Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fly Tying, Bread Baking, and the Lost Art of Things Built by Hand

I tied my first (and perhaps only) fly today. It was a Woolly Bugger with a gorgeous blue marabou tail, orange chenille body, and hackle from what appeared to be a Rhode Island Red Rooster, all tied together with a Rumplestiltskin-like silk filament. It was a serendipitous event that came about while shopping for a silk shirt at the Orvis store near my home. A couple of guys from a local fly fishing group were demonstrating their fly-tying skills and offered me a seat. "Would I like to try my hand at fly-tying?" "Yes, yes I would. I've always wanted to try - at least once."

Today's instructor, a boyish and affable man in perhaps his late thirties, is a research chemist when he's not tying flies. As he worked with me (all thumbs) we spoke of carbon nanotubes and the Space Elevator. We moved into a theological discussion of the ramifications of the First Law of Thermodynamics and then things really started to get interesting. Clearly, this had the beginnings of a Renaissance discussion had we more time. Fly-fishermen are are a fascinating lot, those among them who who tie flies, even more so. They are nature lovers of course, conservationists (nearly all of them employ catch-and-release), and inherently philosophical.

My dear old friend Hawthorne was a ravenous golfer, a one time pilot of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, and a dedicated fly-fisherman. The thought of him with his Winston rod and waders, fishing in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, warms my heart to this day. Years ago, I bought him a few exotic flies (with names like "Orange Sprite", " Dark Montreal", "Parmachene Belle" and "Telephone Box") for his birthday. He was moved by their beauty and handiwork and, I suppose, the uniqueness of the gift. He appreciated the lost art of things made by hand, things made by artisans who were in it for the love of the craft and the satisfaction of seeing something from inception to the finished product. My chemist-fly-fishing-teacher (whose nimble hands have produced more than 10,000 flies) spoke of hand-building a split bamboo rod, a one hundred hour commitment. He crafted the rod and the flies and took them out in the stream and watched as the fish took the bait on the side of its mouth, at which point all was right with the world in a Zen-like moment of near perfection and calm.

In this world of fast food, electronic wizardry, assembly-line cars, and instant gratification, we have lost ourselves. If fly-tying isn't your thing, craft a loaf of homemade bread. Skip the bread machine and build it by hand. Bake a cake that doesn't come out of a box. Try your hand at painting or pottery. Plant flowers, take up woodworking, quilting or weaving. Build a house as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. Do something creative with your hands. It doesn't have to be perfect. My fly was off-center with the rooster feathers lying haphazardly among the chenille valleys, but it was mine. For a few moments on a bitter cold Saturday afternoon, I was at peace with myself and the world.