I reached back to my New England roots and read some Robert Frost to Wally Vait in his final days. I read “Birches,” probably my favorite Frost poem, and one I thought the naturalist in Wally — and that was really all of him — would appreciate.
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
I don’t know if, in his youth in Minnesota and Oregon, Wally ever climbed and subdued a birch tree on his father’s farm, but it would not surprise me if he had. By the time I met him, when we were both in our 30s, he exuded the personality of a man who had spent time in wilderness, or at least the nearby woods, and who had extracted from his adventures the knowledge and spirit of a true naturalist.
Maybe I projected the Great Northwest onto him, but Wally was definitely not East Coast, though he ended up living here most of his life. Sometimes, with his walking staff in hand, he seemed like a Tolkien character from an old growth forest.
Once established in Maryland, he and his partner Rocco Martin opened a fly shop in northern Baltimore County to serve the anglers who came to fish the nearby Gunpowder River. Wally was among the conservation-minded members of the Maryland chapter of Trout Unlimited who worked with Baltimore City and state officials to establish constant flows of cold water from Prettyboy Reservoir to maintain a trout habitat that soon became excellent and heralded in the region.
Wally had been a river guide and a fly fishing guide. He guided me and many others into a world of fishing that was as much about being engaged in nature as it was about catching trout. Wally’s message was clear: Wade gentle into the water and appreciate the all of it — the water, the rocks, the nearby trees, the tiny insects, the life cycle of the brown trout.
But Wally had a rich sense of humor, and he understood fly anglers.
“It’s so beautiful out here,” I said one spring afternoon as we sat on a rock along the Gunpowder. “It doesn’t matter if I catch a trout.”
“Yeah,” Wally said. “I’ll believe you mean that maybe once.”
He knew the habits and habitats of trout. One overcast afternoon in the late 1990s, I stood with him on the Gunpowder, downstream of York Road, when he seemed to sense that Bubba was home. He claimed that, on the far side of the river, there lived a large brown trout. At the moment, he said, Bubba appeared to be sipping on a small fly. I could not see what Wally saw and for a moment I thought he was bullshitting me. But then he got serious and quiet. I’m not sure what fly Wally chose, but it was tiny. Without saying another word, he took a few steps into the stream and made a long cast across the current, mended his line and immediately hooked the largest brown trout I have ever seen in the Gunpowder. It had a gnarly jaw and measured 20 inches.
One Sunday a few years ago in the Youghiogheny River, Wally’s instincts took him to a stretch on the far side of a wooded island near Hoyes Run. The water looked too skinny to fish, but Wally had a sense that a good-size trout was feeding there. I sat on a log and watched the master. Two casts into the spot and he hooked a beautiful rainbow trout.
That’s the kind of magic he created with a fly rod — when he actually fished. Wally enjoyed hiking and scouting, pointing out birds, telling stories, and sometimes he had to be talked into fishing with us.
I am so deeply sad that we’ve lost a good friend and companion in fishing that I can hardly write the words acknowledging that fact of life. I did not know what to say to him as he lay in bed at his daughter’s home in Baltimore. So I read the Frost poem about birch trees and how ice storms can bend them and break them.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
As I have written, in this blog and in my book, all of us have a spirit-home. The native wisdom, explained by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, puts the spirit-home in the afterlife. What I mean by it is the place that has special meaning for each of us in the life we live — a favorite hiking trail, a familiar stretch of beach, even a comfortable spot in a manmade structure, a church pew or window seat in a favorite restaurant. It could be a garden in your backyard. It’s where your spirit lives. It’s where you feel really connected to the world.
I never asked Wally what he considered his spirit home on Earth. But I suspect it might have been along the Gunpowder River somewhere, near Mingo Branch maybe, or maybe Masemore Road, where the trout swim and the blue jays squawk. I know that, whenever I fish the Gunpowder again, I’ll have Wally with me. I’ll find his spirit there. All who knew him will.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.