The Spirit of Wilderness in a Fallen World: Eric Aho’s “River Line”
The line rolls out across the water with a metronome beat, furling and unfurling in a perfect, steady loop. At the end of the cast the dry fly settles to the surface, coming to rest like a mayfly or a caddis. And like a mayfly or a caddis it rides high on the meniscus, its stiff hackles bristling in the sun in a way that looks, from below, irresistibly similar to the movements of the insect it was tied to mimic. From a human perspective the fly is tiny on the water but still distinctly visible, like a marker of one’s participation in this landscape. You’re not here to exploit nature, nor are you here to ignore it. You’re not standing at an overlook with a busload of tourists nodding dutifully at the view. You’re feeling the hum. You’re harmonizing.
Your heart jumps when a trout sips your fly, or leaps with it, or obliterates it with a savage tail splash—and suddenly you feel a hard tug on your line followed by an almost electrical connection. There’s a kind of violence here, but it is nonetheless a connection, with all the intimacy and entanglement implied by that word.
No matter how many times you do this, your heart pounds and flips like it might leap from your chest. And when you bring the fish to your wetted hand you hold it tenderly, absorbing that pulse of life, and you sense that you’ve encountered an embodied spirit of the wilderness. A manifestation of some deep-seated natural truth.
You may have experienced something similar in a gallery or a museum, or in the living space of a friend with a particularly good eye for art. You walk past a painting that makes you stop, or even one that causes you to suck in your breath—because you feel that sense of recognition. The sudden perception of a connection between you and the artist that isn’t all that different from what you felt with that trout thrashing on the end of your line, or trembling in your hand. A vibrating current of electricity dwells just behind everything in nature and the encounter with the painting, like the encounter with the trout, links you to that current, if only for a fleeting instant. A connection is made between you and something larger. Something important and true.
Winslow Homer knew this. Eric Aho knows it too.
Homer expressed it especially well in his watercolors, each of which preserves a single frame in the film reel of unstoppable experience. And it’s a particular kind of moment, one of quiet connection, like the pock of a trout sipping the surface of a glassy lake (The Lone Fisherman, 1889; The Rise, 1900); or the oar of a deer-laden rowboat poised to plunge into the water (End of the Hunt, 1892); or the bend of a bamboo rod as a trout is brought to the net (Boy Fishing, 1892). The sensitivity with which Homer conveys the atmospherics of his scenes brings them vibrantly to life. The mirror-like plane of the water, the dark gestural trees with their deep black shadows, the bright patch of sky, even the way the artist used a razor blade to slash in a fly line looping through the air in mid-cast (Casting, Number Two, 1894; Trout Fishing, Lake St. John, Quebec, 1895). We feel these moments of silent connection intensely, again and again, each new time we see them. This is Homer’s gift to us. Its value is incalculable.
In Eric Aho’s new work Homer’s fly casts are reborn. That is, in several of these paintings there are lines of curving movement suggesting fly casts carving through spaces recognizable as scenes of the northern wilderness. As in Homer, a latent electricity abides within these spaces, an almost foreboding stillness both broken and anchored by the sheer physicality of the scratched-in fly lines. The two artists share an exquisite sensitivity to the nuances of space in a landscape; to its moods, colors, shapes, tones and textures. But the affinities between Homer’s watercolors and Aho’s oils don’t end there.
Most of the paintings in “River Line” contain a horizontal plane, a band, low in the painting, of something that corresponds to the surface of a lake, a pond, or a river. The suggestion of a beach or a scattering of shoreline boulders; conifer-like trunks and branches with patches of light blue sky peering through; the familiar black shadows that haunt the northern forest. In the upper reaches of the paintings one often finds an area of lighter paint suggesting an opening to the sky—a negative space in the shape of a V or a U suggesting the view up into a river drainage, sometimes with cloud-like billows of white or gray.
Aho’s passion for oil paint as a medium is clear: for its textures and viscosities; for the uncanny accuracy-of-essence it can convey in color and shape, shadow and space, stillness and motion. Under the fly line in Water Line, generous swathes of green, blue, white, yellow, and a chromatic black paint are divided by a straight horizontal surface plane and reflected with precision below the plane, giving the paradoxical impression of a perfectly glassy surface. In the easel-sized Lake Mitchell, an orange haloing effect around the top edges of the trees could be late afternoon sunlight, while Headwaters II gives us the roaring whitewater steps of a forest waterfall so tangibly you can almost feel the cool tendrils of air descending, and the spray of fresh water in your face.
In Portage, a wave-like horizontal roll of white, blue, ochre, and gray paint above a black baseline gives us a cresting rapid on a fast river contained by hulking black boulders, and reddish-brown slashes give us pine trunks, and a patchwork of green-black and celestial blue gives us the complexly layered boughs of a forest—all of it adding up to the uncanny sense of being transported to a single moment of experience in some remote river valley.
If you’ve spent time in a northern wilderness—or even if you haven’t—you’re likely to feel a certain jolt of recognition. Winslow Homer used the freedom of painting as a medium for interpretation, as opposed to direct representation, to capture specific moments of imagined experience that correspond to deeper truths about observed nature. Eric Aho uses the same freedom, to an even greater degree. These paintings are in conversation with Homer’s not as representations of the wilderness, but as expressions of its pregnant silences, its ineffable sublimity. The correspondence isn’t so much direct or literal—with nature, with fly fishing, with the north—as it is expressionistic. The works of both artists are visual embodiments of the same feeling; the same electrified connectedness. It is a correspondence of spirit.
When Homer painted his watercolors in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the northern wilderness he loved was already a fallen world, beset by the demands of population growth and an accelerating industrial economy: widespread timber extraction, large-scale iron mining, and a new passion for backwoods tourism. On the surface, the same northern forests appear to be less imminently threatened these days. The iron mines and smelters were abandoned long ago; logging has slowed down, allowing tree cover to gradually return to its current pre-colonial levels; and thanks to the efforts of forward-thinking conservationists we can look at a map and see more protected lands and waters than Homer could have hoped.
But in bigger, deeper ways, the future of the northern wilderness—in common with that of wild ecosystems in every quadrant of the planet—is more precarious than ever before. In his masterful post-apocalyptic novel The Road, Cormac McCarthy reminds us of precisely what it is we have to lose:
“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”
Standing in a freestone river casting a fly line; rowing across a silent lake at dawn; hiking up some remote watershed to stand at the base of a raging waterfall; abandoning ourselves to a painting, even for a moment: the reason we’re drawn to such moments of experience, in part, is that we feel an urgent need to make contact with a world we may be at risk of losing.
Every place we fish in this fallen world—even the spots where you can see houses in the distance, or the riffle below the dam where you can hear car traffic from a nearby road—reminds us that the spirit of nature is persistent. The connection that exists between our submerged feet and the cold-flowing river, or between our hands and the trout, are direct links to something we might lose at some point, though we haven’t lost it yet.
Meanwhile it is our very good fortune to have these paintings before us, connecting us to that wilderness realm in ways that are deeper and more lasting than can possibly be described in words.
 Cormac McCarthy, The Road. Knopf, 2006.
The paintings referenced in this essay may be viewed at the Tayloe Piggot Gallery, Jackson, Wyoming.