Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (13/19) — Chapter Thirteen, Azalea (1/3)

A FEMALE EASTERN TIGER SWALLOWTAIL visits one of the pink azaleas in our front yard on Palm Sunday.


BOONE, N.C. (April 5, 2020) – The azaleas are so, so beautiful on this last Sunday of Lent, this Palm Sunday—in Morganton, not in Boone just yet. I’ve noticed that flowers here bloom some 2-3 weeks later than they do off the mountain. So all the colors—all the pinks, purples, reds and oranges—that foothills residents now enjoy will wash westward across the High Country like a sunset by Shakespeare’s big day on April 23. That is, unless we have a late frost.

Shakespeare’s big day? Yeah, 4/23 was the day he was born and the day he died—or, rather, the date of the two important events in Shakespeare’s life, as he was born in 1564 and died in 1616. That’s William Shakespeare, by the way, the Bard of Avon, the Sexy Wordsmith of Stratford, the Perennially Punishing Poet of Perpetually Perplexed Pupils, not the inventor of level-winding fishing reels and Ugly Stiks.

But in his sonnets and his better plays, William Shakespeare has the final word on the fairer aspects of life. “’Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on,” says Viola, the cross-dressing castaway, about her admirer Olivia’s natural good looks in Twelfth Night. The two beauties and Orsino comprise a love triangle that piques the interest of even a Shakespeare hater like me.

CLOCKWISE FROM RIGHT — My dusty Ugly Stik combo with our Rutherwood yard and cottage garden in the background; our VHS copy of Shakespeare’s comedy ‘Twelfth Night’; my print and VHS versions of the classic fly-fishing story, Norman Maclean’s ‘A River Runs Through It.’

Well, I don’t exactly hate Shakespeare, just the way it was taught to me in school. The highlight of our trip to New York City in 2014 was seeing Shakespeare in the Park’s The Tragedy of King Lear, starring John Lithgow and Annette Benning. Believe it or not, seeing that play beat out attending two ballgames at Yankee Stadium and spending an afternoon at Coney Island with lunch at the Nathan’s Famous grill.

(I’m sorry, but as I re-read that last sentence, my quarantined taste buds started watering out of control, and I need to catch my breath.)

I didn’t know until recently that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while under quarantine for the Plague. In school, I might have taken more interest in the play if I’d known that—and if I’d lived through a plague or pandemic myself back then, to better understand the creative demands on the playwright. Or maybe all his forced solitude made writing easier for ol’ William. “Dammit, Hamnet! I love you more than meat loves salt, but get thee to the nursery!”

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, if in 400 years this current crisis will be simply called the Pandemic.

Of course, the other Shakespeare—William Shakespeare, Jr., of Kalamazoo, Michigan—has also tested the forbearance of certain persons, those who identify as fisherfolk, ever since he founded The William Shakespeare, Jr., Company, a fishing tackle manufacturer, some 123 years ago in 1897. I’m not saying that Shakespeare-brand tackle in itself causes piscatory impatience, just that it reveals that failing in us.

But even after making a bazillion bucks, Bill Jr. was still a good guy and a great American. According to Wikipedia, “Shakespeare did not just manufacture fishing tackle. During World War I, their ‘factory was converted to manufacture mortar fuses and automobile carburetors.’ In World War II, Shakespeare manufactured controls for tanks, automobiles, and aircraft.” The true measure of a man isn’t his wealth.

Just as I always lacked patience with Elizabethan English, I never enjoyed watching floats and bobbers. And I never knew how beautiful the sport of fly-fishing could be until I saw A River Runs Through It. I’d read Norman Maclean’s book first and had thoroughly enjoyed it. But the movie’s fishing scenes on Montana’s Big Blackfoot River (or its cinematic stand-ins) are stunning—Academy Award-winning so.

CLOCKWISE FROM BOTTOM — A wildlife commission illustration of a brookie, our state’s only native trout; two collections of fish tales, some of which are true.

Yesterday was Opening Day of mountain trout season, which used to be front-page news here in Boone back when our front yard was part of the former N.C. Fish Hatchery at Rutherwood, once considered to be the most popular picnicking spot in Watauga County. As I’ve said before, the hatchery raised mainly brook trout, the only species of trout native to the Southern Appalachians and one of our two state fish (with the channel bass).

Brookies are like the azaleas in our yard. “The brook trout is regarded as one of North America’s most beautiful native fish species,” notes the N.C. Wildlife Commission’s official flier about the fish, later adding, “Brook trout can be distinguished by the olive-green coloration of the upper sides with mottled, dark green ‘worm-like’ markings on their backs and tails. The lower sides are lighter with yellow spots interspersed with fewer spots of bright red surrounded by blue. The lower fins are orange with a narrow black band next to the leading white edge.” I’d show you a picture of me holding a string of brookies, but I’ve never caught a single one—not yet.

Maybe, like those Shakespearean plays we were all forced to read, you can still appreciate that written description of the brook trout’s beauty. Or maybe not. Maybe you need to see a real fish or hear a song about one—like George Harrison’s “Pisces Fish” from his marvelous final album, Brainwashed—or catch, grill and taste one. Or maybe catch and then release a brookie so that another trout fisherman can also experience their beauty.

Right now, hoarding fish—or any other kind of food or commodity—isn’t necessary. Live and let live.

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT — My copy of N.C. native Ruark’s outdoors classic; Timberley inspects some of our azaleas in Morganton; our white azaleas were the first to bloom, now the first to fade.

I’d better cut bait now. I feel my blood pressure rising. I look at the beauty outside our house—all the glorious azaleas and dogwoods and the late double daffodils and even an early iris or two—and then at the ugliness inside on television and on social media, and I’m beginning to despair. Yesterday, Opening Day of mountain trout season, it helped a bit when I was inside to dust off my Shakespeare Ugly Stik ultra-light rod and reel, and to stare at something besides a screen for a few minutes. No, I didn’t go fishing.

What I also did, though, was read some fishing stories, several from Thomas McGuane’s The Longest Silence, one essay about Izaak Walton’s classic The Compleat Angler, first published in England only about 40 years after William Shakespeare’s death—the poet and playwright, not William Jr., the fishing tackle entrepreneur (and traveling salesman of patent medicines, according to Wikipedia). Back when our yard here was a trout hatchery, Watauga County had an Izaak Walton Society for local fishermen.

In another book, The Greatest Fishing Stories Ever Told, edited by former Sports Afield and Outdoor Life editor-in-chief Lamar Underwood, I found and read aloud to Timberley a story called “September Song” from Southport native Robert Ruark’s classic outdoors book, The Old Man and the Boy, about learning to pier and surf fish with his grandfather. It’s only April 5th, but the story made me homesick for Brunswick County and heartsick for my own granddad, who gave me my first fishing pole.

This morning before we drove back up the mountain, I noticed that the blossoms of our white azaleas were already starting to turn brown and die. As the Bard said, “Beauty is but a vain and doubtful good; a shining gloss that fadeth suddenly; a flower that dies when it begins to bud; a doubtful good, a gloss, a glass, a flower, lost, faded, broken, dead within an hour.” Also, all of our single, yellow narcissus blossoms have wilted dead away.

In two or three weeks, I trust the full beauty of springtime will arrive here in Boone, even as it fades off the mountain. But maybe next Sunday on Easter morning in Morganton, new visions of beauty and celebrations of renewal will be within sight, even if we’re still sitting at home and staring at our screens.

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