Rivers are round, naturalist Aldo Leopold said. He meant the seamlessness of life and continuum of energy flowing from sun to plants to insects to trout. For John N. Maclean, the round river that connects now and then, and family and friends, is the Blackfoot. The Montana river, which flows near his family’s cabin in Seeley Lake, starts with a slide down the west slope of the Continental Divide, meanders through flats, then quickens and hugs the east flank of the Garnet Range before yielding to the Clark Fork near Missoula.
It’s a river given prominence by his father, Norman Maclean, the author of A River Runs Through It, a dark poem of a book about rivers and fly-fishing, but more intimately about a troubled brother who lived at full throttle and the family who loved him but couldn’t save him from a tragic death — a brutal beating, his body left in a dark alley. The story, drawn from personal experience, haunted Norman Maclean and found voice in the book, which was published when he was 73.
John Maclean picks up that thread and weaves it into a book to be published this summer. In Home Waters: A Chronicle of Family and a River (Custom House), Maclean reflects on his own family experience and the Blackfoot in an attempt, he says, “to remember the dead generations and to give the living ones a deeper sense of where they came from and hope for where they’re going.”
I spoke with John Maclean in the backyard of his house in a leafy neighborhood of Washington D.C., where he has lived since leaving the Chicago Tribune in 1995 to write books. Including Home Waters, Maclean has written six; the other five are about fatal wildfires. A seventh, about the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013, is in progress. Our conversation was condensed and edited for clarity.
You tell about the first time your father took you fishing. You were 6 years old and caught a rainbow. Is that your favorite trout?
Which of your children do you like best? I admire trout for what they are. Love them for what they are. Have you ever seen an ugly trout? I haven’t. I think bass are beautiful in their own way, too.
Even a thuggish-looking catfish?
They look like something that belongs on a coin. I like fish.
Though your father taught you to love fishing, it was George Croonenberghs, a family friend who was very close to Paul — your father’s brother — who taught you to fish. Explain.
It’s like teaching your kid to drive. You are all uptight about it. Better to let someone else do it. I worshipped George, and he adopted me. He was unbelievably available. He was a physical powerhouse — a railroad engineer, 6-foot-4 — and a generous man. He would send a gift to Dad every Christmas of flies that he tied and a card that would say “substitute for words.”
Fishing was a seriously competitive sport in your family. You write of your father: “Hell was when I lost a big fish in front of him.” Furthermore, Paul would throw rocks in a pool George was fishing to scare fish off.
And Dad did it to me to make you think there were fish. They thought it was funny. It was not funny. That harsh competitiveness, which was real and brutal, softened as time went on. The things that were acceptable out there were not acceptable in later life and in other places.
Besides fishing, one thing that connected you and your father, literally, was using a two-man saw.
Have you ever done it? You pull. You don’t push. If you push, the saw binds, so you have to pull gently and guide it, and you get into this rhythm, and the metal sings. My dad and I got really good at it. It made him so happy getting someone on the other end who knew how to do it. You are really connected, and you don’t have to talk.
After a highly respected career as a professor of English at the University of Chicago, your father published what essentially has become a classic. He was 73. That’s quite a spectacular second act.
There’s a reason he didn’t write for successful publication until he was in his 70s. I think his father gave him a case of writer’s block. He told Norman and Paul, who were homeschooled, “Never be too proud to cut a single word!” Drills were intense. Exercises were rewritten and rewritten. I got away from that by getting into the news business. Suddenly I had a lot of editors, and I had to produce on deadline. You know: “Where’s the copy, kid?” I could write quickly, which is not the same as writing well.
You and your wife, Frances, were the first ones to read the manuscript of A River Runs Through It.
We read some of his other stories and said, “You ought to change this and the other,” and he did. But with A River Runs Through It, I told him not to let an editor change a word, and I don’t think they did. It was shocking to see how much of himself he put into it, how magically he bought it off and to see he wasn’t arrogant.
As your father awaits your reaction to the manuscript, you write: “He didn’t look easy.” As you describe it, he seems so terribly vulnerable. Did that happen often?
Very, very infrequently. That is the most vulnerable I’ve ever seen him.
You’ve told me the book is written to the rhythm of the Blackfoot.
It roars in, hits the big rock, goes down to a big pool and then tails off. One, two, three. Unlike the Missouri, which changes all the time, the Blackfoot does not. That lower part hits right up against rock. Those holes are exactly the same as they were when I was a kid.
Shadow casting features in the book and is beautifully filmed in the movie. In describing it, your father writes of Paul: “He would cast hard and low upstream, skimming the water with his fly but never letting it touch. … Shockingly, immensity would return as the Big Blackfoot and the air above it became iridescent with the arched sides of a great Rainbow.” Was that actually a technique used on the river?
Yes. Paul learned it from the guys who were doing it. Jason Borger [a professional fly-fishing consultant who was the stand-in for Brad Pitt, who played Paul in the film] was always more afraid that it would scare fish than raise them. There’s no manual that tells you how to do it. Jason had to reinvent it for the film. I guess you can think of it as a cowboy playing with a lariat. I talked to George about it, and he said the part I ought to try is with a caddis and skip it, let it sit, and then boom!
In one affecting passage, you are sitting on the bank of Seeley Lake watching for fish to rise, and your father, knowing you are there, calls out “Paul! Paul!” It feels like the shadow caster in another sense of the word is the haunting spirit of Paul.
Paul cast a long shadow, and he does in this book. It was always: Why isn’t this guy here? How come he never shows up?
He was murdered before you were born, so you never knew him. But Paul was indelibly present in his absence. You found a plaid shirt of his at the back of a dresser drawer in the cabin and wore it. It’s as if you wrapped yourself in him.
And got wrapped in him. It wasn’t just me doing it. My father was going to call me Paul. My mother intervened and said, “You can’t do that to this kid.”
You give a lovely tip of the hat to the big-hearted Nick Lyons, a publisher and author of fly-fishing books, who was the first to review River Runs.
It was just a short review in a bookshelf column in Fly Fisherman magazine. Nick, who was also an English professor at Hunter College, called it an American classic that will set the tone for everything else. It put Dad in orbit for the rest of his life.
How did he deal with fame?
He enjoyed every minute of it. It healed a lot of stuff. Not perfectly, but some.
Your father never saw the film; he died in 1990, before it was finished.
He met [director] Robert Redford, who was very attentive to him. He was, let’s say, he was difficult. There were lots of ins and outs. The movie was made posthumously, and there was a reason. “That film is going to be made on the Blackfoot,” he said. For various reasons it wasn’t. It was made on different rivers outside of Livingston. But before that, Redford paid him more than we thought he was going to. It was enough so that my father’s final years were comfortable, and he was taken care of in the way that he wanted to be taken care of, and if you aren’t grateful for that, you are incapable of human gratitude.
Let’s talk about the Blackfoot and the impact of the book and movie, which sparked a global mania for fly-fishing. The river had been severely degraded; among other insults was the toxic drainage from Mike Horse Mine when the dam blew out in 1975. You quote a director of Montana Trout Unlimited: “By the 1980s not even Paul could have coaxed … a fish from those waters.”
It brought an outpouring of donations and support that went into cleanup and restoration. By one reckoning, there were more than 75 restoration efforts costing around $15 million. Thirty or more tributaries were cleaned up and reconnected to the river.
And the downside of the equation?
The outfitters went to town. You’d see dudes — and that’s the proper name for them — with all this stuff and equipment right out of the box, imitating Brad Pitt. You don’t see that so much anymore, but what you see is boat after boat after boat. My friend Jay Proops went to the North Fork, and there were 70 outfits there. I hope the community starts to police itself, and that includes Montana Fish and Game [the name was changed to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in 1991], whose solution to the problem is to build another campground.
The family cabin in Seeley Lake, near Missoula, was built by your grandfather, the Rev. John Maclean, and his wife. How often do you get there?
Usually twice a year for stays of several weeks, once in the early part of the year, in May through June, and in the early fall, September through October. I try to leave August to other family members. My biggest effort these days is to help prepare it to be passed on to the next generation. I did not get there [last] year on account of the pandemic.
You didn’t go last summer, but when you are there, how do you manage to evade the “armada” and fish the Blackfoot in peace?
If you turn off that tape recorder, I’ll tell you.