is giving them offerings! this is a very scary place.”
So our little pre-fishing get-together included a ceremonial beverage, brewed of palm sugar, probably on the other side of 120° alcohol. It was swigged hillbilly style hoisted on a shoulder, “fisherman’s brew” they called it, clear liquid in a glass jug so you could see all the sea creatures floating. A few tiny sea-stars, a baby octopus, some fish, a marine worm, seaweed, all to propitiate the Butah-Kalas, the demons who live under the sea, dangerous and rampant if left unnoticed. And this is the point, I believe, and I’m reminded, it’s all about noticing. We’re living in a culture of super-noticing, but noticing an ad for a pill to cure depression, noticing that nifty new all-electric vehicle, noticing that super-slick vacation you’ve been meaning to take, noticing that political cinder of a soul hell-bent to do you wrong, is precisely the wrong kind of noticing. Butah-Kalas everywhere so you haven’t a moment to yourself. These demons are attached to your desire, noticing them only gives them strength. These demons are not irrational phantasms, they are very real. Just go to a Trump rally, irrational, yes, phantasm no. Real as it gets.
Noticing the sea in that jug will make our fishing trip successful, for example. The sea is in the jug, can’t miss it. And brother, we’re noticing this fire-water, like man…are we noticing, all the way down the gullet and through the next morning. I’m a clean machine and a little hung-over for even more of this noticing business… my head!
I climb back aboard the boat giddy with the wonders I’ve seen—yes, the Moorish Idols, Angel Fish and tiny Mandarin Fish, who could be appearing on a psychedelic poster soon. Any lingering hang-over washed away, I’m in a swoon. My pal feels his line his line jerk, wrestles with it for a while then into the hand net and landed in the boat. It’s the spectacular Trophy Cod also called the Reef Grouper, bright red-orange with polka dots! of cerulean edged in black. Impossible! As it thrashes it begins to fade in color so you can witness all that vividness is chained up to its life. Unhooked and back into the sea it goes. The next one will be dinner, this one is too big and ready for breeding; our smart captain knows the biology. He wonders out loud, “Have we put an end to evolution?” He’s a Brit, a Cambridge-trained biologist, happily living the good life on this Island of the Gods. A very smart gent.
Have we put an end to evolution? It is a deathly scary time we live in on our burning planet. It’s my feeling we could do with a lot more of this propitiating of the Butah Kalas, the demons loose in our very souls. Our desire machines—gimme gimme, want-more, like muddy boots swaggering across mamma’s clean carpet. My fisherman friend (I’ll call Robert) has it about right. He created a simple life for himself, simple, but a bona-fide paradise. His hotel is a circle of individual rooms all with porches overlooking a Koi pond with arm-length silver and gold fish so tame they enjoy nibbling their kibble right out of your hand. You’d have to go some distance to find a paradise garden more complete, mangoes and papayas thudding to the ground.
My wander-week includes going to a wedding, what a layout of food, but I’m shooed away by the drunken revelers. I do get to see a pavillion where no inch is left undecorated with fluttering banners and fruit laid up in pyramids, all offerings to the gods. These folks are a superstitious bunch and I may be bringing some inattention that could spoil the party. I make friends with a woman staying in one of the other rooms who’s rented a car and we bomb around for the rest of the week ending at a cremation festival. It’s an expensive proposition so less wealthy families wait til a “big-man” is set for the flames so they can add their deceased to the fire. The Balinese first bury their dead, then dig them up to go into the flames, then pour the ashes into the sea. It follows the Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu in a tripartite notion of God. Brahma is the Earth, Shiva the flames and Vishnu the sea. The solemn organ we get at the funeral home is no send off worthy of a loved one.
This bull holds the body of an important person, all the lower-caste folks will be burnt along side so the attention of the gods is focused. In an other procession with a marching gamelan band, the ashes are scrabbled out and tossed into the waves. Pay attention people!…have a fine time doing it.
I started out being sort of crabby about fishing, fishing as a sport?? I don’t see the sport, dragging creatures into the air…maybe I’m still crabby, though I sure enjoy a tasty plate of lox on a toasted bagel, which reminds me of my roots—Jewish. If you look at the Daily Prayer Book for the observant Jew (of which I am not), you will find a prayer for even the slightest of life’s events. Judiasm closely practised is a religion of noticing. There are prayers for seeing your child smile, for seeing a rainbow, for having a good idea. I wonder what the prayer is for catching a fish? Because in this excursion, I’ve gone fishing on the banks—the great memory banks holding surprises in abundance—the great fishing grounds. Why bother?… sister….please!!!
This just in, I had forgotten about this piece, Fishing for an Idea, sold 40 years ago. I guess I’ve been thinking about fishing for a long, long time….how could I ever leave out that piece? or for that matter Taj Mahal singin’ us out with the fishin’ blues…https://youtu.be/wNsQI-abvCo