MY FATHER has collected the most substantial body of fish-based Index of Biotic Integrity data for a watershed of its size anywhere in the world. This is an accomplishment he can claim.
Though there are too many dull, qualifying words inserted between those superlatives — or at least that’s what I think.
He conducts his study in one North Carolina county (the county that’s our home). Every summer, he returns to the same sites he’s visited for decades. He sinks an electroshocker’s probes into the streams and nets the dozens of fish that float from the bottom, stunned.
But I want to describe this as spectacularly as the real thing. He conjures metallic, alchemical slivers. Their upturned bellies flash, surprising — the white of revelation.
He names black redhorse, golden redhorse, redbreast sunfish, green sunfish, greenfin shiner, yellowfin shiner, whitetail shiner, mirror shiner, smoky dace, rosyside dace, setting them free from the catchall of minnow. Such a vocabulary.
I’ve envied that language, trying to follow after him, wading through creeks as he does his surveys. When I am small help with bucket or net, my hands fluttering between shading my sunburning skin and my gauzy version of note taking. The notes are for poetry — that’s what I write.
He examines and counts fish as tolerant or intolerant, as omnivores, piscivores, or herbivores. He tallies their lesions, diseases, and anomalies. He takes pages of field notes, making marks for each specimen in columns of waterproof paper.
How many columns per page? How many rows of pencil strokes in each of those? Hatch marks forming fences in their little sections of five — what all do they hold? He describes with numbers. He has these, in addition to language’s powers.
The most substantial, in the world — these are phrases for his body of data. What he has achieved could cast too great a shadow for a predecessor to live in. However, I recall my father’s work is driven by devotion to the small. He distinguishes between aquatic creatures most perceive only as shimmers on the pebbles below, as of lesser matter than the liquid through which they move.
I must put in perspective his remark that, had I been a fish, he would have thrown me back. (I was that little of a baby, premature, kept in an incubator so my lungs wouldn’t explode.) He wants the delicate to survive, for there to be streams cool and clean enough for intolerant species to multiply.
He considers the findings from each stream each year, the differences in contrast to the past. Sometimes a change in fish population indicates a pollution source that can be determined (unfenced cattle causing bank erosion, a factory’s waste treatment malfunctioning), and a demand for its cessation can be made. It is a possibility that the influence of planting shade trees or removing impediments to a stream’s flow will yield visible results within the lifetime of the caretaker, and he will experience the thriving of rare and fragile creatures under his waters. But there are no guarantees.
He does not expect the information will all be put to concrete, practical use. He values knowledge for the sake of knowing, information as testimony to observation, to the practice of attention.
Neither does my father expect to be here to witness his data applied. He notes as much as he can, understanding that one cannot predict which site’s information will be needed in the future, or what kind. One cannot predict in advance how a stream will change, what will be illustrated through comparison to preceding conditions. His is a project for generations.
He keeps at work, though he is nearing eighty. I keep spending my efforts on words that do not bear the weight of “threatened” or “endangered” (protective designations to which he may contribute), my time pursuing metaphors and rhyme.
The man of science has not always been sure of what to say to the poet, to the girl, the perplexity of what has been born of him. Yet, to a reporter, I have heard him explaining: You begin something. The good it turns out to be remains to be seen.
True, more drafts than not, I throw away. Maybe the wrinkles from squinting (to shield pupils whose blue irises are too pale to handle the light they’re shown) will form my lines at their best. But I will keep looking — this much I can promise. And this much I will express: admiration of the wide-eyed sight of fish, their lidless vision, which does not end, even when at rest. O