Welcome. This blog site places before you a remarkable man, Charles Beck, an artist and teacher. This monthly series of stories begins by describing Charlie’s ways of being in the world, through my encounters with Charlie in the last decade of his life first as my colleague, then mentor and finally or rather for ever as my dearest friend. Year two of this blog expands to include my own hopefully and enduringly perspectives on art, on teaching and of a certain slant on life inflected by Charlie. ~ Peter London

Charlie and the Deaf Fishermen

"And then we wade into the depths, leaving the dry world, returning to our ancestral home, the great untamable water."


The Beaverkill is a highly regarded trout stream in the middle of New York State that runs along the boundary of Charlie and Helene’s country home. Charlie was a fine fly fisherman, and we went out fishing a number of times, walking directly from his house in our waders only a few steps into the river.
Early mornings and evenings were most productive, and Charlie and I would spend a few hours working upstream fishing the holes that he knew so well. Although the river was only up to our knees in most places during the summer months, he knew the right fly and the correct presentation, and most times caught an unsurprising number of small brook trout. I surprised no one by catching nothing. The Beaverkill was well known throughout the east coast and it attracted quite a number of fishermen, for the most part well outfitted and capable. 

Charlie’s home was just downstream from the town of Cook’s Falls and there was a small bridge that crossed the river halfway between the village and his home. At the point of crossing the river, the bridge stood some thirty feet above the river, and when you walked across the bridge and looked down into the crystal clear water, you could often see trout in the deep pools around the base of the bridge and the tumbled large rocks that at one time created the falls- as in Cook’s Falls. Some time ago the ledges that created the falls had been dynamited making the river less wild, but it still possessed great rushes of white water cascading over the remaining ledge and tumbled rocks, all places that trout love to lay in ambush for their prey, the same being true for the fishermen who in turn preyed upon the trout.

One day after fishing up river, Charlie and I came out the opposite side of the river from his home and took the road back to town crossing the bridge to his place. Looking down from the bridge into the water below, I noticed a number of large trout lounging in the shadows of the rocks and occasionally darting out for some hapless insect on or under the water. We watched for a while when I saw some fisherman a bit downstream casting towards one pool and another with no luck. They weren’t very far from where I was standing, but because of my position directly above the water, I could see down into the water and observe the trout feeding, while the fishermen could see no such thing. Feeling a camaraderie with my fellow fishermen, and knowing well the experience of casting my line in a place that held no fish, I halooed them, calling out something like. “Hey fellas, there are a bunch of beautiful trout feeding right beneath me, come on up here and try some small dry flies, they seem to be rising for them.” I guess they didn’t hear me over the din of the rushing water so I hailed them again a bit louder with the same story. This time one of the fellows did turn around for a second and seemed to shoot me a dark and menacing glance. But perhaps I was wrong, perhaps he was merely squinting into the light. The fishermen continued casting into the stream where they were and even moved a bit further from me and the trout that I was clearly pointing to. 

What was going on? Didn’t they hear me? Didn’t they want to catch some nice fish? Why cast blindly into the river not knowing if a fish is there or not or if they are feeding when you could cast the exact lure on top of a waiting fish?

Charlie and I continued on our way back to his place clumping along in our waders. “Charlie, did you see that? Those guys must have heard me point out the fish, and they just kept fishing where they were, even moved away from where I was pointing. I don’t get it. Am I missing something here?” Charlie shrugged but didn’t say a thing.

Almost back to his place, we took off our waders, our fishing vests, leaned the fly rods against the porch and sat down looking at the river. “Charlie, you never answered me about those fellers at the bridge, what’s up with them?”

You were being kind to point out the fish, Peter, but not to a fisherman. A fisherman does not want to see the fish he is stalking. As soon as he sees the fish, the hunting is all but over. Seeing what the fish is eating is important, part of the game, but in a way further lessens the adventure. Hooking and landing him, although thrilling and the stuff that Field and Stream (a popular outdoor magazine) is all about, that really kills something that we are really after.”

What? What were they there for? They were trying to catch fish. I showed them were the fish were. What’s wrong with that? Look Charlie, I like fishing, I love fishing, and I actually like to catch fish too!”

Sure, sure, so do I. But see, there is something else that you are forgetting here and it’s this that bring you and me into the water. See, fishing is like going into the deepest and darkest of wildernesses, or like seeking the holy grail. It’s not like shopping for something you already know is in the store and on a certain shelf. All you have to do is say to yourself, Gee, I’m in the mood for some baked beans. You get up, go to a store you already know, ask the sales person where the baked beans are, pick it up in aisle nine, slip it in your basket, and pay for it on the way out. Finished, baked beans for dinner.

If all fishermen wanted to do was to catch fish they would put them in a fish tank and scoop them up with a net. Lots of fish caught that way; that’s the way of commercial fisherman. Their business is to trade fish for money. More fish, more money. Less time between fish and money, more time to spend money. That’s alright, that’s fine. Some sport fisherman are that way too.

But the fishermen you saw in the river, and the kind of fishing you and I have been doing is something entirely different. We are not really interested in catching a fish as we are in hunting for fish. Hunting, that is what we are doing Peter. Getting out of civilization, saying ta-ta to the wife and kids for a few hours, saying bye-bye to rules and laws and crossing the street on the green, keeping to the right, and saying nice things to this guy and that. See, we take off our ordinary duds and we put on our special gear, boots so tall they come up to our neck, baskets to bring home the harvest, knives and staffs and hooks and feathers. And then we wade into the depths, leaving the dry world, returning to our ancestral home, the great untamable water. We are now in another world, nothing firm, nothing solid, nothing stationary. Here, like the rest of the universe, everything is flowing, and we are at its mercy.

Really, Charlie.”

No, no, Peter, listen. We are not allowed to see the fish. That would be like seeing the face of god. Mortals have no business looking at god face to face. We all know that. We are supposed to be down here, this is our place. They are supposed to be up there, looking down at us, that is their place. We need them there, we don’t want gods to be bumming around with the rest of us. We need hidden gods, because that is what gives them power over us. We want to be lifted up by them, we don’t want them as our neighbors or even our doctors. No we want our gods to intercede on our behalf not because we plead with them but because they, in their infinite and inscrutable mystery, select us, Then we really know we have hit the jackpot. We have been chosen.


See, Peter, our fly rods are our magic wands, we wave them about and sometimes the gods take pity on us, smile on us, send a sacrificial kid our way. A small token to let us know the gods are fickle, gods do what gods please, keeping all authority to dispense justice and mercy to them selves. If a fish joins our line, its not really clever and wily you and me that snared that fish, who’s kidding who? You know as well as I do that the gods have decided to play with us, keep us on the line, keep us praying to them, making sure we continue to send donations their way. Curry their favor.
That’s what hunting is, that’s what fishing is too, putting yourself at the mercy of the gods and waiting for a sign that you have been chosen.

Now see, if those guys were to interrupt their quest for the great invisible fish, emissary to all the rest of the cosmos, messenger of the gods, and to merely yank a fish out of the water; well, you can see what a fall there would be. You were calling to them from the shores of civilization, from a tower of Babel, the place they started out from early this morning. They left that place, even though they were just a few yards from the village, in clear sight of the bridge and the road, they were in the water, the forever wild river, they were on the trail away from home, they were in pursuit of the possible.


So those guys were after the same prey you and me are after; both in the water and out, in our classrooms and in our studios; we are after nicking the gods. Getting them to come to the surface, to see, first hand if they are real, if they are really that big and tough. And Peter, what do we have for our foils? Fragile rods, thin line, a couple of paint brushes. No, we know we are no match for the gods, but hey kid, what a way to live, what a way to die.

Jeeesus Charlie!”

So, wadja get today?”

Nothing. Not a strike.”

Me too. Perfect.”



On Seeing (an excerpt from "Drawing Closer to Nature")

The challenge of art is the same challenge that life presents us with moment by moment. Can we awaken form our casual viewing of a stupendous world? Can we free up a portion of our mind from memory and give some over to perception and some to imagination, to the present and to be available to life as it streams over us? Can we meet life raw, accept its impact and subsequently convey that experience to others in some full utterance or gesture? Neither the wisest nor the best must stand between us and our direct touching of the world. Others may position us, bring us to ripeness, but then we must take leave of them, set out on our journey and step forward into life on our own. With all respect and appreciation for what has been given to us, we must see for the first time this soul-smacking, heart-ending gift of Nature.

Let us suppose the universe not as a place of things, but of events, the sum total being a stupendous, bankless swirling river, rushing inexorably past and around us. We do not create this stream; it is already here and full to bursting. This stream is the universe, made up of a zillion teaming events, endlessly, unpredictably tumbling and wooshing by. We can do something more than anxiously thrash about or passively allow everything to float past us. To use the term suffer in its older sense, we can suffer the work to come to us. Surprisingly, it does. Never in the way we would have it, but come to us it will. And it is the openness of our minds that enables us to "catch" it, catch the flow that draws us deeper into the full current of Nature.

To confront the evolving canvas-stage-page-world in this frame of mind is to permit our hand and imagination a wide tether, to generate a welter of material from deep inside and from way out there. The trick is not to grab onto the first thing that comes our way, and to trust that the flow won't dry up. If we do grab onto the first thing, fix our eye on a single item, all our energies are expended in holding onto it, while the rest of the flotsam blurs and the force behind the stream seems to diminish. The more we allow the stream to wash over us, the more of it there seems to be.

Instead of always pursuing Nature, we may allow Nature to appear just as it is, appearing at the confluence of the spontaneous activity of our mind and the natural, inexorable flow of the universe. Night will come in the due course. The moon will rise on schedule. Spring with its billions of expanding things will follow on the crystals of winter. Life will hiss, buzz, and pop all around us. Whether we seek it or not. And on schedule, though not ours. Nature is already most emphatically here and happening. It was here before us and came through the last billions of years quite well without us. Nature is always present, large and unhidden. It is the limitations we have placed upon our minds that obscure Nature and close off our access to what already is here and ours.

How to touch Nature? I mean, how to touch the real world, actually make contact with the living, immense, stunning world? Can you get just a glimmer of what that would be like? Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever felt not alone? Have you ever sensed that you were seen not by other people but by something alive in the universe, and that you were OK? Has some untamed animal ever come up to you, touched you and not fled? Have you ever lain down at night in an open field—no tent, no fire, no companions—and slept easily under the star-spangled sky, cushioned only by the patient earth? Have you ever felt unafraid, as if you belonged here, as if you too were as natural and wild as a deer, a stone, a pine? Do you know the grace of expression, the range of imagination that this sense of belonging endangers—the deep source of creativity that is tapped when this union occurs?

Well, the ways of Nature are not self-evident. Nature is layered, just like us. At any one level Nature seems to be complete—it is not, again, just as we are not. Prejudice of every stripe, sexual, racial, religious, ethnic, begins exactly where this is forgotten. To access ever-increasing layers, both inward and outward, we must prepare our selves. The Creative Process – which we now employ mostly to make aesthetic amenities – can be employed to prepare us for being in the world. That is, prepare us to first see and then do business with the adjacent and subsequent levels of Nature which now we hardly know.

How can we "know" Nature, when our days are lived within a veiled room all of our manufacture? Now, light and shadow are numbers on a clock. Seasons are outfits and tasks. Food is neither hunted nor grown. Fauna are neither free nor their own; they are our pets and amusements. Flora are viewed as through window of a planted garden, or as decorative chic on a windowsill or table shared with other reliefs for our weary eyes.

You and I, no exception, (there are no exceptions) are also receivers and emitters of patterned energy. We too are surrounded by an infinite bath of patterned energy – coming from every other source in the universe. When we are not in consonance with these other sources, and some are rather large; the sun, the moon, the earth, the biomass, and we are quiet squishy, small and ephemeral; then the rather modest mass of our consciousness and its efforts of perception, imagination and creation will be dampened. And we will feel, as we often do feel, overwhelmed, alone, weak, vulnerable, uncertain, unclear, out of control.

This generation's great task is to find a way out of our prevailing confined world view and the frenetic foraging that comes from our abysmal hunger for contact with the actual, full world; Nature. It seems fair to say that we must shift from experiencing ourselves and behaving as privileged, if dispossessed interlopers, and learn to stand in open relationship with all others. Here is where we, so-called creative types, may finally employ our gifts more substantially than is our want. For the creative process does exactly this: it forges a relationship between entities which illuminate the nature of each entity while at the same moment revealing the pattern which connects them, not only to each other, but in truly satisfying works of art – reveals the underlying relationship of every pattern to every other pattern.

The creative process is, after all, at root a certain procedure the human mind employs to establish relationships and to elevate entities out of their ordinariness, revealing their essence. And this same process, revealing ever more subtle and generous relationships between entities, is exactly the same process we require to achieve identical results; to reveal the pattern that connects us with the rest of the world, and to illuminate the special qualities that make every thing in the world simultaneously unique and related, more succinctly; sacred. What is creativity if it is not combining elements in such a manner as to bring them into more revealing relationships? Relationships not merely of simple harmonious vitality but of illumination. That is what the creative process can be most importantly put to: revealing the pattern that connects, from the welter of superficially disparate and seemingly indifferent items in the universe.

The transformative potential of the creative process is realized when we plunge through the world of secondhand news and personally place our hand on the pulse of the live, wild universe. When we make this plunge through the veneer of chatter and received things, we encounter the raw world. All one can do here is to bear witness, savor and celebrate that great privilege of seeing. Passing beyond the familiar; one finds oneself in yet another, deeper level of being and of the world. Here everything is encountered as if for the first time and yet there is an uncanny feeling of returning, of returning to our home.

~ Peter London.

1 comment:

  1. If I was ever to give my self a tattoo...it would be text of parts or the whole of this last paragraph! I have taken to frame and hang recent work rather than shelve it...my walls glow with a special newness and as you say an uncanny feeling of recognition.


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