Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
Among the thirty-two American Rhodes Scholars who “went up” to Oxford in the autumn of 1958 was Charles Fish, a recent graduate of Northwestern, though elected through his home state of Vermont. We were both from rural backgrounds, and both students of literature; and we fell into an easy friendly relationship, though we didn’t actually hang out much together in Oxford. Chuck, as I then called him, was at Hertford College, with its wonderful faux-antique “Bridge of Sighs” spanning New College Lane. I was at Jesus, in the Low Rent District. We both submerged ourselves in Oxford life, but later resurfaced and reconnected in graduate school at Princeton. Fish began there in the fall of 1961, and his reports were among the encouragements leading me to join the program the following year. He had by then married Eleanor, and I spent my first night in Princeton under their roof. Life later took us in different directions.
Now think of the late 1960s: Vietnam War, SDS, Back to the Earth, hippies, yippies, and the Democratic Convention of 1968. The Flemings, including two small children, are spending their summers encamped in the deep backwoods of the Arkansas Ozarks, ostensibly building a log cabin above the wild Buffalo River. They have joined together in an intensely bonded mini-commune with a small group of undergraduate friends, including a handsome and accomplished Floridian from the Class of 1970, one W. Dale Allen. This man loved the wilderness, worked like a dog, preached the green gospel; often of an evening he stood atop a crag in the wilderness playing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on a flute!
I have just finished reading, with the keenest of pleasure, Charles Fish’s published account of his efforts: an elegant book entitled In the Land of the Wild Onion: Travels Along Vermont’s Winooski River (2006). The Winooski flows through northwest Vermont, and mainly in a northwesterly direction, debouching into Lake Champlain in the general vicinity of the Burlington campus of the University of Vermont. Not long before that it meanders through Fish’s boyhood home in the village of Essex Junction. In its time the Winooski has performed the confused tasks assigned to so many of our rivers its size: it powered mills, watered cattle, flushed away the filth of riparian civilization, not least that of Montpelier, the state capital. At some places it is as fresh as a fisherman’s daydream, at others boxed into concrete culverts like a storm sewer. Fish covered every inch of it, apparently mastering along the way an impressive amount of history, woodcraft, hydrology, sociology, ichthyology, soil conservation theory, and industrial archaeology. His true forte is human ecology—interacting with the people who go with the river, so to speak. Fish is an expert in American literature, and his deft writing recalls some of our best naturalists—Thoreau, John Muir, or Wendell Berry, perhaps. (Lest the high seriousness threaten to intimidate, I should add that his actual navigation sometimes recalls Jerome K. Jerome.) A wise man once said: “All true patriotism is founded in the love of locality.” I recommend this beautiful and patriotic book.
Dale and his wife Karen are traveling in Panama at the moment, and he lacked the time or vanity to send me a current digital photograph. I can offer you only this example of the platonic decay of forms, a shade of a shade. You can see why the Philosopher-King would brook no artists in the Ideal Republic. But Dale did tell me that his project was at least in part inspired by those long-ago summers on the unspoiled Buffalo, which, on March 1, 1972, became America’s first National River, including within its permanently preserved precincts Prince Fred’s Knob, the mountain on which we so mightily labored.