Since I had open heart surgery a decade ago, I have felt that I have a new lease on life. So many things seem new to me. Along with a new heart valve, I have had cataract surgery on both eyes, so I also seem to have new eyes; I look out upon a new world, a fresh environment, in a new way.

Orienting oneself into a new environment can be invigorating, to be sure, but it can also be challenging and exasperating. So maybe it is not strange that while considering life anew, my thoughts have also turned to an activity that, in my thinking at least, is peaceful and calming. I speak of fishing, of course.

Fishing is something that I really know little about, except for what I have read and experienced from my friend, the writer Gary Garth, an outdoors columnist for USA Today and other publications. Gary, himself an accomplished angler, has often said that I am taken with the thought of fishing, rather than actually fishing itself, and I think he is right.

I enjoy reading about the art of fishing, while, despite Gary’s efforts, I have never been successful practicing the art. Along with Gary’s columns and articles, I have also been instructed by a beautifully crafted book about woods and waters, a book that was made into a motion picture.

Norman Maclean did not write the novella, “A River Runs Through It,” or any of his other stories, until he was in his seventies. The book, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, is about history and the tragedies and hurts inevitable in the passage of time. Two brothers, both fishermen because of their minister/father’s love for angling, grew up to take decidedly different directions in life. Both of the sons became writers, but the younger of the two, the brawling, drinking, freedom-loving, prodigal son, made fly-fishing into an art form before dying young.

“In our family,” Maclean wrote in the voice of the older brother, “there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen, and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.”

I love this book, not because of fly fishing, although because of Gary Garth I have experienced it by wading out into the waters of Casey Creek in Trigg County, or the White River in Arkansas, an exotic bamboo fly rod in hand. While my efforts have always been clumsy at best, I have dreamed about casting out in perfect rhythm a fly tied with my own expert hands.

Gary has done that very thing, but I can only dream, and I know that even when I waded out into Casey Creek I was not and should not have been successful, for as one of the sons stated in “A River Runs Through It,” “if our father had had his say, nobody who did not know how to fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him.” Oh well, I can still dream.

And I can still learn from the eloquent writing in this elegant book. In the closing scene, Maclean writes these achingly beautiful lines: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

Even as I look out upon a new world with new eyes, I too am haunted by the waters of the past. Sometimes the past weighs us down, in the sense that the late great Southern historian C. Vann Woodward referred to as “the burden of history.” Surely, at times we must seek to overcome the past, to throw off the burden of history. But then, there are times when the haunted waters of the past lift us up, and inspire us to wade on in a new world, somehow buoyed by what has already been endured.

Duane Bolin is Professor Emeritus of History at Murray State University. Contact Duane at

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