Jun. 21, 2014

Fishing Below The Dam

by Louis Jenkins

On summer evenings the workingmen gather to fish
in the swift water below the dam. They sit on the
rocks and are silent for the most part, looking into
the water and casting again and again. Lines tangle,
tackle is lost and a fisherman curses to himself. No
one notices. It is simply a part of the routine, like the
backs of their wives in bed at night or short words
to the children in the morning. Only the water holds
their attention, crashing through the spillway with
enough force behind it to break a man's back. And
the undertow could take you as easily as a bit of
fish line and toss you ashore miles downstream.
The men shout to be heard above the roar of the

"Fishing Below The Dam" by Louis Jenkins from Before You Know It. © Will o'The Wisp Books, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the summer solstice and the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. For those of us in the north, today will be the longest day of the year and tonight will be the shortest night. The entire Earth is about 3 million miles farther from the sun at this time of the year. The difference in the temperature is due to the fact that our planet is tilted on its axis, and at this time of year, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, receiving more direct radiation for longer periods of time each day. It is that slight tilt, only 23 1/2 degrees, that makes the difference between winter and summer. The rise in temperature allows most of the plants we eat to germinate. Wheat and many other plants require an average temperature of at least 40° F to grow. Corn needs a temperature of 50° F, and rice needs a temperature of 68° F.

It's the birthday of philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre (books by this author), born in Paris (1905). This giant of existential thought was also a well-known prankster during his days at the École Normale. He and a friend dropped water balloons from the roof onto dinner guests in tuxedos, shouting, "Thus pissed Zarathustra!" He sometimes showed up naked to official functions, and he vomited on the feet of a school official. After Charles Lindbergh successfully flew across the Atlantic, Sartre and several of his friends announced to the media that Lindbergh would be receiving an honorary degree at the École Normale, then one of them impersonated Lindbergh and convinced the media that he was at the school. There was such an uproar when it turned out to be a hoax that the school's president was forced to resign.

In 1964, Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, but he refused it. When he died in 1980, 50,000 people turned out on the streets of Paris to pay their respects.

It's the birthday of novelist Ian McEwan (books by this author), born in Aldershot, England (1948). He was an army brat, traveling all over the world as a kid. He said: "I remember how I liked to loll unobtrusively on the floor behind the sofa when my mother had a friend round. I would listen in to these roaming, intimate heart-to-hearts ... how compelling they were ... and, with so many bad people in the world, what a lucky six-year-old I thought I was when my mother and her friends were always on the side of the good."

Neither of his parents was well-educated, and they both hoped to give their son the education they had never had. Even though they didn't know what to recommend, they encouraged him to read. He said, "I began to think of literature as a kind of priesthood that I would one day enter." He went to college, then read about a new fiction writing program at the University of East Anglia, directed by Malcolm Bradbury. He called and got straight through to Bradbury, who explained that they dropped the program because no one applied. McEwan said that he wanted to apply, and Bradbury agreed. Every few weeks, McEwan wrote a short story, and he and Bradbury met in a pub to talk it over, and that's the way he wrote most of the stories that became his first book, First Love, Last Rites (1975). That book, and the ones that followed, were so dark and twisted that he was nicknamed "Ian McAbre."

He has written 15 books, including Amsterdam (1998), Atonement (2001), On Chesil Beach (2007), and Sweet Tooth (2012). He will publish a new novel, The Children Act, in September, a courtroom story about parents who refuse treatment for their sick son due to their religious beliefs.

It's the birthday of author Mary McCarthy (books by this author) born in Seattle, Washington (1912). She published several novels — including The Group (1963) about a group of Vassar students — but she had a hard time making things up, so most of her novels are autobiographical.

Most critics believe that her best book is the memoir Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957). She is also remembered for her literary criticism. The writer Gore Vidal said, "She was our most brilliant literary critic, [because she was] uncorrupted by compassion."

It's the birthday of naturalist and writer Donald Peattie (books by this author), born in Chicago (1898). He married his high school sweetheart, studied botany at Harvard, and worked as a botanist for the Department of Agriculture. He felt that literature was his true calling, and he and his wife moved their family to Paris, where they hoped to become great writers. He said, "We had crossed a wide Atlantic elated with excitement, unafraid to launch the frail bark of our careers." But two days after their arrival, their young daughter died. Autumn came to Paris — cold, dark, and dreary. They relocated to the South of France and lived there for six years. Peattie published a couple of novels, but they were flops.

In 1933, they returned home with their three sons, so poor that they had to borrow money for the ship tickets back home. It was the middle of the Great Depression, Peattie was unemployed, and his wife's health was bad. They settled at his wife's childhood home, The Grove, a 100-acre estate in Glenview, Illinois. He found work writing pamphlets about trees, and he began writing a day-by-day account of the natural area at The Grove — the woods, wetlands, and original prairie. That became An Almanac for Moderns (1935), and it launched his career. He wrote: "I learned also the value of knowing some one thing, at last, with a certain degree of thoroughness, be it only my one square mile. I even began to welcome the very limitations of my problem, as a sonnet writer his fourteen lines ... I have learned, however, that three years is utterly insufficient to make me a master of a reasonable amount of wood-wisdom concerning one square mile of Illinois land."

A few years later, they moved to Santa Barbara, and there Peattie wrote his two greatest books: A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America (1950) and A Natural History of Western Trees (1953). For each tree, Peattie wrote poetic descriptions, natural histories, identifying characteristics, and anecdotes.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show