Like a glass smooth, cerulean flat stretching to the Caribbean sun, Body of Water: A Sage, a Seeker, and the World’s Most Alluring Fish by Chris Dombrowski is deceptively simple above the surface but complex, moving, and alive below.
On its surface, Body of Water is a history of sorts, of bonefishing in the Bahamas, of Deep Water Cay, the lodge that pioneered the pursuit of bonefish on the fly, and of David Pinder, the legendary guide who made it all possible. The book also honestly explores the racial and economic inequality of the Bahamian guides and the rich, almost certainly white, fisherman who travel from all over the world to chase bonefish. In a similar way it explores the environmental impact of real estate development and overfishing of the fragile ecosystem. Along the way Dombrowski teaches the reader more than a little bit about the art of fly fishing for bonefish.
These attributes alone would be enough for me to enjoy and recommend the book. Fortunately for me and for you, there is so much more to Body of Water if you look below the surface.
Below the surface are many stories, that weave in and out of the main, primary narrative like so many schools of fish. Here we find Dombrowski’s own struggle as a man, a father, trying to make a living doing the things he loves; guiding flyfishing trips in Montana, writing poetry, teaching. He’s also wrestling with the idea that when you begin taking money for doing something you love, it becomes a different thing altogether. Early in the book he relates the painful tale, upon telling a favorite professor, himself an avid fly fisherman, of his intent to guide professionally over the summer.
My professor lit his pipe, puffed vigorously several times, then sighed with resignation: “So you’re gonna be a whore, huh?”
Can you imagine the gut punch that must have been? But, for those of us who have attempted to make a living doing something we really, truly love, is he wrong? And even now, doing work I find intellectually and professionally satisfying (but it’s ain’t flyfishing) I find myself harboring the same doubts. Am I just whoring myself out for cash?
Years later I would muse on his notion of guiding as whoring, wondering what type of employment didn’t constitute some kind of prostitution, questioning if the oldest profession in the world wasn’t also the most honest.
So, it is within that context, of a man wondering about his professional choices, fighting to be true to himself, wrestling with his own self-conception, while forever pulling but barely getting the ends to meet, that we encounter David Pinder.
David Pinder, as we learn in the book, was the original bonefishing guide in the Bahamas. It is from David that all Bahamian guides trace their professional ancestry but, because there is no justice in this earthly world, he has all but been forgotten if not cast aside by the legendary lodge, Deep Water Cay, that he helped, literally, to build. Rather than become bitter, however, in David Pinder we find a man of incredible wisdom and peace. We find a man in touch with his inner self and deeply loyal to his family, with a faith as deep as the blue holes which dot the Caribbean.
After spending a bit of time with David Pinder, whom Dombrowski and seemingly everyone knows as “Senior”, the author begins to use him as a benchmark against his own personal and professional life.
I reflected on how, to some extent, my own guiding had become, after over a decade of work, largely transactional. True, my days rowing the boat helped supplement the threadbare living I made as a poet and a teacher, but my passion for fishing – which I had loved to distraction since adolescence, even when pretty young women complicated the equation – had devolved into the occupational. My brief conversations with David had led me to believe that down here, anyway, the occupation of guiding was considered a vocation. Vocari, I remembered from an old poem. To be called.
The passage gives just a hint to the evident longing Dombrowski feels, and Senior has attained, for a more meaningful and lasting connection with the world and with our Creator. The pages beg, how can we spend so much of our lives working at something we aren’t called to do? Throughout the book, Dombrowski uses what I can only describe as “churchy” language to speak with reverence about Senior, about bonefish, about the natural world, and about the role of our lives and occupations. It is relatively subtle, however, and may simply be the type of thing I look for in a good memoir. Regardless, it results in a poignant view of what work can be without being overly preachy, at least in my judgment.
Though Senior’s cell-level humility likely prevents him from acknowledging it, I wonder if he sometimes glimpses the inheritence he’s left his descendants: the occupational made sacramental.
Sit with that phrase for a moment: the occupational made sacramental. Forget nirvana. Forget ditching the corporate gig to become a dirt bag flyfishing guide.
The occupational made sacramental.
In my religious tradition we talk about a sacrament being “an outward an visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” and that is exactly Dombrowski’s use of the term here. Senior, despite the economic inequality, the racial injustice, the all too frequent slights, has found his work to be sacramental.
Oh, that I would find even a glimpse of such a thing in my own career, but perhaps it’s there and I’m just moving too quickly to see it. Perhaps my occupation is also my vocation. Perhaps it isn’t sacramental to me because I don’t view it that way. Perhaps, instead of thinking of myself as a whore and my career as prostitution, I should instead be thinking of myself as a cleric and my career as ministry. After all, are we really to believe David Pinder’s approach to life and work would be different if, instead of being a flyfishing guide in the Bahamas, he had been a banker in Houston or an engineer in San Diego?
In contrast, the lack of practicality that goes hand in hand with sight-fishing for bonefish translates to a sort of purity, possibility. Perhaps the heart of bonefishing is ecstatic, more like prayer, which makes the elusive fish a grace we intuit or perhaps even glimpse at the verge of sight, then probe toward via the faith we place in the cast. After we catch the fish and hold its pulsing form briefly in our hands, we typically release it, since grace isn’t edible or own-able. Yet grace is palpable, even with it resides beyond our earthly senses.
Body of Water by Chris Dombrowski was just the book I needed right now, even if I didn’t know I needed it. Its good to be reminded of what our work can be and of the importance of the mindset we bring to work each day. It is similarly good to be reminded that even flyfishing guides have existential career crises, where they wonder if the grass is truly greener. I recommend this book to you without reservation but encourage you to go slow. Just as the bonefish will spook from your shadow, so too will the best parts of this book flee from your frenzy.
“Normally when I get out there on the water I start to think about my soul.” He says the word – soul – without a shred of self-consciousness. It sounds radical when Used without irony or qualification. “The fishing was a way of getting people to feel more than the fish on the end of their line. The guests were always much more educated than I am but they had misunderstood some of the principles of their life.”
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