Machen begins his essay in a most unassuming manner, asking the question, “What right have I to speak about mountain-climbing?” and answering, “The answer is very simple. I have none whatever. I have, indeed, been in the Alps four times.” Machen viewed himself a novice by comparison to those guides upon whom he depended to ascend mountain peaks; but he loved mountains, and of this he wrote. In Machen’s own words, his essay is not about the mountains, per se, but “about the love of the mountains.”
So it is then that for several minutes, Machen shared his love of the mountains. He spoke in the first person, describing his ascent in the Alps near Zermatt, endeavoring as it were to bring us along on a novice climb to enjoy the heights with him. But ever so humbly, J. Gresham Machen demonstrates again why he is considered by many to be a mountaineer of the first rank in the church, having led them to see things clearly from on high. Indeed, even here, by essay’s end, we the hearers and readers are with Machen looking out from the summit of the Matterhorn upon the vista of the world and the entire scope of human history, seeing things from the lofty vantage point of God and His grace. Machen writes,
I too love mountains. In my high school speech class my ‘persuasive speech” was an endeavor to convince the class that the mountains were the place to go. Vacations for me growing up meant a four hour drive to the Allegheny Mountains in the northern tier of Pennsylvania. My dad had a cabin in the mountains, well actually an old bus that was terminally parked on a mountain-top on a small plot of land adjoining the great woods of the mountains, where we hunted, and hiked, and fished, especially fished.
What will be the end of that European civilization, of which I had a survey from my mountain vantage ground—of that European civilization and its daughter in America? What does the future hold in store? Will Luther prove to have lived in vain? Will all the dreams of liberty issue into some vast industrial machine? Will even nature be reduced to standard, as in our country the sweetness of the woods and hills is being destroyed, as I have seen them destroyed in Maine, by the uniformities and artificialities and officialdom of our national parks? Will the so-called "Child Labor Amendment" and other similar measures be adopted, to the destruction of all the decencies and privacies of the home? Will some dreadful second law of thermodynamics apply in the spiritual as in the material realm? Will all things in church and state be reduced to one dead level, coming at last to an equilibrium in which all liberty and all high aspirations will be gone? Will that be the end of all humanity's hopes? I can see no escape from that conclusion in the signs of the times; too inexorable seems to me to be the march of events. No, I can see only one alternative. The alternative is that there is a God—a God who in His own good time will bring forward great men again to do His will, great men to resist the tyranny of experts and lead humanity out again into the realms of light and freedom, great men, above all, who will be messengers of His grace. There is, far above any earthly mountain peak of vision, a God high and lifted up who, though He is infinitely exalted, yet cares for His children among men.
The memories vividly remain. Once in a small woodland clearing, we saw a pair of fox pups, playfully sparring with one another on their hind feet. One spring day, I recall hiking toward a mountain stream and coming upon a newborn fawn nestled beside a log in the woods, not daring to leap from its ‘hiding’, but its tiny nose twitching in my direction. And another time, crawling on hands and knees to approach a promising-looking fishing hole, I eventually glanced up to see a huge, shimmering black bear sitting on her haunches just a few feet across the stream from me, watching my every move.
I love mountains, but I also love rivers and I love fly-fishing. Taking my cue from Machen, I might ask what right have I to write about river fly-fishing? The answer is very simple. I have none whatever. Oh sure, I have watched A River Runs Through It several times and read Norman Maclean’s tiny novella that lies behind it. Indeed I have, dampened my wading boots in some pretty impressive streams like the Yellow Breeches Creek and the Letort Spring Run in Pennsylvania, the Nantahala River in North Carolina, the Arkansas River in Colorado, and the White River in Arkansas. As a youngster I even waded clear across the Allegheny River near Tidioute years before the Kinzua Dam changed that fishery forever and there cast my Heddon Midget River Runt Spook (What a great name for a lure!).
But the number of trout I have caught on a fly on those and a score of other streams in my lifetime, all combined, probably would not equal the best single day catch in the life of a top-notch fly fishing guide. Yes, I have read a number of books and articles (more than I would like to admit) on fly fishing, fly casting, and fly tying, and even dabbled in stream entomology (the study of insects); and the flies I have tied have actually snagged an occasional trout or two. And yes, I have reflected on environmental issues and the importance of conserving fresh, flowing waters, have joined Trout Unlimited and have sent off a few letters to congressmen and senators. I have even read The River Why, another book about to make its way to theaters everywhere, describing a young man’s quest for the meaning of life set against the backdrop of a river and fly-fishing, before it became a movie.
But why do I love rivers? Rivers are full of life. Rivers are refreshing. Rivers start somewhere and they go somewhere with lots of changes along the way, gaining volume, increasing momentum, irresistibly drawing things along in their path. Around every bend is something new, a new turn, a new view, a new opportunity. I guess that’s why I never quite knew when to turn back on a day of fishing. One more promising hole, one more sunken tree, one more undercut bank, just one more cast might offer up the trout of the day.
Why is it that standing in a mall, within minutes my back stiffens, my legs ache, and I am ready to make a dash for the parking lot? But let me stand in a river or stream, and for some odd reason I am able to stand for hours, perhaps even glued to the same spot and never once think about my back or legs? And why is that crossing a stream, I have this sudden urge to flip over rocks to see what is clinging underneath?
I think I will always cherish the little runs and brooks, the tiny, gurgling and clear-as-crystal mountain springs that emerge out of the rock of a mountain slope. There, you might bend the knee to take a sip of the coldest, clearest, and sweetest water the earth has to offer up. First making its way down a little crevice, it begins cascading over boulders and logs, creating little nooks guarded by native brook trout that snatch every bite size morsel that dares intrude. Streams so narrow, you can step across or wade barely wetting the top side of your boot, yet there beneath miniature waterfalls, a little brookie would in a flash, dart out of nowhere to rip into a worm or a sunken fly and then race for cover. I always want to go back there.
But streams and rivers, like life and time, never turn back. Did you know there is a river that runs through the Scriptures that appears in the beginning, flows through the pages of history, and reaches out to eternity? Here are three texts to consider, one from the beginning, one from the middle, and one from the end of the Bible:
- Genesis 2:10 "Now a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it divided and became four rivers."
- Psalm 46:4"There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, The holy dwelling places of the Most High."
- Revelation 22:1-2 "Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street (On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
In the beginning God provided refreshment to the Garden He had made. His word speaks of the life and blessing He offers as refreshment to His people. It is no accident that the revelation of God in the flesh, the Lord Jesus Christ, speaks of Himself as the "living water." It is He who gives life and refreshment in a dry and thirsty land. It is He who waters the garden; it is He who makes glad the city of God; it is who He brings healing to the nations. The river precedes time, He appears in history; He goes somewhere; He has an end, a destination. So do we have an end, a destination, in Him--"to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever."
R. Daniel Knox
P.S. Dedicated to my Dad, who in large measure helped to instill in me a love for mountains and rivers.