Gray Hair and Grizzly Hackle

Ever since I joined several outdoor organizations and started to attend their regular meetings in the 1990s, I’ve been hearing a general complaint: Look around this room. Our hair is gray. We need some younger people, bright new faces interested in what we do, or it won’t be long until we’re finished.

I, too, used to be concerned– longing for the comfort of youthful representatives in the room. I had to wonder if high-tech gadgetry, or a form of evil, was stealing young folk from the world of nature and its preservation. Maybe something nefarious was involved, but maybe… it was no more than before. I had to reconsider…

fields of chest-high goldenrod, the antithesis of gray…

I recalled that the Boomers, influential at the blossoming of social and political progress in the 1960s, had television (black-and-white and, finally, color) to blank their impressionable minds. Today, well, we know that all too many kids come from broken homes, that Fortnight or equivalent has them in thrall…It’s different and, yet, not so different than before…

I don’t make many social or political comments on this blog. Frankly, I find that all too many current events are either so depressing or surreal that my two-cents’-worth of commentary has no value whatsoever. Even if I spoke more fully, nothing I could say would help settle the sordid flow of things.

Up & down the stream, an Inter-Web of night-time information…

That said, I still consider myself an activist for change, retaining a bit of youthful energy first noticed back in college days. Despite some lingering awkwardness and confusion, I still try to harness a reservoir of social energy– like a river dam that’s cracked and probably should be taken down .

Before I judge the world of young adults, I need to look at my own gray hairs and recognize the route I’ve taken. I became a parent (with great kids, by the way!). I wrote letters, books and pleas. I dealt with home ownership and muddled on with high hopes for a better world. I attended lectures, rallies, and planning sessions. I participated in many acts of non-violent civil disobedience, but I did not join a formal meeting of an activist group (i.e., A. C. Bird Club, Slate Run Sportsmen, Trout Unlimited…) until the age of 40, or older.

taking time to smell the odorless asters…

And that’s when I started hearing the complaints… We don’t have the young folks here. We need fresh blood.

I heard it again today, at a Sportsman meeting, just before embarking on a fishing jaunt along Slate Run. The water was low, very clear and cool at 61 degrees F.. The sky was overcast and promising rain. As far as I could tell, no one else was fishing the run. A favorite pool, long and deep, was active with some very nice fish, large trout mostly nymphing at the bottom or occasionally taking something tiny at the top.

another view of upper Genesee watershed…

I wanted a connection– with the fish, with fellow Sportsmen who could not be here because of physical ailments or prior commitments, and with youthful anglers who might be casting in the social breezes down on big Pine Creek…

I watched a Green Weenie drift along the bottom of the pool– to the nose of what appeared to be a 20-inch brown, into the opening jaws of that exceptional fish– only to snap off when I struck too hard and broke the hair-like tippet. Damn! Then I went through wet and dry fly patterns in various sizes till I settled on a tiny Adams emerger… #20 hook. Real small, for sure, but effective.

keep an eye on this small gray-hackled fly…

Youth has every advantage in society today, and that’s the way it should be if the world isn’t under the command of a Deathwish. Yeah, we gray-hairs had our chance to speak out clearly, but wouldn’t it be nice if our shards of wisdom and experience still stood upright like a road sign to the future?

At the pool, I made a long cast of the Adams to the far end of the pool. Its grizzly hackle, its tiny feathers mottled gray and russet like a wise old head, reflected light and vision. A trout rose and missed it, but I brought the line in, made another cast… And finally, a Slate Run brown, or two–  buttery gems for contemplation.

some nice browns rose to it…

Many teens and young folk in the world are out there doing excellent work. Some of them fish or ski or hike or study previously unimagined maps of our existence. Their work can be transformative–doing stuff like trying to convince our leadership that climate change is real and needs to be addressed. They’re living as fully as they’re able.

Does this mean I’m optimistic about our future? Not necessarily, and not because our youthful saviors are becoming self-involved. They’re working. And when their hairs turn slowly gray, more than a few will be sitting in those meeting chairs the elders left behind.

the first of several on meeting day…

Adams, emerger, small…

a Slate Run brown, late summer…

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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18 Responses to Gray Hair and Grizzly Hackle

  1. Brent says:

    I have a lot of thoughts on this, and about the fact that many under-40s are struggling to shape the world we’ve been handed toward a more comfortable and sustainable place. Much of what we know about the world has already been shaped, mostly negatively, by our parents’ and grandparents’ generations–generations whose members often don’t hesitate to mock our sensitivities to the injustices and destructive behaviors we see.

    But despite all that, I’m personally still grateful that some of our elders stayed true to some higher ideals, that you fought against the polluters or the racists or the war-mongers and didn’t succumb to nihilism. You’ve given us a model to emulate, to learn from, and even improve upon. I hope that when I’m your age, we’ll still have streams to fish, trails to hike, and values worthy of following. Thanks for the great post and the positive example!

    • You’re welcome, Brent. Thanks much for this. We older folks who are still storming upstream like a salmon on a terminal run are doing it (if we’re honest) for the younger ones, the generations to come, and for the great diversity of life remaining on the planet. But that’s just a start. We’ve left the real work to the sons & daughters, I’m sad to say, because, historically, we sure made an effing mess of things. Luckily, if salvation remains a possibility, if we can find sustainability on Earth, it won’t come from a bolt out of the blue but rather from the educated youth of our various nations.

  2. Anonymous says:

    First off, great fish Walt! Very nicely done on Slate! It does get ‘creepers’ at this time (and earlier) of year. When I see and read an article or blog, I don’t like to be left wanting. So many times something is referred to or mentioned and not shown or talked about explicitly. It is/was here! Thank you so much for that Walt! I’m referencing the fish and then the fly that you spoke of. Again, nicely done!
    Secondly, but not less importantly, participation in organizations is interesting. I belonged to that ‘other’ conservation organization (I dare not speak its name -TU) and they had the same issue with trying to attract a younger membership. The chapter I belonged to – same issue, trying to attract young members).
    Now speaking to Brent’s next to last sentence: ‘hope’ is one thing but it takes more than hope to sustain and protect an idea, a movement, or a conservation effort. It takes participation. Participation can take many forms – from simply having a membership, to getting your hands dirty supporting field projects, to running committees.
    So even with a busy life people can still be members at least and their membership dollars help the organization sustain itself. If you sustain your membership over the years though, perhaps you find yourself wanting to make the time for a particular function involved within the organization. Perhaps you want to become involved in a more hands on fashion. Boiled down, it can snowball into whatever you want to make it (your membership).
    The point is, your actions speak louder than words, like ‘hope’. Please do not take this as an attack Brent, hope is a good word. This is just an old man’s thoughts on how participation, even as little as a membership in something, leads to more than hope. And that is what will help sustain organizations with worthy causes – like ________________________ (you fill in the blank – my blank is full).
    UB (off the soap box … finally 😉

    • UB, points well taken. First, glad you liked the SR fruit of the afternoon on Saturday. I think the old stream is coming back… Second, “hope,” as used in Brent’s commentary is, as Emily D. said, “a thing with feathers,” capable of flying in many directions. I agree with you that participation, in whatever form, is key when we consider fighting for a healthy world. I know that Brent (to be specific here) is soldering in a big way down in the D.C. wilderness and is not afraid to speak his mind and to participate in a personal way. I think the implication is that, after all is said & done, after all our dues are paid & we’ve participated in some way, we can still “hope” because there are no guarantees in this struggle and, frankly, the cards are pretty well stacked against us by the powers that be, i.e., the corporate industrial state & the big money interests. But Marion, I agree– we need all the support that we can get, from young & old, from rich & poor, invested in whatever way we can contribute, from free speech to monetary donations, to sweat produced from work beside our streams…

  3. plaidcamper says:

    An interesting piece, and it parallels some of what I’ve been enjoying the past few days. I’ve just got back from a three day marine exploration trip, working alongside indigenous youth, supporting them explore their marine backyard. We were being guided by tremendous post-grad students and instructors at a Marine Science Centre dedicated to researching ways in which we protect and recover marine health. If I could piggyback on previous comments, and throw in education, plus participation and hope, we might be working towards some sort of improved planetary future.
    The young ones I was with are under no illusions as to how the cards they’ve been dealt, environmentally speaking, are pretty lousy, but it was something to see their joy in learning about what has happened, and what could be done to see positive change. Plus, you know, sea otters are impossibly cute.
    Anyway, thanks, as always, for another thoughtful and thought provoking piece!

    • Thanks PC, a fine example of what we’re talking about, and how, as a teacher among these indigenous students, you are, in my estimation, working in such an enviable environment where students are anxious to learn, having fun in the world of nature, while under no illusions of how difficult their way will be. Sea otters forever!

  4. Leigh Smith says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more. I attend similar meetings. Maybe what the youth really need is for us to become guides. When was the last time we asked a neighbor or family member to join us at a meeting or on the river?

    Nice fish in the photos. You need a larger net!

    • Interesting idea, Leigh, simple to accomplish– the asking, that is. And we don’t have to be the perfect guide, if we only open the door… As for a larger net, I don’t think I should push my luck!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Well said my friend!

  6. tiostib says:

    Perhaps by sharing our awe and reverence for the wonders of Nature, we are doing our part for preserving it. Your recent posts have reminded me that Fall, with its changing colors and temperatures, has always been my favorite fishing season, a time to be grateful, to reflect, and, sometimes, to take action.

    Your deep love and commitment to the world you fish in radiates from your words.

    • Thanks Tio. Yes, sharing our awe and reverence for those wonders is, indeed, an important part of our preservation efforts. I appreciate your understanding of this view, for that’s a guiding principle here at RR and in other venues where the love of nature is expressed.

  7. loydtruss says:

    I’ m encouraged to see more young fly fishermen on the Sipsey now. I talk with two students the other day who was fishing the Sipsey for the first time. To my surprise they were students at Miss.
    I wish we had browns in the Sipsey like those beauties you landed. Congrats on a successful outing! Thanks for sharing

    • Thank you, Bill. I say as long as we can interest others (especially the young ones) in the fun and value of fly-fishing, there’s a chance to increase an interest in the natural world and its preservation.

  8. says:

    What’s that saying? Never stepping in the same river twice.
    There’s a lot of self flagellation of us elders dropping the ball, both true and not, in many ways. (Who’d want to give Pres. Nixon credit for signing the Clean Water and Air Act)?
    I waded into the NYC Youth Climate Strike like a migrating salmon this weekend. Grappling with the not-completly-knowable-future our children and grandchildren will inhabit. Remarkably, the age curve at these protests finally flipped on Friday — No longer was it a bunch of seniors taking to the streets. There wasn’t even a chance to get near hearing Greta Thunberg, the 16 year-old activist who began the student strikes. New York City estimated 60,000 people and around the world; 4 million in the most diverse protest in history. This week she will speak at the UN Climate Action Summit and the US did not ask to be at the podium.
    The biggest challenge seems to be to preserve democracy. How to govern a finite planet while respecting sovereign nations. We need to keep showing up for a thriving future and , of course, so must the United States.
    Climate Protesters and World Leaders: Same Planet, Different Worlds.

  9. Steve,
    Thanks for this update and for your participation in the Climate Strike. You’re right, democracy is at stake, as is the health of Earth itself. We can thank the youth (mostly) for getting us on the right page for this critical issue, though it’s certainly a shame that our so-called leadership can’t seem to care enough to look beyond their Narcissism. Let us hope that our CEOs and politicians listen closely to our active youth (if not to the comfortably ensconced) and that we all join in and put this long overdue business on the top of our agendas.

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