When Worlds Collide

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The moment the largemouth bass exploded onto my fly, we became aware of each other. The membrane separating us was broken; this was the instant our worlds collided. On that spring night, I could not resist the allure of dark green water, ringed with reeds. I threw a white popper and suddenly my heart pounded and my rod bent and my tippet snapped — and the encounter was over. 

All I knew of the fish was its lightning lunge from its nest, the churning of the shallows to a violent pallor in the starlight, and a fierce and fleeting fight unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in that pond. It was only me and the bass — connected by a tenuous length of line. I wonder: do they think about us too, in their own way? When the fish leaps, or when it is hooked and landed, does it perceive the other side?

To pull a gleaming, breathing fish from its fluid world into ours is a primal delight. We are so fortunate to glimpse a creature perfectly suited to its element: so beautifully adept immersed in it yet so ungainly removed from it. In the freshness of its sweet flesh, you can taste true vitality. But to feel a revived fish dart from your gentle grasp and vanish back into its private life is perhaps the most beautiful part of fishing.

While the angler and hunter avail themselves to such opportunities, sometimes we happen to peer into nature’s maw as bystanders. Once I walked along the beach of a barrier island, finding inert silver silhouettes on the dark sand. They were menhaden, or bunker — the oily fish that often draw dolphins and whales to the Jersey shore. Racing like thrown knives in the surf were monstrous bluefish, toothy and wild-eyed, tearing their prey apart. Bunker bodies, bitten in half and gasping, twisted in the turquoise water. Those who escaped had fled onto the shores of the land-borne world. They were like fallen angels. 

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But more often we meet the messengers. Birds are the most visible emissaries from this separate yet shared place. We perceive them in our own yards and urban spaces; they live close to us yet they inhabit a planet within and without ours, above and around it — of which we are still a part. And with just a flick of their wings they can be off again into the unknown, diving effortlessly back into their mysterious and wondrous existence. To observe them is a thrill as old as time.

I hope those who never hunt can know why we always will. In the hushed half-light of a dawning mountainside, the woods woven from a thousand shades of golden green, the wind quickens and the birds stir. The drumming of a woodpecker, the cackle of geese, a screech owl lingering on the edge of night — I hear everything but turkeys, and they’re what I came for. They’re why I’m rubbing two pieces of wood together to make sound instead of fire. Yet the morning is not lost. My yelps are answered by the low, knowing croon of the “rain crow,” the elusive yellow-bellied cuckoo I would not identify without the help of fellow hunters, later in the day. How many people enter the trees before the sun? We get to hear the secret songs.

We delight in the moments when worlds collide. But when they do, we should instead see that they instead coalesce. Lines blur, fading together like how the bars on a hawk’s belly blend it into its background. We like to think we’re different from other animals — which we are — but we are still animals. We think of ourselves as separate from nature, but we’re not — never have been, never will be. Everything humans have ever created — the superhighway, the skyscraper, the plastic spork — all of these things have their origins in the earth. We’ll all return to it, too.

Passage Creek is turbid and thick with rain. I’m wading up to my waist, fly rod in hand, taking slow, awkward steps, getting to know the slippery facets of every submerged rock as I make my way to where the fast water stills, flicking a brown streamer at a hypothetical trout. I can feel the May sun on the back of my neck, and when I look upstream I see white grins of water, riffle and stone. I draw a breath and understand the power of the current that graces gills and carves valleys. In this reverie I am a child in New Jersey, bobbing in the ocean, my only care the coming waves. I might rise to meet them or plunge into them, lest they knock me over — but even if they do, my feet find land again, and I remember I belong in this world.

Heidi Chaya

Heidi Chaya is a food journalist, farmhand, and avid home cook. Her experiences living and working in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley provide her with many opportunities to expand her culinary horizons and continue to learn and grow through fishing, foraging, and hunting.

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