Friday, August 28, 2015


When’s the last time you sat in the still night air by a lake or river and listened—really listened? There for the price your awareness is a symphony for the soul, one that expresses, more profoundly than any words can, a deep sense of place and time, of belonging, of a romantic’s yearning for simple, timeless truths. Where is your sound-on-water place?

I have this romantic notion in my head about the way sound carries over an expanse of water. The image that keeps coming to mind is that of an east- central Minnesota lake around the end of the 19th century. It could be any lake, though—perhaps one you remember fondly.

In my reverie I see families who've come out here from Minneapolis or St. Paul by horse and wagon to spend the long summer afternoon swimming, boating and reveling in the crystal clear waters. Laughter shimmers across the water in small, agreeable waves, eventually washing up on every shore.

As evening draws in around the lake, lovers row aimlessly, never beyond sight of the dock—but lost anyway. By nightfall, most have gone home, but a few campfires wink from surrounding woods. The snap…snap of the burning wood sounds like it’s yards away, not half a mile. You can practically hear a whisper across the lake.


You’ve been here before, haven't you? In your childhood, or maybe just in your imagination? What is it about a scene like this that so captures our imagination?
Is it the purity, the utter care-free simplicity of a more innocent time (or at least a time I have the luxury of being able to render with poetic license)? I guess that goes without saying for us slow-it-down, soak-it-in romantics. But there's more to it than that, something about how the mood gets carried in those sounds.

I know there are scientific reasons for how sound waves carry across water—something about the water surface and the cooler air just above it combining to contain and channel them. But that doesn't interest me as much as the symbolic meaning.

     These sounds—if we let them—draw us in.
     Whether we like what we hear or not, they
     connect us, define us, define our community.

For me, sound is spatial. I think of the way great, spreading American elm trees define the space under and around their huge, fountain-shaped canopy—and how they used to form cathedral-like arches over St. Paul’s residential streets. Like those magnificent arbors, sound encompasses everything it can reach.

If you're a city dweller, it might be the muddled shouts and laughter stirring the thick summer evening air from the baseball diamond a block or two away.  If your neighborhood's a little rougher, maybe it’s the sounds of more boisterous goings-on. Whatever the source, these sounds—if we let them—draw us in. Whether we like what we hear or not, they connect us, define us, define our community.

   While a quiet lake at night may serve as the 
   instrument, the notes originate in the soul.

Imagining once more that idyllic summer evening at the lake, that sense of community is somehow intensified. With no competing noise, the clarity and reach of that laughter, those campfire conversations and lovers' whispers, seems funneled through our ears and right to our souls. It wraps around us. And the symbolism of its having to reach across such a chilling, empty space makes the connection feel all the more intimate.

Maybe that's part of it for me—a longing for community. Don't you feel, sometimes, that we're losing that sense of sharing a beloved place or space, of wanting to protect it, of belonging to it and to one another? That, more and more these days, everyone seems in it just for themselves? 

Perhaps. But why curse the silence when we can make music? Listening for the vital signs and sounds of community doesn't mean we have to live other people's lives nor fix all the world's problems, because while a quiet lake at night may serve as the instrument, the notes originate in the soul. All we have to do is pay attention, listen with our hopes and our hearts, and care what we hear.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY – Hooked, Lined & Sinkered in Tortuguero, Costa Rica

I suppose I should have known I was being had when Franklin, my taciturn Caribbean-Costa-Rican tarpon fishing guide, handed me that rusty, beat-up, medium-weight spinning rig. On the recommendation of our lodge in Tortuguero (in Costa Rica's northeast, Caribbean, corner), I’d paid him his $150 up front to put me on some of that magnificent, acrobatic game fish, revered by its aficionados as the Silver King.

Once he’d skillfully tiptoed his tiny, open boat through the swirling currents and standing waves at the river’s mouth, it appeared Franklin might just meet my expectations after all; there were tarpon everywhere. The mirror-bright flanks of their sleek, 50- to 150-pound bodies caught the sun, flashing in the murky, blue-green water as they “daisy chained” ‘round schools of six- to eight-inch sardines. The bait fish, hundreds of them, turned and darted in unison as if one fluid silver-blue organism.

I was ready.

PHOTO: Tony Cappechi

       There I was...shooting fish, as it 
       were, entirely outside the barrel.

As quickly as my hopes had risen, that's how fast they fell again when Franklin reached under his seat and pulled out his "professional” fishing-guide tackle box. (It was really the small, cheap plastic kind a ten-year-old American kid would buy at WalMart for $9.95.) Inside, strewn atop the one swing-up tray, was a motley selection of well-used lures. He picked up a big, lead-headed jig with half of its red and white feather streamers still intact, and handed it to me.

“Poot deese own deah,” he mumbled indifferently, pointing to the swivel clip on the end of my line. Figuring he must know something I didn’t (After all, he is a professional guide, right?), I complied. Then he said, “Now drope eet ovah and let eet foal to dee boatum…dat weah dee feesh ah.”

I was nearly too dumbfounded to speak. “Ah-h-h, but I can see the tarpon! They’re feeding up here right next to us,” I protested. Franklin was unmoved. “No, dey own dee boatum!” So there I sat, jigging that red-and-white lure up and down off the sea bed twenty feet below as I watched the awesome monsters I was fishing for circle near the surface, feeding on those silver-blue herring.

Just in case, I grabbed my line just forward of the reel and pulled, checking the drag setting. It was set way too tight for these quick-striking, powerful fish, but when I tried turning the setting knob, it wouldn’t budge. Great! Even if I accidentally snagged one of these brutes, I’d have to pray it went easy on me.

My frustration simmered. I looked around and noticed another boat, even smaller than ours, drifting about 100 yards away. Standing in it was a man fly-fishing. I admired his effortless style as he flew his streamer back and forth over his head, feeding it another couple of feet of line with each false cast. Then, about 60 feet out, he let it drop. He watched it sink a couple of feet and then retrieved it with deft tugs of his free hand.

Suddenly, the man reared back, lifted the rod high with both arms and laid into whatever had taken his bait. Before he knew what hit him, a six-foot tarpon exploded from the water, thrashing wildly back and forth. It seemed like one of those sport fishing highlights films, where the action is captured in slow motion. Wow! I thought, this guy’s just caught about a hundred-pound Silver King...on a
fly rod!

And there I was, fishing the wrong lure in the wrong place at the right time—shooting fish, as it were, entirely outside the barrel. Maybe it’s because I’m from Minnesota, but it dawned on me that I’d been sucking it up to spare the feelings of the man who was robbing me.

  I hadn’t turned the crank more than 
  five times when it hit, the kind of strike 
  you get when you’ve suddenly snagged 
  a log—except this one was moving.

My admiration for the fly-fisherman turned to envy; the envy to resolve. Enough
of this!

“Oh, my God,” I blurted, pointing to a random spot in the water just behind Franklin. “That one must be close to 200 pounds!” As he turned to look, I seized the moment, reaching down and opening the main compartment of his tackle box. And there it was: a six-inch long, silver-blue, Rapala type lure. Not only did it look exactly like what the tarpon were feeding on, it was practically brand new.

“How about this one?” I asked, my tone carefully measured somewhere between question and demand. As he turned back to face me, our eyes locked in gritty stares. He blinked first, and I picked up the lure. He started to reach for it, but I’d already unclipped my snap swivel. He scowled, mumbling something under his breath.

With the right bait on, I flipped open my bale, cocked my arms and wrists, and let fly a modest cast in the direction of the other fisherman. (I was so intent on my own hunt now that I didn’t even notice if he’d landed his fish.) The faux sardine landed with a splash and I started reeling. I hadn’t turned the crank more than five times when it hit, the kind of strike you get when you’ve suddenly snagged a log—except this one was moving.

I set the hook as hard as I dared with that pitiful equipment. From the moment
I’d casted, it couldn’t have been more than ten seconds till it happened: my drag nightmare came true. Before it had even jumped, the tarpon took off like a shot…and then that sickening sound fishermen dread, that of heavy monofilament line snapping. Just like that, it was over.

I’ve had many sport-fishing captains console me on the loss of a big fish. Sometimes they counsel me on what I might do differently next time. Most are eager to get another bait out there. Franklin? He was just pissed. Here this pushy white guy, obviously a man of wealth and privilege, had just lost his prize lure on, of all reckless things, a fish.

Red and white jig? Bounce it on the bottom? Proper drag? Trust me, I’m a professional? These and other snarky comments clawed at the thin fabric of my restraint. I realized, though, that shaming Franklin would accomplish nothing. Besides, I still had to rely on him to get me back, through those treacherous waters, to the lodge.

Still, though I was more than ready to end our laughable outing, I wasn’t about to let the man off the hook. So, with no more lures in his little Plano box that even remotely resembled a herring, I tied the red-and-white jig back on, dropped it in the water and kept jigging—for nothing more than jigging’s sake...and perhaps to drive Franklin's hourly rate as low as possible—for the rest of our contracted time.

Franklin just sat there brooding—calculating, I suppose, how to lure his next sucker.