Fish and Faith

Adapted from a paper entitled “The Compleat Angler on Penns Creek,” given at the Keystone Coldwater Conference, Feb. 13, 7530 (civil calendar Feb. 26, 2022), in State College, PA.

Penns Creek: A northern Appalachian fly-fishing stream in central Pennsylvania

I wanted to share a bit today about ideas for linking a university community to nature through story, and the relation of a meaningful life in nature to spirituality. I’ll tell the story of a class visit to Penns Creek while reading The Compleat Angler and its connections to related efforts in environmental humanities. Then I’ll talk a little more about models for linking story to conservation though a field known as environmental semiotics.

I teach a class called “the hidden God of nature,” which is about nature and spirituality in literatures of Christian cultures from the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century. I also have been involved for years in a project called Stories of the Susquehanna Valley. At the heart of these efforts is the simple idea that landscape is a dialogue, which involves multiple actors and voices so to speak, in a complex story or dance that nonetheless involves an objective reality, which is perceived through what metaphorically we might call a variety of visual spectrums. That variety of spectrums involves species, the animate and inanimate, and even what can be called the spiritual, which I’ll seek also to explain briefly in relation to literature.

In my course, we read The Compleat Angler by Izaac Walton as an example of 17th century literature. We discuss in a Bucknell classroom (or this past fall mainly under a large tent due to Covid restrictions) the ideas of Walton regarding human interactions with nature as a type of spirituality. He does this through the medium of fly fishing, somewhat in the way that a 1960s writer did it through accounts of cross-country motorcycle travel in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Yet Walton does this of course with much greater attention to fauna and flora and especially the details of a specific interaction with life on earth and landscape through fishing.

In the case of our class we then go on a field trip to the Union County Sportsmens Club near Weikart, along Penns Creek. This past fall we were joined by a number of members of the Union County Trout Unlimited Chapter who kindly helped demonstrate fly fishing and talk about Penns Creek. In the past we have also had also appreciated guidance there from staff of Bucknell’s Watershed studies program at its Sustainability Center.

Izaac Walton as many of you I’m sure know was a draper turned writer, who sought refuge from the English Revolution on the banks of the River Dove in England, among other spots, at the Fishing House with his friend Charles Cotton. On our field trips, the Sportsmens Club in effect became our class’ fishing house on the banks of Penns Creek, a refuge and a different dimension offering reflection on life through the discipline and mindfulness of fly-fishing, and the peaceful rushing of the water beneath the trees, another world from our current online and onpavement lives at a university campus whose students come mainly from well-developed suburban metropolitan regions.

The main part of the Walton’s book ends with the character Venator, who is the hunter converted to a love of fishing by his new friend Piscator, saying

So when I would beget content, and increase confidence in the Power, and Wisdom, and Providence of Almighty God, I will walk the Meadows by some gliding stream, and there contemplate the Lillies that take no care, and those very many other various little living creatures, that are not only created but fed (man knows not how) by the goodness of the God of Nature, and therefore trust in him. This is my purpose: and so, Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord. And let the blessing of St. Peters Master be with mine.”

To which Piscator concludes: “And upon all that are lovers of Vertue; and dare trust in his providence, and be quiet, and go a Angling.[1] Angling for Walton involved a kind of spiritual pun, for he referenced its connection to biblical accounts of fishermen as central figures in finding faith, and on the Anglicanism that he saw as a faith associated with country apart from extremes in his view of historical English religious and political strife. It involved the recognition of how in the words of an epigraph to the book that “The world the river is; both you and I, / And all mankind are either fish or fry,

The conversations between Piscator the fisherman, Venator the hunter, and Auceps the falconer, establish a triadic relational identity for the book’s focus on human beings in the natural world. The fisherman’s opening critique of “money-getting men,” “poor-rich-men” anxious for material gain and cares of the world, rejecting pastimes such as fly-fishing, also forms a Christian critique of modernity the Puritan tendency paradoxically to prove pre-determined election by material success, in spite of scriptural and patristic admonitions on the dangers of material riches. The self-described voice of the “old-fashioned country squire,” Walton, sometime parishioner and biographer of the metaphysical poet John Donne, is neither capitalist nor communist in any seventeenth-century sense, but a type of otherworldly ecologist, to use a modern term. For, as his fisherman Piscator notes early on, simplicity “was usually found in the primitive Christians, who were, as most Anglers are, quiet men, and followers of peace; men that were so simply-wise as not to sell their Consciences to buy riches, and with them vexation and a fear to die,” in simpler times with “fewer Lawyers.”[2]

The conversation ranges from the comic to the cosmic, as Auceps lectures on the elements and the virtues of his favorite, the air, and its birds; Venator on the earth and wildlife; and Piscator on water and the fish. The seventeenth-century rural English worthies are transfigured for moments, as if philosophers be-draped in Classical robes in the countryside, or somehow cosmic poetic representatives of their art and element on Olympus, and certainly characters of an English Arcadia in the Midlands. In this they are, however, very much rough-and-ready heirs of the Hellenic-Christian synthesis. Piscator ties the discussion together with Genesis as Moses’ retro-revelation of Creation, in which the Spirit moved upon the waters. Venator later references the biblical “meek shall inherit the earth,” when noting the unhappy cares of a rich man with estates in the countryside through which they hike, while stopping at pubs, like JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis on their later countryside rambles between the world wars.[3] Piscator quotes the poet George Herbert (whose biography he also wrote) in a pun on his own book’s title–“And none can know thy works, they are so many, / And so compleat, but only he that ows [owns] them [God],” and Psalm 104 for its mentions of the sea, the rivers, and the fish contained therein. This is, as he notes in a later chapter, all under the care of “the God of Nature.”

The outdoorsmen-friends while fishing also meet milkmaids, whose songs of nature they praise in a rural cosmic complementarity of the sexes from a Christian standpoint. Venator notes, “I now see it was not without cause, that our good Queen Elizabeth did so often wish her self a Milkmaid all the month of May, because they are not troubled with fears and cares, but sing sweetly all the day, and sleep securely all the night.”[4] In one of the poems within the book, “The Angler’s Wish,” Piscator tells of his wish to be in flowery meads by crystal streams, rejoicing in their harmonious noise, with his fishing rod, watching the turtle-dove court chastely his mate. In so doing, he addresses Walton’s real-life wife, Kenna, about watching a blackbird feed her young, a laverock at her nest “free from lawsuits, and the noise of princes’ courts, with a book and friend,” wishing to “meditate my time away; and angle on,” begging for “A quiet passage to a welcome grave.” Here Walton through his alter ego juxtaposes images from the natural world with theor own family life.

Walton’s book is a prototype of the modern Anglican philosopher Roger Scruton’s call for an “eco-patriotism” embracing England’s countryside, rather than globalization and technocracy as merely a new form of technological colonialism. Walton’s reflection shares the spirit of Tolkien’s love of the country, and detestation of a nation made abstract by global colonialism. In a sense, The Compleat Angler is not mainly a fly-fishing manual, although it is that, but a manual for what the philosopher David Bentley Hart has called anarcho-monarchism in the sense of Tolkien’s Shire, where government is an elusive and otherworldly force of nature, and Edmund Burke’s networks of organic tradition abound, evenon Penns Creek  in the sportsmen’s club and local Trout Unlimited chapter. Then there is the symbolism of the hook, which is for a fish, but is a term theologically used for the trapping of the devil in the Crucifixion in the divine economics of the Incarnation, a reminder also of how human beings can become enmeshed in worldly objectification, and of the river as an image of the overlay of spiritual life on earth. For Walton, the king who provides sustenance during a time without a king is God who forms a triad with human being and nature, and prevents nature from being objectified.

Even in the quiet of Penns Creek on a fall evening, there was a sense of the sublime as the class discussed The Compleat Angler, a sublime sense of being on the edge nonetheless, if safe in God. A sense that the whole direction of secular modernity, and all the revolutionary identities formed in it, form an otherworldly terror beyond, contrasting with a glint of Paradise on the creek. The Anglo-Irish writer and environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth, a developer of the dark ecology movement, has used the term The Machine to describe the modern world including our digital lives. There on Penns Creek, practicing basic moves of fly fishing at the stream, the students had a sense of the curtain being lifted on a reality beyond The Machine, so to speak.

I have mentioned Walton’s emphasis on relationship with nature through a triad. That idea of relationship and triadic communication is explored by Estonian scientists and academics today in the fields of biosemiotics and ecosemiotics. Of course Christians like Walton long ago understood the importance of triadic relationship, which was woven into the heart of their theology. Professor Timo Maran recently told a group of Bucknell professors in a Zoom call from Estonia’s Tartu University that in ecosemiotics, landscape is a dialogue. It is not a binary of self and other. It is a relationship. For Walton, this was based in God as the third element, but even more ultimately in the mystery of God as Trinity. There are other triadic relationships of course at any moment involved in reading and discussing The Compleat Angler on Penns Creek. There is the relationship with others, within the class, and with local fly fishers, and of course with the creek ecosystem and all the species there with ourselves. Eastern Christian philosophy has a name for this, sobornost, or mystical hidden unity of all beings with God.

The late Wendy Wheeler, a writer on biosemiotics and ecosemiotics in England, discussed how understanding an ecosystem as a web of communication, of meaning, shaped an otherworldly dimension to landscape. Wheeler explained that this helped highlight two of Aristotle’s Four Causes that often are neglected in The Machine globally today. It focuses on material and efficient causes that are visible. But the two “invisible” causes of form and purpose often get lost. Those can be seen as involving communication between and among species, in what I have called an ecosemiosphere, as imagination, and even as involving the spiritual.

I’ll just close that in addition to this modest class effort we continue to try to practice that sense of unity in an ecological and cultural sense by campus efforts that include development of a sustainability path around Bucknell. We hope to include public art linking the path to past history such as the Civil War and Native American culture, the founding of the university, but also link the path online and in physical ways to neighboring regions such as the John Smith Chesapeake National Heritage Corridor and Penns Creek Wilds, the state-designated area that includes state forest lands to the west of where we visited. The Penns Creek greenway is a great natural treasure that is also a great cultural treasure. In the small Russian Orthodox mission parish where I serve as a clergy member, we are building a modest temple in the countryside in Union Twp. near Penns Creek. We plan to include a garden and beekeeping and an orchard around it, modestly to encourage a community across generations such as that Walton encouraged in his writing on the River Dove — a Fishing House for biblically being “fishers of men” (including ourselves), in the spiritual dimension that Walton loved in his own Anglican way, and to find peace away from the revolutions technological and otherwise that distract us from our hearts and faith.

To return again to The Compleat Angler, “The world the river is; both you and I, / And all mankind are either fish or fry.”


[1] Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton, The Compleat Angler, ed. John Buxton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 229.

[2] Ibid., 23.

[3] Ibid., 192.

[4] Ibid., 82.

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