In Body of Water: A Sage, a Seeker and the World’s Most Elusive Fish, Chris Dombrowski, a trout fishing poet from Montana, writes about a legendary Bahamian guide David Pinder and his lifelong quarry, bonefish, the ghost of the flats. The Mission caught up with Dombrowski to chat about the book, his writing process, guiding and more.
You’re a poet, a writer and a guide. Do you identify more as one than the others, or does it depend on the season or who’s asking?
Norman Maclean once told an interviewer that his back-and-forth between the wilderness of Western Montana, where he summered every year, and the University of Chicago, where he taught Shakespeare, was “a recipe for schizophrenia, but I was determined not to let it happen.”
For many years, I struggled to braid these vocations/occupations and carried a pervading sense of conflict over the many “hats” I wore (not to mention the health insurance/pension they didn’t provide) but at a certain point, perhaps after I quit a full-time teaching job, perhaps during the composition of Body of Water, something, maybe my ego, gave, and I accepted the relative feral nature of my life. I hope it has all become by now part of the whole cloth, if you will.
Thankfully for my rotator cuffs, I’m guiding fewer days than I used to (I row most of June and July; then mid-September through mid-October again) and tucking into the work-shed to write until late spring. But I still relish the physicality of it all, the full immersion into the senses that rivers offer us, and the clients, all of whom are dear friends now, that I get to fish with.
And yeah, you nailed it, it depends on who’s asking and how much explaining I want to do! I was fortunate enough to have a mentor early on who urged me early on to remember that everything, if one allows it to, perhaps wills it to, feeds the writing if that’s one’s hope, desire, intention.
What came first, the writing or the fishing?
The fishing obsession arrived before the writing obsession, but a marvelous man named Jim Colando, my English teacher at our public high school, placed A River Runs Through It in my hands one early fall day during Junior year, and I was off to the races, simultaneously rescued from a life of “jock-dom” and charged with an intense desire (need!) to recreate in language the sensations and marvels I’d experienced in the physical world.
Did you have a specific process when you worked on this book? Do you take notes as you go, record voice notes or simply memorize what you want to write down later?
My “specific process” began by not really knowing I was writing a book. When I started exploring David Pinder’s life at East End and the bonefish’s vital impact on the Bahamian economy, I thought I might end up with a few articles I could cull and sell freelance. Pretty soon, though, I realized that “Senior” was a man of immense depth and character, not to mention the taproot of a nation’s essential industry, an industry that another guide called the Bahamas’ only hope “to build a real democracy.” From there, I took profuse and utterly disorganized notes on legal pads while on the boat or at the kitchen table with Senior; poor voice recordings over-run with background voices from Alma’s Diner, made on devices purchased hastily in airports on my way down to the Bahamas; and made many phone calls to interview subjects including Senior, his daugther, Delcina, son Jeffrey, and others. The international phone bills were brutal, but it was charming to picture Senior looking out his window at the palm trees while I watched the snow fall in Montana.
From guiding in Montana, a world where no doubt you fish for trout with the confidence of a local, to joining David Pinder and his clan in the Bahamas where you target bonefish, did you ever start to feel that you might also be able to guide out there?
Never. Not for a moment. The spotting of fish is one thing, a skill one acquires over time, but the vast required knowledge of tides and how the water moves throughout configuration of islands and cays — what’s rote to those amazing guides feels to me like reading an encyclopedia written in Sanskrit.
In Body of Water, your writing moves effortlessly from the biographical to the environmental, weaving in everything from climate change to real estate development along the way – was a lot of this insight and information plain to see in your time with Mr Pinder or did it require a lot of research?
Thank you for saying that, and offering up such a great question. The simple answer is, no. I’m afraid that, at least early on, I was so enamored of Pinder and the flats themselves the web of connections didn’t begin to reveal itself until I began researching in earnest. My original editor at Milkweed Editions, Patrick Thomas, was instrumental in teasing out these connections; he would say something like, “Here you have a sentence on the bonefish’s economic impact, but your reader needs at least a chapter.” When I replaced my nightly sleeping pills with Caribbean history and geological texts (I jest!), I remembered something author Doug Stanton once told me, that 50 pages of historical reading might generate a few sentences of one’s own writing — the research in other words is tedious but the “blood-knots” it helps tie are strong. In the final movement of revision, my publisher Daniel Slager was immensely helpful, seminal, in fact, with structure and progression of the narrative.
This comment from Prescott Smith, son of “Crazy” Charlie Smith was really powerful about the plight of the fishery, the people and the pressures they face:
“Fly fishing is our only chance to build a real democracy in the Bahamas. The fly rod is the key to open the lock to sustainable ecotourism in the country. Our wealth is right here wishing the green mangroves, if we keep producing lobster, grouper and conch. But of course we chose a development model that is all about destroying our true wealth for the pursuit of shorter gain. People aren’t going to tell you that you have a gold mine until they’re in control of it.”
Amid the ongoing development and “progress” in the Bahamas, do you think there’s hope for the conservation and even the possible resurgence of the fishing in the area?
Absolutely. I have confidence that the voice of conservation-minded locals will be heard, and that a sustainable co-existence is possible. Of course, I’m not daft — this won’t happen, either in the Bahamas or here in Montana, without vigilance, and visionary persistence.
Does a career as a guide in Montana have the same kind of sell-by date, that one such as David Pinder’s did in the Bahamas?
Perhaps. For now I’ll let my shoulders and eyes tell me when it’s time to hang up the oars. I’m fortunate now to be guiding a “second generation” of clients, the adult children of some of my original clientele, and I’m desperately trying to teach them how to row so that they can guide me someday!
Each chapter opens with a relevant quote from various fishy/outdoor authors and poets. Which 5-10 authors would you recommend as essential reading for fans of your writing?
Rather than mention the writers quoted in the book’s epigraphs, I’ll go with the following: singer/songwriter Jeffrey Foucault is an essential American poet to my ear; I adore a new novel called Miss Jane, by masterful short-story writer Brad Watson; Pete Fromm’s new memoir The Names of the Stars is a rich anthem for wild places; I read everything I can by Louise Erdrich, Colum McCann, Joe Wilkins, and Montana-based poet Melissa Kwasny. Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces is a lyrical classic that seems more cautionary than ever these days. Jim Fergus’ A Hunter’s Road is beautiful, genre-transcending chronicle about a man and his dog hunting birds across America out of an old Airstream trailer–it was originally published in 1992 but I still read it with awe, admiration, and sweet pangs of jealousy.
What are you working on now?
I’m at work on a new book of nonfiction, tentatively titled The Nature of Wonder, and close to finishing a new collection of poems. Also, it’s with slight chagrin that I admit to having “started a novel” last winter, but I’m afraid I did.