Though the days of epic struggle between solitary man and wild nature may seem distant, Matt Rigney’s new book, In Pursuit of Giants: One Man’s Global Search for the Last Great Fish, proves that a new sort of love can grow from that old spirit of adventure. We asked Matt about the genesis of the book, and the meaning of his travels, which spanned five years, four continents, and 75,000 miles.
The idea that led me to write In Pursuit of Giants began with Ernest Hemingway, and his perspectives on the morality of hunting and fishing. What would Hemingway do, I wondered, if he found himself faced, as we do, with proof of catastrophic global overfishing?
Hemingway, perhaps better than many of us, understood his role in the food chain and acknowledged that an essential part of what made his hunting and fishing permissible, when his survival did not depend on them, were two things: the fact that, in his case, the entire animal was used, and his belief that his overall impact was, as he wrote, “minute.” But even within these conditions, he felt right about hunting and fishing only as long as the animal’s pain or suffering were minimized as much as possible. (These were not considerations he extended to bulls and his love of the sport in which they die terrible deaths, or to sharks, which he simply hated.)
An examination of Hemingway’s work reveals a man keenly attuned to the natural world—a man who valued and appreciated the creatures he sometimes killed. During his own lifetime, Hemingway abhorred the impact of commercial fishing in the waters off Havana, Cuba. In a particular scene in Green Hills of Africa, he was disgusted with himself for having gut-shot a sable bull, dooming the animal to a horrific death via disembowelment that night at the teeth of hyenas. In his Nick Adams stories, Hemingway’s young main character is drawn to nature because it provides him with irrefutable experiences of the sacred.
I wondered how a man like Hemingway, whose identity was so connected to the aura and mystique of big animals, as well as to war and other forms of violence, would formulate a response to the world we find ourselves in? How would he respond to a world in which both large animals and wilderness itself suffer an all-fronts assault to such an extent that the March 12, 2012 issue of Time listed the soul-numbing notion that “Nature Is Over” as among the top ten ideas now changing our lives? And would his love for the creatures he admired have proven itself real enough that he might have recognized their protection meant more to him than his ability to hook and fight a marlin?
These were questions that stirred in me when I set off on my own journey to encounter the great fish of the sea. I wanted to understand what they were, and I wanted to understand what it meant if the big fish—all fish, the ocean—really were in trouble to the degree scientists tell us. I wanted to see whether I would be able to let go of my romantic and ultimately self-serving notions of the oceans as inexhaustible and pristine, so that I could confront—and seek to remedy—those factors that spell its demise.
The journey that resulted from these questions took five years and over 75,000 miles. I traveled to four continents and visited three of the world’s five major oceans, as well as a number of smaller seas. I say unequivocally that I lived several lifetime adventures in this one quest, and was fundamentally changed by what I saw.
What I discovered is that the soul’s first-hand contact with wild nature is an encounter with nothing less than the divine. Whether it was the sea’s heaving, silver, moonlit fields two hundred miles offshore of New Zealand, or glassine squadrons of flying fish erupting from the indigo ocean, or the sight of a thousand-pound black marlin blasting out of the Coral Sea like a missile—these and other things I experienced in my travels recalibrated my understanding of the beauty, power, and mystery of our existence on earth. They confirmed for me that the fight to preserve what is left of the natural world is the most important battle of our time.
Upon my return—and with the subsequent completion of Giants—I am convinced this is a fight Hemingway would have been in with both fists, and his pen, flying.
Matt Rigney has been fishing New England fresh and saltwater for nearly forty years. In Pursuit of Giants is his first work of nonfiction.