Lake Fausse Point, Louisiana

February 23rd, 2003

Harry's Bright Country
By Roger Emile Stouff

Of all the outdoor writers I have read, Harry Middleton touches me most.

I enjoy outdoors writing, particularly about fishing, of course, and fly fishing most of all. But Harry Middleton struck a chord deep in my soul which resonated with truth.

I've passed a few of his books on to others who I thought would enjoy them, and mostly, they didn't, to my initial astonishment. Over time, I began to understand why.

Middleton is tragic and saturated with despair. Collectively, his books are unit volumes of an autobiography memorializing the deaths of those he loved, his own battles with chronic depression, the pitfalls of his life and the one thing that kept him sane, kept him hopeful and alive: Fishing and cold mountains waters.

In this regard, Middleton strikes me as more honest than any other writer I have known.

They are not fly fishing books. They are memoirs of a life made bearable by fly fishing, and even the fishing was only an extension of being where fish exist. His was a life of toils, and the purest joy he ever knew was on the water. Growing up with Albert, Emerson and Elias Wonder was the happiest time of his life. Few such times would follow. In The Bright Country he draws a double-edged and striking blade of metaphor: The bright country is both the mountain waters he returns to when he can, and the clearing of his mind after his psychiatrist finally finds the right medication to subdue his depression. The bright country, to Harry, is living a life without despair, at least for a little while.

It is impossible to miss the love with which he describes the characters that move in and out of his words and his life, like flotsam passing boulders on the river. Harry speaks of all of them with affection and childish wonder. Like any person struggling with something like chronic depression, Harry reached out to people nearly as much as he did to trout from the opposite end of that little Winston rod. He is a man I would very much like to have known and fished with.

It is a further tragedy that Harry died an untimely death, before his books were so well-known, and the heartache of his demise is intensified knowing he was working on a garbage truck night shift to feed his family. It has been speculated that Middleton died thinking his life's work of writing had gone largely unnoticed.

I don't think so. I think Middleton wrote more for himself than for the public. Certainly, there is the desire of any person who writes to be read, to be accepted and appreciated. But Middleton's chronicles of his life were more of a purging, a thrashing battle with his own demons, than any intention of authoring an outdoors bestseller. In his writing, he probably found solace second only to those magical waters of Starlight Creek. I know how that feels.

And that's why I like Middleton more than any other writer: He is as human as the rest of us, perhaps moreso in his very misery. We've all had moments of despair, and if Harry's life was mostly defined by it, then the joy he found in his fishing must have been tenfold any you and I have ever known. To all things there is a balance. The Creator of all things does not take away without giving in return. He gave Harry Middleton a bright country in the darkness. And without the darkness, without Harry's words to us in exploration of it, the bright country would seem far less magical.

I don't think Harry died unhappy. I would like to believe he left this world with a loving family and a creel full of bittersweet but cherished memories. Harry Middleton doesn't strike me as the kind of man who would cease struggling, riding the back of a garbage truck, doing what he had to do to provide for his family, perhaps battling with his depression and other demons again. He had survived too much already to be beaten down by that. From the moment he saw his childhood friend blown to bits, the spiraling descent of Harry Middleton was his gauntlet in life. I think he braved it and conquered it. Despair didn't bring Harry Middleton to his grave, a failing heart did. Perhaps his heart had suffered more than its share, but Harry beat the despair. That's heroism.

Yes, I think Harry was, in his thoughts, fishing with Albert and Emerson and Elias Wonder. I think that if someone saw him pass by the night of his death, clutching the back of that garbage truck, and looked into his eyes, they would have seen the bright country unfolding there, mountains lifting up like sudden creation, streams and rivers cutting across them, blind trout rising to the fly, bagpipes crooning in the distance, and a fake parrot shouting "Ollie Ollie Oxen Free!"

I think, or at least will choose to believe, that when his heart succumbed, Harry was in his mind writing their stories, his story, and he existed in that very fine and private sanctuary, the bright country of words and cold mountain waters behind his eyes.

"Many a time have I merely closed my eyes at the end of yet another troublesome day and soaked my bruised psyche in wild water, rivers remembered and rivers imagined. Rivers course through my dreams, rivers cold and fast, rivers well-known and rivers nameless, rivers that seem like ribbons of blue water twisting through wide valleys, narrow rivers folded in layers of darkening shadows, rivers that have eroded down deep into a mountain's belly, sculpted the land. Peeled back the planet's history exposing the texture of time itself." - Harry Middleton

~ Roger


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