Trout and Trout Remain
By Matt Martinson
I don’t come here after June when rattlesnakes
come out of caves and snore on stones
along the stream, though trout and trout remain
and I am keen to harm. Yellow bells have fangs
and jack pines rattle in the slightest wind.
There’s nothing special about Taneum Creek. Head east on I-90, maybe ninetyish miles from Seattle, and you won’t see this narrow slip of water even as you drive over it. It’s down there, sure, but good luck finding it. You will see a sign, but no creek. There’s a road and bridge, but no exit. If, however, you do want to visit Taneum Creek, you have to go another two miles, take the Thorp exit, circle around on a sideroad leading you back into the not-spectacular Taneum Creek watershed.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful enough. And don’t misunderstand me—I like creeks, I grew up on Washington creeks, but a creek is a creek is a creek: dense brush, tall trees, deer, elk, bear, trout, birds—you know, a creek.
Okay, fine. Not all Washington creeks are exactly alike. I grew up with different creeks—cricks, we called them—on the left side of the Cascades, a few dozen miles as the crow flies yet a couple hours in the car, on creeks where the underbrush is a bit thicker, as is the moss, a place where prehistoric salamanders meditated beneath granite and ferns. And there were no rattlesnakes. No, rattlesnakes are an eastern Washington phenomenon. When the summer heat comes on, which, in apocalyptic 2022, is now just as likely to be May as it is July, Washington’s only rattler, the western rattlesnake, comes out to bask in the murderous sun.
Note the sibilance, with “snakes,” “snore,” “stones,” and “stream” to remind us of the typical sss snake sound, but then paired with the hard “ck” sounds of “…snakes come out of caves,” which now begins to imitate not only a rattlesnake’s hiss but also the ktsch-ktsch-ktsch of its rattle, a warning of danger.
My first few years here, I was anxious, afraid of what I imagined would be a quick rattle followed by the instant, searing bite. Like Richard Hugo, I avoided the eastern Washington scrublands, fearful of fangs. But we can’t cower forever. I made my way outdoors, discovering, eventually, that rattlesnakes are few and far between, that, like me, they aren’t looking for trouble.
I once took some students on a hike near here, and one young woman nearly stepped on a fat, dark rattler. It gave a frantic tail shake and scooted off into the underbrush, where two of its friends were waiting. You experience that, and the initial fear of Hugo’s speaker makes sense. And then it doesn’t. And then the whole “They’re more afraid of you than you are of them” starts to make sense.
Isn’t that what Hugo’s speaker is really saying here? That he doesn’t actually come here after June? C’mon. How would he know what the snakes do after June if he didn’t come and see for himself? Ask that question and suddenly you know it’s a lark, a sardonic commentary on our fears! Oooooh, we say—he’s saying in his most mocking voice—Look at the big, scary snake, emerging from its dark, spooky cave, creeping out to, to, to…snore on a rock. Gasp! Such a scary creek.
Growing up, my creek was Goat Creek, just a stone’s throw west of Mount Rainier National Park, the water draining from year-round snowmelt on Norse Peak. We’d stay at my grandparents’ old cabin and I’d spend long summer days with the creek’s roar in my ears, a fishing pole in hand, on the hunt. For trout.
I never liked the taste of trout. I didn’t like killing them. I hated putting a worm on a hook. I’m not even sure if, at that age, I enjoyed the solitude on the creek. Yet there I was, day after day, moving up and down the creek, finding calm pools beneath small falls, where, perhaps, a long, fat fish might be craving an awkwardly placed worm, magically dangling in the water. I’d stab the worm, throw its hooked form into the creek, all in the hopes that I might soon be clubbing an innocent, poor-tasting fish to death.
Once, while we were at the creek, my big brother spotted a black bear, which scampered up a tree and miraculously never came down again. The adrenaline rush of fear and excitement was palpable as we waited below, hands shading our eyes, looking up into the canopy of trees for a bear that must still be up there today.
Another time, my dad told me a story about the corral across the gravel road. This is the same corral where grandpa kept the horses he used for his hunting guide work, the same corral where my dad and his friends were practicing quick draw until one kid accidentally pulled the trigger too quickly and shot himself in the leg. In this story, there were no horses at the corral, but a doe and her two fawns were grazing. A handful of folks watched, kids in tow, oohing and ahhing the sweet spotted fawns, when, with no warning, in a non-registerable instant, a cougar held one fawn in its mouth, gone before anyone could mentally compute. It was the quick strike, he said, that was so shocking, the instantaneousness of death, like a shot in the leg or a club to the head. Or the flash of a trout in a slow pool.
Two of Hugo’s lines in this poem have always bothered me: “though trout and trout remain / and I am keen to harm.” The first half, “though trout and trout remain,” speaks of abundance. That’s one glory of nature, its abundance. It’s what Jesus is referring to in all that talk about birds in the trees and flowers in the field, like when you find some untouched valley in the Cascades, full to bursting with wildflowers nobody else but you will see that season. It’s what Dillard means when, for pages and pages in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she ruminates on fecundity, the seeming wastefulness in life-giving abundance in which nature seems to relish. It’s the millions of salmon coming up these rivers and streams to drop unfathomable numbers of eggs. It’s the Douglas fir trees above me putting out a hundred seeds in each cone, dropping a solid thousand on a good year, and only a handful of seeds will root.
It was beneath such a tree that I had my favorite fishing hole on Goat Creek, a glorious spot somehow still in view of the cabin; I could sit beneath that tree, unmoving, catch a trout, then come back and catch another the next day. I remember, one time, I must have been eight or nine, I caught four or five trout, each about a foot long. None of us wanted to eat them, and that year mom gave up on even the pretense of cooking them. So the fish sat, started to smell, and then went out with the end-of-the-week trash. I have never fished there again.
From an aesthetic standpoint, my favorite point in Hugo’s poem is this break, the fact that “and I am keen to harm” comes in the next line, a glorious enjambment. If the first line speaks to an almost infinite and eternal plentitude, the second seems to take that as a challenge, like the moment when I realized the chipper-sounding “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” was about a mass murderer. It’s an unexpected turn, from nature’s bounty to the speaker’s vile intent. It's turning a corner from paradise into a gutpunch. The poem does an about-face much like the U-turning driver attempting to reach Taneum Creek. It’s nature’s fecundity contra humanity’s murderous nature.
Think, especially, about that word: keen. What a choice!
In the same way literati fans tend to romanticize the drunken antics of folks like Hugo, Cheever, and Hemingway, I’ve often been guilty of doing the same with the famous Raymond Carver’s turn toward sobriety. If I’m being totally honest, I’ve always imagined him on a boat right off the Olympic Peninsula, peaceful, content, just glad to be alive and to share a moment with some poor salmon trying to make it up the Hoh River or a rainbow trout cruising up the Yakima. Folks like Carver—not to mention Duncan, Maclean, Middelton, Hemingway, Barich, Walton—they may be out for a meal, they may be out for sport, but they tend not to be out for violence. That’s a leap. Who wants to find joy in violence? Who wants to admit it? Heck, look at keen’s synonyms—enthusiastic, eager, willing—and imagine such a word aligned with harm of all things. It’s blatantly indicative of a desire for, a need to commit, violence for violence’s sake. It’s a frightening moment, sadistic even. The speaker, it seems, finds pleasure in the act of brutality as an end in itself.
Is that normal? Natural? Monstrous?
I’ve always been haunted by a late summer afternoon adventure that took place 25, maybe 30 years ago. I was out with two cousins, deep in the woods, and massive salmon kept charging up the creek next to us, their knife-like backs slicing above the shallow creek’s crest. What made us grab long, thick sticks, position ourselves in the stream, go through all the work of making barricades and detours meant to slow and deter them? I remember, still, the thrill of chasing them through the current, of swinging sticks, yelling out strategies, cursing the ones who made it out of our gauntlet. And then, when we finally corralled one into a small pool, I remember seeing the way it tried to blend in with its surroundings—and it really did—and then that final act, the three of us swinging and swinging, beating a salmon to death merely for sport, out of boredom and some deep-seated hate. I remember my younger cousin, Justin, holding the fish up afterward, not in championship or even curiosity, but rather with a blank look on his face. Somehow, as an adult, I’ve always acquainted that moment with the last time I saw him, in 2000, his head swollen beyond recognition at a Tacoma hospital after he got drunk and high and crashed his car alongside the Puyallup River.
We are, it seems, keen to harm.
Yellow bells, not to mention jack pines, are, though, not so eager to commit violent acts. Duh. What’s interesting is that, up to now, the poem has been a bit modern-imagist, giving little more than the things-in-themselves, not far from the infamous wheelbarrow of Williams or metro station of Pound. Like all works of art, Pound, Williams, and Hugo look at the individual to, with any luck, talk about the universal. Hugo’s allusions to fear and violence seem to be doing just that. Yet how do we even bring up a word like universal in a post-post-postmodern world, in a post-truth, hyper-individualized moment? How could they even do it in Hugo’s day? In Pound and Williams’ time?
Both Williams and Pound tried their luck at translating poems from the Chinese. Pound more famously so, obviously, but Williams, too, translated a handful of poems, published posthumously in New Directions 19. Regardless of the quality of either man’s translations, the precision of Chinese poetic thought had a lasting influence, seeing the individual for what it is, not as an image or form of something larger, but as just a piece of the whole, looking at other pieces of the whole. Taoist and Ch’an thinking would try to teach the individual to move beyond our conceptual, language-based way of perception, which simplifies in order to group and categorize. As Emmanuel Levinas would say generations later, it causes us to totalize and, in the process, be unjust.
Yet even in Ch’an thinking, to see the individual as itself, not a representation of itself and others like it, is meant to lead to larger truths. Zhuangzi famously taught, “The fish caught, forget the net.” But what’s the net? Language? Thinking? Our mind itself? Yes, probably, to all three. And more besides!
In Hugo’s poem, though, we flip Zhuanzi’s quote around, forget the fish. But then again, of course, this isn’t about fish!
Yellow bells do grow in the Taneum Creek area, but what you are far more likely to see when you come down the road is arrowleaf balsamroot, whose bright yellow flowers bloom profusely, and hang on far longer than most native flowers in eastern Washington. If you go walking out here in the summer, where the heat typically hovers around 95 as long as the sun is up, last year reaching 115 one scorching August day, everything dries up, and the crusty arrowleaves, in the breeze, sound exactly like rattles. It keeps you on your toes, and you’ll find yourself leaping away from twenty rattlesnakes in one day, having never encountered any actual snakes on your sweaty two-hour hike.
It gets better: there are no native jack pines in eastern Washington, and few invasive ones, it seems, but there are lodgepole pines. I like to think this was intentional on Hugo’s part, this mis-identification. We hear snakes where there are no snakes, see trees where they don’t exist, and attribute violent intent to all.
Two weeks ago I read about the decimation of entire packs of Yellowstone wolves, of a mass culling across Montana as these apex predators came out of the park in winter, only to be met with armed men who’d been given permission—and were keen—to kill. The wolves are dangerous, they argue, so we have to kill them first.
Two weeks ago, Russia invaded Ukraine, a “military exercise” meant to keep Ukraine under control, to strike back first.
My uncle—a different uncle, not Justin’s dad—now owns the cabin. I visited last summer. Goat Creek had been devastated, shattered beyond recognition after the entire mountain above blazed in a massive, unthinkable fire, which in turn led to mudslides, rockslides, destruction, destruction, destruction. I stood at the creek and wondered how the trout were holding up. If they even exist now, at all.
The projections aren’t good anywhere up here in America’s left shoulder. Rainbow trout are dying off in large numbers, the water getting too warm as the world heats up and the trees alongside the rivers and creeks burn off. Rainbow trout are beginning to only live in clumps, unable to travel or breed outside their shrinking pockets of cold. And with golden trout, living further up in the highest hills, the situation is more dire, as they hold on in tiny mountaintop ponds that shrink a bit more with each passing year.
And Taneum Creek? If you come here—and really, it’s up to you—bring a garbage bag. You probably won’t see a single rattlesnake or trout, but I promise you will find plastic bags and Gatorade bottles and used condoms and Styrofoam and an obscene number of spent shotgun shells.
But don’t worry, the bears and cougars and porcupines and skunks and wolverines and bobcats are deep in the hills. They are not keen to harm.