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On the manliness of fishing

I’ve written before about how my childhood experiences of gardening, camping, and fishing with my family, especially my dad (Michael) and granddad (Pawpaw), planted in me the seeds of my current love, worry, and (highly imperfect) care for the planet and all its critters. In this post I want to reflect on how those experiences were gendered, inspired by things I’ve been reading and watching while researching my monograph and preparing for my fall courses, especially (ECLT 3030) Literature and Cinema: Ecological Vision.

For context: I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1986, the year of the Challenger shuttle disaster and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, just past the midpoint of the Reagan years. Nanmama and Pawpaw, my dad’s parents, both grew up in dirt poor but disciplined and energetic families, and like many of their siblings, they rode the post-WWII economic boom to a respectable middle-class life that, compared to that of their peers, was nothing fancy, but compared to their parents’ and grandparents’ standard of living was incredibly luxurious. Both had opportunities to make much more money but turned them down in order to retire early, at fifty-five, and spend time doing whatever they most wanted to do–which turned out to involve lots of gardening, camping, and fishing, as well as annual road trips to see Major League Baseball’s Spring Training exhibition in Florida and a road trip to Alaska that became the stuff of family legend.

Like Nanmama and Pawpaw, my mom’s stepmother, Joyce Edgar, aka Mama Joyce, grew up in Huntsville; she, however, grew up not in the city’s poor, rural outskirts, but downtown, in the Twickenham district of historical homes. Charles Edgar, my mom’s dad, aka Papa Charlie, grew up in Collingswood, New Jersey, a working-class suburb of Philadelphia. Pawpaw grew up in Huntsville, was drafted for service in the Korean War, did military training at a base in the USA, but in the end never went to Korea; Papa Charlie served for a brief period in the Navy (when exactly I don’t recall), but I don’t believe he ever saw combat. Pawpaw didn’t go to college but instead, like most of his brothers, went to work in construction; eventually, he became a foreman who supervised the building of several significant structures in Huntsville, but he never owned his own business and so made only a modest living. Papa Charlie did go to college, at the University of Tennessee, after which he went to seminary; he ended up making a living through an odd combination of pastoral work, real estate investment, and private investigation. He is an ordained member of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, a small Protestant denomination that today contains around 40,000 members and 296 congregations worldwide. One distinguishing feature of this denomination is its democratic structure; at one point Papa Charlie was elected to lead it for a term, at which time he and Mama Joyce visited ARP congregations in Vietnam, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

My mom’s biological mother died from injuries sustained during a car accident when my mom was eight years old. Mama Joyce raised the kids, kept the house, managed various apartments that she and Papa Charlie owned and rented, and performed with love and energy the various traditional duties of a minister’s wife, including caring for the needy, the infirm, and the marginalized through the traditional methods (and with at least some of the traditional paternalism) of Christian charity. (Most of the Black people and most of the disabled people I remember ever seeing at family gatherings growing up were present because Mama Joyce had invited them; no doubt the racism and ableism evident in my parents’, my sister’s, and my complaining to each other privately about Mama Joyce’s obsession with “cripples” did not make those people feel at all welcome.)

The member of my mom’s family I knew best, and identified most with, growing up, was her biological grandmother (and my great-grandmother), Nanny. When I was a kid, Nanny lived alone in an apartment in downtown Birmingham, in a building for elderly people. She was quite old and frail by the time my memories of her begin; one of those memories is of my dad and me driving her car, which she could no longer see well enough to operate safely, back to our house (I remember the old car, whose physical condition was the car-equivalent of Nanny’s, struggling mightily to make it up the hill to our subdivision). But her energy, creativity, and eccentricity were the stuff of stories retold endlessly with much marvel and laughter, and the fading embers of those qualities still glowed brightly in her apartment and style of dress. She had studied and admired Japanese art and philosophy, and this was evident in the deeply joyful aesthetic pleasure she took in flowers and all other plants (the first Bonsai tree I ever saw belonged to her) and in taking discarded objects other people saw as trash and transforming them, through creativity and care, into works of art. The imperfection of her devotion to simplicity and ephemerality was evident in the clutter of her apartment, which she was always trying in vain to reduce by giving my sister and me some small present to take home when we visited. My favorite present, then as now, was a book, and Nanny had books I didn’t see on other family members’ shelves: a history of the art and architecture of China, for example, and a copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, both of which I still have. My sense is that on paper, Nanny never really had a “career” beyond being a housewife, yet she provided priceless entertainment for herself, her family, and her friends as a multimedia and performance artist.

The most outstanding career on paper of any female relative I can think of is Nanmama’s–which is also at least as impressive as any male relative’s. With only a high school diploma, and starting out as an entry-level typist, Nanmama rose through the ranks of Huntsville’s Redstone Arsenal to a lofty position in which she was supervising some very early computer programming relating to missile logistics, back when the smallest computer was the size of a room. She did this while helping Pawpaw to build, maintain, and improve the house in which they lived together for sixty-five years (and where she still lives); and while raising two kids and doing all of the traditional “women’s work” involved in that, including cooking and cleaning (and packing for elaborate weekend camping trips, and much else).

Nanmama, perhaps because of her outstanding success in every project she undertook, always encouraged Pawpaw to open his own construction business, not out of greed or need of money, but so that his compensation and responsibility would match his talent, skill, and hard work. Pawpaw, however, had severe work-related anxiety that back then, especially in the South and in the case of men, was not considered a medical issue, as well as a generally cautious temperament. So not only did he not open his own business, he strongly discouraged my dad from seeking employment anywhere but with the government, whose jobs (like Nanmama’s) he considered the most secure.

My dad grew up loving the land of North Alabama–the fields and mountains where he rode his stubborn horse and camped in the wilderness, the lakes and rivers where he and the other men of the family fished, and the river down which he and his best friend Eddie once canoed in the middle of winter, nearly freezing to death–but he felt increasingly stifled by the limitations of rural people more likely to consider all music the work of the devil, or at best a dangerous luxury, than to appreciate the nuances of Bob Dylan’s lyrics. So he ended up becoming a lawyer in Birmingham and living with my mom in a series of middle-class subdivisions he felt provided a tolerable, if often unsatisfying, compromise between country and city life.

Birmingham had the advantage of being far enough from Huntsville (a two-hour drive) that my parents would not have to see and be judged by their parents daily or weekly, but close enough that after they had kids, their parents could, if they were willing and able, become active grandparents. Nanmama and Pawpaw embraced being grandparents to me and Ginny, and later our cousin Olivia, as the primary (if by no means the only) occupation of their retirement; and their favorite things to do with us, at least while Pawpaw remained in good health, were camping, fishing, and gardening.

Papa Charlie and Mama Joyce had no interest in outdoor activities–Papa Charlie expressed his masculinity by collecting Mustangs, not climbing mountains–and my mom’s love of my dad only reluctantly extended to participating in such activities. My mom made no secret that she preferred the comforts of suburban civilization to the supposed pleasures and virtues of “roughing it” in the wilderness, which contained many undesirable things, like bugs, and lacked many desirable things, like dishwashers. I don’t remember her ever going fishing; she would’ve been welcome to come along, but I think fishing grossed her out. She could muster a bit more enthusiasm for hiking, but not much. Hunting? Backpacking? Out of the question! She would sleep in a tent, but only if it was pitched next to a car that could drive us “back to civilization”–that is, to a hotel a few miles away–in case of, say, torrential rain.

Nanmama’s feelings about camping are harder to judge. She always made camping a joy for my sister and me, showing her typical unflagging energy and exemplary competence in cooking, cleaning, identifying plants, singing, telling stories, and playing games. She was sometimes willing but never particularly eager to go fishing or hiking; generally she pleaded out of these activities as “men’s stuff”.

Their experience of camping, and mine, occurred in a context that Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson describe as follows:

Particularly during and after the 1950s with the rise of the postwar auto-recreation culture (and the desire to get women to “return” to heterosexual domesticity after the war), camping was reinvented as a (car-based) family activity rather than an inherently rugged and masculine one. In this era of heterosexualization, many camping facilities were created with an intentional design to resemble suburban cul-de-sacs–each campsite clearly designed for one nuclear family–and all camping occurring in designated “private” spaces away from “public” recreational activities such as swimming, hiking, and climbing. Trees were cut down in a pattern that screened campsites from one another, but not from the roadway or path, so that the rangers or wardens could still see in and make sure nothing illegal or immoral was taking place.

Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson, “Introduction: A Genealogy of Queer Ecologies”, in Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire, pg. 19

This perfectly describes the campground at Lake Guntersville State Park where my sister and I often went with Nanmama and Pawpaw, joined sometimes (when they could get off work) by my mom and dad. Like others in the car-based campground at Lake Guntersville (by far the most popular; there was a small corner of the main campground for tent campers, and no doubt backpackers concealed in small campsites deep in the woods), Nanmama and Pawpaw brought not only a car but a camper, which they towed with their big red Chevrolet Suburban; others opted for an RV. As a kid I loved this campground: you got to sleep inside and enjoy food cooked with an oven and stove, but the air outside was fresher than at home, the biscuits and bacon tasted better, you got to build campfires, and hiking or fishing adventures were within walking distance. As I grew older, however, without ceasing to appreciate these delights, I began to notice and find annoying the fact that what this campground presented as “nature” or “the wilderness” was really just–as Mortimer-Sandilands and Erickson argue–a slightly more rustic version of ordinary suburban life that functioned as, among other things, an opportunity to sell all manner of non-biodegradable devices marketed as making one’s camping experience more “convenient” or “luxurious”.

Pawpaw understood very well the romantic appeal of “roughing it” in the “wilderness”, and he took me on various adventures designed to give me this experience. On one memorable occasion, we hiked along the Tennessee River a mile or two from their house, carrying some tools and supplies for sleeping outdoors overnight. I’m not sure who owned the land we were on–it wasn’t theirs, and it wasn’t a developed campground or hiking area–but evidently my grandfather knew nobody would mind us building a treehouse out of sticks we could find or cut and staying in it overnight. We built the treehouse–you can see it in the image below–but in the end we didn’t stay there overnight, as my asthma started acting up and we were being devoured by bugs. So we hiked back to the car, having a scary close encounter with a snake in the dark, drove home, ate something delicious that Nanmama cooked for us, and slept in a warm bed.

As this anecdote illustrates, Pawpaw understood the romantic appeal of roughing it in the wilderness, but he also treated “roughing it” as a game best played within walking distance of a car (even if sometimes the game got a bit out of hand: more than once he and I got lost hiking in the woods and had to hike quite a bit farther than we had planned–and Nanmama had to drive somewhere and pick us up). Part of that, to be sure, was his declining health (arthritis, then arthritis and serious heart trouble), and his and Nanmama’s concern for the safety of their grandkids. But Pawpaw seems always to have preferred enjoying the outdoors with the comfort of a nearby car, unlike my dad, who fondly retells many heroic youthful stories of wilderness journeys with a horse or canoe but no car. My dad, however, never really took me on journeys like that, probably in large part out of deference to my mom’s (and grandparents’) concern for our safety, and his own: if something had gone wrong, he would have had hell to pay.

I perceived myself, growing up, to be a rather frail and sickly boy, with chronic asthma (manageable with an inhaler) and a tendency to contract the flu, strep throat, or some other illness during every family vacation. I tried many sports–baseball, basketball, soccer, swimming, tennis–and while I tried my best at all of them, I was always one of the worst boys on the team. I remember going with my dad to facilities in Birmingham with batting cages to try to learn to hit a baseball, and getting maybe one hit all season; I remember doing push-ups, lifting weights, hitting tennis balls against the wall in the driveway–but only sporadically. I knew I was bad at sports and would continue to be, and it didn’t really bother me, because mostly I didn’t enjoy playing or training for sports.

I definitely didn’t like the other boys I met playing sports. In fact, while most of my friends in elementary and middle school were boys, I never much liked boys as a category. Boys liked potty humor, which never appealed to me; boys were aggressive, whereas I was quiet and diplomatic; boys preferred physical activities like sports and fighting, whereas I preferred reading and playing the violin. My parents and grandparents noticed these preferences and did not object to them–on the contrary, they mostly praised me as a model of good behavior. Nevertheless, I worried at times that I fell short of Pawpaw’s or my dad’s standards of masculinity. Over the years, then, I came to embrace camping, fishing, gardening, and other such outdoor activities, which I had always enjoyed, as, among many other things, my best arena in which to demonstrate excellence, or at least competence, in traditional masculine virtues.

The story of how an activity like fishing became coded, for me, as “masculine”, is a complex one that has much to do with sexism, to be sure, but is by no means adequately explained by that word alone. I learned to think of fishing as a masculine activity because for the most part only the men in my family went fishing. My sister sensed this bias and lashed out against it, sometimes insisting on coming along and being taken seriously as a fisherwoman, but more often preferring in the end to do something in the campground, or in town, with Nanmama. Neither Nanmama nor my mom wanted to go fishing. Would they have wanted to go if their parents had taken them fishing when they were little and told them it was important for a girl to learn how to fish? Probably so. But their parents didn’t do that–at least Papa Charlie and Mama Joyce didn’t–so despite my dad’s best efforts to convince my mom to go fishing (and do similar things) and my sister’s sporadic efforts to convince Nanmama, neither woman ever really embraced fishing. The same goes for other female relatives, such as Aunt Brenda and Aunt Dolly, whose husbands, Uncle Gary and Uncle Neil, respectively, were both avid fishermen. It was not, then, Pawpaw’s or my dad’s sexism that coded fishing as masculine for me, so much as the sexism of the previous generation.

Nevertheless, my family’s collective acquiescence in the gendering of fishing and other wilderness activities as mainly masculine, and having to do either with male heroism or male folly, enabled this sexist pattern to replicate itself in our minds and behaviors.

There is much more to say about all of this, but I’ll conclude this post with a photo from the last time I went fishing on the Tennessee River, by myself, last summer:

a photo from before I became vegan

Published by drsamuelc

Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo

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