Lake Fausse Point, Louisiana

March 22nd, 2003

Time to Build
By Roger Emile Stouff

When Longfellow wrote, "She floats upon the river of his thoughts," I was never really sure if he meant a boat, a woman, or both. But I am sure I know the passion that lingers behind either invocation.

The need to build a boat is something which begins like a grass seed, so tiny and minute it is barely perceptible. It roots and sprouts, grows and spreads, and before long it overtakes everything in sight. Building a boat is to touch something so far back in the legacy of human existence it is unreachable in any other way. We may unearth Egyptian vessels from the sand, dive ancient shipwrecks, study the occasional Norse long boat, but we can never connect with that moment when, so long ago, a human being not so unlike us took to the water in some manner of vessel. Some say it was inflated animal skins, others that it was just a log. It doesn't matter. What we sense is that need to leave the terrestrial and reach out for divinity, a spiritual commonality with that first distant ancestor to which all boat builders share descent.

It is time to build again. Time to bridge the gap between the dry land and legacy.

A good fishing boat must be pleasing to the eye as well as the world in which it intends to coexist. It must not be an aberration on the water, must not accost its surroundings. It must not reek of assembly line production; it must have the subtle variations that come with hand craftsmanship. A boat which is so smooth and slick as to be obviously manufactured by machines fits into the natural world as suitably as a football into the ninth hole of the golf course. A shoe box will float; add a slight sweep to the bow and it will even travel relatively well under low power. But a boat must be fashioned to glide with the water, over it and through it, supported by the water like a cradle. It is an amazing and welcome coincidence that the lines which make such grace possible are also so pleasing to the human eye.

A good fishing boat should rest easy when the water is calm, not wander aimlessly like a simpleton. It should, likewise, follow the flow of the water obediently, bow forward, and not twist sideways like a miscreant log. When directed, it should turn without protest, and when requested, it should find a calm, quiet balance, still and silent, to allow an undisturbed lunch or nap under the cypress canopy. It must be well-behaved and well-mannered.

For me, only wood boasts such a fine pedigree. A good wooden fishing boat is all these things, and more. You may feel a little proud but also a little odd, perhaps even eccentric, putting in over at the launch, surrounded by sparkly fiberglass bass boats and blunt-nosed bateaus or sharp-stemmed, nearly right-angled sided aluminum skiffs. You might even feel uncomfortable under the grins, the condescending smiles that seem to voice the owner's thoughts that you are too poor, too stupid or too tacky to own a sparkly bass boat. I ignore these things. They are only the wedges of a modern world that demeans anything which is not produced by that most dismal of technologies, conformity. These wedges are driven to split and fracture the log which is individuality. I will never comprehend what delight people find in living on a street of identical houses, with identical cars in the garages and identical boats out on the lake, varying only perhaps in color or a brand name decal glued to the side. It is somehow a measure of excellence to be so generic. Distinctiveness, once the mark of a Renaissance man, is frowned upon or ridiculed because the distinct individual does not conform, and that is to be pitied. Such derisive people insist on being insulated from everything which might make them believe there are things out there more important than money.

Most people spend the majority of their lives on concrete. They live in homes that are built on concrete slabs; they walk on cement sidewalks to their vehicles that ride on concrete highways to work. They spend their days in offices or factories built on concrete. On the weekends, they wish to "get away from it all" so they hook their boats to their vehicles, drive on concrete streets to a concrete boat launch, from which they step into a fiberglass or metal boat, spend the day fishing, and return home by the same route. Other than perhaps being splashed in the face by the tail of a fish, they have touched nothing of what they thought they were seeking at all.

Concrete, fiberglass and metal are insulators; they prevent the flow of speculation, observation and affinity. This is as intended. Should everyone in the world suddenly begin to tune themselves to the world as the Creator and Crawfish made it, economic doom would surely follow.

There was no concrete in my childhood. The driveway was clamshell, necessary only to keep the cars from bogging in the mud. The front yard was lined with juniper trees and two massive live oaks. There was a wild cherry near my father's old workshop, and in the back, all manner of cypress, oak and other trees grew along the bayou. Only at school or the downtown shopping district did I touch concrete. Even today, when walking along a sidewalk, if there is grass nearby, I'll step off to it. Concrete hurts my feet like cold steel. It insulates me from my ancestors.

The well-regarded lie is that wooden boats are not long-lived. At 41 years old, my father's 12-foot bateau contradicts this. Certainly, unlike modern boats, it cannot be left in the weather and expected to remain fast. It must be taken care of. The number one commandment of wooden boat ownership is, Thou shall keep it dry. This does not, of course, apply to vessels that are constantly in saltwater, which is a preservative. But freshwater is a boat's worst enemy. A little extra care negates the myth that wooden boats rot and die quickly. That extra care, in a world where things are as disposable as a plastic shopping bag, a Styrofoam coffee cup or a milk jug, seems to be some sort of insurmountable peak which only the zealots such as myself will dare summit.

In my younger days, I admit to feeling a slight embarrassment at the boat launch putting over my little wooden boat. I felt, as intended, that I didn't make enough money, was not ambitious as I should be. I got over it and now simply smile back with the same demeaning glance at the sparkly bass boats.

While pulling up at the boat landing recently another gentleman was putting down his boat, so I waited politely until he was done, and as I was coming in to disboard, he said to me, "You sure don't see many of those anymore."

Thinking he meant wooden boats in general, I smiled with thanks and said, "Nope, sure don't."

"That's a Nick Stouff boat, isn't it?" he noted. I was surprised and grateful. While my father made many boats in his lifetime, mine is the only one that I know of surviving. But that others live on in memories such as those of the kind fellow at the landing that day makes my heart rejoice.

So the objective of a good fishing boat, one necessarily of wood for someone like myself, is the search for living creation. It is the essence of the Raintree and the medicine of grandmothers. It is little mottled brown birds and dugout canoes. A wooden fishing boat embodies all those things. It is a link not only to the waters, but to all those who came before us. When we reach home waters in a wooden boat, we are touching that which made us.

The lyfe so short, the craft so long to lerne. ~ Chaucer

Nea'se. Thank you for sharing my ramblings, and my waters. ~ Roger


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