“please burn my letters
let them writhe,
all the love and the lack,
let the blue meet the black,
let my words become fire”
–Jeffrey Foucault, ‘Heart to the Husk’
Overhead a fire is licking down the stairwell, a 1200ºF wave that bends around the landing and rides an upswell alongside the railing to our left. There are three of us in line ascending the treads, pushing ourselves into the corner opposite the rail and crawling prone, wishing for a greater gravity or a heavier tank on our backs or any weight at all that will press us closer down into the steps where it’s cooler. We overlap each other, enough so that the boots of each are in the face of the other.
The man at the front reaches to the top landing, opens the nozzle, and 250 gallons of water per minute flow through the hose held tight in the crook of our arms. The hose snakes under our bellies and weaves through our legs, in the same way we wrapped them around the fire pole we slid a few minutes ago. A solid stream of water that began in the Cascades and flowed into the city water mains via the Cedar River, exits the nozzle but it doesn’t reach the seat of the fire roaring just five feet in front of us. Instead the water vaporizes. It converts in an instant to steam, expands at a ratio of 1200 to 1, and pressurizes the space around us with the weight of a few atmospheres. It’s a wincing heat. This universe goes from completely black to infinitely black. Our ears squeeze and pop and the pressure of this cosmos permeates its molecules into the pores of each of us.
The fire is gone now and so is the water, each lost to the other as we all become one another.
In a brief moment everything begins to cool. The water that began in the clouds falls like rain again from the ceiling and onto us. The nozzleman is still sweeping the hose back and forth to the room and around, providing cover as two of us drag what was once a human being down stairs and into the fresh air it will never breath again.
In my mind’s eye am I no longer am I able to discern any clear difference between water and fire, who together and elemental have held stay over my forty-one years, a space of time undercut by cold water falling down freestones and fanned by flames rolling overhead and burning down the barrel of a scorched stairway. I’ve been weathered by them both –these two old gods, wrinkled and blistered and polished like the leather work gloves we all are. They raised me in their joint custody and brought me up in a wet world that burns.
For a long time now I’ve been a busy fireman in a big city and a bamboo fly rod maker in a small one, and each self is a koan for the other still not yet understood, if even informed of their difference. There are moments of clarity that arise; pauses, unannounced and barely perceivable, they are the songs over a static radio. I can almost make out the words, the jumbled melody of a broken story that falls from the speakers in fragments that I can’t reassemble.
Once I heard a song in pieces under the static white noise of a river. It was about a creek and boy who waded it and cast flies that he tied over it, until once the boy and the flies and even the creek itself became fire and were lost. The story in pieces didn’t have an ending and may never, and may forever just carry on along in the seams over fish that feed in the pockets and rise and fall in answer to the evening hatch.
This evening I’m at my rod planning bench looking out past the back of the house. The day’s end is beginning and I have an audience of evergreens resting in the tired light of dusk. A reprise lingers, perhaps the coda, holding onto the last note of a song, and there is an eight-foot long culm of raw bamboo across my lap soon to be a split-cane fly rod. Soon it will be a totem or temple, or another limb anchored to the heart of whoever holds it with a line drawn deep into the clean water it reaches for.
Within an arm’s reach of me there’s an old hand plane, a splitting knife and a file. A book of wooden matches is in my breast pocket and all the utilities of the trade are here. Off to my side spools of thread float in a wine glass soaking up a few disciplined sips not taken off a Malbec, the white silk turning the color of blood not yet at the lungs. The thread will wrap guides onto the rod and telescope to wet world that was all at once an ocean and a cloud and a raindrop and a tear.
Against the window sill a few feet away is my favorite book of poems for the occasional pauses that pass making a rod, as glues set up and finishes dry; pauses best timed by the length of a poem –the collection in this case titled By Cold Water. And there is a not-forgotten cup of yesterday’s coffee nearby. Spools of silk swim in here too. Oily and cold. A dark level ring haloed above the black sheen reflects the days last slights of light and I recall the lyric in an Isakov song,
“I’m mumbling in the kitchen for the sun to pay up
lonely is the ring on a cold coffee cup”
Outside me there’s a 3000-acre Cedar and Doug Fir forest. Sword and bracken ferns stubble a duff ground cover so soft and quiet I can almost walk up on a deer close enough to touch it, or close enough as a friend wrote “to roll it an apple”. Aptly named Angelhair grows off the stump of a fallen broadleaf Maple. On the back patio sits a stone fire pit where two leaping salmon are facing each other, each cut from sandstone and embedded in its rock wall. I lit some kindling a moment ago. In another hour a hemlock I bucked and split last spring will be a heap of coal hot enough to temper this bamboo for a split-cane fly rod that will witch out of time and toward wonder.
Pictures, ephemera and images adorn the walls all around this bench, but the window trim in front of me is left void, save framing the forest. Only one photograph is tacked inside it at eye level, a photograph of note that will never not be tacked at eye level inside all my windows.
It’s a note from an 18-year old young man to his parents, one he wrote often and sometimes left on top a worn out copy of The River Why, a book he’d read 8 or 9 times. Liam Wood worked an afterschool job at Bellingham’s local fly shop. He was born for water and reached out for the cold and clean and reeled it all back in. Even as a child he tied flies and read water and studied streams. For his 9th birthday his mom took him to a fly shop and by age 14 fly fishing enveloped the world he inhabited and he was as natural to it as the grass that grew in the streambeds he stood in.
His heart beat on the banks of the blue and green that flowed over freestones until the time the note was wrong and he was not back before dark. The time he was killed with a fly rod in his hand. The time 237,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline spilled from a pipeline into Whatcom Creek where he was fly fishing, and exploded.
It was June 10th, 1999, just a few days after he graduated from high school.
Here at my bench and still looking out, it’s not quite dark. This northern latitude and the recent summer solstice split the days wide open with an almost endless length of light. The fire is laying down.
Twenty feet past me runs a small creek, the smallest of creeks, which flows from a spring a mile up the mountain. It winds through the woods to a small pond just below our house where frogs and fish mingle and countless generations of mallards take their first swim. Heron and wood duck and owls frequent this little wetland puddle. My young boys skip rocks across it. They call it Lost Creek but this is where we always find them. I once watched my nine-year old hold company here with a horned owl for nearly half an hour just feet from each other and I wondered which one was there first.
Creation stories bring us out of darkness. Science says the dark massless opened with a big bang and a flash of light ever expanding, until. The bible tells us once there was only darkness and when the light came the light was Love. The Hindu talk about a singularity that always was and ever is and will be. The origin stories all tell of an infinite cycle of contractions and expansions, an endless knot of light and dark that forever ripples like rings ripple on the water and disappear on themselves, disappear back onto waves made by the hatch of a mayfly and back into the void it rises from.
And the wisdom literatures all say darkness will return.
They all say our saviors rise in the form of Light.
About 3:30 in the afternoon 911 calls started coming in from people reporting a fuel odor in the park. The first firefighters to arrive at the Woburn St. Bridge saw pink and rainbow fuel free flowing in the creek underneath and fumes floating up to the treetops, blurring them in a fog. They began to evacuate the forested park within 200′ of the creek on foot, working upstream to find the source of the leak. Soon later, one fireman thought a jet engine was flying low and loud overhead until he felt heat pressing against his back.
The unleaded gasoline spilled down and filled 1.5 miles of creek through the 241-acre Whatcom Falls Park. Around 5 pm it burst into a miles-long fireball and dark smoke billowed 30,000’ into the blue sky meeting it black and took Liam’s life with it and took the creek with it too.
Liam was discovered by search crews around 9 pm, lying in what little water remained in the smoldering creek. Gone was the blue and green. No longer cold and clean. Gone was the endlessness of running water that once fell as rain. The creek, now mostly dry, stopped flowing and what little that still pooled was on fire.
It would be nearly three days before the last wisps of smoke stopped sending up their ash and signals, and three days before the smoldering banks subsided to a creek again flowing through charred remains.
Outside it is now dark. Night has arrived. The flames simmered down to an orange and blue over black coals and I’m by the fire turning this long culm of bamboo in the embers, bringing the cane up to temperature. The heat drives out the moisture and bakes the sugar inside the fibers to a ligament more tensile than steel. Burn and scorch marks sear the outer sheath.
By now the culm of bamboo is so hot I have to wear two pairs of leather gloves to handle it. The water content inside is spitting and spilling out the ends of the culm, boiling up and out of the long cellulous fibers that run the length in its entirety, fibers that once touched the ground and pulled the earth in. The sweet cane steam smells of fresh candy and it curls in thick with the rising smoke of the fire, floating all the way up to a sky now full of stars.
Here, I’m far from any streetlights or lampshades and the darkest sky is pin holed with starlight from endless yesterdays. Light from infinite singular worlds in their beginning and end, shining a light older than time herself and landing on an aurora of fireglow.
Without fire this cane would be just a willowing blade of cut grass, lifeless and incapable. The cane fly rod needs this kiln or would otherwise lack the resiliency to return from a weighted bend to straight, lack the lever action that allows an eight-foot long, three-ounce split-cane fly rod to deliver a dry fly across 100’ of cold water to a rise.
There are other ways to apply heat and temper bamboo for a fly rod but because I’m a seasoned fireman with burn and skin graft scars of my own I refuse to do it any other way. I have followed fire down to its seat and taken water there with me countless times and have felt heaven and hell and light and dark there together, ever to remember the young man that was once there too.
This culm of cane I’ve now kept an hour above the fire is tempered. Its resonance, if tapped, has changed from a dull thud to a tight ting. The metals and minerals soaked up from the ground it grew from are forged. No longer pale, the culm is bright and light and seasoned.
And gone is the weight of the water it held until I walk a few steps to the creek and submerge the burnished bamboo completely into the spring. The baptism quenches and cools the cane, infuses it again with cold water. I’ll leave the culm here to soak till morning and balance out the equation of what was lost above the fire, restore some timelessness and endlessness as it wicks back up the culm.
Tomorrow I’ll split these fibers with a knife and hand plane them a few thousand times. Shaving cane little by little in measured and tapered strips to laminate back together. Down at its end, at the tip, the rod will measure only a few hundredths of an inch across. Those few bamboo fibers will cradle the full pull of a wild salmon swimming up an ever moving stream. That energy that always was moves down a thread of cane and into the bare palm of a hand that holds it in prayer, and into a story.
Eventually some balance will be restored and this bamboo will be a split-cane fly rod, and it will never not be. Fire and Water, the world’s oldest gods, here are inseparable and indistinguishable and so is the spirit of a young man who loved what the fly rod reaches for. He floats along the seams and lives in the pockets and rises and falls for the evening hatch, and he is also the seams itself and the pockets.
It is late and I am tired but I am not yet ready to go inside. Through an open window upstairs the soft and low light of our home spills out to the night like Love. I hear the warm acoustics of a Jeffrey Foucault record spinning under the ordinary murmurs of conversation between my wife and our young boys. Their sounds fall onto the back patio and roll over my shoulders before getting lost and found in the chorus of a creek and a fire.
The limitless starlight above me, I know, shines from suns that extinguished a billion years ago. The fire in front of me grew from the embryo of a flint strike against a stone fish and shines its light back to them. So many times I’ve crawled under a roaring fire that burned the back of my neck and left something lost. Somehow all of this always was and still is and never won’t be, like a bamboo fly rod and a memory and the story they both tell under the white noise and static of the river.
The answerless question ‘when does the darkness end and the light begin?’ is on my mind, but I lack the mindspace to feel my way around this. It is impossible to grasp the idea that nothing is ever created or destroyed, that everything always was and still is and has only changed in shape or form or frequency, travelling on a wave of light and a story that doesn’t end.
On the coldest nights here by a lost creek the fire peels apart the dark and burns bright enough to catch the eye of God. Once there was only darkness. Once we swam on the bottom of a freestone creek, under the ink black shade of thick hemlock and cedar. Sometimes, in the pocket water, in the holding below the basalt palisades, hatched a billion stars and we’d resurrect to the surface, out from the shadow to sip their sunlight.