On Being with Krista Tippett

James Prosek

Fishing with Mystery

Last Updated

August 6, 2009

Original Air Date

August 28, 2008

James Prosek is an artist, fly-fisher, author, and environmental activist who has always, as he puts it, found God “through the theater of nature.” From a young age he has been fascinated by trout and now eel – which he sees as “mystical creatures” – and he’s captured them literally and artistically, by way of both angling and paint. We explore the sense of meaning and mystery he has developed along the way, including his concern with how we humans limit our sense of other creatures by the names we give them.

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James Prosek is an artist and author who has written several books on fly-fishing, including Fly-Fishing on the 41st Parallel.


August 6, 2009

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. James Prosek, my guest this hour, has written that for him, “the trout in its stream is the essence of life, encompassing survival and beauty, death and birth.” Prosek is a 33-year-old fly-fisher, painter, and writer who has always, as he puts it, found God “through the theater of nature.” We explore the sense of meaning and mystery he’s developed along the way, including his concern with how we humans limit our sense of other creatures by the names we give them.

JAMES PROSEK: Nature really is chaotic. The real myth is the one that the Natural History Museum promotes in its collections and in its family trees and genealogies. The real myth is the myth of order.

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.


KATE MOOS, MANAGING PRODUCER: I’m Kate Moos, managing producer of Speaking of Faith. This week, we bring you Krista’s 2008 conversation with painter and writer James Prosek on his philosophy of mystery, nature, and fishing.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. James Prosek, is a 33-year-old fly-fisher, artist, and writer who has always, as he puts it, found God “through the theater of nature.” From a young age, he’s been fascinated by trout, and now eels, which he sees as mystical creatures, and he’s captured them literally and artistically by way of both angling and paint. We explore the sense of meaning and ritual James Prosek has developed along the way, including his concern with how we humans limit our sense of other creatures by the names we give them. We’ll also hear the words of Henry David Thoreau, Bruce Chatwin, and Izaak Walton.

From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas.

Today, “Fishing with Mystery.” James Prosek published his first book, Trout, an Illustrated History, when he was 19 years old and a student at Yale University. The book is a historical and spiritual reflection on trout, accompanied by more than 70 of Prosek’s watercolor paintings of the trout of North America. These days, his artwork is exhibited widely and is featured in a line of Patagonia T-shirts that benefit conservation of the global freshwater habitats of trout. And Prosek has now published eight books, ranging from a novel for young adults about his parents’ divorce to The Complete Angler about two summers he spent in England tracing the legacy of a classic 17th-century book about fishing and philosophy.

Through all of this education and adventure, James Prosek has stayed rooted in rural Connecticut. He fished and traveled around the world along the latitude of his hometown for his 2003 book, Fly-Fishing the 41st. He spoke with me by way of a studio near that same town where he now lives and paints two doors down from the house he grew up in. It was a stormy day, and it seemed somehow fitting that the sounds of nature joined our conversation.

I ask everyone this question, and I get a sense from what I’ve read of you that you didn’t have a real — any kind of formal religious upbringing. But I wanted to ask you, you know, when I ask you what is the religious or spiritual background of your childhood? What is that noise?

MR. PROSEK: Well …

MS. TIPPETT: Is it raining there?

MR. PROSEK: … oh, thunder. No. It’s been — we’ve had awful, well, not awful but really severe storms.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, my gosh.

MR. PROSEK: Yesterday, actually, was one of the more severe …

MS. TIPPETT: I can hear it.

MR. PROSEK: … storms that I’ve ever seen in my life. There was the rain almost looked like it was falling up from the ground and there were hailstones and stuff. It was …


MR. PROSEK: … very dramatic.

MS. TIPPETT: I’ve never heard thunder come through the microphone like that. OK.


MS. TIPPETT: Well, that’s good.

MR. PROSEK: : Anyway, well, I was not raised with any formal religion. My parents both were raised with some form of Christianity. There was a question when I was born whether or not I would be baptized. And my mom tells me the story that she brought me to the local priest with my father, and in her story, the priest is smoking cigarettes. I don’t know what the significance of that is, but he said, “I won’t baptize him unless you guys come to regular services,” so they kind of didn’t and I was never baptized. So I guess I’m technically nothing. But from a very early age, I’ve considered the theater of nature to be my house of worship, and I’ve never seen any problem with enjoying God’s creation in his creation. I’m also very much a Darwinian. My father sort of raised me that way.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. PROSEK: But it doesn’t mean I don’t believe in God or Creation.

MS. TIPPETT: It seems like your father was a really formative person in terms of this passion that you have for the natural world. I mean, that comes through in all your writing. So you also say he — talk about how he used a Portuguese word that means “craziness” to describe his seduction …


MS. TIPPETT: … by the natural world. And yours.

MR. PROSEK: Yeah. Well, loucura, I think, is maybe what you’re talking about.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. PROSEK: Kind of a craziness. And his was for the sea and the stars. That was his kind of vehicle into nature. But also birds, actually, from an early age. He grew up in a suburb of São Paolo, Brazil, and fell in love with nature as a child down there and all the colorful birds that flit around from tree to tree. And he and his brother even would set traps and catch them live in cages for a veranda. He’s a very much self-educated person, and he had two very different sides. One was very pragmatic, wanted me to be an engineer, a doctor, and not a poor schoolteacher, which is what he ended up being.


MR. PROSEK: But his other side was a very romantic side, reading poetry to me and talking about the stars and taking me out at night to look through the telescope at the sky, the night sky, and also teaching me the names of all the local birds.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, the birds. And you painted birds and drew birds when you were young, didn’t you?

MR. PROSEK: I did, yeah. I started drawing birds when I was maybe four or five years old. And early influences were Audubon and Winslow Homer and people like that who had depicted nature the way they saw it in very stylistic and effective ways, in my mind.

MS. TIPPETT: So it sounds like you might’ve gone on and have been a lover of birds the way your father was, but then at the age of nine you were introduced to fishing. I mean, what was the story of that? How did that exactly happen?

MR. PROSEK: Well, yeah. I was kind of — birds had become my vehicle into nature from maybe five until nine years old, and in retrospect, I think the transition occurred around the time when my mother left home. She left when I was about nine years old, and I didn’t see her for a couple of years. And I kind of, I guess, connected birds and the places that we walked in the woods together with her. I associated with her. So the transition’s almost like a guillotine drop between, like, my love of birds and then I fell in love with fish, and for whatever reason, a particular fish called the trout.


MR. PROSEK: Which I’m sure everybody is familiar with. But they’re very colorful, streamlined, beautiful creatures that live in some of the most pristine cold-water wildernesses that we have left in the world. And the trout were kind of the equivalent to my father’s favorite bird, which was a warbler, which was kind of a secretive, colorful little bird that lives in the treetops and migrates from South America.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. You say that the trout had a mystique. What is that mystique? Is it because, as you say, it lives in these pristine places? Or it’s harder to find, harder to get to?

MR. PROSEK: Yeah. They’re very difficult to see. I mean, most fish are because the surface of the water reflects our world back to ourselves, and unless you’re wearing polarized glasses or something, it’s hard to see through the waters. But one way to connect to those mystical creatures living beneath the surface is through angling. And by catching a fish with a hook, you’re connected to it and its element through this little clear plastic line, which is almost invisible. But the trout, in particular, I always felt was a very mysterious mystical fish because they’re especially spooky. If you walk up to a stream, a pool in a stream, and you’re not very careful — if you don’t crawl up to the bank — they’ll immediately disappear and hide under the rocks. So it’s a fish that you can only see if you really kind of know its habitat and spend a lot of time in their element.

MS. TIPPETT: In the introduction to his first book about trout, James Prosek writes: “The instructive nature of the trout stream is not forced upon its visitors but held candidly by the water and the trees. The angler must make an effort to hear the stream’s messages and see her beauty. I had learned superficially how to catch a trout, first with a worm and then by tying and casting flies. But my education really began once I’d spent enough time near my local stream that I could begin to understand her language. Only after I’d become comfortable with her modes of speech — winter silence, springtime growling roar, lazy summer trickling, and autumn calm — did I begin to understand that the stream was not only a place where I fished, but also a living, breathing celebration of hardship and joy. For me, the trout in its stream is the essence of life, encompassing survival and beauty, death and birth.”

James Prosek’s paintings of trout are even more striking, perhaps, than his writings. He captures the individual nature and beauty of these secretive creatures much like James Audubon did with birds.

MR. PROSEK: The trout was pretty much my obsession from nine years old until about 28.


MR. PROSEK: And then I kind of — I painted, did a book on the trout of North America, which had about 70 paintings.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I’ve got that book. Mm-hmm.

MR. PROSEK: Yeah. And then I did a book on the trout of Europe and Asia and North Africa. And then I kind of, through the depiction of the diversity of these fishes, I’d kind of said what I needed to say for the time being. But that led me to an investigation in my own mind of why did I have this compulsion to go out and document all these trout …


MR. PROSEK: … in watercolors? And why had people named all these fish after themselves and their friends and the places they’d come from? So I …

MS. TIPPETT: What did you come up with?

MR. PROSEK: Well, the answers are not necessarily there yet. But, I mean, currently I’m working on a book about eels. And I think what attracted me to the eel is that it’s a creature that inspires fear and awe and reverence in people, like the snake. For some reason, we have a reaction to this minimalist creature. And it’s kind of bodiless and nameless. It doesn’t really fit into any of the categories that we want it to fit into. Nature really is chaotic. The real myth is the one that the Natural History Museum promotes in its collections and in its family trees and genealogies is that …

MS. TIPPETT: That it’s ordered.

MR. PROSEK: Yeah, that it’s ordered. I mean, if anything, what we call mythology that, like, an eel in Polynesia can take the form of a water guardian called the taniwha. To me, that’s more reality than the myth of order because magic and what we don’t know is so much greater than what we do know. But I don’t want to be too hard on science because I am a very science-minded person.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. PROSEK: And I think I’ve come to investigate these themes about naming and the categorizing of nature and the Linnaean system of classification where every creature in the world is distilled down to this binomial system, genus and species, like first and last names in humans. Of course, we need names to communicate, but I think sometimes names can get in the way of how we view the world and our observations of things. Which is, you know, something that philosophers have been grappling with for a long time. So this is what’s been swirling around in my head like a big whirlpool.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, I mean, I’m intrigued by that because, you know, as we just said, you’re not a traditionally or formally religious person, but there are religious ideas and themes and evocative ideas that echo all the way through your writing. And, you know, in fact, naming, the power of naming, has a big place …

MR. PROSEK: The control of things.

MS. TIPPETT: … in the Bible and in other religious traditions as kind of a primitive power …


MS. TIPPETT: … of giving something a name. Or that, you know, in Australia with the songlines, you know, naming things into being, singing things into being.

MR. PROSEK: Yeah, it’s true. I took two separate trips to New Zealand and to other parts of Micronesia and Polynesia to try to get traditional stories from the people about eels. And it’s hard for, I think, Western people to understand what these stories mean because they’re so married to the places where they’re told. Like, throughout a story, if you’re lucky enough to hear one, they’ll mention places throughout the stories, and the stories are almost like a map to the local people. As you learn the story, you learn the places where the different things happen in the stories. I was just in this island in Micronesia called Pohnpei in March, and there they have for every plant, for every fish, for every bird, they have a kind of common name that they use every day and then a magical name that’s sometimes only known by the medicine people or the people of power, the high chiefs, that if you utter that name of that creature it kind of either calls them to action or produces some effect that the normal name doesn’t.

MS. TIPPETT: So that name kind of contains or evokes their essence.


MS. TIPPETT: Author and painter James Prosek. In his book The Songlines, the late travel writer Bruce Chatwin wrote: “There is a labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as ‘Dreaming-tracks’ or ‘songlines’; to the Aboriginals as the ‘Footprints of the Ancestors’ or the ‘Way of the Law.’ Aboriginal creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path — birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes — and so singing the world into existence. … In theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score. … One should perhaps visualize the Songlines as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every ‘episode’ was readable in terms of geology.”

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from America Public Media. Today, “Fishing with Mystery,” with artist and angler James Prosek.

Prosek’s best-known book, perhaps, is The Complete Angler, which also gave rise to a Peabody Award-winning documentary film. While trying to come up with a travel grant proposal as a student at Yale, he discovered the original Compleat Angler by the 17th-century amateur naturalist and philosopher Izaak Walton. Prosek was astonished to learn that there are more different editions of this book in print than any other in English, aside from the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. It’s a book, he says, that everyone’s heard of but nobody’s read. Prosek got his travel grant and spent two summers in England tracing Walton’s world in which fishing, British history, and Anglican theology were uniquely intertwined.

MR. PROSEK: There was a civil war going on in England, and his religion, Anglicanism, was being pushed out of London by Cromwell and the Puritans, I mean, to kind of simplify things.


MR. PROSEK: And so Walton’s book, The Compleat Angler, which is kind of a pastoral fantasy about a guy who goes out fishing from London and meets an otter hunter on the way to the stream, and they start having a discourse about their respective passions. The fisherman defends fishing, and the hunter defends hunting. And the fisherman ends up converting the hunter, almost a religious conversion. And The Compleat Angler is, in part, code for “the complete Anglican” and it was …


MR. PROSEK: … almost like a civil war polemic. He was trying to very gently express his views about what was going on in the country during his time. And what he was advocating in my mind, Izaak Walton, was a return to primitive Christianity, because he talks about the apostles. One of his first arguments in favor of fishing is that the apostles were fishermen and that Jesus chose fishermen to show his miracles to. But, anyway, that’s …

MS. TIPPETT: Well, I don’t know. It’s interesting, because there is this parallel that you demonstrate in what you wrote after that, that Walton is drawing this parallel between the qualities that make a good angler and that make a good Christian.


MS. TIPPETT: I mean, not just that symbolism, that fish and fishing run all the way through the New Testament.

MR. PROSEK: Yeah. And that they’re gentle people who follow peace.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Izaak Walton’s fisherman, Piscator, says to the hunter Venator: “Angling is an art and an art worth your learning. The question is, rather, whether you be capable of learning it? For angling is somewhat like poetry. Men are to be born so: I mean, with inclinations to it, though both may be heightened by discourse and practice, but he that hopes to be a good angler must not only bring an inquiring, searching, observing wit, but he must bring a large measure of hope and patience and a love and propensity to the art itself. But having once got and practiced it, then doubt not but angling will prove to be so pleasant that it will prove to be like virtue, a reward to itself.”

MR. PROSEK: He was sort of advocating, you know, this, like I said, this return to primitive Christianity in which he meant, ‘Look, guys. We don’t need these chapels and churches and buildings to worship in.’

MS. TIPPETT: Or to fight over, as they were doing in his day.

MR. PROSEK: Yeah, or to fight over.


MR. PROSEK: We can worship in a cave, in a canyon, and by a stream. You can take Christianity, really, anywhere — in a prison, in a hospital, in a church, in the city, in the country — because it rests on the sacrifice of a human being. Whereas the indigenous faiths around the world, like in Polynesia, they’re completely connected to creatures that live in the environment, and they’re completely not portable. You can’t take the Maori religion in New Zealand and superimpose it on the Inuits in Alaska. It doesn’t work.

MS. TIPPETT: Now, as you said, Walton’s own exploration of angling was very much connected with his theology and with his ideas about God and religion. And, I mean, you also did a fair amount of theological reflection. I mean, it comes through in the book. I mean, the word, the very lofty word “immortality” is something that — is a word you use in the context of fishing and what you think about while fishing and learn through fishing. I mean, talk to me about that.

MR. PROSEK: Yeah. Well, I think at some point in my life, fishing was a way of achieving a timelessness, especially fishing in rivers because rivers have a very timeless quality. They’re always flowing, flowing, flowing. They’re flowing down to the sea. The clouds form, they float over the countryside, the rain falls, they fill up the ground, the springs, the whatever. The stream is kind of this immortal entity, at least in my mind. So as a fisherman fishing in a stream, oftentimes you’re standing in the stream. You see a reflection in the stream and you kind of get swept up in this immortal cycle and kind of lose yourself. And there’s different things that sort of stop thoughts and stop time and really, for me now, I mean, I do fish — I still fish, but it doesn’t do the same thing it did for me when I was nine or 14 or a younger person. But creativity is really my faith. That’s my way of stopping time and thought processes. And to get there, it takes really hard work for me, sitting in the studio sometimes not painting anything all day but just trying to get into that place where I can connect to what my mother calls the pipeline.


MR. PROSEK: You know, and she always said to me that creativity was God’s gift to us. He is the Creator. And my way of connecting with that spiritual force that I call God, and that many of us call God, is through either being in nature or being in my space that I’ve made for myself making stuff, making stuff with my hands.

MS. TIPPETT: Like painting.

MR. PROSEK: That just tactile quality of — yeah. Even just running a pencil across the paper. I mean, I write. I keep a journal very religiously, and it’s not so much what I’m writing in it but just the act of, like, kind of putting the pen or pencil on the paper. I don’t know why that is so pleasing to me, but — I also have a compulsion to write — but making a mark on that paper is really important to me.

MS. TIPPETT: One of James Prosek’s heroes is the author Henry David Thoreau, who also combined contemplation of nature with a life of creativity. In his book Walden, Thoreau wrote: “Sometimes, after staying in a village parlor ’til the family had all retired, I have returned to the woods and, partly with a view to the next day’s dinner, spent the hours of midnight fishing from a boat by moonlight, communicating by a long flaxen line with mysterious nocturnal fishes, which had their dwelling 40 feet below. It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wondered to vast and cosmogonal themes and other spheres, to feel this faint jerk which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air as well as downward into this element, which was scarcely more dense. Thus, I caught two fishes, as it were, with one hook.”

[Sound bite of music, “The Angler’s Song”]

MS. TIPPETT: “The Angler’s Song,” a poem by fisherman-philosopher Izaak Walton, which was set to music by one of his contemporaries, the English composer Henry Lawes.

James Prosek’s film, The Complete Angler, further documents Izaak Walton’s legacy through the streams and waterholes of England and Ireland. It’s a poetic philosophy, a theology of fishing, which you can watch on our Web site, speakingoffaith.org. In one scene, Prosek invites you into Connemara, which you might remember from our program with the late Irish philosopher and poet John O’Donohue. An Irishman who’s angled for more than 60 years teaches Prosek the art of dapping, the earliest known form of fly-fishing.

[Sound bite of music, “Fishing Blues”]

MS. TIPPETT: After a short break, more conversation with James Prosek on the connection between the natural world and human friendship and how he is using his art to promote freshwater conservation. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faithcomes to you from American Public Media.

[Sound bite of music, “Fishing Blues”]


[Sound bite of music, “Fishing Blues”]

MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Fishing with Mystery,” with artist and angler James Prosek. He’s the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction. His paintings and drawings have been widely reprinted and shown. They were recently featured at a yearlong exhibit at the Aldridge Museum of Contemporary Art in Richfield, Connecticut. Prosek titled that exhibit “Life and Death: a Visual Taxonomy.” Pursuing his sense of the limitations of names, he assigned individualized symbols, curvilinear lines, to each creature he painted in the place of its Latin scientific nomenclature. He’s currently at work on a new book on eels, for which he’s traveled to New Zealand and the Pacific islands of Micronesia. In life and work, James Prosek is an interesting mixture of active and reflective, modern and traditional.

MS. TIPPETT: You use these words when you talk about qualities of life, virtues. I don’t know if you use the word “virtues,” but you talked about them in the context of Izaak Walton and also yourself, words like “content,” being “content, simple, quiet.”

MR. PROSEK: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: Those are kind of — they kind of have an old-fashioned ring to them. You know?


MS. TIPPETT: But they are virtues, and I would call them virtues, that you do seem to have cultivated and on many levels.

MR. PROSEK: Yeah. I mean, I tried to be contemplative and simple in the way that — Walton used the word “simple.” I don’t know what exactly he meant by it, but I think he meant just maybe not requiring a whole lot or appreciating what you have. Gratitude, too, is important. But I certainly don’t judge people on the things that society seems to judge them on. And it may go back to naming too. I mean, people have business cards and their titles …

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MR. PROSEK: … on their business cards, and vice president of this and baloney of that. And somebody who, like my good friend Joe Haines, who caught me fishing illegally when I was a kid in a local reservoir and became kind of an outdoor mentor, he never finished high school. He never did the things that modern society may kind of think of as a successful person, but to me he’s an infinitely beautiful creature. And I just admire what he’s done with his life so much.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, you wrote a book about Joe Haines and your friendship with him and fishing, and I did want to ask you about that connection that you discerned and that you really have elaborated on between fishing and friendship.


MS. TIPPETT: What is that? What is that?

MR. PROSEK: I think it really goes back to some kind of predatory thing. Like we evolved to catch or grow our own food. We’re foragers and we’re hunters. And the predatory instinct is still very much inside of us, in my mind, anyway. So, I mean, that’s why I feel like I like to fish. That’s also why I think I like to draw, because I think drawing was a predatory impulse. The people drew these creatures on cave walls I think in part to learn more about them. When you draw something, you’re forced to observe something very closely.

MS. TIPPETT: But I don’t necessarily put predatory and …

MR. PROSEK: With friendship?

MS. TIPPETT: Predator and friendship together in the same …

MR. PROSEK: I’m getting there.



MR. PROSEK: ‘m getting there. But what I was going to say is that I think camaraderie is also a part of the predatory process. Being out in nature with other humans at night on the water. I think especially at night the senses are really heightened. Some of my greatest memories with Joe Haines is fishing off the beach in Fairfield, Connecticut, in the surf at night. Also I think, I mean, sharing is a big part of survival.


MR. PROSEK: Joe Haines has always kind of said, you know, one hand washes the other. He’s got this sort of Yankee thing about him that you sort of give a bucket of clams to somebody and they in return will give you something back. And it’s when …

MS. TIPPETT: The barter economy.



MR. PROSEK: The barter economy. And when you’re in a hard place, those people will help you survive and they’ll pick you up. And I think when we first met, I may have been in a hard place. My mom had left home. And so when he caught me fishing in this local reservoir, he kind of took me under his wing also, because he’d lost something in his life. His son had just moved to Colorado, and I think that’s partly why we connected so well. But, yeah. I mean, there’s something about going out in nature with your buddy and fishing or hunting that I think is very fundamental and visceral, and it cements a friendship in a different way than other types of friendships.

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, something that’s striking to me reading your book about Joe, Joe and Me: An Education in Fishing and Friendship, there’s a pace to the story, to the book, to the writing, to the experiences. It’s not this dramatic narrative arc …


MS. TIPPETT: … that we’re used to in books …


MS. TIPPETT: … or entertainment or just, you know, the way we even think about what a story is.

MR. PROSEK: Nothing big happens.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. There’s this kind of — there aren’t great big highs. There aren’t great big lows. And yet there’s kind of this sanctified ordinary life.

MR. PROSEK: Yeah. I mean, in ordinary everyday life, if you’re listening there are majorly extraordinary things that happen. And I think that’s where magic comes from. But …

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. What do you mean when you say magic? What does that word mean for you?

MR. PROSEK: Well, spending time with these Maori people in New Zealand kind of changed my worldview a little bit. When I first arrived to do research on eels and Maori culture, I drove from Auckland down to Hamilton, the next big town south. And there was this construction project that was stalling traffic. Most of the blue-collar workers down there are Maori, and they had fled the site because one of the workers had pulled up this giant eel in the bucket of the bulldozer — because they were digging in a swamp. Basically, there was this swamp that the highway has gone around for a long time, and there’ve been a lot of accidents because there’s a tight curve in the road. But the Maori said don’t straighten the highway. The government wanted to straighten the highway through the swamp. They said, ‘No, don’t do it. There’s a taniwha. There’s a water monster living in the stream.’ They went ahead with the project anyway, and then one of the workers pulled up this giant eel in the river, and they said, ‘That’s the taniwha.’ And they all ran away. And they couldn’t get anybody to come back to the site. So it was weird to me that in this day, in contemporary life, that a water monster, what we would call a mythical creature, could stall traffic. Or stop construction. But down there, magic was part of ordinary life for the Maori still.

But I think magic is there if you want it to be there. And just going out fishing sometimes you see things that are kind of magical. And if you’re receptive and open, you see them. And if you’re not, you don’t.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s a line, I think it’s from the introduction to your book about trout, your first book: “The instructive nature of the trout steam is not forced upon its visitors but held candidly by the water and the trees.”


MS. TIPPETT: “The angler must make an effort to hear the stream’s messages and see her beauty.”

MR. PROSEK: Wow. At least I’m a little bit consistent, right?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. That’s lovely.

MR. PROSEK: : I mean, in some ways I feel like I was more connected when I was the age when I wrote that, like 17 or 18, than I am now, because all this other stuff kind of barrels into your life. But it’s true. I mean, if you’re not listening, you’re not going to hear it. I try to listen to what, I mean, to the spirit of the creator that’s talking to you, that’s feeding you ideas, that’s comforting you or pummeling you or whatever. I mean, nature is what we live in.

[Sound bite of night sounds]

MS. TIPPETT: This is a recording James Prosek made of night sounds on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei.

[Sound bite of night sounds]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Fishing with Mystery,” with artist and angler James Prosek.

[Sound bite of night sounds]

MS. TIPPETT: As we talk about these spiritual implications or insights that you’ve drawn from fishing, in particular, there’s also something I think that human beings — we were just talking about his impulse that we have to name things, and I also think we have this impulse to ritual.

MR. PROSEK: Oh, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And we recreate that. I mean, we’ve kind of done away with rituals in Western culture, but we reinvent it.

MR. PROSEK: It’s sad. It’s sad.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. But, you know, we continually, we make it again, because we need it. And there’s real ritual to fishing. I mean, even just the children’s book that you did.

MR. PROSEK: The tackle box.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, where you have all the, yeah, the tackle box. All the pieces. I mean, there’s something — I’m not a person who’s ever done much fishing, but there’s something so thrilling about that. And I think it does speak to that. I mean, is that something you’ve thought about?

MR. PROSEK: Yeah. I mean, as a kid in the winter, again, I’m sort of an obsessive person, but I used to, like, take every one of my lures out of the box, wash them, dry them, and put them back in the box. And taking an inventory of my tackle was a significant ritual. And tying flies for the coming season was a ritual. I think, again, in the process of predation there were a lot of rituals. There was the investigation in our minds of what the hunt was going to be about. There was the drawing on the cave walls — if that was related at all to predation. It may not have been. But I think in my daily life, putting out my paints on the palette is a ritual for me, lining up the colors the way I like them. That’s kind of my daily ritual.

MS. TIPPETT: You have kind of been bringing together your love of fish, and trout in particular, and also your painting in this project you’ve been doing with the founder of Patagonia.

MR. PROSEK: Oh, yeah. Yvon Chouinard.

MS. TIPPETT: Yvon Chouinard.

MR. PROSEK: Yeah, Yvon.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. So you were fishing with him in Yellowstone and you hatched this idea?

MR. PROSEK: Yeah. I mean, Yvon’s …

MS. TIPPETT: And there’s that friendship connection again.

MR. PROSEK: Yeah, he’s a real visionary. I mean, he started this 1 percent for the planet thing where big companies give away 1 percent of their profits to conservation.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. PROSEK: So, yeah, I was fishing with Yvon in Yellowstone Park. I’ve been involved with this conservation group called the Yellowstone Park Foundation for about 10 years, and we were on a trip to help raise money for the park and stuff, bringing different people fishing and asking them for money.


MR. PROSEK: So we were sitting by the fireplace one night in this beautiful ranch called Silvertip Ranch in Montana near the park, and he’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve been thinking for years about maybe using some of your art on T-shirts for conservation.’ And we sort of talked about putting paintings of trout on T-shirts and raising money and giving the money away to grassroots organizations or even individuals who were doing great work to not only preserve trout but preserve cold-water resources. You know, preserving trout is not as maybe small-minded as it seems. It’s really about preserving clean water. But, yeah, it’s been, I mean, fairly successful. We’ve raised about $250,000 in the last three years and given it away. And even through the money we’ve given away, there have been organizations that have started like the Balkan Trout Restoration Group.

MS. TIPPETT: So it’s what’s called World Trout is this initiative.


MS. TIPPETT: And you said that you’re not starting a new project, but you are identifying groups or individuals who are protecting native fish, and you’re supporting their efforts.

MR. PROSEK: Yeah. But if we have to start a new group, we will. [Laughs]


MR. PROSEK: Or encourage people to start a new, you know, restoration group or organization. It’s really, yeah, about encouraging people who are doing good work to keep doing it. And, I mean, really fundamentally what it’s about is, for me, preserving diversity of fishes or whatever around the world is preserving the sources of our awe and inspiration. If everything really comes out of nature, I mean, even the most abstract expressionist painting, even a black canvas, is derived from our experiences in nature. If we lose the creatures that form the foundation of our spiritual systems, if we lose the creatures that inspire us to be spiritual at all, then we will be really lost people with no food for our imaginations, nothing. And that’s really what it’s all about, is keeping our spiritual sustenance alive, I guess.

MS. TIPPETT: So, I mean, your concern with sustainability is not just, as you said, that this is also about clean water, but it’s about our spirits as well.

MR. PROSEK: It’s really about…

MS. TIPPETT: Food for the imagination. I like that.

MR. PROSEK: It’s about the human imagination more than anything else, clean water, whatever. If the water’s gone, we’re gone. The Earth doesn’t give a crap. It’ll burp us up and that’s it. You know, realistically.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. PROSEK: But in our short little lives that we think are so important, but really aren’t, I think it’s important from one generation to the next to preserve these things, because they’ve been important to me. I only know from my experiences.


MR. PROSEK: If we fragment nature to the point where birds don’t make their migrations anymore and things don’t move, you know, the Earth could stop spinning. In Pohnpei, this island I was in, in Micronesia, the people believe that if you take the eels out of the streams, the water will stop moving, because it’s the movement of the eels that keeps the rivers flowing. And in a way I think, like, the Earth spins because things move. Nothing is static. Nothing can fit in a box. Everything’s moving. Everything’s migrating, even humans.

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MS. TIPPETT: So how old are you now?

MR. PROSEK: I’m 33.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. I mean, you’ve done a lot …

MR. PROSEK: Really, I hope so. Thank you.

MS. TIPPETT: … in 33 years. And, I mean, you’re doing a lot all the time. I just, I wonder if you kind of look back, because you were writing really profound things, not just about fishing, but about contemplation and immortality and life and death, when you were 18, 19, 20, 21. I mean, what are you learning now at 33 that adds to that, that refines it?

MR. PROSEK: Well, this book I’m writing about eels I’ve been researching for eight years, and it’s obviously not the only thing I’ve been working on for eight years, but it’s been a real struggle writing this book because I want it to make sense. And there’s some really big, what I believe are big, themes in the book that I want to come across, like about indigenous faiths. And when I started the book, I was more interested in the life history of the fish, eight years ago, but I didn’t even know that eels were important to Polynesians, or Micronesians. But now that’s become the biggest part of the story. But the eel also has a mysterious life history. No human has ever witnessed an eel spawning. They reproduce in the middle of the ocean and spend their lives in fresh water. I mean, I’m into mystery. I’m into a fish that has kept its mystery from humans. I mean, how many creatures have done that in this day and age? The world is changing. When I did that book, The 41st Parallel, traveling around the latitude line of my home, things were really different 10 years ago.


MR. PROSEK: I mean, I don’t even think I had an e-mail address 10 years ago.


MR. PROSEK: And I think exploration has sort of died with the shrinking of the world. So what is there left to talk about? I mean, the meaning of life, I guess. But I have things I want to say. Whether or not I can say them even now — I try to say them. I will try to say them. Like Emerson said, ‘Speak now in hard words what you think today and if you change your mind tomorrow, you know, say it in hard words again, even if it contradicts everything you said the day before.’ I don’t want to be too sort of didactic about it. Maybe just painting what I see is enough of an expression of spirit and faith.

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MS. TIPPETT: James Prosek is a painter, writer, and environmental activist. His books include The Complete Angler. His new book is Bird, Butterfly, Eel.

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