Over the past two summers in rural Indiana, I rekindled my life-long love of fishing. Last summer, just before our trek up north, a student told me about a small river nearby where trout were released and could be caught by special permit. Having grown-up fishing for rainbow and brook trout in southwest Colorado, I jumped at the chance. He picked me up the next morning; I got my trout stamp, and we were off.
We arrived and decided to work our way with the current through a section of water that seemed ideal for trout. A honey-hole with a decent sized crappie every other cast distracted us for a half hour or so, but we finally made our way to a perfect break: the current ran into a wide and still section of river and fish were rising at healthy intervals.
We fished with a sense of urgency; rainclouds were looming heavy and thick, and the number of trout was limited.
Walking gingerly down a worn out path on the bank across from us, an older gentleman joined, wearing waders and fishing with a tiny jig.
We muttered a polite, but not intrusive, “good morning” and he soon began to whistle softly and catch a trout. I smiled towards him and was amused — but also a little bit annoyed — and tried to pay closer attention to how deep he was fishing his jig.
After a while, he asked, “Where ya’ll from?”
We gave the easy answer. “Crawfordsville.”
A few more casts, no more fish.
“What you doin’ in Crawfordsville?”
A few more casts, no more fish.
“What you studyin’ there?”
We gave our respective answers; mine revealed that I was a professor, not a student. He raised his eyebrows in a way that told me he was somewhere between impressed and incredulous, wondering if I was full of it.
“What do you teach at Wabash?”
The rainclouds were right on top of us and it was just a matter of time before we’d have to settle for that consolation mess of crappie we caught earlier — but no trout.
The old man was still chewing on my answers, I could see him glancing at me between casts, measuring my words and me against each other.
“Yes sir.” — My Texas manners kicked in.
“Well, you any good at it?”
I grinned. No one had ever asked me that. People usually mix up philosophy with psychology and tell me about a course they had, or they’ll ask me to tell them “my philosophy.” Other times they’ll ask me if I believe in aliens. This is why I avoid disclosing what I do: I hate explaining it. But this was a serious question, this man made good sense and deserved a proper answer. Am I any good at what I do?
After a short pause, I explained, “Look sir: if you ever meet a philosopher who tells you that he’s good at philosophy, then he’s probably not very good at it.”
The old man smiled, chuckled, and looked at me across the stream with light in his eyes as he said, “I can get that.”
Thunder was clapping in the distance and droplets of rain were starting to mix with the rising fish on the glassy surface.
The old man made his last cast and lifted his stringer, offering his trout to us. We thanked him and put it in our fish basket, with the crappie.
We stayed and fished till we were soaked, shivering, and flirting with an electrical storm knee deep in a trout stream.
I learned an important lesson that day; that kind old man taught me something that I’ll never forget. Our honest exchange deepened this notion of “pastoral philosophy” that I’ve been trying to develop in my work.
Yes, I suppose this post was something of an advertisement. I do hope you enjoyed it.