Sunday, December 05, 2004


Fisherman hooks reader with insights beyond the water

Away up in the hills of southern Germany, where men still wear lederhosen and the shade of Adolf Hitler still casts an ominous presence, there's a glistening stream running fresh and clear down a mountain gorge. There, in sight of the Eagle's Nest Hitler's supporters built for him high in the Berchtesgaden Alps, Norm Zeigler once found a peace of mind some men may know, but never learn to articulate.

Now, on a Christmas-shopping Saturday afternoon in a Barnes & Noble bookstore, Zeigler sits, knotting a fishing lure known as a fly and waiting as patiently as only a fisherman can.

A crippling illness destroyed the life he once led, a time of chasing coy and mighty trout through the high country of Europe. Now, he sits in the bookstore awaiting customers at a book signing for "Rivers of Shadow, Rivers of Sun," (22.95, Countrysport Press), the distillation of those bracing baptisms in the trout streams of the Old Country.

Zeigler, a former reporter for the European version of Stars and Stripes, had a dream job that enabled him to traverse Europe regularly. He always carried along tackle, and fished at many of the continent's best trout streams. The book is a travelogue of trout fishing, filled with the sort of technical insider's stuff followers of the sport would appreciate and respect. But it reads like a novel and is invested with a keen moral insight, perhaps engendered by "Rivers of Shadows," most disturbing scene:

"For nine months my health had been broken, and I had been barely able to function. But lately I had made a small rally, and I was determined to get back on the water. I had not fished in nearly a year, and I missed it so much that the longing was in my bones. Nearly every night I dreamed about standing in a trout stream...
By early December I was bed-bound, slipping deeper into a black hole of debilitating illness that seemed to have no bottom...For the first time, I thought I might never return to the United States. Or that I would return in a box.
I had always known that, as much as I loved Europe, it was not and never would be my homeland. I could not, would not die in a foreign land."

Months prior to his breakdown, Zeigler had been bitten by a tick. He contracted chronic Lyme's Disease. For five years he spent most of his life in bed, until a rigorous diet of antibiotics helped stabilize his condition. Now, he said, he has about five bad days out of a year, rather than months of weariness. The disease robbed him and his family of five years. It destroyed Zeigler's dream of eventually retiring to the big country of Montana; doctors suggested the salubrious shores of Sanibel as more restorative. But Zeigler's brush with death also caused him to sharpen his perspective on life.

"I had been so sick, in and out of the hospitals," he said. "And you know, it gets to a point..."

He paused, then shook his head.

"It was very hard on the kids," he said of his children, a boy and girl ages 16 and 19. "I missed a lot of the formative things in their life..."

Zeigler thought a moment, then smiled.

"Getting sick helped me to make it a better book," he said. "It gave me a different perspective on life and what was important. It gave me a lot of time to reflect."

That reflection is evident in the book, as Zeigler invests both works of nature and the actions of people with morning gleaned from his own close encounter with death. He appreciates what many take for granted. The evocative drawings by Michael Simon illuminates the book, but Zeigler's prose offers details which render what he describes as clear as a photograph. Here's how he describes a simple search for a good fishing stream.

"On a late-spring afternoon, the river between Broto and Sarvise is a mercurial ribbon under a platinum sun. After my hard-fishing morning, Dave and I had enjoyed a leisurely lunch. Then we had driven down to Broto, crossed a steel bridge to the west bank, and parked at the edge of the gravel road near the river...Here the Ara was a series of swift riffles and mini-rapids. Viewed from atop the riverside berm, it looked problematic but not unfeasible. But when I stepped it to cross, I found the water deeper than it looked and l knew I would be risking a dunking to wade it.

I could see that, about two hundred yards downstream, the river flattened out, so I climbed back up the bank and started walking. The ground became thick with brush and rose in a small hammock as I followed the curve of the river."

In that passage one sees the duality of Zeigler's nature. The series of declarative sentences are deceptive at first, but work to build a coherent and at times eloquent word picture of both places and people. The repetition of the words describing metal, for example, help conjure up a prospect of a shiny, hard sun, the swift and sparkling currents of a swift river, and the occasional marriage of man's work and that of nature. He admires the beauty of the landscape, even as he almost scientifically determines how best to fish it.
Zeigler, a tall, well-built man of 56 with burnished umber hair, writes in a small corner office with windows lining two sides. Although one would expect a fisherman of Zeigler's caliber to have artifacts of his avocation throughout the home, his office is the only place where such implements and art abound. Near the computer sits a wicker creel. To the left of the doorway is a rod. On a lintel aft of the computer area are two stuffed fish, one a replica. The striped bass on the left, however, is real.

"That's a fish my father caught," Zeigler said. The author enjoyed a close relationship with his late father, whom Zeigler says gave him the perspective that informs his book.

"Most of it came from my upbringing," he said of the tolerance that drives his interactions throughout the book. "I never heard my dad say bad things about people; he never criticized people based on how much money they had or whatever."

Zeigler's father owned a plumbing and heating business in Cape Cod.

"I knew early on that I wanted to write," Zeigler said. "My dad didn't push me in any direction. I was allowed to do what I wanted."

And, as the author describes in the prologue to "Rivers of Shadows," he knew early on that he wanted to fish.

"You could say that I was born to fish. When my mom was pregnant with me she spent weekends and many evenings with my dad on Baker's Pond, a glacial kettle hole just below the elbow of Cape Cod. They used an old rowboat, gliding along the edges of the drop-off and casting spinners and spoons to bass, pickerel and sunfish..."

"Some feelings are in the blood and I wonder if I sensed the motion of the boat on the water, the gentle waves lapping, the thrill of the hunt, the changing of the seasons, and the coming of the warm sun after the bleak, gray winter."

Zeigler loves his kids, as evidenced by clues such as the inclusion of their names, along with that of his wife Libby, on the book's dedication page. But he smiles ruefully when he thinks of how they've both failed to inherit his love for a line and the water.

"My son is into weightlifting," he said. "And my daughter is into whatever teenage girls are into."

His wife Libby, with glossy dark hair and an open smile, comes into the couple's small house, proceeded by a shaggy dog who proceeded to sniff a visitor. Later, Bill a friend from Montana, shows up. He had been visiting with his wife and in-laws in St. Petersburg, and had decided to drive down to check out Zeigler.

He stood in the family room with the author, describing how a busload of birders had trampled through a fishing spot he had staked out. The men laughed about the experience as Libby began preparing for the book signing.
At one of the musical gatherings called Schubertiads, an auditor cried out, "The Trout," as Franz Schubert played his latest composition. The sharp glissandos, and arpeggios, the pregnant pauses, and sudden stops of Schubert's "Trout Quintet" do indeed evoke images of trout flashing and fighting the line in a sun-slashed mountain stream. Zeigler's eyes lit up as the music was mentioned. And the progression of the five parts of the piece, through gleeful opening notes to a melancholy adagio, could certainly serve as a score for Zeigler's own life of joy and sorrow.

"I thought about using that for background music during my lectures," he said.
But, he said he thought better of it. The juxtaposition of a group of trout fishermen and chamber music may have seemed too contrasting an image in his mind.

That's partly because Zeigler's book is not easy to pigeonhole. On one hand, he offers with ease the type of expertise one would pay a fishing guide to impart. But the philosophy in his book, albeit of the type once known as "home truths," entails a catholic tolerance and humanity that deserves a wider audience than that of anglers only.

Now granted, Zeigler's a better fisherman than philosopher. But he's able to articulate the kinds of thoughts that transform into knots in men's throats even as he masters a "man's sport." That makes his arguments not only creditable, but also inspiring. His stories of the neighborhood guy whose father's death led him into a series of infidelities and affairs, or the fishing guide who confessed to having wet the bed through his teenage years in silent rebellion at his unhappy childhood, ring true because of Zeigler's fidelity to the voices and feelings of those who shared their lives with him.

Here, he writes what the guide told him of his life as an abandoned child:

"'I used to be so damn embarrassed," he said. "I used to wash my own sheets every day. I didn't want to sleep over to anybody's house. I remember goin' campin' and wakin' up in the mornin' in a wet, cold sleeping bag an' changin' my clothes in the freezin' cold before anybody got up."

More than thirty years later, Ken spoke wistfully of Montana's harsh beauty -- horses he had ridden, trout he had caught, deer he once skinned. Bu he had no plans to move back."

Bed-wetting's not a common staple of male discourse. And Zeigler's childhood was relatively happy compared to that of Ken's. Yet despite their divergent backgrounds, Zeigler's humanity enabled him to understand Ken's experience and relate it compassionately.

Zeigler may have helped spawn a new form of outdoors writing. His descriptions resonate with a respect for the outdoors reminiscent of a John Muir or William Bartram. And his almost clinical descriptions of what is essentially a blood sport rank with the most solid and traditional writers of the hunting and fishing genre. But what makes Zeigler and his work unique is that he does an excellent job of marrying humanity to nature, using the latter as a prism for understanding the former.

Hemingway came closest to describing how men think and behave when pressed by the danger and excitement of outdoor living. But even his characters all too often zipped it up, buttoned it up, put up and shut up rather than reveal their feelings.

Zeigler uses trout fishing as a means to several ends, casting successfully for what meaning there is in this life even as he eloquently remembers those seasons in the cold, high streams of his youth.

James M. Abraham is a syndicated book columnist. He can be reached at

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