Introduction, "Woodsmoke"

By Ben Schley (1915-1996)



Printed with permission from Ben Schley’s family – ED.


“This book is about many things and many places. All the stories relate in some way to my love of the natural world. Some are true. Others are fiction. All are influenced by my experiences as a youth in a small town on the banks of a storied river where I could spend countless days on the water and roam the woods and fields. One such day spent with my father more than half a century ago has had much influence on my life.


“I remember it now as one sometimes recalls a dream... no time frame, no visual perspective and everything seems a bit skewed as if seen obliquely. We sit close by the river. My father, his big hands cupped around a burning match, lights a fire and carefully feeds small bits of bark and twigs to a tiny flame. The damp wood burns slowly and smoke fills the quiet air. I turn away and rub smoke-reddened eyes with grimy hands.


“We fished the Potomac River earlier that day. I sat in the bow while Dad poled the heavy wooden scow slowly through a rock-strewn stretch of water. I trailed a worm-baited hook on the end of a long bamboo pole. It was a cold day in late September and I was wearing a too-large green raincoat. It was tightly belted at my waist and the sleeves were rolled to my elbows. The coat was made of oilskin. I thought it smelled of the sea.  I didn't catch any fish that day but my father would pick up his bamboo fly rod now and then and make a long cast or two over the flat gray water. Though he caught several fish, he kept only two small mouth bass, threaded them on a stringer, tied it to an oarlock and let it hang over the side of the boat. I could look down in the clear water and see the bass trying to break free. How old was I then? Six or seven, perhaps eight. Surely no older and with very little meat on my bones.


“A cold rain fell most of that day and an inch or so of water sloshed around in the bottom of the boat. My feet were cold and rain began to find its way through the tattered fabric of the old raincoat. I was miserable and shivering. My father took the fishing pole from my shaking hands, cut off the hook and carefully wrapped the ‘Cuttyhunk’ line around the handle and laid it along the gunnels. Then he pushed the heavy boat upriver and toward the shore.


“Finding dry firewood wasn't easy that soggy day. While Dad searched for deadwood in sheltered places I gathered strips of gray-brown sycamore bark. Stinging nettles lashed my bare legs and water squished in my sodden sneakers. We found shelter in the exposed roots of a fallen sycamore by the edge of the river and my father started a fire. Small at first, it gained strength as he layered one stick after another in the heart of the flame. The wood was damp and the fire hissed and cracked and cast out sparks. It required constant care. Thick smoke poured out and I moved several times to escape it. ‘Smoke follows beauty,’ my father said and we both laughed.


“Later, when the fire burned brightly, I curled up in the roots of the old tree. I was warm and discarded the raincoat. Half asleep, I watched my father staring into the flames. After a while he sat back against the roots of the ancient sycamore, brought out a blackened pipe, filled it with tobacco and lighted it with a burning stick fished from the fire. Then he began to talk about the river and the many forms of life that had depended upon its constant flow since the beginning of time.


“Rivers, he told me, are living things, treasures to love and cherish. . ., the very life blood of our earth. But like all living things they must be cared for and defended. ‘The Potomac is our very own river, yours and mine,’ he said, ‘and someday it will be yours to watch over and care for.’ The fire burned low and my father covered it with damp earth.  The rain and the slanting September sun glinted off the surface of my living river.   Today, my heart beats with the rhythm of the many rivers of my life.”