Nobody taught the journalist Mark Hume how to read the water. As he explains in his lean but elegant memoir, the tradition, the talent, the gift — whatever you want to call it — came to him by chance when he was seven, “the way poetry or dance or dreams come to others.”
Tagging along behind an older brother, Hume wandered through the overgrown orchards surrounding his isolated family home near Penticton, British Columbia. His brother was seeking the source of a stream flowing from Campbell Mountain, the forested hulk looming over the Okanagan Valley that marked the edge of their boyhood world. Ignoring a No Trespassing sign, the two found a pool of trout, “moving in a tight interlaced school, collecting like gold in a seam, waiting to be discovered.” These fish were the first trout Hume had ever seen, and he was hooked. “They seemed hand-painted, daubed with surprising colors. . . . It was astonishing to see such perfect form, such vividness, emerging so unexpectedly from the water.”
Imagine the thrill: a spontaneous and forbidden foray into the wild led to a hidden treasure, a triumph Hume shared with his older brother, who scooped four trout out of the pool, dangled them from their gills on a forked willow stick, and carried them home as an edible prize to their impecunious mother, “who loved harvesting wild things, making tea out of rose hips and collecting watercress along streams.” Perhaps it was not as momentous an event as Copernicus discerning that the earth rotates around the sun, but it proved pivotal in Hume’s life. From catching trout in his hands, he went on to educate himself on the intricacies of fly-fishing (not only for trout but also for salmon) by reading books and watching from afar as skilled fishers threw “long, sinuous lines arcing through the air.”
Hume is the middle of five sons born to the late journalist James Hume and his first wife, Joyce Potter. These two Brits were both pacifists and Christadelphians, members of a sect that disavows much Christian orthodoxy and adheres to a daily regimen of Bible reading. They met in Southport, on the coast north of Liverpool, during the Second World War. She was stationed there as a member of the Women’s Land Army, and he was interned as a conscientious objector. They married after the war and like many others faced rationing and unemployment — she because women were expected to surrender jobs to returning soldiers and he because his lacklustre resumé did not include any military service. They fled to Canada, where, after some hard times doing makeshift jobs to feed their growing family, James found work in journalism. By the time his son discovered trout, he was the editor of the Penticton Herald, a local daily.
In his peripatetic career, James moved his family back and forth across the west. In each locale, his son sought a new stream or pool, the way a different kid might seek friends by playing sports. “I never stopped searching in water,” Mark writes, “not just for hidden fish but for answers, for emotional renewal and strength.” By studying and practising, he learned that “fly fishing is more than just a pastime; it is a place of solace, a way of learning and of teaching. Done right, fly fishing is a meditation; a way of questing after truths in nature — and in yourself.”
Newspapering was how his father sought truth. Hume describes the tales he would hear around the dinner table: about the boy who lost his fingers in a lawn mower, about the farmer who was fined for dragging a dead horse through town on the way to the dump, about the government agents who emptied the local beer halls and called up volunteers to fight a forest fire in the Okanagan Valley. “He seemed to work in a dangerous and exciting world,” Hume recalls, “one I could hardly imagine and which consumed most of his time. We didn’t fish together then, didn’t hike together, didn’t play catch or go camping, and my life was as much a mystery to him as his was to me.”
Clearly, James Hume was not the kind of man Mark saw as a role model. He found those figures in the naturalists he read, such as Roderick Haig-Brown, author of A River Never Sleeps, and Charles Brandt, a Roman Catholic priest who lived in a hermitage on the Oyster River, in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island. An environmentalist, a spiritualist, and a fisher, Brandt also taught Christian meditation practices. Among his maxims for being at one with nature, according to Hume: “If you are aware of your silence, you are not yet silent enough.”
Joyce — a gentle woman who milked the goat in the warm kitchen, praised her chickens when they laid eggs, and read Beatrix Potter stories to her children before bedtime — was more in tune with Mark’s sensibilities. “My mother,” he writes, “let all but the youngest run free in the orchards that surrounded our home, and we developed a love of nature through the walks she took us on, collecting bird nests, seedpods, and wild plants.“
But even she had her limits as a parental figure, although she remained close to her children and eventually her grandchildren. Some years after Hume’s father left her for a younger woman and sired yet another son — his sixth — Joyce found a job as a live-in housekeeper at a hotel outside Victoria. She packed her bags, announced that she didn’t “intend to play the abandoned woman” and walked out, leaving Mark, a second-year university student, and his youngest brother, Jon, “in a house of empty rooms, vanishing memories, and untold stories.” Ah well, our parents always abandon us eventually, usually by death, but sometimes they skedaddle, as James Hume did, because children, for all their other qualities, are a weight on our freedom.
After Hume’s own rough times, including a failed marriage in his twenties, he rediscovered fishing, formed a relationship with a nature-loving woman named Maggie, married again, and became a father to two daughters, Emma and Claire, born four years apart. I hesitate to compare the birth of his daughters to the excitement of catching a trout with his bare hands, but the joy and ecstatic mystery of cradling each of his newborns and looking into their unfocused eyes is remarkably similar and has an equally life-affirming effect.
Reading the Water is a discreet but intimate book that traces Hume’s search for a metaphorical father, to augment his largely absent biological one, and to grow into a physically present and nurturing parent. His path is through nature, the same one he trod on his own, but this time it is shared, often with Maggie, as he guides his daughters through the wilds, imparting the lessons he has learned about reading the water. He also teaches them ecologically friendly techniques for fly-fishing, such as catch-and-release — a practice we all must learn as parents if we want to raise independent children. Communing with nature also helps him confront his own mortality in a world facing extinction. Yes, metaphors abound, but they are never overwrought.
As I made my way through Reading the Water , I also consumed Fraser Sutherland’s The Book of Malcolm, a memoir that John Fraser reviewed in these pages in the May 2022 issue. Malcolm, a charming, imaginative boy, was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager and died of undetermined causes at twenty-six, on Boxing Day 2009.
Sutherland’s book is a memorial to his son, but at one point he describes what it’s like to be the parent of a child with a severe mental illness, which he contrasts with the loosening of parental bonds as “normal” children grow up: “They lead their own lives and, though their parents may be happy at their successes, or unhappy at their failures, they become separate units, perhaps starting their own families. The bonds we once had with our children weaken, sometimes even snap. But to see a child become psychotic is to renew what we once had, to remind us of what we continue to share. It brings us back to basics.” By that he means the constant physical and emotional surveillance of your child’s safety, including a protective intervention with the medical and civil authorities long after he or she has reached the age of majority. Even the thought of that lifetime of overwhelming and unrelenting parental duty is exhausting.
What Hume wants, as do many of us, I wager, is something between the two extremes of “normal” and “psychotic” parent-child relations. He hopes to loosen the reins and allow Emma and Claire to be independent, while creating mutually loving bonds that will make parent and child want, but not need, to be emotionally attached, no matter where or how they live. Teaching his daughters to fish and to read the water is how he achieves this goal — and a closeness that he never managed with his own father. (Luck and circumstances played their ineluctable roles in both the Sutherland and the Hume families, but nobody ever said life is fair.)
Hume does not seem interested in hooking us with flashy disclosures or stringing us along for a temporal recounting of his own clippings as an award-winning environmental writer. Instead, he expects us to be patient as he invites us to wade streams, listen to the birds, cast a wary eye for marauding bears, and learn how to tie lures and practise fly-fishing as we engage in epic battles with a diminishing trove of trout and salmon. As a non-fisher, I learned a lot, embraced the rhythm of Hume’s sentences, and found him among the best of literary companions.
Coincidentally, as I was finishing Reading the Water , James Hume died at the age of ninety-eight, after a three-day hospital stay. He had written for the Victoria Times Colonist and its predecessors for more than sixty years. After his daily column ended in 2014, he wrote a blog until earlier this year, pounding his keys until shortly before life gave him a final deadline. There were tributes from the premier, John Horgan, who said Hume brought “a sharp eye and a sharper pen to the world of BC politics,” and from the Vancouver Sun journalist Vaughn Palmer, who recalled a generous colleague who “never shied from a fight with a politician.”
I wondered if Mark would want to change anything in his book now that his dad had died, so I sent him an email asking just that. “My father’s death, while not unexpected given his age, came as a shock and I am still processing it,” he replied. “If I was filing my final draft today, I wouldn’t change anything, but the death of a parent stirs a lot of emotions, and it is impossible to say how things will settle over time. In a year, I might think I should have written more or less, but right now I feel the story was told the way I wanted to tell it.”
Not knowing “how things will settle over time” made me think of my own father, dead for nearly twenty years. His demise was a shock, not just for the suddenness of his decline, but because he was still a mystery to me, so much so that I wrote an essay about our relationship and persuaded a dozen other women to do the same, in an anthology titled The First Man in My Life. A few of my would-be contributors, a couple of them famous, gave up in despair. “Why do you think we write fiction?” one of them asked rhetorically, a lesson I wish I had learned earlier if only to avoid the memoirist’s guilt for making explicit certain stories that some family members would have preferred to remain obscure.
Plunging into icy waters is the subject of Kathleen McDonnell’s Growing Old, Going Cold: Notes on Swimming, Aging, and Finishing Last. McDonnell, a playwright, non-fiction writer, and self-described slowpoke in marathon swims, lives with her husband on one of the islands in Lake Ontario that are a short ferry ride away from downtown Toronto. That means she can walk out of her house and wade into the lake: no need to sign up for lap times at a gym, a definite bonus when most sweat factories were shuttered during the pandemic. She needs a lot of marital time alone — who doesn’t? — even when travelling with her husband. She portrays him contentedly visiting single-malt distilleries on a vacation in northern Scotland while she happily went swimming against tidal currents in a coastal river near Loch Ness. Different strokes, as they say.
I have always wanted to be a better swimmer, especially as the decades pass. You can do it on your own, which is a bonus if you are group averse, and, unlike running, another solitary activity, it can’t lead to you falling and breaking a hip or twisting an ankle. You can drown, of course, which is why it is good to have a buddy watching over you. But I’ve never wanted to be a nearly frozen swimmer. McDonnell is a low-key promoter of this obsession, though. Her book is breezy, full of links and information about swimming clubs and venues and replete with encouraging tips. Do not do a sudden polar bear dip into numbing water, for instance. Instead, stride slowly but steadily forward. Wear a cap, the brighter the better, to keep your head warm and to alert boaters of your presence. Protect your fingers with scuba-diving gloves, as cold hands can signal the beginnings of hypothermia.
McDonnell has her heroes, including Oliver Sacks, the British-born neurologist and bestselling author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other books. His New Yorker essay “Water Babies,” from May 1997, changed how she viewed her own swimming and suggested a way “to write about it.” The key was looking at it not as exercise but as a kind of meditative practice in which, as Sacks wrote, “the mind could float free, become spellbound, in a state like a trance.”
Swimming and writing have become intimately connected for McDonnell, especially in this book, which she calls “a series of snapshots” of her cold-water adventures. And by cold, she means frigid. Back in 2016, she swam daily, even though she sometimes had to break up the surface ice on Lake Ontario. And that’s where McDonnell left me cold, if you will forgive the expression. Just the idea of open water in January makes me want to find a bar stool, perhaps one next to her husband. As one of my favourite aunties used to say, “Do you think it is time for a steadier, dear?”
Yet reading Growing Old, Going Cold made me wonder if a solitary and energizing swim, as prescribed by McDonnell, might have eased my own mother into a spiritually content and physically active old age. (Alas, cancer determined otherwise.) Instead, I have a memory of being a disaffected teenager at a rented cottage on a chilly lake in the Laurentians and hearing her screeching at my father, “You call this a holiday? This is nothing but a change of sinks!”
I don’t recall if he put down the book he was reading, but my mother’s line penetrated my teenage hauteur. It was such a potent embodiment of the unpaid and unacknowledged drudgery of domesticity that I have ritually repeated it at every summer gathering of my clan, so much so that I fear my grown offspring might quote the line at my funeral. That’s what children do. They share stories and trade grievances about us to make sense of the hand they have been dealt. And in doing so, they may, like Hume, find better ways to parent their own children.