For of all of us there are key-moments, and people, who remain for the duration of our lives, a beacon. For example, the girl with whom you lost your virginity, she is unforgettable. The generous samaritan who, for the very first time, put a fly-rod in your hands… he’s in that group of people that we’ll never let go; the memory of whom we revisit with joy.
Well, let me tell you the story of old Karl, he is one of those rare lights.
I had barely arrived from Paris and there I was with my extraordinary wife (part Hawaiian, part Japanese) in the process of fixing up an old house, a virtual ruin in upstate New York, not far from the Hudson Valley. You can’t believe the charm of that place; smack in the middle of a forest, beside the Roundout Creek… a clean, fresh water river
Karl lived at the end of the towpath, in an old trailer. The old man looked like a melange of Snow White’s dwarfs… he was all hunched over, grumpy and full of wrinkles. I had run into him in the forest more than once and he always had a fishing rod in his paws. One day he stopped in front of me and started jabbering something incomprehensible. I have to confess that my english at that time was as primitive as Karl’s; clearly we were destined be “buddies”. I’m not sure why, but very quickly the old guy took me under his wing. Who knows? Maybe it’s because he just took pity on me, poor immigrant from Paris… at that time, everything having to do with nature was like chinese for me.
I realize that I forgot to mention something important: at that time, my wife and I were as poor as church mice and our meals consisted almost entirely of corn on the cob that we pilfered from the field next door (barbecued corn on the cob, oh my god, they were delicious!). Maybe to come to our aid, the old guy made the heroic decision to teach me to fish for black bass in the river. The fishing lessons were always extraordinary to see; Karl, completely bent over, intense as a heron, following the fishing line from his rod whenever it started to move in an unorthodox manner… a sure sign that a fish had taken the big larva (hellgrammite) which he attached to a hook in his fashion. The most fascinating moment was when Karl set the hook. How his old body, crippled with rheumatism, managed to twist around with such violence, remains a mystery. But, at the end of the day the creel of my friend was always filled with black bass. I never saw fish as big nor as beautiful; a greenish bronze and brilliant like gold ingots in sunlight. Marvelous creatures!
My new friend was also an extraordinary hunter and trapper. He lived off of the forest all of his life and, admirably, knew all of it’s secrets. One day on returning home along the towpath he ordered me: “Grab your dog! Fast! In the cover over there is a snake: a Copperhead!” I didn’t know, like lots of other things I didn’t know, that these snakes are extremely venomous. Too bad for anyone who steps on their tail! From the side of the towpath, old Karl grabbed a big rock and hurled it at the beast. In one blow, just one, whack! No more snake. Karl would have been a marvelous “tireur” (marksman) in a team of petanque (a game of boules played in the south of France).
And then one day, it was he who kicked the bucket.
People like Karl, well… there can’t be many like him left in the forests of the Hudson Valley. He was a kind of Dersu Uzala, that character in Akira Kurosawa’s marvelous film… and I had the immense privilege to rub shoulders with him.
It’s funny, only last week, while clearing up the mess in my studio I found an old photo of a painting from that period; the title is “Portrait of Karl”. A New York Gallery sold the painting at the time and with the money I bought myself a “real” fishing rod.
Thank you Karl. I still miss you!